The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1995)

As a recent article by Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books explains:

Ever since Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin published The Sixth Extinction in 1995, we have known that humanity is extirpating species at a rate unmatched since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Hunting, deforestation, the introduction of nonnative organisms and diseases, and now climate change have increased the rate of species loss to the point that scientists fear for the functioning of entire ecosystems…

In this pioneering book, Leakey and Lewin take us by the hand through recent (in 1995) discoveries in ecology, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology and geology, to present a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing the natural world and our place in it.

1. Human evolution is a random accident

This is that we – human beings – are NOT the product of some ineluctable force driving evolution towards higher and more sophisticated species and, ultimately, towards Mind and Consciousness. We are emphatically not the pinnacle of the universe. The reverse: we are a cosmic accident. We now know that the long fossil record of life on earth has been marked by countless disasters, accidents, extinctions, most of which have no intrinsic or logical rationale, and that we are the incredibly fortuitous outcome of these massively random events.

2. There is no balance of nature

Older naturalists held that there was a Balance of Nature whereby the complete global system of life worked together to keep things – oxygen levels, complex ecosystems – in a careful balance which favoured the optimum thriving of life forms. But the closer we look at the record, the more obvious it becomes that there is no balance of nature. The more we learn, the more we realise that nature is in fact given to chaotic  and random fluctuations. It is also much more complex than we ever suspected.

3. Fluctuation and accident are the norm

Taken together, these two ideas suggest that flux and fluctuation are an intrinsic part of the history of life on earth.

Humans long for predictability, in relation to the world of nature around us and, most particularly, in relation to our own existence and our future. But it is obvious that, in the realm of evolutionary biology and ecology, ours is an unpredictable world and our place in it an accident of history; it is a place of many possibilities that are influenced by forces beyond our control and, in some cases at least, beyond our comprehension. (p.231)

4. Extinction events

The most dramatic embodiment of this fluctuation – and of the workings of chance – are ‘extinction events’. In the 540 million years since multicellular life suddenly arose in what scientists call ‘the Cambrian Explosion’, there have been no fewer than 15 ‘extinction events’. These are relatively short periods in which – for some reason – the fossil record shows that between 15% and 40% of all species went out of existence, never to return.

Among these 15 were five really big extinction events, ‘the Big Five’, in each of which over 60% of all species went extinct. And king of the Big Five is one real monster, the extinction event at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, when an estimated 95% of all terrestrial species on earth were wiped out!

The more we learn about the extinction events, the more obvious it becomes that we are the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of a whole series of catastrophes, not through any intrinsic merit in our forebears (who, if you go back far enough, were worms) but from sheer dumb luck.

5. Darwin’s theory of evolution is over-ridden by extinction events

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is undoubtedly the mechanism by which new species come into being and by which all life forms are continually competing with all others. But in Leakey’s view, Darwin’s theory is only relevant in the relatively stable periods between these global catastrophes. These periods have lasted tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years – but the history of life on earth is certainly not the slow, steady evolution of more and more sophisticated life forms, as portrayed in older evolutionary theory.

Instead Darwin’s process has been overshadowed time and again – in terms of impact of the history of life on earth – by extinction, catastrophe and random events. In other words, by the accidents and arbitrariness of History.

6. Humans are the most destructive species on the planet

This new emphasis on the importance of destruction, of the really breath-taking mass extinction of life forms, in the long story of life on earth, dovetails with other, recent discoveries about man’s role in nature. For a variety of sources now suggest that Homo sapiens is and always has been, immensely destructive of the ecosystems around him.

  1. For a long time Europeans have thought that when European explorers and colonisers encountered native peoples in places like America, the Pacific islands, Australia and so on, those peoples were living in a blessed ‘harmony’ with nature. Only in recent decades have scientists realised that the supposedly ‘pristine’ environments of all these places had in fact been severely damaged by the arrival of those peoples. One of the most dramatic examples is Hawaii, which looks like a tropical paradise to tourists, but where we have now discovered evidence that the hunter-gatherers who arrived there 1,500 years ago proceeded to burn down much of the rainforest and wipe out most of the larger species, including a majority of the bright songbirds.
  2. This pattern has been replicated wherever humans appeared, most notably in the Americas, where the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers around 12,000 years ago across the then-existing land-bridge from Asia, and their slow spread southwards, coincides exactly with the extermination of the continent’s megafauna i.e. all its large mammals. There is debate about whether other factors were involved as well but the case of New Zealand presents the case with brutal clarity. The Maori only arrived there 1,000 years ago, and promptly cleared much of the rainforest and hunted all the species of flightless birds and large mammals to extinction. So the native peoples which European explorers encountered in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were far from living in harmony with nature; they were living amid the ecological devastation their ancestors had wreaked wherever they – wherever humans – went.
  3. In the 1990s (this book was published in 1995) everybody knew that tropical rainforests around the world, especially in the vast Amazon basin, were being destroyed at an unprecedented rate (an acre a minute is one calculation), each acre home to millions of species. Since then the news about endangered species or about the rainforests has been overshadowed by the growing sense of crisis about man-made global warming. This has distracted attention away from the story on the ground, which is the alarming rate at which we are continuing to exterminate species throughout the world by the incessant demands of an ever-growing population. When Leakey wrote this book there were 6 billion people in the world. Now that number is 7.5 billion and climbing. The pressure to destroy natural habitat to convert it to farm or grazing land, along with the relentless polluting of the seas, the rivers and the air, can only escalate.

7. Humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction event in global history

Having given a thorough account of modern understanding of the 20 or so extinction events which punctuate the fossil record – and especially of the Big Five in which 60%-plus of species went extinct – Leakey’s last chapters introduce us to the final conclusion of their long survey – the idea that we, Homo sapiens, are now having such a destructive impact on the natural world that many if not most environmentalists think we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on earth.

This is an event so momentous that many geologists and evolutionary scientists think it deserves to be defined as a distinct geological era – the Anthropocene Era – the era in which we human beings are irreversibly destroying the vast majority of life forms on the planet we share with them, on a scale only comparable with the devastation caused by the Big Five extinction events.

We are destroying the world.


Leakey and Lewin

Richard Leakey (b.1944) is a paleoanthropologist and ecologist, born and bred in Kenya, where he made significant discoveries of fossils of early humans, before going on to run the country’s national museums and then become its overall Director of the Wildlife Services.

Roger Lewin (b.1944) is a British prize-winning science writer, a staff member of New Scientist for nine years before going to America to become News Editor for Science. He’s written about 20 books, including three in collaboration with Leakey.

The first two of their collaborations are about Leakey’s work into the origins of the human species, in and around Lake Turkana in the north of Kenya, part of the enormous Rift Valley. Due to the fact that hominids need water, and the mud around rivers and lakes preserves footprints and the bones of dead animals better than the harsh savannah or bare rock, Lake Turkana has been a goldmine for fossil hunters looking for relics of our earliest ancestors. In his early explorations, Leakey’s team discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, believed to be between 1.5 and 1.6 million years old.

In the late 1980s Leakey’s interest shifted away from paleoanthropology towards wildlife conservation and ecology. This book – itself now quite dated – combines his two areas of expertise to give a thorough and quite academic history of the evolution of life on earth and to situate the evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens within it, before going on to present its Big Issue.

Key dates

  • Age of the universe – 13.772 billion years
  • Age of the solar system – 5 billion years
  • Age of planet earth – 4.6 billion years
  • Simplest life forms – prokaryotes, single-celled organisms which lack a nucleus -3.5 billion years ago
  • Eukaryotic organisms, whose cells contain a nucleus – 1.8 billion years ago
  • 530 million year ago – the Cambrian Explosion, when suddenly a huge diversity of multi-celled life forms and body shapes and sizes emerges in the fossil record
  • The Cretaceous Period, the last and longest segment of the Mesozoic Era, lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5 million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago. Period when ‘dinosaurs ruled the earth’.
  • 7 million years ago, approximate parting of the line which led to humans from the lines which led to the great apes
  • 150,000 years ago, evolution of the new species, Homo sapiens
  • 13,000 years ago – end of the last Ice Age triggers the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, which slowly spreads around the globe and with it the arrival of what we like to call human ‘civilisation’

It’s from the Cambrian Explosion – 530 million years ago – that everything most of us think of as life forms – fish and dinosaurs, plants and trees, then later we mammals – derive. Most of the epochs and periods we hear about – Jurassic, Triassic etc – occur during that 530 million period, most fossils of life forms derive from that period.

The sixth extinction

The central premise of the book, which gives it its title, is that, over the half-billion-year history of multi-celled life on earth, there have been a number of ‘moments’ in the geological record when a significant percentage of the flora and fauna of a certain era seem to have died out very suddenly (in geological terms) – known as ‘mass extinction events’. Having explained the background and possible reasons for them, the book then goes on to point out that we are living through a sixth mass extinction event, in which huge numbers of species are being driven to extinction. There is no doubt at all what is causing it: it is us – humans. Human beings are wiping out the earth’s ecosystems and wildlife.

The ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions

The Big Five are defined as extinction events in which at least 65% of species were obliterated. The end-Permian is the biggest, in which an estimated 95% of species on earth were wiped out.

  • at the end of the Ordovician Period – 440 million years ago
  • the Late Devonian 365 million years ago
  • the end-Permian 225 million years ago
  • the end-Triassic 210 million years ago
  • the end-Cretaceous 65 million years ago

There is huge debate about the possible causes of these great ‘dying outs’. Climate change? The conglomeration of all the continents through continental drift into one mega-continent? The most dramatic suggestion, first mooted in the 1970s by a team led by Luis Alvarez, is that it was asteroids. They found thin layers of iridium at the archaeological line marking the end of the Cretaceous period, an element which is extremely rare on earth but is found in asteroids. This discovery has been replicated at other end-Cretaceous sites, and then a candidate for the giant crater caused by a monster asteroid was discovered on the coast of Mexico. The idea is simple: monster asteroid hits earth with the power of a million hydrogen bombs, throws up vast amounts of dirt and dust into the air which blocks out the sun, as well as triggering widespread volcanic activity. Result: mass extinctions of life.

There’s a lot of evidence for it, but archaeologists and biologists are an argumentative lot, as this book amply demonstrates, and other scientists have piled in to claim that asteroids might have put only the finishing touches to what other causes – climate change, sea level rises, environmental or atmospheric fluctuations and so on – had started. Others – David Raup and Jack Sepkoski – have pointed out that there have been over twenty extinction events over that half billion year span, of which the Big Five are only the most notable (p.56), and which occur at roughly 26 million year intervals. Only the recurrent arrival of a shower of asteroids could explain this regularity, although more recently doubt has been cast on the evidence for this neat pattern. But there’s no doubting, now, that externally-prompted mass extinctions have been a recurrent feature of terrestrial evolution.

Which gives rise to an immense debate about the deep meaning of the theory of evolution, which can be summarised in the phrase ‘bad genes or bad luck’. Is there an inevitability in the way life has evolved? If we ran the tape of evolution again, would life forms turn out much as we see them around us? Is there a kind of deep logic to the way things would have evolved, to fit the available niches?

Or has the evolution of life on earth been subject to mind-boggling accidents and contingency? Could things easily have turned out wildly differently? Was it the merest luck which led to the various mass extinctions, to the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the rise of the mammals and then, right at the end of this string of improbable accidents – to us, reading these words?

These and many related questions are tackled – with the help of quite technical diagrams and explanations – in the first half of the book. It takes a few rereadings to get the timelines clear in your head, and then more rereading to understand what the numerous debates are about.

For example, uniformitarianism is the idea that evolution takes place gradually and slowly over vast periods of time. Darwin had to arrive at his theory by battling essentially religious ideas that species were suddenly created by a Creator God, so he and his followers were vehement uniformitarianists. However, from the birth of geology as a science in the early 19th century, geologists recognised sudden abrupt changes in the record – catastrophic changes in the fossil record which the extinction events seem to support. Broadly this view of evolution is called catastrophism. The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed his own version of catastrophism, which he called punctuated equilibrium – long periods of stasis interrupted by abrupt changes in earth’s biota, or life systems. Modern thinking about the importance of mass extinction events has led to what some call ‘neo-catastrophism’ i.e. Darwin’s laws work most of the time, except when some external force steps in to overshadow them – be it drastic climate change, asteroids, volcanic activity, sea level changes or whatever.

Man the destroyer

We are but one of millions of species here on earth, products of half a billion years of life’s flow, lucky survivors of at least twenty biotic crises, including the catastrophic Big Five. (p.71)

But these and various other theories and debates about the detail of historical evolution are really just the background, the introduction to the meat of the book, which is a lament for man’s destruction of the natural world. Leakey uses numerous examples to show how modern science has revealed just how much life there is, all around us.

He reports Danish scientists who investigated one square metre of tropical rainforest and discovered 46,000 earthworms, 12 million roundworms and 46,000 insects. Just one gram of this soil contained more than a million bacteria, 100,000 yeast cells and 50,000 fragments of fungi (p.136).

The rape and destruction of the earth which we are causing is mind-blowing. It is estimated that ‘we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day – or some 50,000 species a year.’ (Scientific American)

But all that’s new is the scale: man has always been a destroyer. Between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago 50 or so large mammal species went extinct in North America. The extinctions coincided with the arrival of the first peoples from Asia (across the land bridge across what is now the Bering Straits) and their slow fanning out across the continent. Although some paleontologists prefer climate change or disease as the cause, many think these first human settlers of the Americas hunted its large mammals to extinction. This theory is called the Overkill hypothesis. The case is even clearer in New Zealand, which Maori colonised about 1,000 years ago and where they hunted the large flightless birds to extinction, while the rats they’d brought from Australia wiped out whole systems of ground-roosting birds and other fauna.

‘The notion of man-the-exterminator is secure in New Zealand.’ (p.186)

Same on Hawaii (pp.188-190).

Numbers

How many species are there on earth? Nobody knows. Leakey quotes an early estimate from the 1960s of 3 million. Terry Irwin, in 1982, estimated there may be 30 million species of insects alone in the rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, Leakey quotes estimates of the total number of species as 50 million, and then references Robert May’s speculation from the 1990s that there may be as many as 100 million species. These appear to be the end points, which is why later articles refer to ‘anywhere between 3 and 100 million’.

More recently, a 2011 estimate using a new methodology gives the total number of species in the world as 8.7 million – 6.45 million on land, 2.2 million in the sea. According to this calculation, 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued. But googling the subject, though, one comes across a bang up-to-date estimate from 2016 which says there might be as many as 1 trillion species on earth!

In other words, despite E.O. Wilson’s calls for governments to invest more in finding out how many species we share the world with – a plea from the 1990s quoted in this book (p.123) – we still haven’t a clue how many there are. What we can be confident about is that we are wiping out most of the species we share the earth with before we ever get to discover, identify, record or analyse any of them.

In fact, we don’t even know precisely how many species have been identified and catalogued. It appears to be about 1.25 million species – roughly 1 million on land and 250,000 in the oceans – but as many as 700,000 more are thought to have been described by local scientists which have yet to reach the central databases and so be included in global counts…

Value in diversity

How do we preserve nature? Well, in our demystified, instrumental, capitalist world, we have to give it a value, the only thing most people understand. Leakey identifies three types of value:

  1. Tangible benefits we can extract from the environment, such as food, raw materials, medicine.
  2. Maintenance of the environment: we need the full web of life to continue its circulation of gases, chemicals and moisture in order to make the world inhabitable by humans.
  3. Psychological health: most people with the money, prefer to live in the country, people like to visit and roam in the country, patients in hospital with a bed by a window in a green space have better recovery rates than patients in a windowless room. The presence of greenery and nature keeps us psychologically healthy – and that greenery doesn’t exist in the abstract – it is made up of incalculably complex webs of organisms. E.O. Wilson has named this sense ‘biophilia’.

Food and drugs are the obvious ones. The world is dangerously dependent on monocultural varieties of a handful of food crops. If a pest devastated the world’s wheat or rice crops, billions would starve. Wild varieties contain genes we haven’t identified or analysed which would provide important genetic variations which could help develop new varieties, if the worst ever happened.

Similarly, important worldwide medicines have been sourced from wholly unexpected wild plants and flora. Aspirin and penicillin are the two obvious examples, which changed the world and saved hundreds of millions of lives. Who knows what cures for cancer or AIDS may be lurking undiscovered in some of the 250,000 species of plants? And in species we are merrily burning to extinction every day?

Theories and ideas

Even twenty years ago when this book was published, all educated people should have known about the destruction of the rainforests and endangered species. That aspect shouldn’t be news to anyone. I think the real revelation of this book is the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of ecological and biological and archaeological science – the range of areas and levels and expertises which are now brought to bear on the natural world, the complexity of computer models and the plethora of rival theories.

Leakey’s book is in many places quite dauntingly technical. Plenty of paragraphs contain numbered points or aspects or theories which we need to learn and bear in mind. For example, we learn about:

  • Allopatric speciation – or geographic speciation is speciation that occurs when biological populations of the same species become vicariant, or isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with genetic interchange.
  • Cambrian Explosion – ‘the relatively short evolutionary event, beginning around 541 million years ago in the Cambrian period, during which most major animal phyla appeared, as indicated by the fossil record’ (Wikipedia)
  • Chaos theory as it applies to ecosystems i.e. modern understanding has undermined the notion of a ‘balance of nature’ to reveal that all systems, even without any external influence, tend to boom and bust and be subject to other ‘internal’ pressures which create fluctuations. I.e. every ecosystem, and nature as a whole, is much more chaotic and unstable than had been appreciated.
  • The ‘protective network‘ of an ecosystem which places an ‘activation barrier‘ around it to prevent new species intruding (p.162-3).
  • The rivet-popper hypothesis and the redundancy hypothesis of how ecosystems are degraded. Rivet-popper = each species in a system is like the rivets in a ship – you can remove one or two without noticing but the more you remove the more you weaken the system until it reaches collapse. Redundancy = most species are passengers on a system held together by a few lynchpin systems: you can remove most with no change; but remove the lynchpins and the system collapses. (pp.140-141)

The relative importance of ‘history’ and evolution

One of the big points Leakey makes is that in his time older ideas like ‘the balance of nature’ and even the primacy of natural selection, have been thrown in doubt. Nature now appears to be much more chaotic than previously suspected. And he explains recent work which suggests that the world we see around us is radically contingent. Archaeologists examined the fossil record of animals off the North Atlantic coast over the past 60 million years, a huge duration during which sea levels rose and fell six times. They discovered that mature ecosystems repopulated the dry land once it was reflooded – but each time it was repopulated by a different combination of species. I.e. the reappearance of life was ‘inevitable’ – but which specific species fill all the niches and grow into a tangled web of an ecosystem – it can be different each time. There is nothing intrinsic or inevitable about the flourishing of particular species or combinations of species in ecosystems. Shake the dice and you get a different set.

As Leakey puts it, History matters. Life there will be, but what forms of life and how they combine, even in the same environment, can vary hugely depending on chance factors. Thus Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection still gives the best account of how species evolve over time – but in seeking an explanation for the natural world as we see it, the theory of evolution is dwarfed by the random events of what we call ‘history’.

Insights into human history

Obviously Leakey’s main concern is with nature and ecology but for someone like me who knows more about history than I do about biology or ecology, the multiple insights a scholarly book like this gives the reader into the natural world can also shed tremendous light on the deeper meaning of human history.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s epic account of the colonisation of America. In it he emphasises that it wasn’t just European humans who arrived in the New World, but that they brought from the Old World , in order of importance – their devastating new diseases, new plants and new livestock. These spread like wildfire across the virgin continent, the diseases wiping out up to 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas, while new plants spread like weeds, and livestock drove American rivals extinct.

Quite apart from its ostensible purpose as a warning and a plea, a book like Leakey’s can immeasurably increase our understanding of human history by giving us a deep sense of the mind-boggling complexity of the natural world which human beings have been blundering around, reshaping and destroying, burning and deforesting and planting and mixing up, for centuries – the process we refer to as ‘history’.

It makes us realise what was at stake back then, as well as now. It makes us realise the depth of the damage we have been doing, and for centuries.

Attitude

Obviously the planet is indifferent to individual human opinions, attitudes and stands. Clicking ‘like’ on facebook to a photo of a polar bear or the rainforest isn’t going to change anything. Only a wholesale and comprehensive change to all of our lifestyles, combined with drastic attempts to control and reduce human population, will have any real, practical impact on the problem.

On a personal level, this knowledge does suggest a truer, more accurate understanding of human nature (destructive) and our place in the natural world (destructive) which should have a chastening effect on everything we think and do. It transforms our understanding and it should transform our behaviour.

From time to time Leakey mentions, or quotes other ecologists criticising, humanity’s ‘narcissism’ or ‘arrogance’, each of us infested with thoughts and feelings and desires which a) are ultimately trivial b) obscure to ourselves our fundamental role as destroyers of the environment.

A correct attitude, the accurate honest attitude to the devastation we cause, would be one of modesty, shame and penance.

In a way, understanding these issues better should lead us to a kind of attitude and – ideally – lifestyle, characterised by simplicity and humility. All of us need to consume less, vastly less, than our arrogance and ignorance and selfishness prompt us to.

A proper understanding of our place in the world should lead to the virtues praised by monks and nuns of all religious orders: shun the world, shun consumption, shun exploitation, work in humility and honesty to supply our bare needs. Only then, maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, might there be a slight possibility of hope that we do not exterminate most life forms on the planet including, of course, many that we depend and rely on for our own existence.

In order to know ourselves as a species and to understand our place in the universe of things, we have to distance ourselves from our own experience, both in space and time. It is not easily done but it is essential if we are truly to see a larger reality. (p.6)


Related links

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis (1995)

‘She told me she saw something in one of the papers about somebody called something Scott-Thompson writing something about JRP Fane…’ (p.96)

Not particularly successful forty-something literary journalist, Gordon Scott-Thompson, pitches the idea of writing a ‘critical biography’ of 68-year-old, very posh and very out-of-date novelist Jimmie Fane, to his reluctant publisher.

There follows a series of lunches and dinners with Jimmie and his pukka mates (Tommie, Bobbie), at his house, at nice restaurants, at Jimmie’s club (Grays), and entanglements with old friends and lovers of the great man, which Gordon experiences with varying levels of Amisian alienation and bewilderment.

Characteristically for an Amis ‘hero’, Gordon also struggles to maintain a relationship with his live-out lover Louise, and to manage the attentions of Jimmie’s (fourth) wife, Joanna, after she sets out – successfully – to seduce him.

Complications are introduced in the form of an ancient lover of Jimmie’s – Madge Walker – who he jilted way back during the war and is now living in genteel poverty with her deaf, ex-Navy husband; and in a prolonged visit to the phenomenally posh Duke of Dunwich in his country house at Hungerstream, which is chock-full of Lucky Jim-style comic embarrassments.

This long country house sequence is very funny. There’s no real necessity for it in the plot. It’s simply one of the many country weekends Jimmie is constantly angling to get himself invited to, and his wife Joanna suggests that his ‘biographer’ comes along and also that he brings his girlfriend Louise. In the event Gordon travels there by train, sees a bunch of other, genuinely posh guests at Hungerstream station who ignore him, a chauffeur-driven car takes them all to the enormous house and then a whole series of comic episodes ensue: from first meeting the dodgy Duke himself, to the ordeal of a formal dinner during which Gordon gets catastrophically drunk, as well as embarrassing scenes with Louise and, indeed, his adulterous lover, Joanna, and so on.

This long sequence fits the theme of the novel, which is the English class system, but mostly it is an opportunity for Amis to relentlessly takes the piss out of the really upper, British upper classes, their braying inability to speak, their permanent drunkenness, their outrageous rudeness – which all around tolerate and put up with because all around are themselves such awful social climbers and snobs.

That said, at the heart of the section is a long and curiously touching scene where Jimmie takes Gordon for a wintry morning walk in the countryside and confesses a teenage attachment to Tennyson and In Memoriam which long inspired him to write his (unpublishable) poetry.

It is also during this long country house interlude that Joanna explains to Gordon that Jimmie is planning to return to his second wife – Lady Rowena – who’s come into some money – and so to ditch her, Joanna. Which is why she began the affair, felt free to begin the affair, with him, Gordon. Gordon’s not sure how he feels about this but tells her he loves her, just in case. Lucky Jim-style, Gordon drinks himself insensible at the big evening meal at Hungerstream and so misses some kind of showdown which takes place between Joanna and Jimmie. All the cast members return to London next day in various stages of hungoverness and high dudgeon.

Quite separate from all this is a sub-plot in which Gordon wangles some money out of Joanna to pass on to Madge Walker, Jimmie’s former lover, now fallen on hard times, to help support her bed-bound former Navy captain husband. But soon enough the novel hurtles towards its denouements. In the end:

  1. Jimmie gets cold feet about returning to wife number two, after she actually shows up at the Duke of Dunwich’s, thereby forcibly reminding him how ghastly she is. So he abandons his plan, explaining it all calmly enough to Joanna.
  2. So Joanna in turn dumps Gordon and returns to the old bugger – ‘I love you darling but… let’s never talk about it again.’ Gordon takes it badly. Now he has lost both women, Joanna and Louise, and stays up watching crap TV in his rubbish flat drinking himself insensible on whisky.
  3. Gordon’s publisher doesn’t surprise him very much by telling him that the publisher has been taken over by some vast conglomerate who’ve taken a look at the books and are cutting down on anything which isn’t a copper-bottomed bestseller – starting with weedy lit crit books like Gordon’s. He, the publisher, is himself being made redundant soon. Sign of the times.
  4. And Louise, the girlfriend he dumped to have the affair with Joanna, but who Joanna asked him to nonetheless take along to the Duke of Dunwich’s as ‘cover’ for their affair? She takes the Duke’s fancy and the novel ends a month or so later with Gordon attending their outrageously posh wedding.

This is Amis’s last published novel. Its immediate predecessor, You Can’t Have Both, was lengthy and divided into just four long parts or ‘acts’. This made it a little challenging for the reader to orientate herself within what presented themselves as long continuous floods of prose.

By contrast The Biographer’s Moustache is divided into 30 short chapters. This has the effect of making each chapter address one ‘scene’ only, and encourages them to be more clipped and focused. As a result, the book is both easier to read and gives a stronger impression of pace and focus.

The style

Vague That said, Amis’s style is as weird as ever. It revels in vagueness and inconsequentiality so that none of the characters ever thinks or says anything plain and logical. To pick up an Amis novel is to enter a maze of equivocation and diffusion, with the anti-hero – like this one – likely to be stuck in an ‘everyday condition of puzzlement and unsatisfied curiosity’ (p.97), amid a wreck of bewildering and unpredictable other characters. Our man rarely understand what’s going on, what other people are doing or thinking, or what he’s meant to do next.

Or Hence, partly, the addiction to giving multiple variant interpretations of even the simplest activities, linked by ‘or’. Hardly anything is said or happens which isn’t given at least two possible interpretations:

  • The number was or seemed to be permanently engaged. (p.105)
  • When he left her after the rissole lunch she had talked without pause till they were on the doorstep, then said something hurried and unemphatic that he remembered or had interpreted as a directive to get in touch or keep in touch with her… (p.98)

There are so many usages of ‘or’ that you could sub-categorise them. Some of them are dismissive, conveying an irritable, short-tempered attitude in the author or character:

  • Jimmie explained to Gordon as they sat in an otherwise empty corner of the lounge, or whatever it might have been called. (p.68)
  • ‘He’s in Cambridge, having lunch with the Master or the Warden of somewhere…’ (p.73)

At moments like this the narrator (or characters – the same tone is interchangeable between them) seems to be saying ‘Listen, I’m just in too much of a bloody hurry to worry with the details, alright?’

At that moment she got out of the green chair and strolled towards a window or a picture or a bookcase… (p.75)

A different type of ‘ors’ seem to be trying to capture subtle differences in human behaviour, where the narrator is recording characters’ equivocation or uncertainty about their own motives.

  • This too he did, or started to. (p.103)
  • Perhaps he was in love, or was going to be. (p.179)

These give the appearance of a keen scholar of human motivation striving to find just the right definition or phrase in the way ‘the novel’ is traditionally meant to:

  • He most have been responding without knowing it, or more likely without admitting it to himself. (p.74)

So is the proliferation of ‘or’ sentences – and there are three or four on every page – the sign of a clever investigation of human nature – or just an irritating mannerism?

  • In fact he arrived at the building a few seconds before the agreed hour, just when a neurotically precise or something-like-that person would have got there. (p.107)
  • In one way or perhaps in more than one he had welcomed this. (p.118)

Whatever the precise intention of individual ‘or’ sentences, the overall impact of all of them all is to weaken and undermine the main statement. More than one creates a diminuendo effect: the more there are the more they make the power or certainty of a statement deflate like a punctured balloon. Like a lot of Amis’s mannerisms it can be funny or serious or irritating or all three at once; one thing is sure, this stylistic tic occurs numerous times on every page and is a dominant feature of his style.

  • Joanna’s voice slackened. She had the look of somebody who has said more than enough, or perhaps less than enough… (p.127)
  • She gave a long sigh, as if resigning something or the hope of something. (p.152)

Some of that Being in a state of permanent bewilderment means that Mr Confused and Puzzled is at a loss for how to handle, think about or cope with other people. When they talk to him he perceives it as being talked at and gives the impression of just sitting nodding waiting for ‘it’ to end. He – and the other characters, since all the characters share the narrator’s frame of mind and turn of phrase – use a set of frequently repeated phrases to convey this sense of having to sit through the unbearable twaddle other people are spouting: having to endure bits of ‘stuff’ or ‘that lot’ of piffle or ‘more of the same’, or ‘this section’ of whatever they’re on about, as though it’s all incomprehensible.

  • Gordon could not think of any useful reply to make to this last lot… (p.139)
  • This phase was soon ended… (p.165)
  • Cooper arrived with the tea in time to hear this last bit. (p.256)

Quite regularly the protagonist thinks he’s being assailed with a foreign language or just gobbledygook. Even regular conversation feels like a burden he has to sit through, miming appropriate expressions of happiness or understanding or interest as best he can.

Dialogue To some extent Amis’s dialogue – and there’s lots of it – makes an admirable effort to capture real people’s hesitations and evasions, repetitions and stumbles. The downside is that nobody in Amis ever seems able to get to the point, if indeed there is a point. Amis’s dialogue must be the vaguest and most obtuse of any published author.

  • ‘Of course I’m not sure that’s what he said. People aren’t, you don’t, people can’t expect to be sure of what he said any time, can they?’ (p.173)
  • ‘On consideration, something I don’t go in for much these days, I should say that the best part of me, or the least bad part of me, or the least bad part of what there is of me, or was of me… is in verse form.’ (p.178)

His characters don’t discuss something to establish its nature and come to logical decisions; their conversations are masterpieces of mutual incomprehension, games of obfuscation which the narrator or protagonist observes with bemused detachment.

  • Gordon had no chance of either improving or throwing doubt on this reading of motives in what followed. (p.189)
  • Gordon was conscious of having put his point with something less than unimprovable clarity and force. Jimmie shared this general view, or affected to. (p.265)

Abandon all hope of crisp, pithy, pointed dialogue. Relax and enjoy this world of confusion, uncertainty, vagueness and misunderstanding.

The absent protagonist The net effect of all these peculiarities is that quite often the hero seems to be only barely present in his own life.

  • He soon found himself quite unable to decide whether he had started an affair or received the equivalent of a very friendly pat on the head. (p.76)
  • ‘You aren’t one of those characters?’ he found he had said. (p.191)
  • To visit a part [of the house] he had at least seen before gave him a feeling, however illusory, of being in touch with events, even perhaps of having some influence over them. (p.197)

Mostly the effect is played for laughs but sometimes can be quite unnerving and is so consistent across the whole book that this feeling of detachment from other people even himself – of watching everything from a bubble – is one of the book’s strongest flavours.

Acting Sometimes the sense of detachment is so intense you almost think you’re in the mind of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who can’t read or puzzle out other people at all. And if you can’t read other people – if you are incapable of deducing their intentions even when they’re talking directly to you – then you have to guess what they’re on about from any available sources, maybe from how you’ve seen people behave in films or TV; and you yourself attempt to reply by adopting similar play-acting and mime, by imitating people of who do know how to respond, or at least look like they know how to respond.

Jimmie’s face took on an expression of overdone and also somehow proletarian dismay. Gordon was emboldened to drop into his efficient television-cockney. (p.83)

Adrift in a world of play-acting you come to think that everyone else is also acting a role and this seeing other people as actors is a consistent aspect of Amis’s worldview and style.

  • He peered in the direction he had been going and saw Jimmie  just started on a very life-like imitation of a man unself-consciously opening the front door of his house and presently shutting it after him. (p.106)
  • Doing his best not to impersonate a schoolboy taken out for a special treat in a grown-up restaurant… (p.126)
  • Gordon sipped with pretended relish. (p.130)

Time The need to act instead of directly experience the world, is related to Amis’s odd perception of Time. Time doesn’t flow in Amis’s novels, but is always broken up into sections, chunks, bits and pieces, and the protagonist experiences his life as an endless negotiation and navigation through ‘the next bit’ or the stuff which happens ‘quite soon afterwards’, through ‘the next section’, and so on, as if incapable of experiencing the flow of time without dividing it up into units which have to be managed and coped with.

  • Just before or just after saying that… (p.48)
  • The ensuing pause was quite brief, but it was long enough for several thoughts… (p.74)
  • By way of completing this section, Gordon laughed loudly… (p.91)
  • He said the last part as he left the bedroom… (p.170)
  • Eventually the whole party had gathered in the library… and that went on for some time without detectable damage to anyone present. (p.186)
  • … but then perhaps he had slept through that part. (p.196)
  • Later, more than at any time, but not only later, Gordon thought about the duke… (p.201)
  • When the time came, or when he could put it off no longer… (p.237)
  • Without anything that could be called a delay he was taken to a room… (p.243)
  • For the moment, in fact any moment, he would have to stand up to arriving in the place. (p.276)

His relationship to Time is so odd I wonder if some kind of paper or article could be written about it, which would refer to 20th century philosophies of Time as well as psychological knowledge about the human perception of Time, in order to clarify the different tactics Amis adopts towards it, in order to investigate the problem of ‘duration’ and the fundamental challenge of understanding human experience. Although mostly played for laughs, this problem with Time and experience seems to me to be the issue underlying all his novels.

Transparent The protagonist of You Can’t Have It Both, Robin Davies, gives the impression of being fairly canny and calculating right up to the end of the book, when he’s exposed as being childishly transparent – a hopelessly selfish womaniser, who his mum and dad and wife and girlfriends can all read like an open book.

Useless Similarly in this one, Gordon is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to dealing with the suave Jimmie, his snobbish pals, his seducing wife, his sly publisher or his own capable girlfriend. You get the sense that everyone is ‘playing’ the hapless hero. In a funny moment, after their first kiss, Jimmie’s wife asks if he wants to proceed and, in that half moment, Gordon realises that he’s toppling into having an affair because he can’t think quickly enough of any way to politely say No. He is, like so many other Amis men, completely useless.

Funny Sometimes Amis escapes all his mannerisms to be just funny about the world we live in, sometimes very funny.

Wishing he had been drunk, Gordon got on a bus apparently reserved for winners and runners-up in some pan-European repulsiveness contest. (p.70)

After a short while there presumably sounded some buzzer or kindred device inaudible to Gordon and all at once Lady Rowena withdrew her attention from him so totally that he felt like glancing down at himself to make sure he was still there. (p.190)

Moments like this are like spending hours trying to tune a radio and suddenly stumbling across a clear audible signal, or hacking your way through a jungle and suddenly stumbling into a clearing and strolling across it nice and easy.

But clarity of intention and phrasing like this is rare in his work. Most of the time we are subjected to the wandering divagations the easily-distracted prose. Instead of writing the thing itself, Amis can’t stop himself writing nugatory elaborations: almost as if he’s bored of writing and has to give sentences an unexpected twirl just to keep his interest alive.

The telephone was ringing when he got back home, which circumstance made that place seem much less bleak and comfortless. (p.56)

And sometimes the combination of all Amis’s mannerism brings the prose perilously close to gibberish.

  • At the moment it was very likely not needful to say that he would have had no corresponding bias in favour of the latter. (p.25)
  • Gordon was just opening his mouth to give another and firmer refusal when he caught the sound as of a heavy body falling somewhere upstairs, faint at this distance but no doubt substantial on the spot, not perhaps an unmistakable advertisement of the duke’s presence near at hand but not mistakable enough for Gordon, who forthwith told Jimmie to lead on. (p.171)

On every page Amis bends and distorts the language but not towards the crisp expressiveness of Americans like Martin Cruz Smith – not towards clarity or modernity – but clotting together an array of old-fashioned English phrases and idioms with experiments in seeing just how convoluted a sentence can be twisted to become. If you’re in a hurry to read the plot it can be very irritating but in this novel, because of its shorter chapters and more focused presentation of character and scene, I mostly found it stimulating and amusing.

Class

‘A hundred years ago, even up to 1939, the thing really had some teeth in it. There was an empire to run and a comparatively barbaric peasantry and proletariat to be kept down. What’s left of either of them today? The, the remnants of the class system operate in the other direction. Dukes and what-not complain that their titles hold them back, get in the way of their careers in banking or photography or whatever it may be. The British class system, as you quaintly call it, is…’
‘I know, it’s dead.’ (p.22)

I’m not generally interested in a book’s ‘themes’ since these are often so obvious and so obviously designed to be written about, analysed and discussed in book clubs or GCSE classes. But mention should be made of the way this novel very conspicuously ‘investigates’, ‘uses’, ‘explores’ etc the English class system. Specifically, the hapless hero Gordon is continuously aware of being at a disadvantage whenever he’s with Jimmie or his nobby friends at the club or with his pukka wife in bed, let alone among the posh guests of the impossibly upper-class Duke of Dunwich.

On the surface this gives rise to:

a) actual experiences of upper class snobbery, as when Gordon is blanked at Hungerstream train station when the Duke’s other posh guests realise he’s nobody significant, or is insulted by Jimmie’s pals at the club, or is intimidated by the Duke’s butler or chauffeur
b) discussions of the class system with Jimmie himself, with Joanna, with Louise, with the publisher and so on, who all give their take on whether there still is a class system in England, how important it might be, and so on

We can say on the evidence of the text that Jimmie is quite open about being a social climber and loves being invited to the houses of the aristocracy and enjoys teasing Gordon about his middle-class origins – in a running joke he’s always trying to catch Gordon out in non-U pronunciations of words like ‘often’  and ’tissue – but has an uneasy relationship with Bobbie and Tommie at the club who may be a little above him in social class – and is nowhere as lofty as the permanently drunk Duke of Dunwich – whereas his wife Joanna, although she has inherited money, isn’t as posh as Jimmie – and all this leaves Gordon’s quondam girlfriend Louise as his ally in non-poshness, although he is outflanked by his publisher who takes up with a society lady during the course of the novel and so disconcerts Gordon with reports of his goings-on with the Fane family based on Society gossip. And so on.

Money is inextricably linked with all these definitions of position in society and with the pairings or bondings between males and females – known as ‘marriage’. Joanna is aware that her family money was part of the reason Jimmie married her – and that fact that wife number two – Lady Rowena – has recently come into a lot of money is the main reason Jimmie seriously considers dumping Joanna and remarrying Rowena – until he actually meets her and remembers how ghastly she is.

So you could analyse the entire story in terms of the complex web of social class and money it creates, and declare it ‘a study of contemporary society and social customs’ etc, as if it was a piece of anthropological research.

Or do a structuralist or narratological interpretation which saw the characters as blocks or units whose overlappings and intersections create nexuses of energy and rest to which make up the dynamic patterns across the text.

Or you could inject some morality into the analysis e.g. Gordon’s contempt for Jimmie is ‘right’ and justified by Jimmie’s incurable snobbery, or is itself flawed by his own ‘immoral’ behaviour in having an affair with Jimmy’s wife, etc.

But I prefer to stick to a more stylistic analysis of the actual words on the page, of the deformations or innovations or habits or oddities of language of which the text is actually made up. From this more limited point of view the emphasis on the theme of social class has two results:

  1. It taps into a rich tradition of English comic writers taking the mickey out of the English class system going back through Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse to Dickens, and back further to the earliest comic novels of Henry Fielding. Dim, drunk, huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ types are the stockest of stock characters in English comic writing.
  2. For Amis’s more particular purposes, being a class outsider is just another (time-honoured) way of achieving the aim of most of his novels, which is to present the hapless hero as hopelessly isolated, confused and discombobulated.

The main conclusion I’d draw from the presence of the ‘class theme’ is that the return to such a time-honoured comic topic results in a novel which is noticeably more straightforward and funny than a lot of its predecessors.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book. The focused story and the use of short chapters make this a more enjoyable read than its immediate predecessors. And whereas Robin Davies really was a selfish bastard leaving an unpleasant aftertaste at the conclusion of its predecessor, in this one the central figure, Gordon, is more sinned against than sinning, more the kind of hapless nincompoop that Lucky Jim Dixon was in Amis’s first novel.

And, against all expectations, I found myself warming to Jimmie the snobbish old writer. And the long excursion to Hungerstream, the vast country pile of the Duke of Dunwich, was a refreshing change of scene for an Amis novel, so many of which take usually place in rooms in suburban houses where people get drunk or are miserably unfaithful to each other. The change of scene seemed to revive his writing making it both more funny and more moving than in recent books.

For all Amis’s weirdnesses of style and worldview, or maybe because I’m so used to them now that I positively enjoy them, I really liked this book and look forward to rereading it sometime.


Credit

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with 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.

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe (1995)

The Praelector waited in the drawing-room, staring out into the pulsating night and thinking about the May Balls he had known in his youth. They had been sedate affairs and he had enjoyed them enormously, swinging round the Hall doing the quickstep or a foxtrot and, most daringly of all, the tango with a polished liveliness and delight that was a world away from the mechanical Bacchanalia the young now seemed to crave. Not that he blamed them. They were drowning out a world that seemed to have no structure to it and no meaning for them, a monstrous bazaar in which the only recognised criteria were money and sex and drugs and the pursuit of moments of partial oblivion. (p.475)

The front cover and title page describe this as ‘A Porterhouse Chronicle’ as if it’s one of a whole series of novels about the fictional Cambridge college which made its first appearance in Sharpe’s 1974 novel, Porterhouse Blue. But it took 21 years for this sequel to appear and, in the event, there are only two Porterhouse books, this being the second and last one.

It’s a bit long for a comic novel, at 490 pages in this Pan paperback edition, and it is not as funny as its predecessor. Sharpe is still capable of rising to moments of savage farce, but they’re fewer and further between. And – crucially – the kind of swearing and sexual explicitness which felt taboo-breaking and transgressive in the 1970s, were no longer nearly as shocking in the mid-90s, and now – in 2016 – feels run-of-the-mill. Characters saying ‘fuck’ or dressing up in PVC sex outfits is no longer at the far edge of respectability.

The Plot

The fictional Cambridge college of Porterhouse has a reputation as being the most reactionary college in the university, but its finances are in a dire state. Much of the infrastructure is peeling and dropping off. The college is run by a council of Senior Fellows and the plot consists of following their bumbling and farcical attempts to drum up new financing for their alma mater. They are:

  • the Dean (a small round man with a red face, p.224)
  • the Senior Tutor
  • the Bursar
  • the Praelector (tall and thin, p.224)
  • the Chaplain – amiable, bumbling and deaf – giving rise to numerous comic misunderstandings
  • and the Master

The Master is in fact the former Head Porter, Skullion, who we saw, at the end of Porterhouse Blue, have a major stroke. In fact ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is college slang for just such a stroke. Now Skullion is permanently ensconced in a wheelchair and only intermittently capable of speech.

So off they go to find money. The Dean goes to visit Old Porterthusians around the country who, predictably, turn out to be various shades of nasty, drunk, impoverished and violent, notably the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole of Pimpole Hall, Yorkshire, who was once a gay blade but has turned into a violent alcoholic with a vicious cur.

The Senior Tutor is contacted by Lady Mary Evans, the widow of the former Master, Sir Godber Evans, who we saw dying at the end of the previous novel. Although the coroner ruled it accidental death caused by excess of alcohol and then Sir Godber tripping and cracking his skull, Lady Mary is convinced his death was murder. To confirm her suspicion she gives her dubious lawyer six million pounds to endow a new position at the college, the Sir Godber Evans Fellowship and, after some comic business with various unsuitable candidates, appoints the earnest and upright Dr Purefoy Osbert to the post. Osbert is an expert in capital punishment – author of a classic account of the subject, The Long Drop – and he’s given a remit to write the history of Porterhouse, with special attention to the fate of her late husband. She hopes Osbert will expose the murder and turn up enough evidence to convict the whole pack of Senior Fellows who she loathes.

Meanwhile, in what becomes the major storyline, the Bursar attends a conference on ‘funding ancient institutions’ where he is introduced to the slick American representative of a big TV company – Transworld Television Productions – one Karl Kudzuvine. At TTP’s shiny big London headquarters the Bursar is surprised to realise everyone is wearing an identical outfit of moccasins, white socks, polo neck sweater and shades. And when he meets the sinister head of the operation, Edgar Hartang, he learns they are all copying him.

The TV people say they love the idea of making a documentary series about Porterhouse, and will pay handsomely for using the facilities and persuade the Bursar to let them make a ‘recce’ or preliminary visit, where they swarm all over the ancient buildings, outraging the staff, and onto the roof of the chapel which begins to collapse under their weight, during an actual service, prompting a stampede for the exit in which Kudzuvine is trampled underfoot.

There now begins a lengthy sequence in which the foul-mouthed gangster Kudzuvine is put to bed by the cabal of doddering senior officials – the Bursar, Senior Tutor – while the college doctor casually injects him with a range of new drugs he’s been dying to experiment with. They set the speechless, wheelchair-bound gargoyle, Skullion, to watch over him, so that every time Kudzuvine wakes, befuddled and disorientated, he thinks he’s hallucinating and shrinks further into paranoid terror.

In this deranged state, he eventually reveals what we sort of suspected, which is that Transworld is a front for massive involvement in drug smuggling, but not actually making the shipments – TTP uses its offices worldwide and its international documentary operation to launder and clean drug money for various clients: the South Americans, the Mafia, the Russians. This line of business brings with it a serious risk of kidnapping or assassination from rivals, and it’s this which explains why the paranoid boss makes everyone dress like him – so that potential assassins getting past security in TTP’s Canary Wharf offices, will be confused long enough for him to get away.

All Kudzuvine’s confessions are taped by the wily officers. And the college solicitors send a lengthy claim for damages to college infrastructure and to the finer feelings of staff and students to Hartang personally, seeking £20 million! Obviously, his first reaction is to consider hiring contract killers to wipe out these limey motherfuckers, but he is restrained by his own lawyers, who advise actually paying up. It’s a fraction of his illegal takings. In fact Sharpe shows us the lawyers themselves taking steps to distance themselves from their criminal client.

Complications

Having established all these plotlines by half way through the book, Sharpe spends the next 200 pages detailing their increasingly out-of-control complications. This is one of the things that makes Sharpe’s novels farces – the sense of the plot developments spiralling beyond the sane, beyond the feasible, into a fantasy world of comic hysteria.

Thus the now thoroughly cowed Kudzuvine discovers that everything he’s said about his boss has been recorded, transcribed and witnessed: he can’t go back. Terrified, he is whisked away to the country house of Old Porterthusian, General Sir Cathcart D’Eath, there given work in the abattoir where – in a minor revelation – we learn the General slaughters horses and turns them into cat food. Knives and blood. Hmm. Wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some comic consequences…

At his Induction Dinner, the fellows get Osbert drunk and are worried to discover what his real mission is and how much Sir Mary already knows, or suspects. They need to curtail the fellow’s activities – but how?

For his part, once he’s settled into his new quarters at Porterhouse, Osbert discovers that the wheelchair-bound Skullion likes to lurk in a corner of the quad where he’s brought food and bottles of ale by the college chef and they have a good natter. Intrigued, Osbert conceals himself nearby and overhears their conversation. Apparently Skullion has heard rumours that the Senior staff may be trying to replace him as Master and is infuriated. No sooner has ‘Cheffy’, as they call him, gone away than the Dean strolls past and is surprised to discover Skullion hidden in this corner. Their conversation takes a nasty turn, though, when Skullion – unusually drunk even for him – reveals that it was he who murdered Sir Godber at the end of the previous book, and threatens to tell all and ruin the college if the Dean and the other Senior Fellows try to get rid of him, Skullion.

The Dean blusters that no such thought has crossed their minds and walks on to his rooms, appalled – but not as appalled as Osbert. He has discovered the the truth Sir Mary wanted revealed after only a few weeks. But what proof could he bring in court? Everyone would deny it. What should he do with this knowledge?

Now the Dean has accidentally discovered that Sir Godber was murdered, and that Skullion is the cuplrit, the Senior Fellows realise they must do something to nobble Osbert’s enquiries before he finds out. They rifle through his desk and correspondence and come across the fact that Osbert has an unrequited romance with a Mrs Ndhlovo. One night, long before and much earlier in the novel, Osbert had attended an evening class given by Mrs Ndhlovo which he thought was going to be about penal reform in Sierra Leone but turned out to be about Male Masturbation Technique. Taken aback by the explicitness of the material, the naive Osbert fell comically in love. Since then he has romanced Mrs Ndhlovo assiduously but she, in fact already married once and from Uganda, has steadfastly refused his advances until he is ‘a proper man’ with ‘real money’. This was Osbert’s motivation for taking the job at Porterhouse, despite his many reservations.

All this is revealed to the Fellows from Osbert’s correspondence and so they concoct a comic scheme – thinking Osbert has a weakness for black women generally, they commission General D’Eath to find a black woman they can lure Osbert into bed with and photograph, and then blackmail to ensure his silence. The General fails – his old soldier friends turning out disappointingly thin on black prozzies – but he is recommended the services of an ageing white barmaid, Myrtle Ransby, the married mother of nine kids who’ll do anything for cash. So, in increasingly preposterous scenes, the General finds himself dressing – or rather laboriously squeezing – her into a PVC cat suit and then blacking up the exposed parts of her body.

A den of denouements

Of course, things dramatically worsen before anything can get better.

Osbert reconciled with Ndhlovo Unaware of the scheme to entrap him, Dr Osbert meets again with his lady love Mrs Ndhlovo, who reveals that that isn’t her name and tells a long complicated story about how she and her sister were abandoned at birth in Argentina, adopted by nuns, ran away to Europe and smuggled themselves around the Mediterranean using various stolen identities until they fetched up in England, where she mugged up on sexual peculiarities and made a living lecturing about male masturbation and female genital mutilation. Now she’s bored. She wants to be married to a Fellow at Cambridge. So the odd couple come to an understanding. In fact they become an item and the reader almost comes to think of them as real characters who are a little bit in love.

The humiliation of Sir Cathcart With his honeypot scam in place, the General posts a card inviting Osbert to a rendezvous with Myrtle, who gets all dressed up in her PVC suit in readiness – but, in a comic misunderstanding, the Senior Tutor, who is not in on the plot, is handed the invitation by the porter to pass on and, in a fit of irritation against Osbert, tears it up. Therefore Osbert never gets it, never keeps the appointment, and so Myrtle spends a humiliating night on her own in the little ‘love nest’ the General has arranged – drinking a little, then a bit more, then lots – to solace herself, waking up the next day with an appalling hangover. In this raddled state, half falling out of her PVC sex suit, she phones her cousin to come and pick her up and, when the latter has stopped laughing at her grotesque appearance, the pair drive on to Sir Cathcart’s country house. Now, to ensure maximum comic impact, the General just happens to be welcoming a selection of the county’s poshest gentry as dinner guests. In full view of the county’s finest, Myrtle storms up, fat and angry and hungover with various boobs and bulges extruding out of her PVC suit and proceeds to yell abuse at the General in front of all the guests – ‘Yes, he acts all la-di-da, but he likes fat birds in PVC painted black to look like Africans – but he stood her up and now she’s here for her money’. The General’s humiliation could not be more complete. Until the police turn up and ask him to accompany them to his little ‘love nest’ in a suburban street in Cambridge where they have discovered a wealth of sex aids and a one-way mirror with a video-camera behind it. Ooops.

This is an example of the way sexual satire no longer has the same bite. In Sharpe’s novels from the 1970s, a large part of the comedy comes from the way the curtain-twitching neighbours and the police and society at large reel in shock and horror at the protagonist’s sexual misadventures. The fact that Wilt is in ownership (by accident) of a blow up sex doll has the potential to end his career. 20 years later, when this novel was published, post-AIDS, in an era when everyone was encouraged to talk more openly about sexual practices, none of this has the same sense of shock, and therefore the risk of social stigma etc to the protagonists is hugely reduced. This explains why the scene where the police show the General all the sex equipment seems oddly muted and is very brief. This kind of thing no longer had the same charge in 1996. Now, 20 years later, post 50 Shades of Grey, it has almost no comic impact at all.

Skullion’s revenge Surprisingly, given his earlier opposition, Sir Cathcart successfully persuades Skullion to quit as Master. He is promised he can go and stay at Sir Cathcart’s country house. However, it is a trap. The ambulance which comes to collect him instead takes him off to the feared Porterhouse Park, a grim boarding house overlooking the bleak north Norfolk coast, where other super-annuated college staff have been sent to eke out their last days.

Osbert, surprised that Skullion has disappeared, discovers his fate and goes to visit him with Mrs Ndhlovo. Skullion begs to be helped to escape, so Osbert and girlfriend return with a transit van and some rope, liberate Skullion and spirit him away to a safe house in the suburbs of Cambridge. Here, in exchange for his freedom, Skullion begins dictating to the historian Osbert, an ‘alternative’ history of Porterhouse College, its history seen from the servants’ point of view, a very warts and all account. For days on end Skullion talks non-stop into a tape recorder. He dates the start of the decline in standards to after the war, when all the men who came up were returning from National Service, older, less malleable, more likely to be stroppy and ‘bolshy’.

This storyline has stopped being at all funny, but Skullion’s comments are quite interesting as social history.

A drug lord as Master There’s a world of confusion and misunderstanding among the senior staff about who knows, and doesn’t know, about Skullion being the murderer, and his stealthy removal to Porterhouse Park. To everyone’s surprise the weedy Praelector emerges as the strong man in this unclear situation and travels down to London to meet with Hartang’s lawyers and then with the foul-mouthed crime boss himself. And offers him the Mastership of the college!

The Praelector shocks the College Council with his plan at their next meeting, but by bullying and blackmail manages to swing the vote to get Hartang accepted as new Master. Hartang will get cachet and safety from the various forces pursuing him. The College will get a vast amount of money. Hartang comes down from London to check out his new domain and begins to be coached by the senior fellows on the manners and etiquette that will be required. Stop saying ‘fucksake’ all the time, for example.

British Intelligence Behind all this, Hartang wonders if there are deeper forces at work, and so does the reader. Because, coincidentally, four British intelligence officers visit him at this Canary Wharf headquarters. He agrees to co-operate with them in exposing all he knows about various drug-smuggling cartels, so long as they agree to him becoming Porterhouse Master. A week later his most dangerous enemy, one Dos Passos, is found dead in a mysterious car crash in South America. Then a load of computer disks found at Dos Passos’s house turn out to be bursting with incriminating information, their exposure all blamed on the dead man – rather than on Hartang, who was the one who in fact handed them over to the authorities. The security forces have done their job well.

None of this is particularly farcical or even comic. In fact it could come from a Frederick Forsyth novel.

Comic climax

I thought the climax of the novel would be the annual May Ball. It’s a traditional big event, we learn that security men are swarming all over it – I wouldn’t have been surprised if the South American mafia had turned up and run riot through the gayly attired undergraduates, seeking to machine gun their enemy, Hartang.

But nothing like that happens. In fact, throughout the novel the undergraduates are conspicuous by their absence. They are actually there – it is term time – but not a single one is referenced by name. the plot takes place entirely among the doddery ageing dons and senior fellows.

In fact the climax comes a week or so later when there is the grand feast to inaugurate Hartang as Master. His British security minders are protecting him in exchange for the masses of information he’s imparted about international drugs operations and the college is already benefiting from his munificence, with the chapel having extensive repairs. Osbert and Mrs Ndhlovo have finished listening to Skullion’s dizzyingly disillusioning version of the real history of Porterhouse and are busily editing the manuscript into shape.

Against this background, there is this huge feast with all the fellows and students in their gowns and regalia when, at the climax of the meal, the waiters sweep through the magnificent doors of the Grand Hall bearing vast platters carrying numerous roasted boar. Now, the Senior Staff had learned from their taping of Kudzuvine’s confessions hundreds of pages earlier, that Hartang has a loathing amounting to a phobia, a real panic-fear of pigs. Even mention of the name makes him go pale and fumble for his medication. Now, as the waiters spread out and approach the High Table bearing huge pigs at him from all sides, Hartang staggers to his feet, has a heart attack, and dies. That’s the climax of the novel.

Epilogue

Then there’s an epilogue which ties up the various storylines.

Both Skullion and the Praelector are now seen resignedly residing at the retirement home looking over the sea.

As his last act Skullion named his successor to be the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole, the appalling alcoholic who the Dean encountered early in the book. The surviving fellows put up with his boorish manners confident in the expectation that he will soon drink himself to death with the help of the college’s bottomless wine cellar.

Osbert delivers a first draft of Skullion’s history to Lady Mary’s lawyers, who both consider it so scandalous they quietly decide to suppress it. Neither Lady Mary, nor the world at large, will ever read it.

And Mrs Ndhlovo confides in a lady friend that Osbert is just too scholarly, too kind and considerate. So she is going to quietly leave him.

That’s it.


Anti-modern and anti-American

Broadly speaking, satirists tend to be conservative and right-wing in their thinking, preferring the old ways and satirising trendy new-fangled notions. This is very much how Sharpe’s earlier novels struck me. Thinking the modern world has gone to pot is part and parcel of the performance – and so the crusty old dons lament Harold Wilson’s honours list and Mrs Thatcher’s ennoblement of businessmen, the need for hospitals to treat high-spending foreigners in order to subsidise operations for long-suffering Brits, and other iniquities of the kind to be found in the pages of the Daily Mail.

More striking is the strong vein of anti-Americanism which runs through the book. Hartang and his various trusties express themselves in a harsh barely literate mafia-speak, and evince a brutal amorality, ready at a second’s notice to ring up hitmen and assassins to eliminate anyone who stands in their way. This crude criminality is combined with, especially in Kudzuvine’s case, a repellently gung-ho American chauvinism – ‘USA! USA!’. The combination provides endless opportunities for the fuddy-duddy English college officials to tut about American ‘culture’, American violence, and then wander off to discuss recent American foreign policy foul-ups, which, it is implied, arise out of its domestic violence and criminality.

Since the book was written in the early to mid-1990s, these now seem very dated, but include:

  • the Gulf War, during which US ‘friendly fire’ shot up some of our tanks and killed some of our troops
  • the US air strikes on Libya – codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon – on 15 April 1986, which resulted in 40 Libyan civilians killed (p.208)

Sharpe punishes this crudity in the person of Kudzuvine, who starts off brashly yelling at everyone that he’s a ‘free-born citizen of the Greatest Nation on Earth’ etc etc – but is systematically reduced to a quivering wreck, at his nadir kneeling before the gibbering wheelchair bound figure of Skullion, and ending up hacking dead horses to pieces in a cat food factory. It is a deliberate humiliation of him and all he stands for – amoral billionaire American criminality.

This dislike of insufferable American chauvinism combined with its increasingly aggressive foreign policy reminds me of John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels with their growing hatred of America. Although it’s interesting, none of this is really very funny.

Sharpe died only recently, in 2013. I wonder what he made of this century’s turn of events – 9/11, the American invasion of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy triumphs. I wonder what his cast of comedy dons and duffers from Porterhouse would have made of it. I wonder whether these topics crop up in his final novels…


Credit

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch by 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

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

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Our Game by John le Carré (1995)

‘I’d adore to live without him, Diana! I’d give my entire bloody fortune to be rid of Larry and his works for the rest of my  natural life. Unfortunately, we are inextricably involved with each other and I have to find him for my own salvation and probably for his.’ (p.185)

Tim Cranmer

A first-person narrative told by Tim ‘Timbo’ d’Abell Cranmer (p.54), educated at Winchester and Oxford, and recruited into British Intelligence, where he served for twenty years or so before being pensioned off aged 47. His uncle Bob left Tim a winery in Devon where he now makes a nice living, keeping up his collection of eighteenth century barometers and Chinese Chippendale footstools. He was married to Diana, who also worked for the Service, but she divorced him years ago. More recently into his life has moved a highly-strung young female composer, Emma, half his age, temperamental, sexually inventive.

Larry Pettifer

The novel is about a chap Tim was at Winchester with, a few years younger than him, one Larry Pettifer (‘Larry was a new boy the same term I became a prefect.’ p.97). Tim meets up with Larry again at Oxford, where legions of women swoon to his good looks (‘Blast the fellow, he landed an outright First against my rather shaky Second,’ I said with a sporting laugh. p.100), before bumping into him again in Venice, where he was cutting a swathe through the middle-aged women tourists he was guiding around the churches and galleries. Tim recruits Larry into the Secret Service and subsequently runs him as an agent or ‘joe’, angling for him to be ‘recruited’ by the Soviets, which he duly is, by Konstantin Checheyev based in the USSR’s London embassy. And so Larry embarks on some years working as a British double agent.

After the Berlin Wall comes down along with the USSR, Tim retires and helps Larry get a job at the nearby University of Bath, as a left-wing politics lecturer, tiresomely bleating on about the failings of the West and espousing various good causes. But Larry makes a pest of himself, inviting himself first to Sunday lunches at Tim’s, then for the whole Sunday, flirting with Emma, then seducing her with his radicalism, dangerously dropping hints about Tim’s former career, of which Emma knows nothing. One day she leaves. Maybe he seduced her, the beastly cad.

The missing £37 million

A few weeks later the police come to interview Tim and tell him Dr Pettifer has gone missing. Tim is then summoned up to London by his old colleagues in ‘the Office’, who interview him aggressively before revealing that young Larry was not just a double agent working ‘for’ the Russian head of station, Konstantin Checheyev. In the last few days it has emerged that he and Checheyev embezzled the Russians for some £37 million! Tim swears complete ignorance, in fact amazement, at this fact. He is told to keep his mouth shut and packed off back to Cornwall.

It is only at this late stage that the narrator reveals the rather startling fact that he actually tried to kill Larry a few weeks earlier, around the time he ‘disappeared’. Furious at Larry for seducing Emma, Tim lured him to a deep and legendary small lake – Priddy Pool – where he fell on him, battering him unconscious and dragging him by the feet over to the pool and throwing him in. But he was in such a state that he can’t clearly remember whether Larry was dead or not. Apparently not, as the evidence builds up that Larry not only survived, but persuaded Emma to run away and join him on his quixotic crusade.

The Ingush

‘Crusade’? Yes, because as the novel inches forward through a blizzard of memories and reminiscences, as Timbo mulls over scenes from his former life – his long working relationship with Larry, the birth, flowering and end of his affair with Emma – and then as he is interrogated again by the police, and again by Intelligence officers, it becomes clear that Larry didn’t just steal the missing money: he was in league with Checheyev to funnel it towards one of his ‘good causes’, the long-oppressed Ingush people of the south Caucasus, a people neighboured by the Chechens and Ossetians and oppressed for centuries by Tsarist and then communist and now neo-capitalist Russia.

Quest for Larry

To borrow Timbo’s own semi-religious Victorian terminology, he sets out on a ‘quest’ to track down Larry and Emma. Using a fake identity, passport, driving license and bundles of cash he’d kept hidden for just such a rainy day, he spends the second half of the novel driving around England, digging up material from former Intelligence colleagues, quizzing a Foreign Office chap whose wife he once had an affair with, and tracking Larry and Emma down to a shabby house (9A Cambridge Street) in Bristol which they obviously used as a base before abandoning it.

Here Tim discovers a trove of paperwork supposedly connected with a carpet import-export company, which he naturally concludes is a front for laundering money and transporting arms to the heroic Ingush freedom fighters. In the novel’s most gruesome sequence, Timbo motors to the house of the owner of the import-export company, who tells him her husband hasn’t been home for a week, but explains that he’s often away on business trips. Timbo drives up to the firm’s isolated house-cum-warehouse in the hills to discover it has been thoroughly ransacked, and then follows a trail of blood up to an outhouse further up the hill where he discovers the bodies of the owner and the two locals who cleaned for him, tortured and murdered.

Paris

Tim catches a ferry to France and drives to Paris to interview an aged lady who knew both Larry and Emma – the Contessa Ann-Marie von Diderich – and there, to the reader’s surprise, finds Emma living quite contentedly, still practising the piano, unrepentant about dumping Tim for Larry, convinced that the embezzlement and money laundering and gun running they helped orchestrate is righting one of the world’s injustices. After the hundreds of passages in which Tim has described his affair with Emma in purple prose, it’s surprising when he simply says goodbye and walks away.

Moscow

Tim flies to Moscow, following contacts and phone calls which lead him to Checheyev via other contacts from the Soviet years. Entering a night club where he’d been told to go, Timbo finds himself being bundled downstairs to confront the sinister owner. It is a terrifying milieu. (An unfortunate man has been tied to a chair and obviously tortured, and bleeds and moans in the corner of the office throughout the meeting). After a cursory questioning, Tim is taken away from the office, shoved downstairs into a makeshift cell and locked up for ten days. He can hear the sounds and smell the cooking of the Ingush families above him. Two young men with Kalashnikovs come and chat and smoke with him.

Eventually he is dragged out of the cell, given his coat and gloves back and dragged upstairs, outside and through deep snow to a van, then driven for miles beyond the ruined outskirts of Moscow to a shabby settlement where he meets Checheyev. Shabby, exhausted, Checheyev wants to know who Tim is working for and doesn’t believe his protestations that he is on a solo mission, simply to find his old friend.

The dénouement

Who cares.


Bombast

One dictionary definition of ‘bombast’ is ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

This novel overflows with bombast – with the confident public school assurance that Tim and his schoolchums and their tiny circle make up the whole world; that their public school nicknames and their public school mindset and their public school whimsy, the jocular exaggerations, the way simply all of their friends are legendary and well-known and famous and awfully bright (Emma is ‘warm hearted and brilliantly clever’ p.281), the in-jokes at their club and the banter between chaps who were in the Service together – that these are the centre of the world. As a small example, the narrator refers to

The famous Pettifer forelock, now shot with grey but still swinging across his brow in immature revolt. (p.66)

Is the Pettifer forelock famous? Have you heard of it? No. Has anyone heard of it? No. Then what does it mean to write that it is ‘famous’? It is a rhetorical strategy to incorporate the reader into this tiny, precious, self-reinforcing, self-important world. ‘In our world his forelock was famous. And what other world is there, old boy?’ Again:

We were seated around the famous Pringle boardroom table. (p.150)

Is the Pringle boardroom table famous? No. Have you heard of it? No. This is the kind of self-aggrandising rhetoric of white middle-aged chaps down the golf club or gentleman’s club or old boys club, swapping yarns about famous Johnno or old Jumbo or the legendary Biffo, remember old Biffo?

This kind of coercive, blustering, shallow myth-making about the chaps occurs on every page.

Calm down. That wasn’t Zeus talking, that was Jake Merriman, lightest of the Top Floor lightweights. Any lighter he’d blow off the roof, we used to say. (p.50)

A typical piece of bombast and un-humour in one sentence. a) Not exactly a gut-busting joke, is it, though it’s probably the best one in the book. And b) I never for a moment was at any risk of thinking his boss in the Service was Zeus. Zeus was the father of the Greek gods. Jake Merriman was his boss in the Intelligence Service. Not hard to tell the difference. The sentence tells me nothing about the plot or the world, nothing except for the narrator’s tendency to melodramatise his own banal and self-important observations.

I do my Head Prefect number, the way I used to speak to him at school when Larry was a parson’s son in revolt and I was King of Babylon. (p.51)

Was Tim ever the King of Babylon? No. Typical of the kind of schoolboy exaggeration, of giving each other over-the-top nicknames, of striking heroic poses and exaggerated attitudes, which sometimes lingers on into university and then most people grow out of. But not these characters. The entire toolkit of immature schoolboy affectation, facetiousness, silly nicknames and affected superiority appear to stay with them for life.

–When we were students doing student summer jobs, a friend of mine pointed out that whenever you started working somewhere and someone who’d been there for ages told you, ‘We’re all mad here!!’ you could guarantee it would be the most boring office in England. Self delusion.

Or remember the sign which you used to see on people’s desks saying – ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps!!!!!!!!’ – without fail indicating that this will be the dreariest, saddest, dullest place you have ever worked in.

The self-dramatisation of le Carré’s narrators reminds me of these old anecdotes and, like them, the more his characters protest their earth-shattering importance, the more trivial and silly they seem. The more they come over as boring middle-aged losers pathetically dramatising and legending each other.

He has been on one of his heroic voyages, and now he’s going to boast about it. (p.58)

Larry… in his role of Secret Protector of the Righteous once more, goes through his paces like an angel. (p.54)

But Larry is not a Secret Protector of the Righteous, is he? No such position in fact exists. Larry is a narcissistic and tiresome ex-intelligence agent. He is certainly not an ‘angel’. And who or what are ‘the Righteous’ in this sentence, anyway?

And what I see is Larry, seated before the gasfire, clutching his goblet of hot wine to his breast, a Byron of his own imagining… (p.242)

I have locked her in a hollow mountain in the Caucasus, he replied. I have seduced her in accordance with my blood-feud against the infidel Tim Cranmer. I have swept her away on the white stallion of my sophistry. (p.255)

Instead of thought – bombast. Instead of psychology – melodramatic and somehow childish exaggeration.

Gone the dreary stories of academic lowlife. Instead we have Larry redux, Larry the world-dreamer and Sunday sermoniser, one moment raging against the shameful Western inertia, the next painting treacly visions of altruistic wars conducted by a United Nations strike-force empowered to put on its Batman uniform and head off tyranny, pestilence and famine at a moment’s notice. (p.61)

Posh friends

Winchester and Oxford, the Intelligence Service and then inheriting money (lots of money) to set up as a gentleman wine grower in Devon, Tim’s circle of acquaintance is narrow, smug and crushingly posh, chaps to banter with and a seemingly endless sequence of chapesses to bonk.

  • Celia, one his local ‘conquests’, is (inevitably) the inheritor of a large estate near him in Devon and rides to hounds, of course.
  • Timbo chats at the train station to ‘a forlorn baronet known locally as Poor Percy’ (p.148).
  • The banker Jamie Pringle’s secretary went to Roedean, natch.
  • ‘Kids are doing splendidly, Tim, thank you. Marcus is captain o’ Fives, Penny’s coming out next spring.’ (p.153)
  • When in town he repairs to his Pall Mall club, home of many a retired admiral. (p.166)
  • ‘She lifted her elbow sideways, suggesting country girl and public school.’ (p.74) Is there, in this imaginative universe, any other kind of woman?
  • At ‘the Office’ ie headquarters of MI6, he is interviewed by a woman Marjorie. ‘I imagined uncles in the Cabinet and blue-rinsed aunts who were the backbone of the Tory right.’ (p.87)
  • When he visits Simon Dugdale, another posh mannered chap, this one in the Foreign Office, he gets a good groping and ear-chewing from the wife, Clare Dugdale (‘You’re still terribly yummy Tim. And Si says you’ve found an absolutely super, frightfully young girl.’ p.278) who – of course – he once had an affair with. Poor Timbo, he can’t help being such a terrific babe magnet. Mind you, Clare read Philosophy at Cambridge. A better class of posh totty.

‘I lunched at my club… Afterwards I bought a few shirts in Jermyn Street…’ (p.71) ‘I was wearing good brown country shoes by Ducker’s of Oxford, hand-made and rubber-soled.’ (p.314) Nothing but the best for this narrator.

Emma

Hundreds of pages are devoted to the special qualities of his lover, Emma Manzini, who comes over as anything but special, rather as a self-obsessed, self-righteous nincompoop, but who prompts in the narrator an endless stream of gushing schoolboy, sub-Keatsian rhapsody and narcissistic self-dramatisation. ‘Emma didn’t talk to me at breakfast – it is the end of the world. Emma made me a cup of tea – the heavens reveal their splendour.’ If over-ripe cheese could write, it would be like this:

It is my Dark Age. It is the rest of my life before Emma. (p.65)

My Emma. My false dawn. (p.165)

Is she wise? Is she plain dumb? Emma defies theses categories. Her beauty, like Larry’s, is its own morality. (p.173)

Emma as artist. Emma as mistress of the Freudian doodle. Emma as echo of Larry’s eternal outcry against a world he can neither join nor destroy. (p.238)

These colours, why had I never painted them? Emma, you were all these hopes. (p.307)

Whenever he starts singing Emma’s praises I am reminded of my parents’ Charles Aznavour and Sacha Distel records:

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeee may be the face I can’t forget
A trace of pleasure or regret [and so on…]

It goes without saying that Emma is gorgeous and, handily, half Tim’s age (every middle-aged man’s fantasy) and he is not shy of describing the sexual advantages of having such a young squeeze. She is not only beautiful, we are told, but very ‘flexible’. You lucky dog, Timbo! But do not jump to gross assumptions, impatient reader: Timbo is not any old middle-aged shagger, he is a shagger with soul, soul enough for endless maudlin soliloquies about his lady love, in good times and bad. Even when they are arguing, when a shadow falls between their spirits, why – even then she makes sweet midnight forays to his boudoir!

Sometimes in the depth of night she creeps into my room like a thief and makes love to me without saying a word. Then creeps away, leaving her tears on my pillow before the daylight finds her out. (p.68)

There are hundreds of passages of pompous lyricism like this, the book overflows with them, repeating over and over how in thrall he is to the wonderful, quixotic, paradoxical Emma. Timbo

lavished jewels and freedom on her, made her my clothes-horse and my love object, my woman to end all women, icon, goddess, daughter and, as Larry would say, slave. (p.164)

What a berk. None of this erases the scene where he describes their first meeting – in the waiting room of a physiotherapist because they both have back pain – where Tim begins to fancy her before making it his mission to stalk her (‘Meanwhile I stalk her…’ p.172). I think – I hope – that Timbo is meant to be a deeply unreliable narrator, that we are meant to find him a creepy, pervy, pompous, self-satisfied, lecherous middle-aged man, who creates a weird love nest for the troubled young woman, who – he persuades himself – ‘loves’ him in return (at his big house in Devon, she is given her own wing with a door separating his and her corridors). But if he is deluded about this, what else may he be getting wrong?

Sexual boasting

Interspersed among the scores of passages of overblown lyricism are moments of quietly smug sexual bragging which are cringe-inducing and embarrassing.

I saw her naked on her stomach with her chin in her hands, turning to look at me over her shoulder as she hears me enter. (p.221)

I remembered the kiss she had given me at the Connaught that had woken me from my hundred-year sleep, and how her instinctive ingenuity as a lover had taken me to regions I had not known existed. (p.338)

But it is not just Emma Tim brags about; he takes various opportunities to remind that he is a bit of a Casanova, counting a number of his poshest neighbours among his ‘conquests’.

Celia was one of my local conquests from the days before Emma… She lived in penury on a large estate near Sparkford and rode to hounds… (p.112)

She is neither of the age nor category from which my usual conquests are selected: the compliant female colleague or senior secretary; the sporting adulteress of the English country round. (p.171)

‘His usual conquests.’ When he goes to meet Simon Dugdale it is laugh-out-loud preposterous that Timbo turns out to have bedded his posh, glamorous wife Claire. Of course he has. And she still fancies him like mad!

Not content with alerting us to his own sexual conquests, Tim also bathes in the reflected glory of his one-time protégé, the legendary Larry, who is also described as a great swiver of women.

Oxford fell in love with him. He was very good-looking. The girls rolled over for him in droves. (p.98)

He was ticking over at about three a week. Women and bottles. (p.134)

When did Larry ever have two of anything except women? (p.223)

Women came to him naturally, he just had to reach out for them and they hopped into his hand. (p.340)

Of course they do. Fat, repellently posh drunk Jamie Pringle, owner of a merchant bank, tells Timbo after a ‘good lunch’ (ie a room full of posh chaps getting pissed), about a girl he used to screw in Manchester. ‘Cindy. Worked in the silk trade. Silky Cindy.’ (p.157). Fnah fnah. A little later, and even more pissed, Jamie recalls legendary Larry turning up to suggest an improper financial deal, accompanied by an absolute stunner, black hair piled up on her head,

‘… waiting for you to let it down. Absolute fatal weakness of mine. Love a black bush.’ (p.159)

Who doesn’t love a black bush, eh? Obviously Pringle’s quote is not the narrator’s, his lechery is part of his character as a repellent fat banker. But it is cut from the same cloth as many of Timbo’s comments about Emma positioning herself for his rear entry on their ‘love nights’, about her wonderful ‘flexibility’, and the other moments when he can barely conceal his glee at bedding a woman half his age. Sweaty lecherous men.

Self dramatisation

Just as he devotes hundred of passages to establish Larry’s legendary qualities, and painting the full Victorian sentimentality of his relationship with Emma, the narrator is not backwards in dramatising his own role: in countless places he takes a leaf from Julius Caesar’s book and talks about himself in what we can maybe call the ‘public school third person’:

We were alone, Merriman and Cranmer, blood brothers as always. (p.107)

It is years since Cranmer has stepped outside the limits of his self-confinement, played the brave game, waited impatiently for evening, lain awake till dawn. (p.171)

Cranmer is free! Cranmer has paid his dues! (p.173)

I, Cranmer, evader, closet romantic, veteran of a raft of futile love affairs, had fallen cloak-over-dagger for the oldest trick in the book! (p.164)

We are arguing, Cranmer versus the rest of England… This time it is Cranmer’s temper that snapped, not Larry’s. (p.258)

But Cranmer had filed. Cranmer had filed and forgotten. Cranmer in his criminally negligent myopia had consigned the cause of the Ingush people to the dustbin of history. (p.267)

I was part of them, propelled by my past as they were, ignorant of my future. I was a fugitive, homeless and stateless, a small nation of one. (p.346)

Timbo is, as the old phrase has it, a legend in his own lunchtime. A man convinced of his own vast self-importance, a man who takes 420 pages to tell us this fairly simple story, because it is so larded and padded out with prolonged sequences about jolly old Larry and ever-flexible Emma and, at its centre, Cranmer the hero, Cranmer the fool, Cranmer the innocent, Cranmer the cynic, Cranmer the whatever adjectival phrase you have to hand.

But that is all I say, because that is how Cranmer’s part is written for him. (p.255)

Humourlessness

The narcissistically self-obsessed have no sense of humour because they have a very poor sense of other people.

‘Expect you’re looking forward to your Senior Citizen’s any day now.’
‘Thank you, Tom, I have a few years to wait and I’m glad to do it.’
Laughter in which I share… (p.147)

‘He’d had an accident. Fallen downstairs, he said…
‘There’s no accidents round here, darling. Everything’s deliberate.’ She giggled at her own wit. (p.217)

‘I inherited a bit of a problem, quite honestly. My Uncle Bob, who founded the business for love, put a lot of trust in his Maker and rather less in science.’
Clare gave a hoot of laughter. (p.280)

Old school tie

It is a truism that public schoolboys never seem to outgrow their schooldays, the clothes it taught them to wear, the jolly japes and smug banter it taught them to consider funny, the network of other public schoolboys which comprises the only world that matters. Everything, ultimately, ends up being compared back to those jolly halcyon (or beastly) days.

‘When Larry was with CC he was on holiday. When he was with me, he was at school.’ (p.86)

‘The school [Winchester] was still in the Dark Ages. Fagging, flogging, bullying galore, the whole Arnoldian package.’ (p.97)

Crossing the footbridge at Castle Cary station, I was confused by the clatter of young shoes in the Victorian ironwork and fancied I smelt steam and burning coals. I was a boy again, lugging my school suitcase down the stone steps for another solitary holiday with Uncle Bob. (p.112)

Crammed against the stone wall stood the old school trunk I used as a filing box for my CC archive. (p.260)

‘And they hated the Ossetians,’ Larry says keenly, like a schoolboy wanting to be top. (p.263)

I remembered that this was how we had always eaten, when we ate our frightful meals together: potatoes boiled to a sludge and school cabbage floating in a green lake. (p.279)

From nowhere an old man appeared at my car window, and his gnarled face reminded me of the groundsman at my first boarding school. (p.307)

I had been slapped at school too often. (p.360)

[Timbo asks legendary Larry what it was like being imprisoned and interrogated in Havana?] ‘After Winchester? A piece of cake. I’ll settle for a Cuban prison over House Library any day.’ (p.365)

In fact, the title of the book is taken from the phrase masters and pupils use to refer to the special (obviously) brand of football they play at Winchester public school – ‘our game’, taken from a one-page paean to the old place. Which obviously has the not-so-subtle double meaning that extends it to refer to espionage as ‘our game’ – the British Intelligence’s ‘game’ of deceiving and cheating – and then also on to the ‘game’ which Larry, Timbo and flexible Emma are ‘playing’ throughout the book.

Religious rhetoric

Another way the sensibility and language of the novel are permanently inflated is via the liberal use of religious quotes and references. This throwaway hijacking of religious rhetoric denotes not an ounce of genuine religious feeling; it is just one more way of bigging up, exaggerating, and dramatising his ego:

I was standing arms outstretched in crucifixion… (p.250)

[Tim describes agreeing to work as an agent as] ‘taking the veil‘. (p.101)

I choose the Grill Room at the Connaught, my shrine for great occasions. (p.175)

Now it was Cranmer, her saviour, who scrambled after her, calling stop! and wait! and come back! (p.239)

I smelt roast beef and wood smoke. I was blessed. (p.300) [This phrase is describing coming across a country pub which does decent food. Not relieved or happy. Blessed.]

I was being conveyed, never mind whether the Forest, or the whole valley of the shadow, was watching me pass by. (p.301)

The hill’s gorse summit rose behind her like the green hill in a hymn.

The tracks mounted a concrete path and thereafter held their peace. (p.312)

Dee’s a saint, she is saying from the window of my bedroom. (p.328)

She was wearing a crushed linen smock and it had the appearance of a habit: of a deliberate renunciation of the flesh. (p.336)

Only by going after Larry could I fill the pit that for so long had done duty for my soul. (p.343)

There is no God, soul or system of salvation, there is no religious belief in the book, these are just more quotes and tags and references picked up at school and university which lend the ambling plot and the hyperbolic thoughts of the pompous protagonist a spurious profundity.

Insight free

As Professor John Sutherland pointed out in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré frequently tells us his characters are full of wit and wisdom and insight… and then we actually hear them speak and they sound like public school buffoons. They are revealed as bores. The acuteness of le Carré’s descriptions – which are often marvellous – absolutely doesn’t carry over into his dialogue, which is weak to put it mildly.

For example, legendary Larry is supposed to be a lecturer at quite a good university (Bath). In one scene, he arrives at Tim’s place in a bad mood after a seminar with some other academics:

A coven of middle-aged Russian analysts – the term Moscow-watcher is already out of date – has left him at odds with the approaching daylight. He is talking about the world: our part of it.

So you might expect this politics lecturer to deliver some sensible insight into global politics circa 1994, about the shifting power relations between the United States and Russia and the dire consequences of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. For example, how Bill Clinton’s wish to intervene in Kosovo was stone-walled by an EU dominated by a pacifist Germany. But what this politics lecturer – who’s had the additional advantage of having played a minor role in Cold War espionage – actually says is:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Is that it? God. What an imbecile.

On another occasion Tim remembers a conversation when Larry made tentative enquiries about contacts in banking; looking back, Tim realises this may have been the start of the embezzlement project he carried out with Checheyev. You might reasonably have expected the conversation between these two professional intelligence officers to convey some detail about the SIS’s banking operations, maybe not the pages of detailed organisation structure and process you’d get from Frederick Forsyth, but the kind of grown-up and interesting insight you might get from, say, Len Deighton or Robert Harris. But this is what follows:

‘Well, there’s always the great and good Jamie Pringle,’ I suggest cautiously… Pringle was our contemporary at Oxford, a rugger-playing scion of Larry’s Unbearable Classes.
‘Jamie’s an oaf,’ Larry declares, swilling his English Breakfast Tea…
‘Pringle’s an arsehole… Was. Is now. And ever shall be. Amen.’ (p.141)

This makes Larry look and sound like an idiot, with the intelligence of a surly 14-year-old. It is impossible to take him or the other characters seriously. (By the way, note the way Larry uses a quote from the Bible to give a patina of respectability to what is in fact the crudest language and the dumbest attitude – dressing up idiocy in fancy quotes and Latin tags.)

Many exchanges and much of the dialogue in these later le Carré novels are quite meaningless. They contain no factual information at all, even about the characters themselves, but reek with this smug ‘one of us’ attitude, a permanent tone of airily superior facetiousness which gets very, very wearing.

Ideas-free

Above all, this over-the-top and facetious style is a poor substitute for thought. The three Robert Harris thrillers I’ve just read may be melodramatic, but they are instinct with political intelligence at all levels of detail, and are genuinely thought-provoking. When characters talk, they offer genuine insights into their own and other characters’ motivation, showing that Harris has thoroughly thought through his characters. The dialogue crisply reveals intentions and schemes which the intelligent reader can interpret and map out, like a chess diagram, and map the changing plans and schemes, as the plot unfolds.

By contrast, the dialogue in le Carré most often consists of character assassination dressed up in buffoonish schoolboy abuse. Thus we are given a thumbnail profile of Eduard Shevardnadze, a key historical figure who was Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, until the collapse of the USSR when he became president of an independent Georgia. A fascinating man who played a pivotal role in the international diplomacy and Russian power politics of the period.

Question from Thatcherchild Talbot, who has decided to grow a beard: Please Larry, why did the West fall for Schevardnadze?
Answer, dear Talbot, because Shevers has a sad, bungey face and looks like everybody’s Daddy, when actually he’s a KGB dinosaur with a background of deals with the CIA and a disgraceful record of repressing dissidents. (p.250)

Thump. How lowering. How dumb. How stupid. And this is legendary Larry writing, the man the novel tries to persuade us is the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a first class mind and unstoppable babe magnet. But he sounds like a moron.

Hundreds of pages go by, crammed with upper class attitude, Latin tags, Bible quotes and embarrassingly unfunny jokes, all blissfully untroubled by anything you could call an idea or a thought. What ideas there are in the books are trite: the end of the Cold War didn’t mean the end of power politics; the world is still a violent and nasty place; the Russians have behave appallingly to the Ingush, and are continuing to repress ethnic minorities both within and without their borders.

420 pages of public school bombast is a lot to read for such a thin return.

Anne Frank

Do you know the apocryphal story about the terrible off-Broadway production of a play about Anne Frank? Having sat through two hours of awful script and dreadful acting, when the Gestapo finally knock on the front door, a member of the audience shouted out, ‘She’s in the attic!’

I felt the same way about this novel. By page 100 I was heartily sick of Timbo and Larry and Emma and their self-dramatising self-importance. In the final hundred pages, as Timbo leaves England and sets off on his ‘quest’, I think we are meant to feel along with the narrator a tense and urgent need to find Larry before harm comes to him, to rescue him from his own quixotic imaginings, to redeem this Byron of the Caucasus, to … and so on.

But I had my fingers crossed that both Larry and Emma would be found shot dead and, ideally, that the narrator himself would meet his come-uppance for his unbelievable pomposity and self-importance, and in the end I was so repelled by the characters I couldn’t finish the book.

Unreliable narrator – or pompous twit?

Ceaselessly bombarded with the drunken banter of Tim’s impossibly posh pals, with his own immature public school bombast, with his self-congratulatory sexual bragging, and with the posturing stupidity of the two other characters of this appalling ‘game’, it is difficult to know how much of this is meant to be serious and how much satirical.

Is the character of Timbo meant to be a devastating satire on his type of self-important snob? Is Timbo meant to be a contender for Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year? Is the whole thing meant to be a satirical portrait of the kind of self-satisfied, rich, posh shagger that used to run British Intelligence? Is it an extended joke?

Or does le Carré mean it literally? Are we genuinely meant to sympathise with the absurd Timbo, with his lecherous infatuation with a woman half his age, are we meant to take the idiot Larry seriously as some kind of intellectual, are we meant to regard this small circle of ‘people like us’ as epitomising the best of ‘England’?


Credit

Our Game by John le Carré was published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1996 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Retired SIS agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia. And has seduced his girlfriend. Tim sets off on a quest to uncover the true story and try to rescue his ‘friend’.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Enigma by Robert Harris (1995)

His hand paused on the ignition key. ‘Do you think, Miss Wallace,’ he said, hesitantly, ‘in view of the circumstances, we might now risk first-name terms.’
She gave him a faint smile. ‘Hester.’
‘Tom.’
They shook hands. (p.249)

The man wih the nervous breakdown

This is a thriller about a mentally disturbed man, Tom Jericho. Young, frail, over-sensitive, unusually gifted at maths, he was recruited in 1939 to work for the new top secret government code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, a suburb of what is now Milton Keynes but was then a small town surrounded by countryside.

Bletchley Park and Enigma

Here Tom is one of the pioneers, one of the handful of mathematicians, logicians and linguists tasked with breaking the so-called Enigma code, generated by the estimated 100,000 Enigma coding machines distributed across Germany’s military operations – in the Army, the Luftwaffe, sending weather reports, intelligence, operational orders, updates back and forth to Berlin and – crucially for our hero – used to control the U-boat operations which are causing such havoc among the merchant shipping steaming daily from the US to Britain with vital supplies.

For four long years Tom works alongside the famous theorist of computers, Alan Turing, and other geniuses, as they develop the techniques and the number-crunching machines – the so-called bombes – which help them crack the Enigma codes – for there are anything up to ten different flavours or variations of the code, the one Tom has been concerned with being nick-named Shark (because it is used by the U-boats).

Over that period Bletchley has hugely expanded, with barrack-like huts springing up across the grounds of the mansion, along with a huge mess hall which can seat 600 to shovel down the disgusting war-time meals. Hundreds and then thousands more staff have arrived, to decode not only Enigma but all other German transmissions, to decode and translate and pass on to the relevant British and Allied authorities, to record and store this information in a vast archive and into innumerable work books and reference books. It’s become almost a small town devoted to the vast, compendious task of cracking and recording all German military messages.

Claire Romilly

Working ceaseless shifts, taking little care of his body or mind, Jericho is already in a delicate state when he finds himself squashed up next to an attractive worldly young woman on the train back from London – a Miss Claire Romilly. To his surprise she invites him for a date (to an amateur concert) and then, a week later, on another date to the grotty Bletchley cinema, and then back to her poky cottage out in the country, where she proceeds to seduce the embarrassed young man.

Tom is a geeky nerd to begin with, and his health was already hanging in the balance – this affair is enough to overwhelm him, physically and mentally. He becomes besotted with Claire, buying her presents, obsessing about her all the time, and they have more dates, and more sex, for a few more weeks. But then one night, as she is jokily leafing through his wallet and pockets and coat, Tom finds himself getting cross and asks, then shouts at her, to stop. Unexpectedly, Claire recoils and curls up on the bed shaking with fear. What? Was she brutalised as a child? Is this a reversion to some kind of trauma?

Tom tries to comfort her, but in the night hears her get dressed, tiptoe downstairs and leave. And from that moment onwards she blanks him: in the grounds of the park, in the mess hall, in the town. Pathetically, Tom spends all his savings on a ring and tries to present it to her on the busy roadway of the park during a congested shift change while the crowds bump around them. She laughs in his face and tells him to keep it.

He has a complete nervous collapse, is diagnosed unable to work by the Park doctors, and shipped back to Cambridge, where rooms are found in his old college (Kings) for this genius who has worked himself to exhaustion for his country.

Return to Bletchley

And this is where the novel opens, in the quiet of a Cambridge college a few weeks later, with Tom trying to rebuild his mind – his consciousness a barren landscape across which shreds and memories of his work, as well as moments of bliss and moments of despair from the affair, roam like ghosts. For the first fifty pages or so we are partly in his present, in the cold Cambridge rooms, and partly transported to his memories of work, of Bletchley’s rapid expansion, and painful memories of his intimacies with the beautiful blonde Claire.

When out of the blue there is a knock on the door and one of his Bletchley colleagues enters – tall, posh Guy Logue. They want him back. They need him. Is he ready to come? And so the novel really gets going with Tom wrapped in an overcoat, being driven through the winter night from Cambridge back to Bletchley. Here he must painfully say hello again to colleagues who thought he’d gone for good, who know about his humiliating collapse. And all the time he is haunted by her, by Claire. Will he see her again? What will she say? Will her attitude have changed?

The military situation

What he learns is that Shark is proving as intractable as ever. For several good months, the team had been able to crack Shark due to the good luck of having intercepted some open messages which allowed them to work out the encryption code. But only a week or so before his breakdown a new variation of the code had been issued to all its users in a new booklet distributed by U-boat command, since which point Shark has become completely unreadable to our chaps. Hundreds of messages are brought in every day, consisting of clusters of random letters, and the analystst know they contain vital information about the whereabouts and plans of the U-boat wolf packs. But despite the best efforts of the assembled mathematicians and despite the 30 or so big ‘bombes’ or code-calculating devices which have been developed over the previous few years, Shark has reverted to being a frustrating black hole.

Tom is taken along to a high-level meeting chaired by the head of Bletchley, attended by some men from his hut and some new faces, a British Rear-Admiral and several high ranking Americans. They explain that three huge convoys have set sail from New York for England, each carrying over 5,000 troops and civilians as well as some million tonnes of food, raw materials and munitions. It is absolutely vital that Bletchley crack their way back into Shark, as soon as possible. Pointing to the map, the chief indicates they have precisely four days until the convoys enter the zone normally patrolled by the U-boats, four days to crack the code and locate the enemy. Four days. (In all his books Harris likes to emphasise important points with italics.)

Claire’s cottage

Meanwhile, after days of fruitless searching for Claire, Tom finally steels himself to cycle one evening out to the country cottage she shares with another girl, Hester Wallace, who also works at Bletchley, in another hut from the cryptanalysts. Neither of the women are home and so Tom, remembering where the key is kept, lets himself in. He wanders the empty rooms, scenes of his recent shattering passion. He goes up to her room, lies on the bed, reliving it all; then in a fit of rage, sweeps everything off the dressing table and tips out the chest of drawers. It is only then he realises the squeaky floorboard he remembers is no longer squeaky. Rolling back the carpet he sees it has been replaced with a short length of new planking secured by new screws. He undoes them and reaches into the dusty space and…. pulls out some top secret intercept messages. It is absolutely forbidden to remove all materials from the base.

What the hell are they doing in Claire’s room? Is… is Claire a spy?

As he sits pondering and confused, he hears a bicycle coming up the gravelly track, he calls her name and runs down the stairs but whoever it is has turned and is heading off into the night by the time he reaches the front door. One of Claire’s lovers? Or a co-conspirator?

Chasing the intercepts

When Claire fails to appear over the next few days, her absence is reported to the police and a creepy posh policeman named Wigram appears, who is managing the investigation into her disappearance – a drawling, swearing, über-confident public school type.

Hester and Tom have by now become co-investigators both of Claire’s disappearance and Tom has confided in her about the stolen forms. Tom reveals that not only the originals of the messages Claire stole have been removed from the relevant filing cabinet, but in fact the entire record of transmissions from that radio source are missing. Why? Mystery. In fact Tom later quizzes his boss and discovers that not only has this file and its contents been removed but further intercepts of that particular radio station are to be handed over without being decoded. No further decoding from that station. Orders from the highest levels. More mystery…

Undeterred, Hester and Tom realise the only way to get the full context and all the messages from the banned source (and thus shed light on Claire’s disappearance) would be to go and visit the radio intercept base which first recorded them, transcribed them and sent them to Bletchley. (Bletchley doesn’t actually intercept the radio signals: that is done by a web of other locations around the Midlands and beyond, the coded messages being transcribed, and then couriered to Bletchley for decoding. When possible.)

So our intrepid duo borrow a car, evade Wigram and his cops, who are now monitoring all the entrances to the Park, and go on a long night-time drive to Beaumanor to steal the original uncoded intercepts which Claire’s stolen ciphers are based on. There is a long sequence where they have to put up with being shown around the place by the blustery old colonel who runs it, before Hester distracts him and Tom sneaks into the archive/storage room, finds the files for the month and week of the mystery messages, and steals the original records of them – files which contain eleven sequences of words written in code.

They make their escape from the over-hospitable colonel and drive back towards Bletchley, the tension ratcheted up when a car which had been following them, turns on a flashing blue light and siren. Against type, Tom guns the engine and pulls out onto a main road at top speed, only just avoiding being crushed to death by a massive tank transporter. He drops Hester in the lane by her cottage, then drives carefully into Bletchley – sees police waiting outside his boarding house – drives on and stashes the car near the Park.

But for all these precautions, when Hester returns to the cottage she is picked up by Wigram’s police. They drive her to a deserted building near an old workings and lake where she is shown clothes belonging to Claire covered in blood, Hester is sick. The police tell her Claire was obviously bludgeoned with a brick, stripped and thrown into the lake. They are sending for divers.

Tom cracks the code

Meanwhile, Tom arrives back at his hut in Bletchley in time for his shift, puts in the hours trying to decrypt the German messages surrounding the U-boat attacks on the ill-fated convoys, but all the time is nervously impatient to get some time alone in the main house at Bletchley, where they store the actual physical Enigma machines which have been captured or stolen over the years. Here he experiments with various settings trying to crack the intercepts he stole from Beaumanor, and the reader is peering over his shoulder and into his mind, following his complex thought processes – until he has a breakthrough!

Suddenly he can read the eleven messages which have so mysteriously gone missing from the Bletchley file and they appal him. They are messages sent back to its Wehrmacht HQ by a German unit in Poland which has stumbled across a mass grave of Polish officers. Slowly the size of the death pits emerge – there are maybe as many as 10,000 bodies murdered and buried there. This is the so-called Katyn massacre, where the entire officer class of the Polish Army was murdered by Russian forces on Stalin’s orders. Why? To destroy the nation, to permanently deprive it of its leadership class, to reduce it to eternal servitude.

Having deciphered all eleven messages Tom begins to piece together what must have happened here at Bletchley. There is a Polish cryptanalyst in his hut, Jozef Pukowski, nick-named Puck. Claire had begun an affair with Puck. Puck, suspecting something is amiss in his native land, is alerted when a whole batch of messages from a source in Poland is suddenly confiscated and banned, and so asks Claire to get the intercepts via a different route, which her work gives her access to. Between them they read the messages about the Katyn massacres. And Puck’s father’s name is among the dead.

Once they’d read them, Puck would have realised why these particular messages were so sensitive that all the material had been confiscated and further monitoring of this station banned, the order coming from ‘the highest levels’. Why? Because murderous Uncle Joe Stalin is now – since Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 – ‘our gallant ally’. The last thing Churchill wants is news to leak out about Stalin’s bestial behaviour, news which would demoralise the British public and our armed forces. Hence the complete clampdown on the intercepts.

And, Tom realises, hence Puck’s disgust and despair, at Russian atrocity and British hypocrisy – and his determination to avenge himself on the Russians any way he can. And the simplest way would be to exploit his privileged position at Bletchley and tell the Germans that we, Stalin’s allies, had cracked Enigma. When Claire realised what he was doing, Puck killed her… Or so Tom hypothesises. He likes puzzles, he lives for puzzles. He thinks he’s cracked this one.

Chasing Puck

Now, in a mad rush to confirm whether his fears are true, Tom smuggles himself over the Bletchley perimeter fence (Wigram’s police are closing in) and hurries into Bletchley, to Puck’s digs. His landlady says Puck’s up in his room, but the room is empty and the window is open. In a fever of anxiety, Tom follows his spoor, down to the bottom of the garden, over the wall and along alleyways to the nearby train station. As a train pulls in, Tom sights Puck getting aboard it and just manages to run over the bridge, up to the platform and jump onboard himself.

The novel climaxes with the train being routed into a siding just as Tom burst into Puck’s compartment. The Pole waves a gun around, then leaps off the train and runs off across the fields. Tom, dazed, almost delirious with fatigue, follows him, desperate to find out the truth, but the Pole turns and fires wildly, at which there is a volley of returning fire. Wigram is there along with soldiers. They are closing in on Puck. He turns and shoots and this time is cut down by half a dozen bullets and Tom, too, is hit, falls, loses consciousness.

Epilogue

The creepy police official Wigram comes to visit Tom in hospital and tells him the full story. Claire had an affair with Puck. Puck suspected bad news back home but then the Katyn intercepts confirmed it and decided him to treason. When Tom went to Claire’s empty cottage, it was Puck who cycled up to visit her. Recognising Tom’s voice Puck thinks he might be reuniting with Claire in which case there is a strong risk Claire will tell Tom about Puck and they will both betray him to the authorities. Somehow Puck lures Claire to a meeting at the disused factory, bludgeons her to death and throws her body in the lake.

Years earlier, on his escape route out of occupied Europe, Puck had made various contacts, including with a Portuguese fixer. Now he has reactivated the contact and begun passing messages to him to pass on to the German attaché in Lisbon, claiming the British have cracked Enigma. But the Germans don’t believe it – Europe is swarming with con men and liars – and about something this momentous they need to be certain. They pass the message that they want to interview Puck in person, and so the train he’d been on had been taking him to Liverpool, from where he would catch a boat to Ireland and rendezvous with a U-boat off the Irish coast.

But Wigram had known about him for some time, had let him handle the intercepts, conspire with Claire in order to establish his network. Thus Wigram was aware Puck was going to the train, had had it rerouted, had had his soldiers ready at the siding to take Puck prisoner but he leapt from the train before it stopped and Tom saw the rest. Wigram wanted Puck captured alive but when he started to shoot, his men shot back.

The real story

Tom lies in bed, recovering from his wounds, and decides Wigram is lying. It’s too neat and it doesn’t quite fit the facts.

After weeks of recuperation Wigram takes Tom to Bletchley station and loads him onto a train back to Cambridge. For him the war is over. Except that he gets off at the next stop and catches a train to London. Tom goes to the Registry of births and deaths at Somerset House to confirm his hunch, and then goes to see Claire’s posh father. He has discovered that Claire Romilly died aged six. Her sad, wasted father invites Tom into his big, echoey, empty, dust-sheet-shrouded house and tells him the truth.

Wigram is in British Intelligence. He wanted to plant a spy in Bletchley. Through the public school old boy network he knew of Romilly, his posh background, his dead daughter. He approached Romilly and asked if he could use his daughter’s identity as a cover. Thus, with a false name and identity, the woman known as Claire entered Bletchley and set about taking numerous lovers, in order to spy on them. Puck was the last of them – from Wigram’s point of view, she struck gold, finding a genuine spy – and she went along with Puck’s intercept stealing so that Wigram could find out what Puck was doing with the information.

It’s true that it was Puck who cycled up to Claire’s cottage that fateful night, and recognised Tom’s voice, and feared he might discover the intercepts and betray them – but with the big difference that he and Claire faked Claire’s death, pretending Puck was a murderer a) in order for Claire (who he genuinely loved) to escape b) because he was going to be out of the country in less than 24 hours anyway. Puck went to his death never realising Claire was spying on him.

So the woman who so bedazzled Tom – whatever he real name is – is still alive. Still alive but he will never be able to find her. A sadder and a wiser man Tom makes his way back to Cambridge, knowing that she is alive, knowing he will never see her again.

Conclusions

Confusing? A little. Believable? Just about. Through all the contortions of the plot comes the powerful rabbit punch of the historically true Katyn Massacre. Another huge historical atrocity which boggles the mind.

And also, despite the twists and turns of the thriller narrative, the book evinces a powerful sense of the challenges and complexity and frustrations of living with Enigma, eating, breathing, drinking Enigma, of the highs and lows of the code-breaking community at Bletchley. In his afterword Harris thanks the many Bletchley veterans he spoke to, and the book is so vivid that, as one critic says on the cover, it’s as if you’re there, living that life.

A big part of which is the sights and sounds and smells of drab wartime Britain with its appalling food, the frustrations of the blackout and rationing, the crampedness of wartime life. All of which help to foster the claustrophobic sense of constriction which makes the novel so powerful, so gripping.

Enigma compared with Fatherland

Both are about the Second World War – though admittedly Fatherland is set 20 years later, and in a parallel universe where the Nazis won the war. Still – the war, its outcome and consequences, and horror of its atrocities, dominate both books.

Both are about one man, a maverick and loner who defies the authorities, who sets out to discover a dark secret at the heart of the ‘system’ – Xavier March the conscientious Nazi policeman in Fatherland; Tom Jericho, the gifted mathematician and cryptanalyst in Enigma.

In both books the hero joins forces with an unexpectedly tough female helper – Charlie Maguire, the clever and resourceful journalist in Fatherland; Hester Wallace, the dowdy feminist clerical assistant, angry at being prevented from reaching her full potential by patronising sexist men, in Enigma.

Both books feature a long, dangerous car journey – March’s final, doomed drive hundreds of miles East to Auschwitz in Fatherland; Tom and Hester’s night-time drive to Beaumanor, one of the satellite stations where German signals are intercepted, and then the perilous drive back climaxing in a car chase, in Enigma.

Both novels rotate around acts of bestial, mass atrocity – the Holocaust in Fatherland and the Katyn murder of Poland’s officer class in Enigma. Both books send shivers up your spine at the sheer horror of the Second World War and at the disgusting behaviour of human beings during the terrible twentieth century, the Century of Catastrophes.

And both books impose a tight time-frame on the protagonists to create a sense of nailbiting urgency, in fact the identical time-frame – of four days: four days until the Führertag for Xavier March to get to the bottom of the mystery murders and save his career, possibly his life, in Fatherland; four days for Tom and his colleagues to break back into the Shark code, before the German U-boats start attacking the convoys and killing men and women.

Style

Both stories are told by a third person narrator who leans over and merges at various points with the thoughts, ideas and feelings of their protagonist. However, I think Harris has made a deliberate attempt to deploy different styles in each book. The non-British setting of Fatherland allowed Harris to use a fast-moving hard-boiled prose which, of course, owed a lot to the American thriller tradition.

Enigma, by contrast, opens in the hallowed setting of a Cambridge college quad and mingles with the posh public school chaps at Bletchley Park, in the Admiralty and Army and so on. Therefore its prose is noticeably more English and traditional. I think it must be deliberate that not only the characters but the narrator, revert from the hard-boiled tough guy prose of Fatherland, to a self-consciously correct English prose which insists on a rather out-of-date politeness and grammatical correctness.

The horror of war

It is always in the background, blotted out for long stretches by the breathless pace of the central narrative, but Harris is careful to remind us of the reality of the war, and that the whole point of Enigma is that it gives instructions to German forces dedicated to killing us and, in this specific instance, orders to the U-boat packs which are converging on the merchant convoys in the Atlantic.

On a handful of vivid and upsetting occasions Harris has characters remind us what this actually means:

  • the convoy of vulnerable ships, carrying sailors, troops, as well as Red Cross women, protected by a handful of decrepit warships
  • commanded – in an extra bitter twist – by a captain whose first big command it is
  • tossed and bobbed on the stormy and freezing cold Atlantic waves
  • watching the ship next to them suddenly explode, men and women jumping into the sea to freeze to death or managing to evacuate into lifeboats, which will be ignored and not rescued as the rest of the convoy steams at full speed in a desperate bid to escape their hunters
  • men and women blown up, burned to death, frozen to death or drowned

In one of the several cruel ironies in the book, Harris has Tom patiently explain to his hut full of oddballs and geniuses, that they need as many messages as possible from the attacking U-boats in order to stand a chance of noticing patterns which can then be run through the bombes to see if they work, to crack the code. But getting that sufficient number of messages means they need the U-boats to make contact with the convoy and attack. It is a wicked irony, which several of the characters debate bitterly: in order to get enough intercepts to decode, the cryptanalysts need the U-boats to sight and sink Allied ships. Each ship blown up and sunk triggers another message back to base from the attacking U-boat; the more of our ships sunk, the more human beings blown up, burned to death or drowned – the better for the analysts in Hut 3 at Bletchley. Some of them are made physically sick by the horror of the situation they find themselves in.


Credit

Enigma by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Arrow Books paperback edition.

The movie

Enigma was made into a movie released in 2001. It was directed by Michael Apted from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and with a soundtrack by John Barry. This is a promising team but somehow the movie never really gels, partly because it looks like it was made on a shoestring, the picture having a cheap video feel and the action scenes very stagey and underwhelming.

It stars six-foot-tall, dour Scotsman, Dougray Scott, pretending to be the short, nerdy intellectual Tom Jericho, and bosomy Kate Winslet pretending to be the thin, dowdy Hester Wallace, neither all that convincing.

Among other striking changes to the plot of the novel, the main one is that Tom and Hester fall in love during their goosechase, and the movie ends with them after the war, happily married with a baby on the way. This is a grotesque sell-out of the much more believable, edgy and arm’s length relationship they have in the novel, but I guess it’s the law that an action movie must have a heterosexual love affair at its core.

Similarly, an action movie must have a fight scene and things going bang, no matter how pointless and badly done. Thus the novel ends with Puck shot running across a field, leaving the recuperating Tom to listen to Wigram’s account of events and then slowly piece together his own alternative, much cleverer, solution. This is intelligent. It taxes the mind to follow Tom’s thought processes and juxtaposing the two interpretations of the same set of events is intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.

In the ludicrous climax to the movie, on the other hand, Puck escapes across the field, vanishing from the police’s clutches. Back at the hut the next morning, when Tom hears that a lone U-boat has been reported heading towards the coast of Scotland, he remembers seeing a postcard of an isolated loch in Scotland in Claire’s bedroom. Bingo! It must be where they’re planning their escape from. Tom runs out to his car and drives from Bletchley to the Scottish Highlands, arriving at the very minute when Puck is getting into a little motorboat to putter out to the U-boat. Only running full pelt down the hillside does Tom make it to the end of the pier just as the boat pulls clear and only by dint of a super-human leap does he land in the back of the boat where he rolls straight into a very stagey fight with Puck.

Puck has the gun. No, Tom knocks it out of his hands and it goes skidding across the deck of the boat. Now both men throw themselves towards it and try to hold each other back. Tom makes a big reach but his fingers are just inches from the barrel. Then Puck throws Tom off to one side and himself almost makes it to the gun when – wow! – Tom grabs him and pulls it back. One of them finally grabs the gun and they roll around in the back of the boat both hands trying to point it towards the other. Goodness, the tension and excitement! I’ve only seen this exact scene about a thousand times before. Do you think the bad guy will win? Do you, children? Because this has become a film for seven year-olds, about as challenging as the Famous Five. Tom finally gets full hold of the gun and stands as if to threaten Puck who, in that split second, takes a swing at him with a boathook which knocks Tom into the sea.

Which is lucky really, because as a cheap model U-boat surfaces near the boat, Wigram (who has been lazily watching the whole thing through binoculars from a nearby hillside) calls in a British plane which dives low and blows up the U-boat and Puck. BOOM! Another boom even bigger than the first boom! Wow. They must have been on a really tight budget to be forced to use such cheap and cheesy special effects. So no more Jerry and no more nasty traitor. Cut to Dougray Scott flailing around in the water, looking appalled at being trapped in such a third-rate, low-budget thriller. And then cut to him and Kate Winslet spooning over her pregnant bulge in a happy, happy post-War London.

Is it a law that TV and film adaptations of books must make them duller, less imaginative, more clichéd, more sexist, more violent and more insultingly stupid?

Related links

Robert Harris’s novels

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2003 Pompeii (set in the ancient world)
2006 Imperium (set in the ancient world)
2007 The Ghost
2009 Lustrum (set in the ancient world)
2011 The Fear Index
2013 An Officer and a Spy
2015 Dictator (set in the ancient world)

Hope by Len Deighton (1995)

‘There are more important things in life than money, Bernard,’ she said.
‘Prove it,’ I told her. (p.301)

This is a cracking book: by turns complex, puzzling, full of pungent local colour, humorous and touching.

Spying as soap opera / Espionage as sitcom

From the previous seven novels about the 40-something MI6 agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and kids and father-in-law and sister- and brother-in-law, and old friends in Berlin and the gang of eccentrics who (apparently) populate the European Department of MI6, we have become as familiar with the cast of these novels as with the characters in a favourite soap opera or sitcom.

In the first trilogy Samson realised his wife was a Soviet double agent, and the set climaxed with her bolting to East Germany. In shock he takes comfort in a new relationship with glamorous young Gloria, who also works at the Department. In the second trilogy Samson slowly realised that his wife was, after all, a triple agent, only pretending to work for the KGB while all along the plan was for her to ‘defect’, infiltrate the East German set-up at a high-level, report back solid gold intelligence and foment insurrection among East Germany’s churches and civil society.

This second trilogy climaxed with Fiona’s escape from the East once her mission was up – but the escape was badly bungled. In a rainswept layby on an Autobahn between East and West there is a very messy shootout in which several KGB agents were shot dead as well as Fiona’s own sister, Tessa, there, apparently by chance having clambered into Bernard’s pickup van drunk from a party. Samson does some of the shooting and they both witness Tessa being mown down before he sweeps Fiona into the pickup van, drives into the West, loads her into a waiting plane and they both fly out to California to recuperate and be debriefed at the luxury home of American MI6 agent, Bret Rensselaer.

The second trilogy added the twist that the third novel in the series was the first not to be told in the warm first-person persona of Samson, but narrated by a detached third-person narrator. This objective version of events takes us all the way back to 1977 to show the genesis and slow incubation of the Fiona Plan, codenamed Operation Sinker (hence the titles of the second trilogy, Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker) seeing things mainly from Fiona’s point of view and showing how the plan was conceived by Bret and signed off by the doddery old Director-General and the wily éminence grise of the Department, old Silas Gaunt.

The impact of this sixth book, Spy Sinker, is devastating to the reader of the series, upsetting loads of our preconceptions. It shows Samson as a rather pitiful patsy, wholly unaware of the conspiracies going on around him, unaware that his wife is a double agent, let alone a triple agent, something almost everyone else knows about, even his best friend, Werner Volkmann. Most upsetting is the way the death of Fiona’s sister, Tessa, at the ill-fated shootout, is revealed to have been not a ghastly accident, but part of a horrible plan to try and convince the KGB that Tessa’s badly-burned body is really Fiona’s, so the Stasi/KGB will think that Fiona didn’t succeed in defecting and will carry on using the old codes and security protocols for a bit longer. The story is given out that Fiona was killed and that Bernard has run off with her sister Tessa.

This seemed, when I read it, grotesquely improbable and needlessly violent. It also seemed fundamentally stupid because sooner or later Fiona would resurface, the other side would know they’d been fooled – and Bernard would, presumably, eventually return to London, and everyone who’s been told the cover story of his elopement with Tessa would realise they’d been lied to and want to know by who and why. It seemed cack-handed, solved nothing and created untold problems for the callous nitwits who conceived it.

Deighton’s Secret Intelligence Service

In fact Deighton’s entire depiction of the SIS is very odd. It reads more like the staff room at Hogwarts or the Addams Family. At the top is the Director-General of the SIS, Sir Henry Clevemore, who is portrayed as a senile headmaster, cloistered in an incredibly cluttered, dingy office, littered with ancient books and forgotten paperwork, refusing to use a computer or allow his staff to, and accompanied by a filthy ancient Labrador who slobbers and growls under his desk (and which at one point bites Dicky, drawing blood).

The power behind the throne is Silas Gaunt, a canny old posh man who lives in a decaying mansion in the Cotswolds where the other characters regularly go for bracing country weekends, gossip and off-the-record briefings. He comes on as an uncle figure for Samson but in Spy Sinker we learn that he lied his head off to Samson for years about the Fiona Plan of which he was a prime mover.

Dicky Cruyer is the preposterously dim, flashy desk jockey who has manoeuvred his way to becoming Head of Operations, then Controller of Europe. Samson does nothing but take the mickey out of him, laughing at his ludicrous outfits (faded jeans and cowboy boots!), his taste in music (Elvis Presley played on a tinny cassette player) and his steady stream of tawdry affairs with younger women which are driving his sweet if pretentious wife, Daphne, to drink.

Off to one side is the ageing American, Bret Rensselaer, who was head of an Economics Unit in the early books but found his empire being sidelined, before being suspected of himself being a double agent, and then badly wounded in a shootout in Berlin. He disappeared off to the States, at first thought dead, then we are told he is recuperating. First of all, what the devil is a Yank doing in the SIS? Don’t they have their own intelligence services? Can’t we staff our own secret service? Number two, what is going on when, at the end of Faith, it is revealed that Bret – old, white-haired, wounded and you’d have thought, well past it – turns up and we learn he is moving back into the London office as temporary Deputy Director-General. This is funny insofar as it scuppers Dicky’s scheming for promotion. But surely the antics of all of these grotesques is some kind of comedy or satire?

For is the SIS really like this? Was it really like this in 1987, at the end of the Cold War? I can’t believe it. I’ve worked in UK government IT for some years, and the whole point about a bureaucracy is that it has hundreds, if not thousands of people, all drafting memos, reports and proposals and then having hundreds of meetings to discuss them. a) Deighton’s portrayal of the Department makes it sound as if there are only four or five notable people in it, and b) they spend all their time discussing each other and Samson’s private life and c) it makes these senior personnel sound like characters from a freak show. It chimes with neither le Carré’s sober depiction of cunningly scheming public schoolmen nor Frederick Forsyth’s depiction of super-slick modern professionals.

Thus the scenes featuring any of these characters, even when they’re discussing grown-up spy stuff, feel essentially comic in conception, with a cartoonish unreality. This, along with Samson’s steady stream of sarcastic but essentially affectionate commentary on them and his family and job, explain the friendly, sitcom feel of the books. They’re so quick and enjoyable to read that the occasional interruptions of some kind of violence – stabbings or shootouts – come as unexpected shocks, as if someone got shot dead in an episode of Friends.

Faith

In the first of this third and final trilogy, Bernard and Fiona return to London and resume their working and domestic lives almost as if nothing had happened. Tessa’s husband, George, has left the country for tax exile in Switzerland, letting them move into his luxury flat in Mayfair. They both go back to work in the MI6 building and are soon gossiping about the ups and downs in the bureaucracy which really boils down to how their boss, Dicky Cruyer, is faring in his schemes to become Deputy Director General. Both of them have to deal with the presence of Gloria, the gorgeous young woman half Samson’s age, who he took up with after Fiona’s ‘defection’ and now is struggling to drop and forget; a struggle made impossible by the fact that she, too, works for the Department, in the same building, even on the same floor.

The novel is ostensibly concerned with arranging the defection of a KGB colonel, code-named VERDI, who’s been instrumental in migrating all the KGB’s data to a new computer system and so would be able to provide a gold mine of information. After several hundred pages of false trails and dead ends, VERDI is successfully transported across the Wall and to freedom in the West. Samson and his long-time German buddy Werner Volkmann are given the job of protecting him and beginning his debriefing when, not unexpectedly, VERDI is assassinated by a sniper.

He is bumped off immediately after he’s told Bernard and Werner a completely different version of the Fiona shootout than the one we read in Spy Sinker, namely that Tessa was never killed, it was a woman KGB officer that was following Fiona who was shot, Tessa was in fact captured by the East German secret service and is currently being held in prison.

Really? But before anyone can interrogate VERDI further, bang! he’s shot dead by an assassin. Was he a plant? Was his sole function to sow the seed of an alternative narrative of Fiona’s escape and Tessa’s death? Who would benefit from such a thing? Well, Silas and Bret and the higher-ups in the Department who conceived the wicked plan to kill Tessa to facilitate her sister’s escape would be off the hook if this version is believed; and anything bad which subsequently happens to Tessa could be conveniently blamed on the KGB or Stasi.

Having been shown in Spy Sinker how completely ignorant Samson is of every important thing that was going on around him, it’s impossible to read his analysis of events with any confidence. No doubt that’s the aim, to create the dramatic irony that we the readers now know more about things than the narrator: in fact at one point there is an immense moment of dramatic irony, when Samson moans about why he always knows far more about what’s going on than anyone else:

What was wrong with me? I never made sufficient allowance for the slowness of people like Rupert, Dicky and Bret and the rest of them. They never understood what was really happening. (p.279)

As we now sadly know, nothing could be further from the truth, Bernard is completely deluded. And yet for all that we know this, the warmth of Samson’s narrating voice and the humour of the oddball cast of characters tend to outweigh the intended ironic situation. I find the comic scenes and dialogue more immediately engaging than the multiple levels of intrigue which may, or may not, be playing out. Even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I enjoy the voice.

Hope

Once again, according to Deighton the main focus of MI6 in the year 1987, as Gorbachev promoted perestroika and glasnost, as the Baltic republics became restive, as the Poles demonstrated in favour of Solidarity – was investigating the family affairs of Bernard Samson, namely trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle, Who Killed Tessa?

This novel, part two of the final trilogy, circles around the attempts by Tessa’s husband, George Kosinski, to get to the bottom of her death.

Chapters

1 Mayfair, October 1987 Opens dramatically with a man ringing the doorbell of the flat Bernard and Fiona have inherited from her dead sister, Tessa. Bernard answers and the man stumbles inside, badly stabbed and bleeding. Moments later Bernard’s brother-in-law George Kosinski arrives to take charge: the man is one of his more dodgy employees. George apologises, and takes him off to his car. The real purpose of this event is to establish George as the focal point of the novel. –At the office Bernard meets with his reliably flashy and superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer, and finds himself invited to fly with him to visit George at his lakefront house near Zurich. Why? George is reported to have been visited by some known Stasi goons. –Fiona and Bernard wake up on the night of the Great Storm, 15 October, finding themselves estranged and full of unspoken thoughts: maybe the storm is a symbol of their marriage. –In Zurich, at the house, Dicky is cavalier with the housekeeper and authorities but canny Bernard manages to wangle out of the housekeeper and some contacts that George appears to have smuggled himself back to his homeland, Poland. But not before George went to a jewellers with a ring. It is Tessa’s engagement ring. Dicky jumps to the conclusion: so the Stasi men came here with Tessa’s ring? What are they up to, Bernard?

2 Warsaw To find out Bernard and Dicky fly to Warsaw. Berlin dominated the first set of books. Here Deighton does an equally thorough job of describing Warsaw in the early snows of winter, the geography, the history, the sights and sounds and smells. An old contact of Samson’s, Sarah, comes to his hotel room to deliver some goods promised by her husband, Boris. There’s talk she prostitutes herself and that he beats her; she certainly has bad bruises. The package was meant to contain a gun but instead has two heavy tyre levels and some garrotting wire. Warsaw can be a tough town. –This is proved when they go to the notorious Rozyckiego market, looking to find a sniff of George. Instead they are picked up by two thugs pretending to be secret police who escort them not to a station, but to a squalid hovel above a pawn shop and into a room which is obviously an execution room. Here, in the split second as they lock the door, Bernard hits first one then the other with the silly umbrella Dicky’s been taking the mickey out of. He breaks the first one’s arm and just managed to smash the other one’s jaw as he’s raising his pistol. Bernard hits them some more, then kicks them for good measure. Inside the umbrella he had packed the tyre levers. Taking the goons’ guns, they scarper.

3 Masuria, Poland The market trip had paid off. Just before they were set on, one of Bernard’s contacts told him that George had been seen and is known to have set off for his family mansion in the country. Dicky and Samson hire a crappy East European car and drive along terrible roads into the snow-bound desolate countryside. They pass vast Russian barracks and get through two scary roadblocks before arriving at one peopled by a militia. I wondered if there was going to be a firefight, but they eventually agree to escort our boys up a windy track into the middle of nowhere where they reach the Kosinski mansion, situated by a lake. Here they are welcomed by a real Addams Family crew, skinny Uncle Nico who has been writing a book about Poland’s national saint for thirty years, his deaf wife Aunt Mary, the gaunt ancient (male) secretary, Karol, and the master of the house, the flamboyant actor and writer and self-proclaimed legend, Stefan Kosinski, brother of our George.

4 The Kosinski Mansion, Masuria, Poland We really get to marinade in the weird atmosphere of this shabby, rundown mansion in the middle of nowhere in the middle of high snowdrifts, with its silent children and invisible servants. At one point locals come to say they’ve found a body. Stefan takes Dicky and Samson to the place, a grave where just a leg has been found, mutilated, its big toe and other bits chewed off and what is undoubtedly one of George’s smart London shoes nearby. They are turfed out of the mansion while the local priest holds an exorcism. Bernard insists they sneak back in and they see it is another charade, his servants are in fact sounding for hidden secret police microphones, the whole thing put on by Stefan who melodramatises himself and the house in order to maintain kudos with the locals and with his devoted followers among the intelligentsia. Unsurprisingly, Bernard has come to the conclusion he is a prancing fraud. He also thinks the leg has got nothing to do with George. He and Dicky leave before the real snow hits and they get marooned in this madhouse.

5 Kent, England A short detour while Bernard goes to visit retired SIS man Harry Strang at his Kent home. Harry was a veteran of Spanish-speaking countries going back as far as Franco, with the scars to prove it. Just before retirement he was assistant to the Deputy Director-General. Bernard pushes him about the events of the fateful night: who ordered the ambulance; who made all the arrangements; who booked the RAF plane on standby? All that took lots of co-ordination. Harry is taciturn and tries to blow Bernard off with his poor memory, his dim recollection, not sure, can’t remember.

6 Mayfair, London Long conversation in their flat between Fiona and Bernard. He rubbishes the idea that it was George’s leg. He says George was whisked off to Poland by professionals; he’s in league with someone. Conversation moves on to the method Fiona was paid by during her double and triple agent period, by a fund set up by Bret and administered by one Jim Prettyman. And then onto office gossip and promotion possibilities: Bernard is on a five-year fixed-term contract which can be terminated at any time, with no pension or other perks. Fiona says Dicky wants to appoint Bernard as deputy in the Berlin Field Unit, the job he should always have had because of his Berlin childhood and flawless German. Is this a trick to get rid of him from London? Why is Fiona taking Dicky’s side, is it because she also wants him to change focus and out of the way, or does she think it is a genuine opportunity? Bernard, for his part, immediately grasps that, if he owes the job to Dicky, he will become Dicky’s creature and forced to spy on the present Head of the Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, his dad’s old friend. The books are full of long discussions of who’s up, who’s down, what various promotions mean or don’t mean, the office politics entangled with operational plans, with the lies and betrayal going on ‘out there’.

7 Fletcher House (SIS Annexe) London Gloria comes to visit Bernard in his shabby little room in an annexe building off Tottenham Court Road. She is explaining how devastated she is by the end of their relationship when Dicky arrives and gloatingly takes the mickey out of the ‘two love-birds’. The conversation is interrupted by the unexpected delivery of a package for Bernard which, when opened, turns out to be a medical jar containing preserving fluid and a human hand, one finger bearing a signet ring like George Kosinski’s. Dicky insists this is proof George is dead, Bernard is sceptical. While they’re arguing a bearded man who had been prowling the corridor outside the room unexpectedly runs into the room, grabs the jar and nips off down the corridor. While Bernard hesitates, Dicky pulls out a massive revolver and goes haring off after him, letting off pot shots. As Bernard catches up with them he sees Dicky let off a shot which sends the man sprawling and the jar flying to shatter against the wall, but the man must be wearing a bullet-proof jacket for he gets up, bursts through the emergency doors and into a waiting car which speeds off.

8 SIS Offices, Berlin Cut to Bernard in Berlin, in the house of the Head of the SIS Field Unit Frank Harrington, where he has, apparently, accepted the post as Frank’s number two. They review the man running off with the hand incident. Bernard insists they wanted us to see the hand long enough to confirm Dicky’s theory that George is dead, but not long enough to send it to a lab and get it analysed and discover it isn’t George’s hand. Was he Stasi? Yes, same as one of the four guys who visited George in Zurich. Frank tells him the latest news, that one of their networks in the East, DELIUS, has gone silent: it’s the same one Bernard used in the previous novel after he shot at the car following him after discovering VERDI’s dead body, the same pastor who protected him and young Robin in that episode fro the previous novel, Faith. As soon as Frank has departed to fly back to London on a family visit, Bernard requisitions a motorbike and crosses the border on a forged passport, swaps the bike for a car and drives to Allenstein bei Magdeburg. Here he first visits the wretched home of Theo Forster, a sick man who works in the local bicycle factory and who Bernard was at school with back in Berlin (as he was at school with so many of the novels’ characters). Theo explains that the pastor has been causing trouble but they’ll be able to deal with him. Bernard drives off to confront the pastor who initially recalls Fiona’s good work for them, encouraging the churches. But under bullying and provocation from Bernard, goes on to reveal himself to be a Stasi agent. But Bernard pushes him further, into an ambiguous psychological space where he proposes the pastor become a double agent working for us. As Bernard leaves, the pastor gets into his car as if to follow him but the car explodes dramatically. It was booby-trapped. Why? By Theo and the network? That was suicidal of them. Bernard drives like a maniac to the safe house, swaps the car for his motorbike and has crossed the border an hour later. — Next day Frank’s efficient secretary, Lida, begins bringing in radio intercepts of the DELIUS network being ‘rolled up’ ie arrested one by one. — Depressed Bernard goes to an all-night bar near the Witzleben S-Bahn. Here Theo’s devout communist son, Bruno, finds and confronts him. He is allowed out of the East because he is a Marxist zealot and so allowed to work on the overland railway which crosses the border. He rails at Bernard for bullying his father into joining the opposition and his stupid ‘network’ and now he’ll die in a labour camp. He throws at Bernard the parting gift Theo asked his son to give him, a Nazi medal, which Bernard collected as a boy and Theo knows he loves.

9 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Bernard recovers from the Bruno encounter by chatting with ancient Aunt Lisl in her hotel. This is where Bernard’s dad based himself immediately after the war and where he has his earliest memories. (Liesl’s childhood and young adulthood, marriage and mature life are one among many lives described in the one-off epic background to the series, Winter). Bernard goes into the ballroom where Werner is decorating the Christmas tree. Werner steels himself and tells Bernard that he, Werner, was Fiona’s case officer during her period in the East. Not only that: Werner tells Bernard that Fiona had an affair before and during her mission, with a Canadian doctor who was himself a communist spy set to monitor her. Bernard is left reeling from ‘the knife-thrust of my wife’s betrayal’. His whole world is turned upside down. Again.

Throughout the book thus far we have seen him repressing his feelings for Gloria, being standoffish, insisting on being professional, avoiding even a polite peck on the cheek – all in the name of trying to stay faithful to Fiona, to re-orient his feelings towards her and a happy family life, despite the lies she told him and the hell she put him through, and despite the continual bickering or misunderstandings in their conversations. But now – now maybe he should follow his heart and express his feelings for Gloria…

10 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Fiona wakes Bernard with a phone call from London, asking if it’s alright if Daddy takes the kids on a jamboree holiday to the Caribbean? ‘And if I go, too’? Bernard grits his teeth and agrees. Christmas alone in Berlin brooding on the news that his wife betrayed him. In every sense. Wonderful. The next morning he has a very thick head and feels dizzy. When he tries to get up he gets as far as dressing but, on the narrow attic landing, has a dizzy spell and ends up falling down the stairs. He regains consciousness to find Werner has called an Army doctor who now gives him a powerful sedative.

11 West Berlin After a day or so recovering Bernard manages to get up, shower and shave and make his way to the glamorous hotel where he knows Bret Rensselaer has come to stay along with Gloria. (It feels like a tiny, tiny, tiny world of the same half-dozen characters endlessly circulating and bumping into each other). After the usual expressions of how difficult she finds it to be working alongside him and Fiona (and while Bernard resists his longing to reach out and kiss her), Gloria tells him the latest speculation about when the D-G will retire and who will replace him (will it be Dicky or Fiona? probably not Dicky because Bret will try to block it) and so on. More usefully, she goes on to tell him signals section have intercepted lots of traffic between the Stasi and Warsaw about delivery of a package: could it be Tessa’s body? At which point Gloria walks through into the bedroom where the maids have been working and shrieks in horror: there in the bed is a bloodless corpse! Bernard realises it’s young Robin. Before Bernard took to his bed, he remembers now Lida saying something about Robin checking out the Unit’s motorbike and probably following Bernard’s trail to Alleinstein and the assassinated parson-cum-spy. The fool! The Stasi were, as he feared, waiting for him. Bernard has Lida call in an explosives and disposal team from the British Army (it turns out to include the same fix-it doctor who injected him in the previous chapter). Gloria and Bernard fly back to London on the next Army plane, and Bernard is met at the airfield and driven to a midnight meeting at Dicky Cruyer’s house. Here he finds Bret and a new character, Rupert Copper, our man in the Warsaw embassy. Our Warsaw people have spotted George. Turns out the Kosinski family have some kind of guest accommodation not far from the main mansion: George must have been hiding out there. The meeting ponders the possible meanings and discuss the Big Question: Is Tessa alive or not, while Bernard realises he’s the schmuck who’s going to be sent back to Poland to find his damn brother-in-law. Bret, the smart one, asks Bernard why the Stasi and Poland’s secret police, the Bezpieca, are helping George? Are they, replies Bernard. Maybe George has bought influence at every level; he is loaded, after all. And he is obsessed with being reunited with Tessa. Or maybe, says Bret, they are trying to turn him so they can use him against us? — Rupert gives him a lift back to the Mayfair flat and fills Bernard in a bit: Does he realise the story of his wife’s defection, her violent rescue and the Tessa affair, are the talk of the entire organisation? Does he realise he is in over his head? Does he realise that if he dropped dead tomorrow nobody would be very sorry? Bernard asks Rupert why he thinks George has gone to such trouble to whisk himself away from Zurich and then fake his own death? Doesn’t Rupert realise it’s because he’s scared that we – MI6, the SIS, the good guys – are out to kill him? In a concession, Rupert shows Bernard the photos his men took of George in the Warsaw market. Bernard is staggered but manages to hide it; for in the photos he sees, next to the blurry shape of what might or might not be George, the image of Fiona’s dad, his poncy old father-in-law!

12 Warsaw Rupert and Bret are picked up from the windswept freezing Vilnius Station by two tough guys in an old ambulance. Someone has been in contact to say they have information about George Kosinski. During the drive they’re not sure if they’re going to be gassed or shot at any moment, but after 25 nerve-racking moments they arrive at a large maternity hospital and are shown into the office of the podgy, auburn-haired blue-eyed Director, Dr Urban. He says the entire mystery is simple: Tessa is pregnant; she is being moved from Berlin to Warsaw to be reunited with her loving husband. George has taken Polish citizenship and Tessa will too. So their baby will be entirely Polish. Rupert in his naivete becomes quite cross, pointing out that by making the child Polish it will never be able to escape or travel and thus will keep its parents safely trapped here forever. Dr Urban doesn’t deny it, stands to signify the interview is over, and puts on his brown military jacket. Like everyone in a position of power in Poland, he is an Army placeman. — For a second time Rupert gives Bernard a lift, this time back to the seedy friend’s apartment he’s staying in, initially speculating about whether Tessa is alive, what George’s real motives are, and so on, before Bernard persuades him to delay making his report until Bernard can ‘confirm or deny it’; upsetting a good pen-pushing Embassy man like Rupert. Parked outside the flat, Rupert says he was instructed to give Bernard the following: and opens a bag containing rolls of local currency, dollars, pounds, a pistol and a sub-machinegun. Aha. That kind of ‘confirming or denying’. Bernard’s last words are, ‘Alert the Swede’. The Swede?

13 Masuria, Poland The final chapter is quick and violent. Bernard is talking to George. Doesn’t say where so we assume it’s the holiday home near the Mansion, which had been mentioned earlier, the ground around buried in metres of snow. Bernard is relentlessly interrogating George. He says he loved Tessa. He says he’s always been a Polish patriot. He says he’s a devout Catholic. He tells a long story of remembering where he was when he heard a Polish cardinal had been made Pope. And so when the Bezpieca first approached him he thought he’d be helping his country. All they wanted was gossip from the parties he attended and people he met. It wasn’t really spying. Now Bernard is telling him that Tessa is not pregnant and on her way to be with him, she’s not alive – she is dead. He’s saying the the Bezpieca lied to him, have used him. — Bernard controls his anger and explains that they will leave by plane that night: is he coming or not? — That night they drive in Bernard’s rented Fiat to the area of the Wolfschanze, the vast compound of bunkers, roads, checkpoints, railway line and airstrip built as Hitler’s forward command post during the invasion of Russia. They are followed by four figures in a battered old Volvo. Bernard tells George the plan: when he stops the car, George is to scrabble free and run off into the snow shouting as if for help. This is what happens. As the four followers get out of their car and pause wondering what’s going on, Bernard sets fire to the Fiat and, as it explodes, runs towards the Bezpieca men firing the machine gun. At least one falls and the others scatter as George runs back towards him and they both jump into the Volvo and drive on along the old runway by the lake, just as they hear the sound of airplane engines overhead. It is The Swede, a freelance pilot, one of the Department’s most reliable contractors. Bernard parks the Volvo at the other end of the runway and sets it, too alight. The Swede brings the plane down on the runway mapped out between the two burning cars, taxis to walking pace and Bernard stuffs George into the plane, which turns and begins its take-off as they hear the bullets of the surviving Bezpieca men bounce off the fuselage. — In the plane George complains about the violence, ‘Did you have to shoot those men?’ etc, until Bernard explodes in rage: ‘Yes I did, because those are the men who beat up protestors, run the prisons and the labour camps and have repressed this nation for 45 years. Those are the men you’ve been helping, you scumbag.’ Bernard has to restrain himself from throwing George out of the plane into the Baltic. — When they arrive at the little Swedish airfield, an Embassy official and doctor are waiting to take custody of George. He is under arrest. He will be interrogated and probably tried for treason. And Gloria is there. She claims under orders from her boss, Bret. The Embassy car sweeps off leaving them alone on the chilly airfield apart from the Embassy’s official Lear jet. It’s there in case George or Bernard had been injured and needed to be flown back to an English hospital. Now it is sitting there vacant. Bernard lets off steam to Gloria: Tessa is dead. The nonsense with the leg and the hand were to persuade London that George, also, was dead. He was just worried the truth about his spying would get out, and he genuinely believed the lies the Bezpieca told him. God knows how long he’s been betraying his country, feeding back to his communist paymasters the titbits he picked up from Bernard and Fiona and all the other SIS people he hobnobbed with.

You need a drink, says Gloria, and it’s freezing, let’s get aboard the plane. Oh isn’t it warm. And look at the galley, good food. And the bar. And through here, the beds! The big soft beds.

‘Goodness,’ said Gloria, looking at me and smiling demurely. (p.305)

Like so many comedies, from Shakespeare to James Bond, this one ends with a heterosexual bang, as the male lead and the female lead bring closure to the story with an act of union and completion.


Spy fiction and the fall of the wall

It’s worth pointing out that these had become historical fictions even as they were published. The third of the second trilogy, Spy Sinker, published in 1990, must have been completed over the period when the Berlin Wall came down – November 1989, and I’ve remarked that Deighton showed admirable ingenuity in making the true-life participation of the East German churches in the fall of the regime into one of the central planks of his story.

But he was then faced with the same problem all other spy novelists faced (le Carré, Forsyth, Cruz Smith to name just the ones I’ve been reading): whether to move with the times and set their adventures in the post-Soviet world, or whether to cling to the (fictional) certainties of the Cold War.

We’ve seen that after a farewell to the Cold War and to his legendary spy, George Smiley (in The Secret Pilgrim, 1990) le Carré moved with impressive alacrity into the New World Order, where he found a sufficiency of baddies in international drug smuggling and gun-running.

Forsyth similarly packaged up all his Cold War yarns into a retrospective collection (The Deceiver, 1991) before moving on to new subject matter, to novels about the Gulf War (The Fist of God) and the corruption of post-Soviet Russia (Icon).

Deighton, however, was working in a different situation. He knew he had to complete the story – and the umpteen plotlines – left hanging at the end of the previous trilogy. Maybe he had mapped out the complete storyline before 1990. And certainly, the way he’d set most of the action in the late 1980s, but with room to spare before the collapse of communism, gave him to the room to complete the entire story well before the actual collapse began in 1989.

Hence the importance of emphasising the datelines: summer 1987 is when Fiona and Bernard return from R&R in California to start Faith; October 1987 is where Hope begins and carries on to Christmas Eve 1987. Plenty of time to wind up the whole affair and be home in time for tea.

Credit

Hope by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins in 1995. All quotes and page references are from the 1996 Harper Collins 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.

Therapy by David Lodge (1995)

One of the depressing things about depression is knowing that there are lots of people in the world with far more reason to feel depressed than you have, and finding that, so far from making you snap out of your depression, it only makes you despise yourself more and thus feel more depressed. (p.107)

This is the story of TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore, who’s riding high on the success of his soap opera The People Next Door. He is the archetypal middle-class middle-aged successful man who has it all – big house, lovely wife, kids launched into life, fast car, successful career, lots of money – but is unhappy and doesn’t know why.

How many novels are written about this figure? If there’s such a thing as the ‘campus novel’, is there the ‘depressed-middle-aged-successful-professional-man’ novel? Maybe it’s the ‘menopausal man’ novel.

A new kind of character

For thirty years (1960-1991) Lodge had been getting into the minds of academics and intellectuals, literary critics and theologians, in texts which were never far from detailed considerations of literary theory, Catholic theology, or sex. Certainly the combination of literary high-mindedness with graphic sexual description is the tell-tale sign of his previous five or six novels.

Which makes Therapy a welcome change, at least initially. The story is told in the first-person and TV scriptwriter Passmore’s voice is refreshingly different in tone and idiolect from anything that’s gone before. Unlike the over-educated but under-worldly figures we’re used to in Lodge’s fiction, Passmore is a convincing portrayal of a much more middle-brow character: more or less the first Lodge character to be interested in sports, to be happily married and faithful to his wife, who swims confidently in the demanding but relentlessly unintellectual world of popular TV. (In the middle section we find out from  his wife that although he attended a grammar school, he was always bottom of the class, and left with just a couple of O levels – p.196)

In an amusing character trait he enjoys looking up words and sharing their definitions with us, and his nickname in the TV industry, since he put on quite a lot of weight and lost most of his hair, is Tubby. All of this is broadly funny in a tolerant, grumpy-old-man kind of way.

Part one (pp.3-129)

The first 129 pages consist of a diary or journal which Laurence starts in order to keep track of the painful twinges he’s getting in his knee. He has a keyhole operation to cure it which, alas, doesn’t work, but the diary goes on to record his visits to a psychotherapist, an acupuncturist, a physiotherapist and an aromatherapist as he searches for a cure to his physical ailments but also, it emerges, the undefined malaise nagging at his soul. He has everything. So why does he lie in bed at nights, unhappy?

His platonic mistress (female best friend) Amy, in London, describes his condition as Angst and, in looking it up, Laurence stumbles across the writings of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegård (1813-1855). Intrigued he buys some of his works in the Charing Cross Road and begins to explore Kierkegård’s philosophy (as expressed in the great man’s rather confusing works). Ideas around what attitude we should take to life, to decision-making, how to avoid a permanent feeling of dread, how to live an authentic existence. In a biography he discovers how much SK’s philosophy was prompted by the one great love of his life, Regine, who he rejected in an agony of indecision, a moment he regretted for the rest of his life.

A great deal else is covered in this opening part, painting in Laurence’s everyday life and down-to-earth character, from his regular tennis games with friends to moans about his ongoing medical problems, a lot of detail about the different therapies and the idiosyncratic therapists who perform them, the day-to-day business of being married, and quite interesting insights of how his scripts are written, produced, rehearsed and directed into the thirty-minute sitcom which is the basis of his fortune.

But as he becomes more intrigued and beguiled by Kierkegård’s writings, Laurence begins to sound like many another Lodge intellectual, sometimes less a character than an idea with legs. After a few months he has understood Kierkegård well enough to be able to explain to us his rather arcane notion of repetition – that repetition is the ultimate form of existential fulfilment, that in it we find ourselves.

And exposition of this rather abstract idea leads Laurence into an eloquent hymn to married life, to its rhythm and predictability, to the virtues of getting to know someone inside out, relishing their character and tastes and the little things that please them, through the repetition of day-to-day tenderness and love.

Which makes it all the funnier, and the more heart-breaking, when this whole section ends on the bombshell that his wife, Sally, wants to divorce him.

Part two – dramatic monologues (pp.133-198)

Very confidently and amusingly (Lodge has done this so many times before) the entire middle section of the novel is made up of dramatic monologues from the ‘secondary’ characters. We read:

  • A court deposition from Brett Sutton, Sally’s tennis coach. Laurence had begun to suspect his wife of having an affair with Brett, so he starts stalking him, making silent phone calls to him at all times of day and night, occasionally pretending to be Sally’s mother and putting on a high-pitched voice, damaging his greenhouse and then – in the climax of this strand – breaking into his bedroom with a pair of garden shears to cut off his…. ponytail. It’s only when Brett wakes up and turns the light on that a horrified Laurence sees that he is in bed with… his boyfriend. He is gay. He emphatically has not been having an affair with Laurence’s wife.
  • Plump Amy, Laurence’s platonic girlfriend in London, a skilled casting director, explains in a series of monologues (each one representing a session with her therapist) how she hears about the news of the separation, how she comforts Laurence but fears he might now want to sleep with her, and how she is persuaded to go with him on the worst foreign holiday of all time to Tenerife, to the hotel from hell, where they push together the two single metal bunk beds and, despite all his efforts, Laurence turns out to be impotent. In its depiction of Playa de las Americas as hell, this is very funny.
  • Louise, a high-powered Hollywood producer who once, five years ago, on Laurence’s one trip to the States to discuss creating a US version of the sitcom, took a bit too much cocaine in the ladies’ loo and made a blunt pass at Laurence. We hear her phone conversation to a fellow American media woman – frequently interrupted by other important calls from Hollywood contacts – in which she describes her astonishment that Laurence flies out to California, solely to meet her, solely to recreate that long-vanished evening, solely to try and seduce her. She is flabbergasted, gets him drunk, and kicks him out of her car at his expensive hotel.
  • Ollie Silver, the middle-aged producer of The People Next Door, meets an old pal from Current Affairs in the pub and chats about work and especially the problem he has: Deborah Radcliffe the star of the sitcom, wants to leave and he needs Laurence to write her out of the series. But Laurence, caught in his mid-life meltdown, refuses all the suggestions he and the Head of Comedy have made. If he continues to refuse, they’ll invoke his contract, cut him out of the show and hire a more compliant writer.
  • Samantha Handy, the hilariously self-centred young script-editor, hired by Laurence’s lecherous agent, Jake Endicott, visits a work colleague whose mouth is wired shut due to recent dental work, and breathlessly describes being invited by Laurence on a trip to Copenhagen to research his quixotic fantasy of creating a new drama series based on the life of Kierkegård, where she expects to have to sleep with him as a return for his recommending her to Jake – but is surprised when he turns down her increasingly blunt offers. Turns out visiting the sites of Kierkegård’s life make Laurence feel genuinely philosophical, make him think much more seriously about life and the choices you make.
  • Sally Passmore, his estranged wife, meets Laurence’s therapist to emphasise that the marriage really is over, kaput, finished, but finds herself drawn into reminiscing about how they met and the constraints of their very different families in the late 1950s, which drove them to seek escape by marrying.

All very persuasive and entertaining, sometimes very funny.

Part three (pp.201-282)

Back to Laurence’s diary, recommencing on Tuesday 25 May, and almost immediately he reveals that he wrote the dramatic monologues listed above, as an exercise for his therapist (and Lodge’s joke at the reader’s expense). Unexpected as this twist is, I think it ultimately detracts from the novel. It would have been far more interesting to have been the genuine views of all these characters. Knowing they were done by him somehow narrows them.

Barely has Laurence explained this, than he tells us he’s been musing more and more frequently on his first girlfriend, Maureen Kavanagh, back in impoverished south-east London where he grew up, and this is the pretext for a freestanding section, titled ‘Maureen: A Memoir’, which makes up most of this part.

It is a long section (pages 222-258, inclusive), quite a change of tone and a complete change of setting: from the heady delights of Soho’s medialand circa 1993, to schoolboy days in black-and-white post-war Charlton, 1952, with our hero attending Lambeth Merchants’ grammar school, playing in the school soccer team, and doing a star turn at the Catholic youth club dances, holding his Maureen tight as they smooch to Nat King Cole.

Maybe this whole section – presumably indebted to Lodge’s own upbringing at the same time and in the same place – is intended to be a symptom of a man unable to face his life in the here and now, escaping back to idealised memories of halcyon innocence. But it also reads like a stand-alone short story which has been inserted, not totally convincingly, into the longer text. Also, it reworks themes familiar to any reader of Lodge: the precocious 16-year-old echoes the identically aged protagonist of Out of the Shelter; the link between teenage Catholicism and sex are unhappily present throughout his work.

The story itself starts out as the sweetly innocent romance between Laurence and local Catholic girl, Maureen. After a year of catching trams to school at opposite stops, they finally bump into each other and speak, and then Laurence starts attending the Catholic youth group in order to be close to her, especially at the Sunday night dance (supervised by a priest). And then he gets to accompany her on the 15-minute walk home. And then they kiss, a radiant memory. And then a little more than kissing. And touching. And every week thereafter, a little further, until Laurence attains every schoolboy’s Holy Grail and, in the cold damp area under the steps to Maureen’s house, he gets to feel the curve of her teenage breast. Eureka! Which goes on for several weeks.

But then they both become involved in the Church Nativity Play in which Maureen is cast as Mary. The priest directing it emphasises to her that she must not only play the role she must pray the role, aspiring to be as chaste and pure as the Virgin. And so she shyly and embarrassedly asks Laurence to stop, to stop the fondling and the kissing. And he is angry.

And I was embarrassed. I felt increasingly like a voyeur at the violation of a teenage virgin. After the slow, sweet build-up, the story unravels quickly from that point onwards. As they go on to perform in the Nativity play, Laurence puts increasingly genuine contempt for his one-time sweetheart into his performance as Herod. And as soon as the productions are finished, he publicly humiliates Maureen, quits the Catholic social club, gets a job in a West End theatre, and quickly leaves his boyhood world behind.

Now, 40 years later, as he continues using the journal to search his soul, he realises he is still haunted by his heartlessness. On the spur of the moment Laurence revisits his childhood neighbourhood, tracks down the house where he grew up, then Maureen’s house and then the Catholic church which oversaw the youth club. Here he meets the modish young priest struggling with Excel spreadsheets, and makes enquiries. Turns out Maureen married the director of the youth club nativity play – Laurence’s much despised rival, Bede. Further investigation turns up that this rather pompous young man went on to become a civil servant in the Department of Education, ultimately playing a key role in the implementation of the new National Curriculum.

So Laurence rings Bede up out of the blue and goes to visit him in his plush home in Wimbledon. Here he discovers that Bede and Maureen’s eldest son was recently murdered in Africa. And for this and other reasons Maureen, still a devout Catholic, has undertaken the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

And, on impulse, his present life in ruins, seeking, searching, yearning for the certainty of those vanished days – Laurence decides to track her down.

If all this feels rushed and against the grain of the leisurely and fairly comedic opening sections, that’s because it is.

Part four (pp.285-321)

He tracks her down. He spares no expense driving up and down the autoroutes of southern France and Spain, stopping at every pilgrim’s lodge, searching for her name among the registers of overnight guests. He eventually finds her trudging along a busy A road, weary and foot-sore. After her initial amazement, she allows him to take her bags to the nearest hotel, but she insists on walking. And quite quickly he falls in with her plans, driving her backpack ahead to the nearest town, then walking back to meet her, as she slowly, painfully completes every step of the pilgrimage.

Lodge includes a lot of tourist colour, describing the landscape, the other pilgrims, the lodges and rest-houses, as if he himself has done the route or researched it pretty thoroughly. It has stopped in any way being a detached, amusing comedy. It feels more real and urgent than that. She is not the trim schoolgirl of his memory. She is a baggy, paunchy, wrinkly, tubby middle aged woman gone to seed. But it doesn’t matter to Laurence, driven by his obsession.

Finally, when Maureen has walked all the way to the cathedral and taken part in the necessary rituals and then attended the big celebration Mass – finally they repair to a swanky hotel where Laurence finally gets to make love to her (he had been offering to all the time, but she had refused while she was making pilgrimage). And thereafter, like spring chickens, like fit young 20-somethings, they make love every siesta and every night. He offers to marry her but she says, No, she must go back to Bede.

And so they make their respective ways back to London. In a tearing hurry Laurence drives up to Rummidge to try and effect a reconciliation with his wife, but she says she has now fallen in love with another man and slept with him. Game over.

As the book ends Laurence explains that the problem with his sitcom, about the actress leaving – that was all sorted out; the money is still pouring in; he’s now the best of friends with Bede and Maureen, he’s going to move to Wimbledon and join the golf club; and he and Maureen still enjoy fairly regular ‘siestas’, her ongoing marriage to Bede not appearing to trouble her at all. And the problem with his knee, which prompted him to start the journal? All cleared up, old boy. Maybe there is something in these pilgrimages.


Conclusion

There is something profoundly wrong about all this. It is fine for Lodge’s characters to fall in and out of bed with each other when they are in one of his obvious comic-fantasies. But the backdrop to this encounter is Laurence’s genuine cruelty of 40 years ago, Maureen’s bereft mourning for her dead son, the complex and real damage this has done to her marriage to Bede, and the long, agonising, physically draining experience of the pilgrimage, not easy for an out-of-shape housewife in her late 50s.

I just don’t believe a woman like that would simply open her arms and say Yes to sex. And that they would then shag like teenagers every afternoon and every evening. It feels too much like male wish-fulfilment, the need of Laurence’s penis over-riding every other real-world consideration.

From the moment in Part Two that he introduced the Maureen memoir, it began to feel like a different novel from the first half, one dealing with potentially much more serious and upsetting themes. And yet it is embedded in the increasingly inappropriate chatty, upbeat tone of his middle-brow TV scriptwriter. Subject matter and tone feel at odds.

And the facile capitulation of Maureen to his childhood fantasies – seems too much like fantasy, in the negative sense. Or that the fantasy seems cheap and easy, compared to the short but powerful scenes about the son’s death and the pilgrimage itself. These threads hint at the much deeper complexity of human nature, at enduring issues of tragedy and loss, of age and decay, of lost loves and lost hopes – which can’t just be reconciled and sorted out with a few fancy meals and improbably athletic sex in an expensive hotel room.

It feels like Lodge’s comic instincts do a disservice to his deeper intuitions about human nature.


Social history

Lodge’s previous novels are all very specific about their location in time, and all contain references to contemporary events (in the case of How Far Can You Go? almost obsessively so). Laurence’s diary commences on Monday 15 February 1993 and the last entry is on September 21.

The advantage of the diary format is you can make passing comments on anything which takes your fancy without disturbing the flow of ‘plot’ (if there is a plot). Thus Laurence bolsters the ‘realism’ of the text by including numerous references to contemporary events and trends:

  • global warming (have we really been worrying about it for 20 years?)
  • British Rail introducing the irritating phrase ‘station stop’
  • the well-publicised case of Jamie Bulger, abducted from a shopping centre and murdered by two young boys on 12 February 1993
  • on the train to and from London he works on his laptop computer (the etymological dictionary says the word was first used in 1984)
  • he hears about the death of Bobby Moore (24 February 1993) on the evening he’s gone to see Reservoir Dogs, and contrasts the dignity and heroism of the footballer with the cynical, squalid hyper-violence of the Hollywood movie
  • Diana’s Squidgeygate tapes are in the news, making him feel sorry for the Royal Family
  • the Serbs are bombing Sarajevo
  • John Major has the lowest popularity rating of any Prime Minister since records began

This deployment of background chronology has been Lodge’s practice since his earliest novels, but I question why. Ezra Pound said an ‘epic’ is a poem with history in it, and proceeded to shove his long poem, The Cantos, full of historical references, but himself ultimately judged the poem a failure, because of its lack of coherence.

Something similar is going on here. The history has to be woven into the pattern of the narrative. The history has to engage with the plot and the characters. Just noting what’s on the radio or in the papers that day – Jamie Bulger, John Major, Sarajevo – certainly matches the story against a chronology of the times – but it doesn’t integrate history into the narrative, doesn’t dramatise it. The two strands run on parallel lines without ever touching.


Mid-life crisis

Thirty seconds on the internet showed me that novels about a middle-aged man who feels he’s missing something is a well-established and thoroughly defined genre – the ‘mid-life crisis novel’ – and that Therapy is routinely included in them.

Nat King Cole – Too Young

This is one of the songs to which the 16-year-old Laurence dances with his childhood sweetheart, all those years ago, back in post-war south-east London. My mother (same generation as Lodge) had a big collection of original Nat King Cole records which my Dad bought her, and which I inherited.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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