Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

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

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson (1998)

Contents

This book contains 20 short stories from across Jansson’s career chosen by contemporary Scottish novelist Ali Smith.

The first 13 are from Jansson’s first published collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) which was translated into English in 1969. Since The Sculptor’s Daughter can be bought as a stand-alone book, possibly it would be better to buy that and possess the entire set of childhood stories, instead of just the 13 here:

  1. The Stone
  2. Parties
  3. The Dark
  4. Snow
  5. German measles
  6. Flying
  7. Annie
  8. The Iceberg
  9. Albert
  10. Flotsam and jetsam
  11. High Water
  12. Jeremiah
  13. The spinster who had an idea

After these 13 stories, this volume continues with a long story from 1971, one from the 1980s, and the remaining five appear to be from the 1990s, these latter all translated into English and published here for the first time.

Sort Of Books

All Jansson’s books for adults appear to be currently published in a uniform edition by Sort Of Books, based in London. A feature of the books is their stylish design, with foldover end-covers, beautiful cover images and a selection of photographs from Jansson’s own life sprinkled among the texts.

This volume features 19 atmospheric and evocative black and white photos – of the author’s mother and father, herself as a child cutting paper with scissors or standing prim in a child’s striped dress, as a stylish young woman, as a mature woman smoking a fag, along with views of the island where she lived.

A child’s eye view

The stories from The Sculptor’s Daughter are told from the point of view of a really small child, I’d say 4 or 5. Through her eyes we see the sights and sounds and smells of her parents’ studio in Helsinki. Tove’s father, Viktor Jansson, was a Finnish sculptor, her Swedish mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was an illustrator and graphic designer, so it was a very artistic family, which encouraged music, storytelling and the young Tove to make and paint and draw and decorate.

The narrator remembers parties where her father played the balalaika along with his friend Cavvy playing the guitar. She finds a big stone which she’s convinced is made of silver and rolls it all along the pavement and across the road to their apartment. One day when it starts snowing, she has a fantasy vision of so much snow falling that it tips the whole world up on its side and people go tumbling out of their windows. She listens to her father playing with his pet guenon monkey Poppolino, which routinely swings around the room knocking over busts and chewing pieces of furniture before her father placates it with some liquorice and puts it back in its cage.

It is a world riddled with compulsions and necessities and superstitions and rituals. If people say anything about the iceberg it will go away. She needs to play this game with her mother, now. Her little friend Poyu must step just where she tells him, to avoid the snakes in the carpet (there are no snakes, it’s just a game).

All these rituals are to keep at bay the fear, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the incomprehensible world of grown-ups, which the small narrator is very prone to.

Every story has to begin in the same way, then it’s not so important what happens. A soft, gentle voice in the warm darkness and one gazes into the fire and nothing is dangerous. Everything else is outside and can’t get in. Not now or at any time. (p.40)

Contrasting with these moments of fear are the childhood safe spaces, very often snuggling down in a nice warm bed, but best of all sitting in a parent’s lap. Where in the world is cosier and warmer and safer?

The prose is written with a kind of wide-eyed childish simplicity, punctuated by outbursts of childish dogmatism, the kind of pedantic insistence characteristic of the small. Everyone who reads it responds to the ‘innocence’ and simplicity of the style, but I think sometimes it can verge on the twee. It’s a fine line.

Actually soda water is dangerous. It gives one bubbles in the tummy and it can make one feel sad. One should never mix things. (p.31)

The narrator’s mind jumps all over the place. She’s thinking about the great dark shadow that comes out of the sea and stretches towards the town every night. Then how to pick stones out of your ice skates. Then how to avoid the ‘snakes’ she has conjured up in her friend Poyu’s patterned carpet.

Is this how children think, jumping from one thing to another. Is it a marvellous recreation of childhood? Or is it how we all think that children think? Is it in fact quite a sophisticated (and slightly troubling) act of ventriloquism?

‘Explosion’ is a beautiful word and a very big one. Later I learned others, the kind you whisper only when you’re alone. ‘Inexorable’. ‘Ornamentation’. ‘Profile’. ‘Catastrophe’. ‘Electrical’. ‘District nurse.’ They get bigger and bigger if you say them over and over again. You whisper and whisper and let the world grow until nothing else exists until the word. (p.39)

As the Sculptor stories progress the narrator becomes noticeably older. Her friend Albert invites her out in a rowing boat (from the island where they spend their summer holidays with her family) but they get caught in a thick fog and then, surreally, take on board a dying seagull. She’s older than 5 or 6 by this time.

Flotsam and Jetsam describes her observation of her Daddy and other men from around the islands rowing out to scavenge canisters of goodies (booze, maybe?) which have been washed into the sea, maybe from a wrecked cargo boat. She observes the dainty codes and rules governing what is, and is not, salvageable.

High Water is a short subtle story, also set on the holiday island (the same one, presumably, which features in her classic The Summer Book). Her Daddy the sculptor brings all his sculpting equipment and clay out to the island and converts Old Charlie’s boat-house into a studio – but then gets blocked and can do no work. He gets cross with everyone. Until one night there’s a really awesome storm which floods the island and carries off the jetty and – floods the studio and ruins all the clay. Daddy comes in to tell relate this terrible blow to his wife and she is beaming with pleasure and he is wreathed in smiles. Then he rushes off back out to help people try to save what they can from the storm.

So it is a story about how hard it is to be an artist, or how hard her father found it, and what a relief simple physical action in the outdoors is, compared to all that agonising about creation.

A spinster stays and becomes obsessed with building steps of cement up to the house, but she makes a right horlicks of it. Later she interrupts Daddy and Mummy making a plaster cast, usually a sacred moment, and natters on, poking about, until she accidentally discovers a way to make a small cast around a picture cut out from a magazine. She gets addicted to making scores of these, perfecting her technique, turning into quite a creator. But that doesn’t stop them being tacky, the narrator thinks. Eventually, the spinster leaves but young Tove treasures the picture cast she made for herself.

In The Boat and Me the narrator is 12 and Daddy has become Dad. The prose is quite a lot more mature. She is given a boat and decides to row it round the little archipelago of islets surrounding their island. Her mum helps her set off before her Dad can get up and prevent her going. There follow bucolic details of navigating the boat round little islands in the Gulf of Finland, and of encountering the rich summer tourists who her family despises, in this book as in The Summer Book. But eventually her Dad, having woken and discovered she’s set off, catches up with her in his motorboat, makes her come aboard, ties the rowboat to it and returns to the house. Tut tut.

Sad

The Squirrel represents an alarming, rather shocking break in tone. Now a third-person narrator beadily describes the behaviour of an apparently middle-aged woman living on her own on an island. This woman is consumed with obsessive compulsive disorder. Everything has to be just so: she must get dressed in just the right order; the wood in the fireplace must be arranged just so; each day must start with the same rituals including measuring the height of the sea against rocks.

It is sad to learn that each day also requires a morning tot of madeira, and then a work tot of madeira: ‘It is the only thing that helped’ (p.131).

She began sweeping, painstaking and calm. She liked sweeping. It was a peaceful day, a day without dialogue. There was nothing to defend or accuse anyone of; everything had been cut out, all those words that could have been other words or might simply have been out of place and have led to great change. Now there was nothing but a warm friendly cottage full of morning light, herself sweeping and the friendly sound of coffee beginning to simmer. The room with its four windows simply existed and justified itself; it was safe and had nothing to do with any place where you could shut anything in or leave anything out. (p.131)

Alas, poor Tove, I thought she was an embodiment of carefree happiness, but this story confirms the impression of the final few Moomintroll books that she sadly combated mental illness, an overpowering anxiety and worry that can only be kept at bay with rituals and routines, or else the day becomes ‘soiled with wrong thoughts and pointless actions’ (p.135).

So the story is ostensibly about how Tove feeds and supports the squirrel and it becomes a companion on the island. But the real impact of the text is to quite shock you with the extent of her unhappy, uncontrollable thoughts. She rearranges the log pile to make things easier for the squirrel then is devastated by feelings of guilt that she may have wrecked its home. She panics and goes to fetch lots of things to help a squirrel make a home from the cellar but then chaotically tries to squeeze a box which is too big up through the cellar hole and it bursts and stuff goes flying everywhere.

Next morning she sees a boat heading straight for the island. It is themThey have come to get her. She has a panic attack, first sweeping all her manuscripts into a drawer, then changing her mind and setting them back on her desk, then jumping out the back window and crawling off to hide in an inlet – then realising how silly that will look and sneaking back to spy on the boat. In fact it’s just three blokes on a day trip to any island anywhere who tie up their boat and get their fishing rods out, completely ignorant of the highly strung woman whose utter calm they have shattered.

Sadly, I realise that Jansson is not the great feminine super-mother, the centred, reassuring, calm presence of Moominmamma, as portrayed in the Moomin books. On the basis of this text, she is more like the hysterical Fillyjonk, permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Correspondence

There follow a couple of lovely ‘sections’ based on letters.

Letters from Klara is a selection of letters from the same woman correspondent, but written to all sorts of people, relations, children, officials and so on, so that each one displays a different tone and aspect of the writer’s characters. It’s a clever effective technique.

Messages is a series of brief snippets, the opening phrases, from a very wide range of letters the author has received – fan mail, commercial propositions, letters from school children, parents, lawyers and so on, a cross-section of the non-stop bombardment of mostly rubbish which a writer has to put up with, but also a cross-section of ordinary people who, with greater or lesser subtlety, pour out their hearts to someone they’ve never met but feel they know through her writings.

The last of the three, Correspondence, consists of letters written to her by a Japanese schoolgirl, Tamiko Atsumi, about the Moomins, about her improving English and other schoolgirl concerns. Tamiko sends haikus and wishes Tove good health and a long life.

None of Tove’s replies (if there ever were any) are included here so, again, as with everything Jannson wrote, there is a powerful sense of mystery and absence. Instead, we follow as the Japanese girl gets more proficient at English and her letters more ambitious, and the text encourages us to guess and speculate about the personality behind these brief missives.

What do they mean?

What does anything mean?

Photos


Credit

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

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

Short story collections

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

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (1998)

One should never underestimate the disruptive force of haphazard actions. (p.104)

A decade or so ago I set out to spend a year reading only books by women authors. Among them, I read half a dozen or so novels by Beryl Bainbridge and loved them all. Having just worked through several books about the Crimean War (Victoria’s Wars by Saul David and Crimea by Orlando Figes) prompted me to dust off my old copy of Master Georgie, Bainbridge’s novel set during the Crimean War.

‘Quirky’ is a quick way of establishing where in the ballpark Bainbridge belongs, but doesn’t begin to capture her depth or complexity or strangeness.

Master Georgie, like most of her novels, is deceptively short and, in this Abacus paperback, has quite large print, resulting in the page having a light, airy feel. The text is divided into six sections and, since several of the protagonists are involved in the then-newfangled trade of photography, the book uses the conceit of naming each section after a ‘plate’ or early-style photograph. Hence:

  • Plate 1. 1846 Girl in the presence of death
  • Plate 2. 1850 A veil lifted
  • Plate 3. 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe
  • Plate 4. August 1854 Concert party at Varna
  • Plate 5. October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice
  • Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile

Each ‘plate’ or section is narrated by a different character. Thus:

Plate 1 – 1846 Girl in the presence of death (Myrtle)

This is told by a young girl named Myrtle (named on page 73), who was found as a toddler next to her mother, dead from smallpox in a slum in Victorian Liverpool, and taken into the household of wealthy if dissolute Mr Hardy. Myrtle is still pre-adolescent when she tells her tale. She has a mad crush on the son of the house, young Master George Hardy (the Master Georgie of the title), who is a medical student, with an amateur interest in phtography. George is wooing young Annie, and he has a friend, a would-be writer named Potter, who is enamoured of George’s sister, Beatrice.

The text is packed with uncanny detail, odd anecdote and strange insights – one of the oddest being that the child Myrtle is side-tracked from her task of accompanying George around town into watching a street performance of a Punch and Judy man. This is told with all the surreal oddity the subject encourages, but with the added twist that a passing horse shies, starts and backs into the Punch and Judy booth, knocking it and the performer inside sprawling. Disgruntled the performer packs his stuff into his gaudily painted van and trots off.

But the main event of this section is that, while George is strolling back from a run-of-the-mill chore, followed by the puppy-like Myrtle, he comes across a house outside which a wretched drunken harridan is wailing about a sick man. Reluctantly, medical student George feels compelled to investigate, is led up to the first floor, where, to his horror, he finds the half-naked body of his father with his trousers down on a bed. Pretty obviously Mr Hardy senior had a heart attack while having sex with the drunk woman, although we see all of this through the eyes of pre-sexual Myrtle who thinks he must have just been sleeping an a funny position.

Keeping his self-possession, George arranges for a street urchin, whose name we later discover is Pompey Jones, to fetch any conveyance he can beg or borrow. This, with typical Bainbridgean bizarreness, turns out to be the wagon used by the local Punch and Judy man we saw in an earlier scene – and, along with Myrtle, the trio dress Mr Hardy’s body, carry it into the Punch & Judy van, rattle back to the Hardy residence, sneak it through the family orchard and upstairs into Mr Hardy’s house, dodging the servants, Mrs Hardy and sister Beatrice. The guilty trio lay the stiffening corpse out on its bed as if he’s had a heart attack, perfectly natural-like. Then they go their separate ways, leaving the body for a maid to find that evening – which results in general hysteria among wife, daughter and servants. Myrtle swears eternal silence to George. Pompey is heavily paid off for his silence.

Plate 2 – 1850 A veil lifted (Pompey)

Section two is narrated in the voice of Pompey Jones (as we learn on page 63), the street urchin who did Master Georgie the immense favour of helping him carry his dead father home four years back. We learn that George subsequently packed Myrtle off to boarding school to ensure her absence/silence. And that George sent Pompey with money to buy the silence of the drunk harridan/prostitute. But the latter is such an alcoholic she’d forgotten the incident anyway, so Pompey kept the money and spent it on a set of his own photographic equipment, figuring to pick up the craft from Mr George and eventually set up in his own right.

We learn that Pompey once scraped a living as a street performer, eating fire, which is how he badly burned his lip, which George tended to free of charge. Through one thing and another, Pompey has become a kind of favoured servant, a fixer and gofer for George, running occasional errands as and when required.

On the day covered by this section, Pompey arrives bright and early as requested by George at the Hardy house. Here, he tells us, while waiting for George to awaken, he’s got into the habit of performing little tricks before anyone’s up, namely moving bits of furniture around, swapping paintings, moving fire irons and so on. Today he carries out his boldest exploit yet by rearranging the living room tiger rug, draping it over the back of a chair so it appears almost lifelike. He takes a glass of the family port and surveys his work with pride. He is a cheeky chappy, an artful dodger, a streetwise kid.

George finally appears and commands Pompey into the waggon with his medical equipment because they are setting off on a bizarre medical exploit where Pompey will be needed, namely assisting at an operation George is carrying out along with a fellow surgeon, Dr Rimmer, to remove the cataracts from the eyes of an aging ape kept in the collection of the eccentric millionaire owner of Blundell Hall.

This requires Pompey to drive George and his boxes of equipment in a lumbering horse and cart on a circuitous route along the seashore out of Liverpool and through what are presumably – nowadays – heavily built up inhabited areas but which were, back in the 1840s, empty countryside or sparse hamlets, thus giving a frisson of recognition to any Liverpudlian readers of the novel. (Bainbridge was Liverpool born and bred.)

Pompey assists at the bizarre operation by applying ether in a rag to the mangy old ape and keeping it unconscious while the two surgeons cut into its eyes! I defy you to think of a weirder fictional scene. Afterwards Rimmer and George celebrate with a drink, the latter overdoing it (since his father’s death, George has become a heavy drinker) so that Pompey has to manhandle him into the cart and drive it back into Liverpool along the wide beach as the sun sets. They stop so George can have a drunken conversation with an old hermit who they find on the shore.

We learn, through Pompey’s quick cynical thoughts and memories, that, on the fateful day of Mr Hardy senior’s death, George made a pass at young Pompey. He makes another, drunken, pass now. So, George is what we would nowadays call bisexual, although it is one of the many appeals of Bainbridge’s books that she imagines people in the past thinking according to their own culture, mindsets, psychologies and categories – which are often remote and strange. Maybe this – George’s wandering sexuality – is the veil which is lifted in this section.

When they arrive back at the Hardy household, and Pompey has helped drunk George up to bed, he is accosted on the way back downstairs by George’s friend Potter, who sternly tells Pompey that his stupid jape of rigging up the tiger rug to look lifelike has caused George’s wife, Miss Anna, opening the door in the dim dawn light, to cry out, turn, trip, stumble and hurt her wrist but, more importantly, it brought on a miscarriage. Surprisingly, Pompey isn’t beaten or whipped but that is the end of his merry japes.

Plate 3 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe (Potter)

This first-person narrative is in the voice of Potter (as we learn on page 70), an older friend of George’s who was a geologist. In the earlier sections I had got the impression he was another medical student but now it becomes clearer that he is a geologist – not least because he gives several long descriptions of rocks and geological formations, as well as describing the shock he received on reading Charles Lyell’s epoch-making textbook, the Principles of Geology. Alas Potter has tried – and failed – to make a living by writing and now, sheepishly, lives to a large extent on the generosity of his old friend George.

George, we begin to realise, is the unspeaking central figure around whom all these other lives circle.

Potter is now married to Beatrice and narrates how they, George and his wife Annie, ‘the children’, and Myrtle – now educated and grown up but still slavishly devoted to George – have decided to take a cruise through the Mediterranean to Constantinople. The initial idea was for the two men to revisit some of the locations Potter first visited as a young man (and which he wrote a not-very-successful travel book about) but first one and then other wife asked to come and the whole expedition just snowballed. Thus they are all together in Malta as they hear rumours of approaching war, and by the time they reach Constantinople it is confirmed that Britain and France have gone to war with Russia in support of the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War has begun. George reports to the British consulate and volunteers as a surgeon, and is assigned to the newly established military hospital up the Black Sea coast at Varna.

Potter’s voice is much the most enjoyable of the three, with his cynically humorous take on his wife, his friend, their families, hangers-on. He gives deliciously acid thumbnail portraits of fellow passengers on the ship and then of fellow Brits in Turkey.

Both George and Potter are particularly irritated when a pompous fellow passenger, Naughton (a bumptiously jingoistic violin maker), becomes infatuated with Myrtle who, of course, has eyes only for George. George and Potter spontaneously start a joke which is to pretend to Naughton that Myrtle is already engaged. Pushed on the identity of her fiancé, they invent a dashing cavalry officer, all of which Naughton believes. Things get complicated later on, when Myrtle gets caught up trying to extricate the family puppy from street dogs in Constantinople, and is helped out by a passing cavalry officer. Naughton sees them returning from this incident and completely misinterprets it to think that this officer is Myrtle’s (entirely fictitious) lover.

And so when Naughton spies this same officer, innocently snogging a local woman in the box next to our chaps at the opera – and Myrtle weeping (entirely because the of the music) – Naughton completely misinterprets the scene to think the officer is behaving outrageously and making the poor aggrieved Myrtle weep. Naughton storms along the passageway, into the box and attacks the officer, who promptly defends himself and accidentally knocks Naughton clean out of the box and onto the stage beneath. George attends Naughton, who is not as injured as you’d expect, leaving Potter to feel sheepishly guilty, while reflecting on the absurdity of life, its randomness and chance complications.

Plate 4 – August 1854 Concert party at Varna (Myrtle)

Section four is narrated by Myrtle, eight years older than her first appearance and a woman of the world. George has volunteered to work as a surgeon up at Varna, where the British soldiers are dropping like flies from the cholera epidemic. The wives – Annie and Beatrice – and the children have been packed off back to Blighty, and Myrtle and Potter have accompanied him to Varna.

This section gives us a sense of the sights and smells of the allied camp at Varna, especially the drunkenness of the British troops. It also slowly becomes clear that George’s relationship with Myrtle is now sexual. Myrtle goes for a horse ride with another Brit they met on the ship over, a Mrs Yardley who openly admits to being in an unmarried relationship with a colonel in the Guards. There is a typically bizarre scene where the pair of English ladies find themselves straying too close to a Turkish farm and being hussled into it by peasants, who promptly offer them bowls of none-to-clean milk while the exhausted peasant mother suckles a baby and a nearby pregnant goat gives birth messily, to the ladies’ horror.

But the main event in this section is a performance by a British concert party, chaps dressing up as women and singing each other sentimental songs. The climax is an explosive display by a handsome young fire-eater. Fire eating ring any bells? Yes, it turns out this performer is none other than Pompey Jones from Liverpool. He had become a photographer’s assistant in Liverpool, the photographer received a commission to come out and take pics of the army in Turkey, so that’s how he’s here in Varna; then one of the performers in the concert show went sick and someone had heard Pompey talking about his fire-eating days so he found himself being dragooned onstage. In other words, it is a staggering coincidence that Myrtle, George and Potter should bump into Pompey like this. But, as various characters reflect throughout the text, life is full of haphazard accidents and random chances.

Before the concert show George had asked Myrtle to prepare for a sexual encounter with him, so she had washed her armpits and ‘other places’. Alas, she waits and waits till dawn but he doesn’t come. She goes over to his tent and is upset to find George asleep in the arms of the handsome, fit young fire-eater. Myrtle is distraught, and finds herself pouring her heart out to Mrs Yardley – but Mrs Yardley and all the others believe in the cover story that George and Myrtle are brother and sister, and so thinks Myrtle is upset merely at the lower class and homosexual nature of George’s affections – she doesn’t realise Myrtle is upset because she feels a lover’s betrayal- and Myrtle, even in full flight of sobbing, realises she mustn’t reveal the truth.

Later, once George has woken and gone about his tasks at the barracks hospital, Myrtle and Pompey sit and talk about old times. Pompey startles her by revealing that Georgie has told him ‘about the babies’. It is via this conversation that we learn the startling revelation that Myrtle is the mother of George and Annie’s babies! After George’s wife Annie’s fourth and final miscarriage – the one caused by Pompey rearranging the tiger rug – Annie was declared infertile and so… and so the trio agreed that Myrtle should be impregnated and bear the children which she now helps to bring up but which George and Annie treat as theirs. She is the mother of George’s children. No wonder she is so besotted by him.

But in the way which I so admire about her historical novels, Bainbridge captures the way all involved acquiesce in the event but keep it hidden, coping with it, rationalising it, in a way inaccessible to our modern politically correct sensibilities.

Annie accepts the situation and the children and Myrtle. George conceals any public displays of affection for Myrtle and keeps her at a distance – and sleeps with young men. Which upsets Myrtle but doesn’t repel her: the homosexuality isn’t an issue. She even wonders whether George’s mother, old Mrs Hardy know but keeps quiet about the ‘scandal’.

The story feels so Victorian, so very much about love and desire twisted and reconfigured in unexpected, secret, repressed ways. People were different in the past. Really profoundly different, in the way they thought about life, lived, in their values and decisions, and Bainbridge’s novels wonderfully capture this difference on every page.

After Pompey leaves her, Myrtle tells Potter that Pompey knows about the babies. Foolish for George to have told him, Potter says. He could do you both harm. An ominous note is sounded. Will the story end in some kind of blackmail?

Plate 5 – October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice (Potter)

This is the second narrative told in the voice of by Potter, in which he comes over as significantly more of a bore than in the first one. Shame. I liked his affable cynicism. Now we know, from remarks of George’s to his face, that George is finding him rude and offensive and he is boring everyone with his endless classical quotations.

It is through Potter’s eyes that we see the allied task force of 64,000 soldiers set sail from Varna, cross the Black Sea and land at Eupatoria, on the west coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Potter describes the unopposed landing, the assembly of the troops and then the nightmare march of the soldiers south, without food or drink through the intense heat of a blistering summer’s day, when thousands of soldiers dropped out of line and hundreds died of exhaustion and dehydration, the terrible march I’ve read about in the historical accounts by Saul David and Orlando Figes.

And so the soldiers straggle on to create the armed camp south of Sevastopol. Bainbridge is not a historian and so we only hear about the epic battles of the river Alma and of Balaklava peripherally, as throwaway remarks by Potter who is more concerned about the facilities in the camp where he finds himself, and the relationship with George and Myrtle.

It is a relief we are not shown these battles (as we might be in a more macho, male narrative). Instead the charge of the Light Brigade is only referenced insofar as some of the returning riderless horses ride on in among the hospital tents where Potter was assisting George. He stops one of the fleeing horses and commandeers it, albeit the poor thing has been deafened by the cannon.

There are drunken dinners with soldiers (officers, of course) at which Potter tactlessly prattles on about death and displays his classical and/or geological learning, to the others guests’ boredom or dismay. According to Potter’s narrative he is having more and more intense visions of his wife, Beatrice, who was wise enough to depart Constantinople and return to peaceful Wales, but now appears to him in visions by day and night. Most embarrassingly she appears to Potter when he’s attending a funeral of some officers they knew. Her spirit leads him away to pick an intensely blue cornflower. I suspect these feverish hallucinations are intended to be the symptoms of cholera or typhoid. Maybe Potter is going to die.

A photographer is present to pose the mourners at this funeral, to show ‘the folks back home’ – hence the section’s title, Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice.

Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile (Pompey)

The sixth and final section is narrated by Pompey. His boss, the photographer, has gone back top Constantinople for supplies, leaving Pompey to hang out with the gang – George, Myrtle, Potter – and give us our last sight of them.

Pompey isn’t in the army – he built on the photography equipment he bought with the money he sidelined from George, as per chapter two, to get a job as a photographer’s assistant. We learn that the photography van, painted bright white and containing shelves of cameras, lenses and development equipment, is none other than the Punch and Judy van which Myrtle described back in section one, eight years earlier, and which was used to carry the corpse of naughty Mr Hardy home. Thus do accidents and coincidences litter our lives.

The climax of the book comes when all four are called into action to reinforce British troops being attacked. I think this is an account of the Battle of Inkerman, a bloody battle in which Russian troops again and again stormed British strongpoints on a day of dense fog, in which the fighting was reduced down to bleak and horrific hand-to-hand bayoneting in muddy pits.

Pompey, the tough street urchin, finds himself commandeered into combat but – like the survivor he is – kills his quota of Russians and survives. These last few pages convey the horror, terror and mindless violence of battle and Pompey, the tough survivor is the perfect pair of eyes to see it through.

Then the battle is all over and Pompey and Myrtle are helping injured soldiers back towards a dressing station where George is working, specifically an officer who’s had both feet blown off and whose comrades put his stumps into a barrel of gunpowder to stanch the bleeding. George lends a hand and,when Myrtle calls out because she’s stumbled on a stone, George turns to look at her and at that moment an injured Russian soldier, who had been lying nearby and has propped himself up on a rock, takes one shot at the stretcher party and shoots George dead.

Myrtle cradles George’s head. Pompey staggers off to inform Potter, a man now much reduced from his former witty self, plastered in mud, malnourished, babbling classical quotes while tearing the pages of his precious books to stuff into the stove to keep warm. So much for intellectuals.

In the final act, Pompey returns to the British camp to discover his boss, the photographer, has returned and is taking a photo of five survivors for the folks back home. They need another figure to complete the composition. Pompey jogs off and returns bearing the corpse of George. Not fazed by dead bodies, the soldiers prop George up to look like one of themselves, one of the happy chaps defending ‘Justice’ and ‘Liberty’ and ‘Empire’, as the photographer says, ‘Smile, boys, smile.’

Finis.


The photos

By the end the reader realises that each section contains the taking of a photo: in section one George practices his new hobby by asking the young Myrtle to pose touching the corpse of his father (hence ‘Girl in the presence of death’), and each of the subsequent sections is named after a particular photograph which for one reason or other is taken during the action. Thus the photo of the funeral party in the penultimate section (the one where Potter shames himself by wandering off half-delirious to pick a cornflower) and, of course, the final posed and utterly deceitful photo which ends the text.

As I noted in my review of Crimea, which describes how the newfangled photographs of the war were almost all carefully posed and arranged – the camera always lies.

Literary effects

Humour, often very dry humour, is never far away in Bainbridge’s novels. One simple but effective result of the way the book uses multiple viewpoints is that the impression and story told by one narrator can then be humorously undercut by the next one.

Thus when we see George through Myrtle’s eyes it is through the mind of a lovelorn girl who describes him as a handsome, wise and good young man. It is a shock to have the same George described by Potter as an overweight drunk. Similarly, Potter’s own text narrative is shrewd and witty, so we (well, I) was won over to his witty character. It comes as a shock, then, to have Myrtle, at the beginning of her next section, describing him as an intellectual bore, irritating everyone by quoting ancient poetry in the original, maybe -as Myrtle reflects – as an escape from the brutal realities of the present.

Conclusion: We are mysteries to each other. The world is a mystery to all of us.

Disconcerting

Bainbridge is the Queen of Disconcertment. The broad shape of her narratives, the vivid vignettes which stud her stories, and even passing similes and phrases, all contain the potential to unnerve, ruffle and discomfit the reader. For example, Potter describes their ship setting off from Constantinople:

In our wake flew a swarm of small birds, no bigger than robins, which are never seen to settle, but must always be in flight. The Turks, so I was told, suppose them to be the souls of women whom the Sultan has drowned. (p.106)

Not what you expected from a description of sea birds. Potter describes how the extended group spend an evening at the filthy Istanbul opera house, where the big passionate music of Verdi made Myrtle cry. But the reader is distracted from this straightforward situation by the discombobulating comparison which Myrtle’s weeping brings to Potter’s mind.

Then, some moments before the interval, I heard a strange mewing sound, which instantly brought back memories of Mrs O’Gorman’s kitchen and the cry of the stable cat prowling the bucket in which its kittens lay drowned. (p.100)

Wow. Yes. An endless ability to unsettle and unnerve.

Quite apart from the unsettling drift of the overall narrative, the text is laced with moments where the everyday is transformed into bewildering strangeness. Sometimes the incongruities can be very funny, like the extended deception Potter and George play on poor Naughton about Myrtle’s fictional lover. But mostly they’re weird and discomfiting. And sometimes poetic and evocative, coming and going in seconds, like the flow of experience. A tiny example: in the final section Pompey is sharing a cosy mug of tea with Potter, both of them shrouded in the impenetrably thick fog.

Close by, a horse pissed, its splatterings diminishing as it trotted on. (p.197)

This is a marvellous book, laced all through with the weirdness and poetry of life.


Related links

Battle For Empire: The Very First World War by Tom Pocock (1998)

‘Motives of humanity induce me to acquaint your Excellency herewith that you may have an opportunity of making your proposals to surrender the Havannah to His Britannic Majesty and thereby prevent the fatal calamities, which always attend the storming of a town.’
Lord Albemarle, leader of the British Army besieging Havana, Cuba, to the town’s governor, Don Juan de Prado (Battle For Empire p.228)

This book is the polar opposite of John Darwin’s high-level, thematic and analytical overview of the British Empire, Unfinished Empire. By contrast, Pocock’s book is all about the characters and personalities involved in the pivotal struggle for power between Britain and France which ranged from battlefields in Europe to the forests of America, to the hot plains of India and beyond.

Tom Pocock

Pocock (1925 – 2007) served in the Royal Navy and was present at D-Day, before moving on to a long and successful career as a journalist and author of popular history and travel books. It turns out that one of the dozen or so key figures of the war was Admiral Sir George Pocock, in charge of the east Indies fleet which fought a number of key engagements with the French fleet commanded by Comte D’Aché off the east coast of India, and that Pocock was one of the great admiral’s descendants. In fact, Pocock mentions various heirlooms of the admiral which had come down in the family, including rings set with bloodstone to indicate the wounds he received at the Battle of Pondicherry. In his introduction Pocock also tells some stories about his personal visits to various of the book’s locations – Calcutta, Havana, the bloody hill of Ticonderoga. It’s that sort of book: chatty, human, anecdotal.

‘pour encourager les autres…’

The book starts as it means to go on, not with a lengthy introduction to the political, geographical, economic or cultural background to the war, but with a vivid novelist’s account of the attempt by Captain the Honourable Augustus Hervey to rescue his friend and brother officer, Vice-Admiral the Honourable John Byng, from captivity in Portsmouth, on the eve of his execution for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The French writer, Voltaire, famously mentioned the incident in his short comic novel, Candide, where the hero visits England and remarks that, in this country they periodically execute an admiral ‘pour encourager les autres’ – to encourage the others. In fact, Pocock later demonstrates that Byng’s fate did in fact encourage other naval leaders to make sure they’d done everything possible to harass and destroy the enemy.

It is by this roundabout, colourful, and very character-based method, that we approach the Battle of Minorca (where Byng failed to prevent the French fleet capturing the island) which took place in May 1756 and is generally thought to mark the start of the Seven Year’s War.

Exotic settings

Pocock ignores the numerous battles of the war which took place in Europe, between Britain and her allies Prussia and Portugal, and France and her allies Austria and (after 1760) Spain. Instead, Battle for Empire focuses on colourful descriptions of fights in exotic locations, predominantly India and North America. The book is divided into seven long chapters, most of which start with biographical sketches of the key players involved and use contemporary diaries, journals and letters to give a lively sense of the central figures in each conflict. It is popular, ripping yarn history at its best.

1. India

We read about the rise to power of the Nawab Siraj ud-Daula whose forces captured the British trading settlement at Calcutta and forced 100 or more British captives into a tiny cell where up to half of them died of heat, asphyxiation and thirst – the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. This prompted the British naval campaign to retake Calcutta and then capture the French base of Chandernagar before the Nawab was brought to battle at Plassey on 23 June 1757. This battle was the great victory for Britain’s military genius in India, General Robert Clive. Plassey is always referred to as a turning point in British control of India. Pocock humanises his story with plenty of description of Clive, his letters and personality, and that of his fellow and rival officers.

2. North America

I hadn’t quite realised the importance of the war to securing North America for the British. This map (sourced from Wikipedia and created by ‘Pinpin’) shows how the French controlled a great bar of territory stretching from the Arctic coast of Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Westward expansion of the British colonies was completely blocked, and hence the aggressive plans conceived by the war cabinet in London to seize control of France’s key strategic posts, embodied in her network of forts, the most important of which were actually in the north of the continent, along the St Lawrence waterway in what is now Canada, and in particular the great fortress town of Quebec.

By Pinpin - Own work from Image:Nouvelle-France1750.png1)Les Villes françaises du Nouveau Monde : des premiers fondateurs aux ingénieurs du roi, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles / sous la direction de Laurent Vidal et Emilie d'Orgeix /Éditeur: Paris: Somogy 1999.2) Canada-Québec 1534-2000/ Jacques Lacoursière, Jean Provencher et Denis Vaugeois/Éditeur: Sillery (Québec): Septentrion 2000.Map 1 ) (2008) The Forts of Ryan's taint in Northeast America 1600-1763, Osprey Publishing, pp. 6– ISBN: 9781846032554.Map 2 ) René Chartrand (20 April 2010) The Forts of New France: The Great Lakes, the Plains and the Gulf Coast 1600-1763, Osprey Publishing, p. 7 ISBN: 9781846035043., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3086036

Map of the British and French settlements in North America in 1750, before the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763), that was part of the Seven Years’ War. Note how the French territory form a complete barrier to westward expansion of the British colonies.

The clarity of Pinpin’s online map (above) highlights the glaring shortcoming of Pocock’s book: the absence of maps. The India section has a so-so, high-level map of India indicating key cities – but there are no maps of Clive’s campaign up the river Hooghly from Calcutta and no diagrams of the key battlefields, most obviously at Plassey. One vague map just isn’t enough to convey the complexity of the Indian campaign. But it’s worse for America, because there isn’t a single map of North America in the entire book which, since the North America was one of the two key arenas of war, is astonishing.

When Prime Minister William Pitt dispatches three armies to attack three different French positions in North America, there are no maps of the locations – if you’re interested, you have to google them all and try and find maps of the country as it was in the 1770s. For the build-up to and execution of the key battle to take Quebec from the French on 13 September 1759, the only visual aid the book supplies is this contemporary diagram (below). It is as difficult to read reproduced below as it is in the book where, even worse, the fold of the book cuts through it, making the larger scale insert map at the top indecipherable.

After quite a lot of hard study I managed to make out the tiny writing and sort of figure out what happened at the battle of Quebec, but this book would have been soooo much better with a proper complement of clear, explanatory, modern maps.

An Authentic Plan of the River St. Laurence from Sillery to Montmorenci, with the operations of the Siege of Quebec, from The Natural and Civil History of the French Dominions (1760)

An Authentic Plan of the River St. Laurence from Sillery to Montmorenci, with the operations of the Siege of Quebec, from The Natural and Civil History of the French Dominions (1760)

Spain

Having lost badly in North America and India, the French pursued European diplomacy, invoking the so-called ‘Family Pact’ between the Bourbon kings of Spain and France to persuade the former, King Carlos III, to ally with France. Together they launched an unsuccessful invasion of Portugal. But the British government took the pre-emptive move of declaring war on Spain in January 1762 and immediately conceiving bold plans to seize Spain’s two most important overseas possessions: Havana capital of Cuba, gateway to the Caribbean; and Manila, capital of the 5,000 Philippines Islands, gateway to the Pacific and crucial to Spain’s enormously lucrative trade with China and other Far East countries.

3. Havana

The campaign against Havana took place between March to August 1762. When a substantial British fleet, carrying a large army, navigated the tricky eastern channel and anchored close to the city, we now know that if they had mounted a frontal assault they would have penetrated Havana’s rickety defences and taken the garrison unawares. Instead, faulty intelligence suggested they had to first take the massive fort overlooking the city, El Morro and this turned into a protracted and painful siege lasting months, during which every drop of fresh water had to be carried manually from freshwater streams miles away, across burning rocks and scrub, to a force which was often pinned down by fire from the fort.

Eventually it was taken using the medieval strategy of mining beneath it and setting off an enormous explosion then rushing the resulting breach in the wall. Once possessed of the fort, the general leading British forces, George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, issued an ultimatum to the governor of the city. When the latter hesitated, Albemarle launched a sustained bombardment forcing him to accept. The British entered Havana on 14 August 1762.

They had obtained possession of the most important harbour in the Spanish West Indies along with military equipment, 1,828,116 Spanish pesos and merchandise valued around 1,000,000 Spanish pesos. Furthermore, they had seized 20% of the ships of the line of the Spanish Navy. (Wikipedia).

4. Manila

The Battle of Manila was fought from 24 September 1762 to 6 October 1762, and took the same shape as the Havana campaign, except on a smaller scale and not dragging on for so long. This was reflected in the fact that the British lost only five officers and 30 other ranks killed, and only 100 wounded. There was no El Morro fortress to besiege and after a relatively brief period of bombardment, and given that the city’s defences weren’t even completely built, the acting governor – an archbishop – surrendered. There was some looting by British forces until brought under control, at which point the commanders settled down to extort the maximum amount of money and matériel from the conquered Spanish. The city remained under British rule for 18 months but was returned to Spain in April 1764 under the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the war.

Themes

Besides the battles, and the campaigns they form parts of, and the over-arching strategy to ‘whip the French’, which are the book’s main subject – a number of other themes emerge:

1. Bloody battles

The battles were often a bloody shambles. The Battle of Carillon, also known as the Battle of Ticonderoga, on July 8, 1758, involved badly-prepared British soldiers being ordered to scramble up a hill towards French defences. They were told these were only flimsy palisades but they turned out to be an impenetrable wall of hewn fir tree logs reaching up to eight foot tall, with all the roots and branches sticking outwards like spikes and French musketeers firing from every cranny. The British had drawn up artillery on an adjacent hill and to this day nobody knows why the commander, General Abercrombie, didn’t do the obvious thing and order it to fire on the log wall. Instead, wave after waves of Brits were slaughtered either slogging up the hillside or completely failing to climb over the log wall, ‘falling like pigeons’, lying strewn screaming along the slope or dangling from the branches of the trees. The handful that made it over the palisade were immediately bayoneted on the other side. It was a bloodbath. (pp. 102 – 111)

2. Sentiment and humanism

It’s striking how many times grown men cry during this era. When various leaders fall (like Howe or Wolfe), eye witnesses record numerous officers and soldiers shedding tears at the loss. This was, after all the great Age of Sentiment, so it’s possible that noble sentiments and manly tears were inserted into the narratives, journals, diaries and letters which Pocock quotes, because both writers and readers expected this kind of behaviour. Or – simpler explanation – men were just more sensitive and emotional back then.

On Tuesday 22 March 1757 a squadron commanded by Admiral Charles Watson attacked Chandernagore (modern Chandannagar) upriver from Calcutta. The British ships were raked by cannon placed on the walls of the French Fort d’Orléans. All Watson’s officers were wounded and killed as well as hundreds of men. Among them were Captain Speke and his 16-year-old son Billy. The events were recorded in the account of Watson’s surgeon, Edward Ives:

When Admiral Watson had the unhappiness of seeing both father and son fall in the same instant, he immediately went up to them and by the most tender and pathetic expressions tried to alleviate their distress… The captain, who had observed his son’s legs to be hanging only by the skin, said to the admiral, ‘Indeed, sir, this was a cruel shot, to knock down both the father and son!’ Mr Watson’s heart was too full to make the least reply.

As both men were being carried below, the quarter-master who was carrying the boy, was killed outright by a cannon ball. As Ives was examining the boy, the latter indicated a wounded man lying next to him and said, ‘Pray, sir, look to and dress this poor man, who is groaning so sadly beside me.’ Then of his own wound he said, ‘Sir, I fear you must amputate above the joint,’ and Ives replied, ‘My dear, I must.’ Captain Speke survived but his son died of  gangrene and Lockjaw a few weeks later. On being asked, ‘Well, Ives, how fares it with my boy?’ Ives could not reply and later wrote in his diary: ‘He immediately attributed my silence to the real cause. He cried bitterly, squeezed me by the hand and begged me to leave him for one half-hour… When I returned to him, he appeared as he ever after did, perfectly calm and serene.’ (Battle For Empire pages 74 to 76.)

When Admiral Watson died of illness in Calcutta in August 1757, a huge funeral was held at the church of St John attended by thousands of mourners and Ives wrote, ‘Nor was there an individual among them all that did not shed a tear.’

Not only sentimental tears but chivalry and politesse was displayed by fine ladies and gentlemen, even in the midst of the conflict. For example, when Major General Jeffrey Amherst led the British forces besieging Louisbourg, which protected the mouth of the St Lawrence Waterway, the gateway to French North America,

The Governor of Louisbourg, the Chevalier Drucour, sent a message to Amherst that he would be happy to send a French surgeon under a flag of truce to attend any wounded British officer. Amherst responded by forwarding messages into the town from captured French soldiers. He sent Madame Drucour a present of pineapples from the West Indies and she sent him bottles of French wine. (p.120)

3. Indian savagery

These very 18th century sensibilities were all the more shocked and outraged by the behaviour of the Red Indians, or native Americans, mostly allied with the French, especially their scalping of the dead, and especially their scalping of women and children. Contrary to Wolfe’s chivalry towards the French ladies, is the story of what happened to the expeditionary force under Major-General Edward Braddock, sent to attack Fort Duquesne. After struggling 100 miles through forest and swamp they were ambushed by French and Indian forces, tried but failed to form up in the traditional square and over 500 men were slaughtered, including Braddock himself. But here’s the point:

Those captured by the Indians were tortured to death, including eight women; one of these was Braddock’s mistress, who was seized from the French-Canadians who were trying to save her, stripped, used as a target for arrows and finally killed and eaten. (pp.90-91)

Wherever the British lost to Franco-Indian forces, captives were liable to be horrifically tortured before being scalped. Pocock retells a steady trickle of atrocities with the same emphasis on the actual, human level of the experience as he brings to his descriptions of strategy and battle. On another occasion, when Brigadier John Forbes finally took Fort Duquesne, the scene of Braddocks’s disaster, in November 1758, he and his men found it abandoned and burnt by the French,

the Indians having decorated the charred ruins with the heads of captured Highlanders on spikes, festooned with their tartan plaids. (p.123)

British soldiers, throughout the North American campaign, were terrified of falling into the hands of the Indians. When Fort William Henry, a British fort at the southern end of Lake George, was captured by French and Indian forces in August 1757, the 600 or so provincials from New York surrendered but the 2,000 or so Indians broke open the fort’s liquor supply and ran wild, butchering up to 200 of the unarmed civilians, including women and children, with tomahawks and scalping knives.

This was such a notorious incident that James Fenimore Cooper used it in his classic novel The Last of the Mohicans, published 69 years later (in 1826).

Chivalry and savagery are combined in a brutal anecdote from the British siege of Manila, which took place from September into October 1762. The besieging British forces seized a frigate approaching the port which turned out, besides the usual treasure which the British stole, to contain the nephew of the Spanish cleric commanding the garrison in Manila, Governor-General Archbishop Manuel Rojo del Rio y Vieyra, one Antonio Tagle. In the chivalrous tradition we’ve become used to from reading this book, Tagle was entertained in the officers’ mess and the British commander, Brigadier-General William Draper, sent a note accompanied by a gift of fruit and wine to the archbishop warning him of Draper’s intention to send him into the besieged city. Unfortunately, as Tagle and his British guard approached the city, Filipino ‘irregulars’ spotted them and launched an attack. The Brits fired back and a full fight developed in which the officer accompanying Tagle was killed ‘and shockingly mutilated’ and Tagle himself, going to his defence, was also killed. Draper sent the archbishop an angry note threatening to hang all the Spanish prisoners unless the archbishop took control of his irregular forces. From that point onwards, the tone of the conflict became more savage. (pp.238-239)

4. Disease

But although the accounts of the battles are unpleasant and the reports of Indian atrocities are chilling, the fact is that military casualties in both were dwarfed by the ravages of disease. The campaign against Havana was the worst of the four. Of the 14,000 or so troops who landed in June and July 1762, by August only about 3,000 were still on their feet. During the nine weeks of the campaign the Royal Navy lost 86 killed and the Army 305, with about the same number dead or dying of wounds and about 100 missing.

‘The remaining 10,000 were either sick, or dead of tropical sickness or disease, heat exhaustion, dysentery and malaria but mostly of yellow fever.’ (p.231)

Major Thomas Mante kept a journal:

From the appearance of perfect health three or four hours robbed them of existence. Many there were, who endured a loathesome disease for days, nay weeks together, living in a state of putrefaction, their bodies full of vermin and almost eaten away before the spark of life was extinguished.

5. Loot

Losses to sickness were almost as severe in India and the Philippines. At some moments the accounts of the battles and these ‘great British victories’ are stirring for a patriotic boy reader and the accounts of the Indian atrocities are as stomach-churning as they’re meant to be; but what mostly comes over is the immense futility of the whole thing, the countless pointless deaths in what really amounts to an epic crime wave carried out by Britain’s ruling class. They sailed up to Havana and battered it into submission, and then stole all its goods and treasure. Same at Manila. Pocock goes into fascinating detail about the victory money i.e loot, apportioned to the senior officers in each attacking force, from £123,000 for the two commanders of the assault on Manila down to the £3 14s 10d given to each sailor.

Vast fortunes were to be made from what was, at the end of the day, little more than armed robbery. When Clive returned to England in 1760 to be given a hero’s welcome, the thanks of the King and an Irish peerage, he had amassed a fortune of nearly quarter of a million pounds, an annual annuity of £30,000, and the resentment of many in High Society at the astonishing wealth these foreign adventures lavished on mere soldiers.

What if…?

The book ends with an entertaining counterfactual speculation: As the British took over the vast area of North America (formerly New France) ceded to them by the defeated French, they alienated the native Indians who a) had pledged their allegiance to King Louis b) got on better with the scouting, hunting French than with the land hungry British settler-farmers. Eventually this led to the outbreak of an Indian War, led by an Ottowa chieftain Pontiac, which spread across the frontier until as many as 40,000 Indians from 80 tribes were involved in attacks on the British. The British response was to build a network of forts across the area and secure them with garrisons but still, it took over a year to suppress the rebellion. The forces of Lord Albemarle, returned from the long siege of Havana, were pitifully weakened by disease and exhaustion and so were unable to repress the rebellion, without reinforcements being sent from Britain.

The cost of putting down Pontiac’s rebellion and then of maintaining the forts was high and the British government decided to pass it onto the colonists who, after all, were the main beneficiaries and so passed a Sugar Act and a Stamp Act in 1764 to raise money. Angered by the failure of the authorities to stamp out the Indian threat, and restrictions on what land they could settle, colonial traders were now incensed by this tax on their business. Little by little complaints became protests and protests burst out into scuffles and violence. These were the seeds of the general resentment at Britain’s rule which were eventually lead to armed uprising in 1775 and to the American War of Independence generally dated from 1776.

Pocock’s counterfactual is this: What if Lord Albemarle had decided to storm Havana immediately on arriving (as many critics with the benefit of hindsight said he should have) instead of spending long bitter months wearing down his own forces and exposing thousands of his men to sickness and death in the siege of El Morro?

What if the whole campaign had been wrapped up in a few weeks and the army returned healthy and in good fighting condition to New York and the other coastal American cities which they mostly came from? They would then have been armed and ready to suppress Pontiac’s rebellion much more quickly; the cost of the campaign would have been less, and the expensive forts need never have been built, or not on the same scale.

In which case the British government would never have been prompted to levy the new taxes on their colonial subjects.

In which case the American War of Independence might never have happened, and Britain would still own the whole of North America!

Related links

Other posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

Go back to New York, Dr Kelso, and play your games of history in somebody else’s country, because this isn’t England or America, the past isn’t safely dead here. In Russia, the past carries razors and a pair of handcuffs.’ (p.167)

Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso is a historian of modern Russia. Described by one Sunday supplement as a ‘battered Byron’, he is in fact ‘a fattening and hungover middle-aged historian in a black corduroy suit’ (p.55). He’s overweight, drinks too much, despises his colleagues and has for many years devoted more time and energy to appearing on the telly and churning out articles and reviews for fashionable magazines than doing any actual historical research, and hence the envy and contempt of his peers.

He along with a cross-selection of colleagues are gathered at a mind-numbingly boring conference about archives and research in the newly post-communist Russia. Kelso’s three marriages and three subsequent divorces, his general air of shambling drunken disreputableness, the way he drinks so much he throws up and the next morning causes a kerfuffle when he hungoverly stumbles out of the first lecture of the day, all this gives him the feel of a Kingsley Amis character.

But he is a Kingsley Amis character thrown into a gripping thriller, because the reason he’s so hungover is that he was up half the night drinking with a mysterious, raddled old Muscovite who had attended one of his anti-communist lectures, tutting all the way through, and had then cornered the good doctor to put him ‘right’ about Comrade Stalin. Over drinks in his shabby hotel room Kelso and the Russkie – Papu Rapava – get really drunk while Papu pours out his heart about how misunderstood kind Comrade Stalin was.

In the middle of the tears and vodka Rapava tells an extraordinary story about being present at Stalin’s death. He had been a young security guard to Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of Soviet Secret Police, when one night he was summoned to drive his boss out to Stalin’s dacha. Here they found the old tyrant lying paralysed by a stroke on a sofa. Instead of calling for a doctor, Beria ordered Rapava to help him look for a key, the key to Stalin’s safe. When Rapava finds it, stashed down the sofa beside the comatose dictator, Beria orders him to drive them back to Moscow, to the Kremlin, where Beria bluffs his way past the guards and then uses the key to open Stalin’s private safe and take from it a metal box containing Stalin’s most private papers. Then they drive to Beria’s Moscow house, where Beria orders Rapava to bury the box in the back garden. And then they drive back to Stalin’s dacha in time to be present with other officials at Stalin’s actual death (it took three days, apparently).

However, in the turmoil following the dictator’s death, Beria is himself arrested, tortured and then executed. Rapava, as his security guard and driver, finds himself sentenced to fifteen years in a labour camp above the Arctic circle, experiences which he gruesomely recounts to the pissed Kelso… But, he drunkenly tells Kelso, he never told anyone, he hugged his secret all this time…

While Kelso is throwing up in the loo, Rapava staggers to his feet and out of the hotel, and although Kelso pathetically chases him down the stairs, across the lobby and out into the freezing night, he loses him. Damn.

Next day Kelso tells his closest confidante among the delegates about this strange encounter, and decides to track Rapava down. First of all he goes to visit a scary relic of the communist regime, Vladimir Mamantov, to interview him about the notebook, to try and get background information from one of the few surviving communists who were in Stalin’s circle. But Mamantov immediately pounces on Kelso’s hints. The notebook?’ Mamantov says. ‘Stalin’s notebook, the one referred to in all the memoirs but which was never found?’ Hmm. Maybe not such a good idea to have let him know. Kelso departs with a bad feeling…

Russian spies

At this point the narrative switches to follow Major Feliks Suvorin and Lieutenant Vissari Netto of the Russian security service. It turns out that they are monitoring Mamantov’s apartment and phone calls. Mamantov is still a threatening political presence. He took part in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev and was imprisoned for 18 months, but now he’s at liberty again, with widespread connections and the money to fund an unreconstructed communist magazine, Aurora.

Thus the security services tap Kelso’s phone call to Mamantov and their subsequent conversation. Thus they learn about the fabled Stalin notebook. Shortly after Kelso’s visit Mamantov’s mad, old wife leaves the building with her minder for her regular morning walk. When she doesn’t return for some time, then not at all, the watching officers nervously realise something’s up. When they break into the apartment they find his wife tied and bound in the wardrobe. Mamontov had dressed in her clothes to fool them, escape surveillance and is now on the loose.

R.J. O’Brian

So now Kelso, Mamatov and the security services are all after the fabled notebook. That night Kelso goes to the bar where the drunken Rapava had told him his prostitute daughter works, the Robotnik, in a bid to track down Rapava. Here Kelso bumps into a brash, loud American TV journalist, R.J. O’Brian, who, it turns out, also knows all about the notebook. How? He’d been hanging round the conference centre and the academic Kelso confided in had told him (the swine). So now Kelso, O’Brian, Mamantov and Russian security are all after the damn notebook.

Rapava’s daughter

Kelso gets the barman to point out Papava’s daughter, Zinaida, who turns out to be a battle-hardened whore, well used to fleecing foreign tourists. Kelso only wants her to drive him to her father’s apartment but she insists on the full rate ($400). She dumps him in a terrifying urban wasteland of badly built high-rises on the outskirts of Moscow, telling him the block, floor and apartment number.

In a tense, scary scene Kelso makes his way in the late-night darkness through the utterly empty snow-swept high rises, climbing the piss-smelling, vomit-strewn stairwell up to Rapava’s apartment where he finds the door hanging off its hinges and the flat more systematically ripped to pieces than anything he’s ever seen. Foolishly, he enters and investigates, eventually coming across the bathroom sink full of blood and shreds of scalp with hair attached. He stumbles back out towards the lift – only to find Rapava’s body hanging from the lift cables – or what’s left of his body, completely eviscerated, looking more like a side of beef, and with his penis cut off and shoved into what’s left of his mouth.

In the police station

Kelso runs to the nearest apartment and gets them to call the police. He finds himself being arrested and taken to the cells where he spends a very worrying night. But in the morning he is not charged or beaten up under interrogation (as he feared), but released into the care of one of the security officers we’ve been getting to know in the parallel sequence of scenes about them, notably the young westernised Major Feliks Suvorin.

Suvorin asks Kelso why he went to see such a dangerous man as Mamantov? Does he realise that by mentioning the notebook he signed Rapava’s death warrant – for it was Mamantov, when still a senior KGB official, who had interrogated Rapava after the fall of Beria, and then upon his release from the labour camp. Thus he knew that all the other witnesses to Stalin’s death were dead. Thus he knew that what Kelso took for his own clever and subtle references to ‘a contact’ who had mentioned the notebook, could be only one person. Thus Mamantov absconded from his apartment and went direct to torture and murder Rapava. ‘And you know what, Dr Kelso? Now he may come looking for you.’

This is the scene where the quote from the top of the page comes, with Suvorin telling Kelso he is out of his depth in the jungle which is post-communist Russia. ‘Go back to the West. Leave while you are still alive.’ Then Suvorin drives him back to the hotel and tells him to catch the flight home along with the other academics. Here Kelso showers and tries to wash away the horrors of the previous night.

Zinaida’s note

The next morning he joins the waiting historians filtering into the big tourist coach, jostled along by their ‘minder’, Olga, with her prodding umbrella, to be driven off to Sheremetevo airport. At the last moment Kelso is cornered by O’Brian who wants them to go 50-50 on the ‘scoop’, but Kelso says, ‘No deal’ and happily drives off with the others to the airport. Here they bicker and catfight as only academics can, but then Kelso sees Zinaida standing on the other side of the departure lounge glass. He goes outside to talk to her and she lures him into the nearby multi-story car park where she reveals that her father had visited her just a few days ago, drunk and apologetic, and left her a scribbled letter. It says he left her something valuable – and tells her where it’s hidden. It must be the notebook!

Kelso looks at his colleagues queuing up to go through passport control. He knows his visa has only one more day to run after which he will be staying in Russia illegally. He knows it is crazy to go with a mercenary and unreliable prostitute. But he is not just a historian, he is bitten by the deeper bug of needing to know. He gets into the car. He says, ‘take me there.’

In the lock-up

Zinaida drives Kelso to the derelict garages, part of the complex of high rises where he found Rapava’s body. Presumably the police didn’t know that Rapava owned a garage and he went to his death, heroically defying incomprehensible torture pain, not revealing it, so his daughter could have it, it and whatever money it brings. A bitter gift from a distant and difficult father. Now Kelso jumps down into the garage well and, pulling away the sides, quickly comes across a metal box. Inside is a leather folder containing a notebook and papers! It is at this moment that the garage door opens from the outside.

It is a typically heart-stopping moment in a novel full of them: will it Mamantov and his psychopath torturers? Will they eviscerate the girl in front of Kelso and then start on him? But no, it is in fact the irritating, boosterish Yank TV journalist, O’Brian. Zinaida, the hard-bitten whore, pulls the gun she always carries and there is a tense stand-off, which Kelso helps reconcile into a deal. O’Brian will pay Zinaida for the book; and gets to film Kelso re-enacting the discovery then opening the notebook then reading it.

Stalin’s notebook

In fact, the notebook turns out to be completely different from what everyone expected. Far from being some kind of record of the great dictator’s mind and plans, it turns out to be the diary of a 21-year-old girl, Anna Safanova, a keen Komsomol Party member, born and raised in Archangel in Russian’s far north. The diary begins as Anna is plucked from provincial obscurity and invited to come and work at Stalin’s dacha, where she is instructed by the head of the staff in all his little ways and foibles. The diary describes her excitement at this amazing stroke of luck, and logs the fairly innocuous moments over the coming weeks until the moment when Stalin asks her to dance for him one evening – at which point the journal breaks off. Kelso notes that the next forty or so pages have been carefully torn out.

Turning to the other papers in the folder, Kelso quickly realises they amount to an official profile of Anna Safanova, appraising her fitness, genetic inheritance, ideological commitment and so on. Kelso and Zinaida both realise at the same time that she was one of a number of fit, healthy, young women brought to Stalin for him to breed with. Anna’s diary breaks off at the point the Great Leader made his pass at her. Zinaida is physically sick. She throws the notebook at the men, ‘Take the damned thing… Take it. Keep it.’ (p.224)

But O’Brian asks the key question: ‘Could this Anna Safanova possibly still be alive? Whatever happened to her? Let’s go up to Archangel and find out: are you up for that, Dr Kelso?’ And Kelso, like a fool, agrees.

The drive to Archangel

The two men load a four-by-four with petrol, food, filming and editing equipment and set off on the long, long drive to Archangel in the frozen north. After the gruelling journey they arrive to find it a shabby backwater but manage to bluff their way into the local party headquarters where they bribe a resentful old communist to open up the local files. The files covering the two years when Anna Safanova would have joined the communist party are mysteriously missing – but the official comes up with the surprising news that Anna’s mother is still alive.

Meanwhile, Suvorin picks up and interrogates Zinaida. She’s tough so he drives her to the morgue where he shows her her father’s tortured body. She screams and collapses. ‘This is what they’ll do to you and Kelso when they find him; so where is he?’ She tells him. She tells him Kelso and O’Brian have the notebook and have driven to Archangel to find the girl whose diary it is. Suvorin calls his office and makes arrangements for a plane to fly him north.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian drive to the rundown clapboard house of Vavara Safanova, now a bent 85-year-old crone. She gives vivid descriptions of her childhood after the revolution, she remembers the British ships which arrived to put it down in 1918, her education, joining the party and marriage to Mikhail. Then she recalls their daughter, Anna, her birth and childhood and growing up beautiful, a devoted communist, and how it was these qualities which made the local party recommend her to take part in a mass Komsomol parade in Moscow – and then a few weeks later, the mysterious summons, to return to Moscow and become an assistant to senior party leaders.

Eight months later Anna returned to Archangel heavily pregnant. When the baby was due, she haemorrhaged and the doctors couldn’t save her, but they saved the baby, a boy. Vavara and her husband never saw him. He was sent to be fostered by a family named Chizhikov in a settlement east of Archangel. She points it out on O’Brian’s map, at the end of a single road, deep in the taiga. One day her husband set off to the settlement to find the child. Five days later his dead body came floating down the river. He’d had a heart attack, they said…

O’Brian overcomes all Kelso’s objections – the road will be dreadful, there’ll be no gas stations or hotels, it will be snowy wilderness, it will be dangerous – and insists they drive out there straightaway. They set off and it takes hours, as the road by the river gives way to snow-covered track and then to just a deeply snowed-in gap between the endless tress on either side. Harris vividly describes the eeriness of snowy forest, and Kelso’s mounting anxiety. They are driving slowly enough to notice a clearing off to one side and – hang on – is that smoke? At that moment the 4-by-4 hits a really big rut and the whole front end nose-dives into it and the car stalls.

In the forest

The novel now takes on the intensity and spine-chilling quality of a horror story. Kelso and O’Brian walk towards the settlement of houses, noting the smoke has now ceased. It is completely abandoned and ruined. They notice a small cemetery of graves off to one side and Kelso notes that some of the photos – placed Russian-style on each grave – have been defaced. O’Brian says he’ll go back to the car to get the satellite phone. He is gone a long time. When Kelso follows his tracks they go back to the car alright, but then off into the woods in the opposite direction. The novel becomes very scary. Moving warily through the close-knit deep-snowed-in trees Kelso hears a moaning and a creaking sound. He comes across O’Brian caught in a rope snare, hanging upside down by his ankle from a tree. Kelso cuts him down and O’Brian moans something about ‘I saw him’. At that moment Kelso becomes aware of a primitive ape-like face staring at him from between the trees.

Stalin’s son

A rough, rude peasant in animal skins and boots emerges from the pine and shepherds them at gun point to a basic cabin in another part of the woods, skirting the booby traps and mantraps he has planted everywhere. ‘Are you the ones?’ he asks them, ‘the promised ones?’ He sits them down and then shaves with a razor sharp knife, taking off his beard to reveal a full bushy black moustache; and then changes his clothes to put on a Russian military uniform. Kelso is shocked, horrified: it is Stalin to the life. Without a doubt this is the son, the son of the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, of all time.

What emerges over the next few pages is too weird to be true, but is true: Stalin’s son by Anna Safanova was spirited off into this isolated settlement where he was brought up by four couples of hand-picked fanatical communists, indoctrinating him with his father’s beliefs, making him listen to endless gramophone records of Stalin’s speeches, making him read and reread the twelve volumes of Stalin’s Collected works until, as now, before Kelso and O’Brian, he does a word perfect imitation of his father, lazily half closing his eyes, enquiring why they are so nervous, putting the fear of God into them.

As the boy came of age, he began flexing his psychological powers and tyrannising his minders. As a teenager he found one of his guardian guilty of ‘defeatism’. He was the first to be interrogated and executed. Then there was an outbreak of ‘right-deviationism’, as some of them discussed giving up and returning to civilisation. These criminals had to be punished. And then the sabotage started, as the fish in the river were poisoned and food went missing from traps. When one of the minders was found prowling round after curfew he too was interrogated, tortured and admitted all his crimes, before being executed. His wife hanged herself a week later.

Now Kelso realises the grisly significance of the little cemetery. One by one Stalin’s son had picked his minders and carers off until he was alone. In an appalling sidelight, Kelso gets to see papers on his desk, among the well-thumbed volumes of Stalin’s speeches, each of them headed ‘Confession’, and realises some of them are by outsiders who stumbled across the settlement, including two carefree hippy travellers in 1968. They too were tortured, interrogated and executed.

Kelso realises they are at the mercy of a paranoid psychopath, a kind of quintessence of Stalin who reveals the secret of Stalin’s success: creating an atmosphere of total fear.

The Spetsnaz

Meanwhile, Major Suvorin arrives in Archangel to find the local militia unhelpful to the point of rudeness. When he phones his boss back in Moscow he discovers the reason why: the story of the missing notebook having been found and Zinaida’s account of it recording the breeding and birth of Stalin’s son and heir, have reached the highest circles ie the President. And the order has come back to strangle and suppress it; to kill everyone involved; to kill the son but also the two foreigners.

The westernised Suvorin is appalled, but those are the orders. The militia who seemed so rude are members of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special forces. Assassins. They mock the soft westernised Suvorin as he struggles to clamber into the big snowplough they’ve commandeered. They have earpiece radio comunications, black balaclavas and loads of machine guns. They set off in the snowplough up the same road Kelso and O’Brian took just a few hours before.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian are still in the hut, being lectured by Stalin’s son who is quoting his father’s speeches at length, thinking things can’t get much weirder – when a skull appears at the window. It is one of the Spetsnaz men. In one uncanny movement the son pulls up a trapdoor and disappears below the floorboards. At that moment the special forces burst into the hut, push Kelso and O’Brian up against the wall and handcuff their wrists. ‘Under the floorboards’, they say and a Spetsnaz man opens up with a machine gun, systematically perforating the floorboards with bullets till the magazine runs out. He slots in a new ammo clip and starts again. But when they pull up the trap door they find it leads to a tunnel. The son is on the loose.

To be brief – he kills them all, luring one man into a man-trap, and when another returns to help him, killing the second one then shooting the trapped one in the head. Then he hunts down the last one, the arrogant major. Bang. Dead.

During this slaughter Major Suvorin has finally clambered out of the snow plough and made it up to the hut. Here he releases Kelso and O’Brian and asks them what the hell is going on. All three of them hear the bursts of machine gun fire, the screaming, as in a very scary horror film. When Suvorin reluctantly goes back towards the snowplough he finds the corpses of the Spetsnaz men and the snowplough exploded and on fire. He is stuck here.

In his absence O’Brian takes the satellite radio into a clearing to try and call for help from the outside world. Kelso examines the papers on the son’s chaotic desk and is piecing together more of the terrible story of the settlement when the son magically reappears in the hut and shepherds Kelso towards the river, picking up O’Brian on the way. Here there is a boat with outboard motor, and into it they climb, pull the cord and out into the river they go. Suvorin hears the motor and runs in its direction through the trees, arriving to see the boat round a corner in the huge river. The sound dwindles to silence. He is on his own in his useless western clothes, abandoned in the middle of the Russian forest as the snow falls.

To their (and the reader’s) amazement and relief, Kelso and O’Brian find themselves arriving at Archangel, back in the real world after the hair-raising horror of the wilderness, and the son steering them into a quayside where they moor. As they go up the steps it seems as if the son’s expecting them to take the lead; they are, after all ‘the ones’ that he was expecting. They will know what to do next. In fact Kelso and O’Brian run for the nearest cab and fling dollars at the driver to take them to the station, where they jump the long Russian queue and throw more dollars at the ticket desk until they get tickets for the huge, long train which is about to pull out for Moscow.

On the train

They find their ‘sleeper’ compartment, make a meal of the crappy food they just had time to buy, stare at each other disbelievingly, and fall asleep, into a deep, deep sleep punctuated only by the announcements of all the little stations on their 800-mile journey. When Kelso awakes, he groggily realises he’s slept for 9 hours straight. Looking out the window he sees a picture of Stalin float by and thinks he must still be asleep and dreaming. But at the next settlement they pass through there are people holding up pictures of Stalin and Lenin; and at the next one, a village band has assembled and he catches a snatch of the old Soviet national anthem. Something weird is happening.

Kelso stumbles into the corridor and makes his way through the long, dirty, smelly and increasingly congested carriages. He has a growing sense of fear. When he opens the door to the fifth carriage his fears are confirmed. In the eerie and terrifying way the son was able to appear and disappear in the forest, had a sixth sense about the arrival of the Spetsnaz and effortlessly outwitted them – somehow, magically, he managed to make it onto the train.

Here he is, fast asleep, the spitting image of the virile young Stalin, and surrounded by an awed crowd of admirers. As the train pulls into a station, Kelso becomes aware of packs of black-uniformed young men getting onto the train and then he sees Vladimir Mamantov among them. Kelso runs in a panic back towards his compartment and grabs the folder with the notebook and papers in. He is about to start tearing them up when O’Brian comes fully awake and tries to stop him. They argue and O’Brian punches Kelso to the floor, but the latter manages to escape and run down the corridor, now pursued by some of the blackshirts.

He hurtles into a spare compartment, locks the door, gets out his cigarette lighter and sets the first paper alight… just as the door is kicked open and brutal hands wrench the paper and folder out of his grasp, pushing him down onto the seat and pinning him there. And then the grizzled, terrifying old communist party fanatic, Mamantov, enters the compartment and sits down, wagging an admonitory finger at foolish Dr Kelso.

Mamantov’s story

Mamantov tells him the full story. He knew about the notebook from the beginning. Rapava told him about it and where it was buried. Mamantov knew all about the girl Anna Safanova, about Archangel, about Stalin’s son. He had even travelled up there, out into the woods, and met him. But think about it – If he, Mamantov, announced that he had discovered Stalin’s son and heir in the middle of nowhere, nobody would believe him, they’d laugh at him and at this pathetically transparent ruse to get the communists back into power.

No, he needed someone who would verify it all for him, an objective authority. And who could be more objective than a historian, not just a Russian historian – too compromised – no, a western historian, ideally one with a well-known antipathy to Stalin and all his works. Someone like… the famous TV historian, Dr Christopher Kelso!

And so Mamantov had used his money and influence to arrange the entire conference that Kelso was attending, had ensured that Kelso’s name was on the guest list, had ensured that he actually attended. And it was Mamantov who arranged for comrade Rapava to sit in the front row tutting through Kelso’s lecture damning Stalin, and then to buttonhole Kelso and end up telling him all about the notebook. He had counted on Kelso’s addiction to history, his need to find the truth.

And he had paid O’Brian to film everything. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian had attended the conference, pretending to be sniffing around for a story – because he knew the story well in advance. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian was in the Robotnik nightclub when Kelso went to find Rapava’s daughter. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian walked into the garage as Kelso uncovered the notebook. Because it had all been set up and planned in advance, so that every step of the way O’Brian could document and film the odyssey of an authoritative and sceptical western historian, who would validate every successive finding.

And when O’Brian left Kelso in the hut in the forest, as the son was dealing with the Spetsnaz forces, O’Brian wasn’t just ringing the outside world – he was sending his long report, complete with all the rushes, back to his TV station in America, a station which – out of courtesy – of course shared the report and rushes with Russian TV.

So that while Kelso slept, the sensational story had topped world newscasts, but especially Russian newscasts, for the past nine hours. Stalin had a son. He was brought up in the wild north woods, a rough and ready chip off the old block. Now he is returning to Moscow to heal Russia’s ills, to clean out the corruption, the prostitution and AIDS and drug addiction, to clear away the mafia and the corrupt politicians, to restore Russia to her former glory, a mighty nation to be feared and respected.

‘And all with your help, Dr Kelso. All with your invaluable help.’

At the station

Intercut with this dazzling revelation had been scenes at the HQ of security forces. While the train had been stationary at the stop where Mamantov and his black shirted men boarded it, the security forces had been asking their political leaders what to do: should they storm it to neutralise Mamantov and the son? But that risked a blaze of publicity, with attendant casualties and the possible death of Stalin’s son?

Down from the top comes the order: No. Let it be. Too risk. — Suddenly there is panic throughout the administration. In the office of the President they don’t know which way things will go, will the return of Stalin’s son lead to a popular uprising in his favour? So feverish, so febrile, is the atmosphere of post-communist Russia and Moscow which Harris has painted, that you believe anything is possible.

The head of security calls off all the surveillance on Mamantov and all records of it to be destroyed. If the son takes power, everyone had better start protecting their asses. He also calls off the guard which Suvorin had set on Zinaida’s apartment after he’d taken her to the morgue. So that when she wakes up and finds the security man at her door gone, she wonders what’s going on – then she switches on the TV. It is wall-to-wall coverage of Stalin’s son’s return. My God!

But she is her father’s daughter, tough as boots, and she takes the pistol he gave her and slips it into her handbag. She takes the metro to Moscow central station and, in her dark jacket and skirt and glasses, can pass for one of the most dedicated of the loyalists who are now flooding into the station, forming a huge crowd expecting the arrival of the new young master, Russia’s saviour.

She elbows her way to the front of the crowd, near to the podium which has been erected for the messiah to make his first speech. The train draws in and slows to a halt, the crowd go wild. A door opens and down steps the handsome charismatic man, spitting image of his father with his big black moustache, followed by the looming presence of Mamantov. They walk towards the podium and start climbing it to address the crowd and at that moment Zinaida draws the pistol from under her coat and takes aim.

And there the novel ends, leaving the future of Russia – and the world – hanging breathlessly in the balance.


The atrocity thriller

In his first three novels Harris perhaps created a new sub-genre, the atrocity thriller, a thriller which revolves around one of the great atrocities or horrors of the twentieth century. His first three novels revolve around, respectively: the Holocaust, the Katyn Massacre and Stalin’s purges. Because Kelso is a historian, Harris is able to intersperse the text with Kelso’s ‘lectures’, thus being able to give the reader devastating indictments of Stalin the man and politician.

In one of these lectures we learn of the way Stalin drove his wives to suicide and systematically murdered all his and their relatives. In another one, we are reminded of the incomprehensible scale of the suffering he imposed on the Russian people – the man-made famines of the 1930s caused by the stupid policy of forced collectivisation and the endless purges which continued right up to the eve of the Second World War and which fatally weakened the Red Army, ensuring it was defeated and pushed back deep into the heart of Russia before it could finally halt the Germans.

Professor I.A. Kuganov estimates that sixty-six million people were killed in the USSR between 1917 and 1953 – shot, tortured, starved mostly, frozen or worked to death. Others say the true figure is a mere forty-five million… Neither estimate, by the way, includes the thirty million now known to have been killed in the Second World War. (p.156)

The current population of Russia is 143.5 million; demographers calculate that, without the enormous loss of life caused by the Bolsheviks, by communism, and specifically by Stalin, the population would be nearer to 300 million. Has any man been responsible for more deaths anywhere at any time? It is the world record.

As with Fatherland and to some extent Enigma, just reading a factual account of the ‘background’ to the story, makes you feel sick.

Russia after the Soviet Union

And then there’s the foreground, the situation of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Didn’t exactly turn into a capitalist paradise, did it? The end of communism was followed by a calamitous drop in GDP, incomes and welfare, drastic decline in life expectancy, accompanied by a surge in unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, in mafia gangs running drugs and prostitutes, a collapse into criminality at every level, as described by Martin Cruz Smith in his Arkady Renko novels.

All the characters refer to the broken-spirited shabbiness and unfettered criminality of post-communist Russia, there isn’t a building that hasn’t been vandalised or had swastikas spray-painted onto it, there isn’t an official who can’t be bribed or corrupted. It is an almost failed state, deeply humiliated and resentful, which Harris vividly captures in scores of details and bitter exchanges of dialogue, as well as the occasional bit of symbolism.

On the waterfront four giant Red Army men, cast in bronze, stood back to back, facing the four points of the compass, their rifles raised in triumph. At their feet, a pack of wild dogs scavenged among the trash. (p.266)

Style

Once again, Harris suits the style to the subject matter. The core of all his novels is basic ‘modern thriller prose’, but given a slightly different vibe for each book. Fatherland had a rangy American feel; Enigma was slightly but noticeably more formal and old-fashioned, befitting its 1940s setting. And this book’s thriller-speak is inflected towards the English non-public school slangy idiom of its protagonist (who, we learn, was the first boy from his provincial grammar school to go to Cambridge).

Thus a lot of the characters – the Russian gulag survivors, the Russian cops, Fluke and various other academics – say ‘fuck’ quite a lot (‘Fuck you’ says his third wife Margaret down the phone from New York, p.112) [and, as we know from the novels of Martin Cruz Smith, ‘Go fuck your mother’ (p.82, 161) is a favourite Russian expression].

Kelso’s idiom is already fairly coarse but the text becomes considerably more profane once O’Brian arrives with his yankee effing and blinding:

  • The sheer bloody tedium of academic life… (p.41)
  • The end of history, my arse, he thought. This was History’s town. This was History’s bloody country. (p.116)
  • It was vindication. Vindication for twenty years of freezing his arse off in basement archives… (p.193)
  • [O’Brian] raised his hands in disgust. ‘Shit, I can’t stand around here bitching all afternoon…’ (p.220)
  • Oh, fuck it, what did it matter? (p.238)
  • The Office of the President of the Federation had been on the line to Arsenyev, demanding to know (a direct quote from Boris Nikolaevich, apparently) what the fuck was going on? (p.256)
  • ‘Oh, go ahead, enjoy yourself,’ said O’Brian, bitterly. ‘This is my idea of a perfect fucking Friday. Drive eight hundred miles to some dump that looks like Pittsburgh after a nuclear strike to try to find Stalin’s fucking girlfriend -‘ (p.267)

I’m not objecting to the swearing; just pointing out that it’s one of the ways Harris differentiates the style and feel of this one, from the previous two novels.

Prolepsis

  • If Kelso had seen him full-face he probably wouldn’t have recognised him, and then everything would have turned out differently. (p.120)
  • Afterwards, Kelso was to recognise this as the decisive moment: as the point at which he lost control of events. (p.196)
  • It happened with a kind of inexorable logic so that later, when Kelso had the time to review his actions, he still could never identify a precise moment when he could have stopped it, when he could have diverted events on to a different course – (p.216)
  • I am trapped, thought Kelso. I am a victim of historical inevitability. Comrade Stalin would have approved (p.217)

All three of these novels use this device half a dozen times – of the narrator sign-posting important turning points in the narrative with an ominous ‘what if’. They not only indicate important hinges in the narrative but at the same time fill the reader with an undefined sense of dread, that things are going to turn out badly. And all because of a tiny moment, an accident, a coincidence, when things might have gone OK – but didn’t.

It’s a very effective tension-building device, as the novel proceeds into a realm of almost supernatural horror, creating a heart-stopping sense of dread and fear.


Credit

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

The TV series

Archangel was made into a three-part TV adaptation for BBC 1, starring Daniel Craig and broadcast in March 2005, just before his James Bond period started. Craig has the physiognomy of a hardened criminal so it’s always a surprise when he behaves polite and civilised and, as here, almost permanently cowering and scared, not how we normally picture him.

The first two-thirds of the dramatisation follow the book closely, but it makes a major departure when, instead of Zinaida washing her hands of the notebook, going back to her Moscow apartment and leaving the boys to it, in the TV version she teams up with Kelso to steal O’Brian’s car and it is they who drive all the way to Archangel, to track down and interview Anna’s mother together. I guess it’s just a law of film and TV drama that there needs to be a heterosexual love interest (and Kelso and Zinaida in the TV version do indeed end up snogging and shagging and worrying about each other – completely unlike in the novel).

In this version, O’Brian only catches up with them by hiring a private plane to fly him to Archangel. He arrives just after Kelso and Zinaida have had to flee from two ordinary Russian policemen who had been sniffing round their 4-by-4, taking flight and belting down snowy back alleys in an unconvincing chase scene (not in the novel). While they’re hiding behind a shed, a shiny BMW pulls up, a scary man in a leather jacket gets out and shoots both the cops dead at point-blank range. He is later revealed to be one of Mamantov’s crew but this scene, with its cynically sadistic violence involving the gross execution of a man already on the ground wounded, is not in the novel.

The scenes in the forest are also made to be more violent than the book. Instead of being on his own, the TV son-of-Stalin has two of the old minders still pottering about to help him. Well, the Spetsnaz just shoot them down in cold blood, with sickening brutality. But hey, using a cool silenced pistol which makes that cool schtook schtook sound. Almost always TV and film make novels more violent, and more cynically, disgustingly violent.

And instead of the three Spetsnaz men of the novel, in the TV version there are more like eight, not least so they can all jump out the back of an armoured vehicle to the accompaniment of thumping action music. These TV-version Spetsnaz threaten Kelso and O’Brian much more aggressively than in the book, and are on the brink of shooting our boys dead on the spot when Suvorin intervenes, holding a pistol to the Spetsnaz leader’s head in a melodramatic Mexican stand-off (not in the book).

It’s at this over-the-top moment that the son, hidden in the trees, shoots the first of the soldiers so that Kelso, O’Brian and Suvorin can take advantage of the ensuing confusion to turn and flee. Unfortunately, while his boys are dealing with the shooter, the hard-man leader of the Spetsnaz pursues our chaps through the woods, shooting Suvorin dead (not in the book) then shooting O’Brian dead (not in the book, in which he lives to accompany Kelso and the son back to Archangel by boat and then onto the train), then tracking Kelso down to the pier by the motorboat. Then, in a scene we’ve all seen in hundreds of movies, he slowly, gloatingly lifts his rifle to execute the cornered Kelso when – … you’ll never guess! A shot rings out and the baddy crumples to the floor! (Not in the novel.) Cut to a shot of the son-of-Stalin on the river bank, lowering his rifle. He has saved Kelso, who now jumps into the boat and putters off down the river and arrives in Archangel on his own, making it onto the train alone (unlike in the novel).

Instead of accompanying him (as in the book), in the TV version the son returns to the hut, dresses in his father’s field marshal uniform, and waits in a clearing for a helicopter – Mamantov’s helicopter – to arrive and collect him.

I prefer books and novels to TV drama and films because they can be so much subtler, more unexpected and thought-provoking. All the changes made in the TV version move it in the direction of empty cliché, clunky stereotype and – above all – substantially more and more unpleasant, violence – instead of jolting and surprising you as the novel consistently does.

It is interesting, unexpected and satisfying that in the novel Zinaida remains a tough bitch, who in no way gets close to Kelso, instead maintaining her independence and aloofness. It is lowering, deadening and thumpingly predictable that in the TV version Kelso and Zinaida end up having a ‘romance’ (‘Be careful darling,’ she whispers to him outside Vavara’s cottage as he and O’Brian prepare to drive off into the forest, obviously without her – for ‘This is man’s work, honey.’ It might as well be a 1950s Western – tired, predictable and revoltingly sexist.)

Not only does the characterisation become cruder, but TV and film invariably make stories like this more violent, blood-thirsty, cruel and sadistic. The unnecessary execution of the policemen is followed by the unnecessary execution of the old couple in the woods and followed by the unnecessary execution of Suvorin and then of O’Brian. All this violence ends up merely shocking for its own sake, sickening and then deadening the nerves. In the novel the violence is kept to the minimum needed in order to create a powerful feeling of dread ie only three Spetsnaz are killed by the son, just enough to create a sense of his almost supernatural mastery of the woods. In the TV version it is just bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead. The effect is deadening – dulling the mind and the senses.

The novel ends with an amazing cliff-hanger, with Zinaida pulling out her pistol to shoot the son but then stopping – leaving none of us knowing what happens next, whether she shoots or misses. This creates an awesome effect, a powerful last twist to the fiction, letting our imaginations run wild about what might happen next, including the Nightmare Scenario where Stalin’s son lives to take over modern Russia.

All of this, along with all its possible consequences and implications, along with everything thought-provoking and intelligent and suspenseful, is discarded in the TV version. Here Zinaida just pulls out her pistol and shoots the son dead. Bang you’re dead (again). End of. All over. Yawn. Time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

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 thrillers

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.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin (1998)

31 December 2012

A Clash of Kings (1998) is the second volume in the epic 7-volume fantasy series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. It follows seamlessly on from the end of the first volume, A Game of Thrones, with numerous plotlines continuing to unfold:

  • from the 700 foot-high Ice Wall which defends the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings and strange powers lurking in the frozen north, Jon Snow, aged 15, bastard son of the great Lord Eddard Stark, accompanies a reconnaissance mission of the Night’s Watch into the frozen waste.
Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • the terrifying and cunning Lord Tywin Lannister despatches his dwarf son, Tyrion Lannister, to the capital, King’s Landing, to take power from the incompetent, spoilt boy, Joffrey, aged 13, who is reigning as king and alienating everyone except his evil mother, Cersei Lannister, she who conspired in the death of her hated husband Robert Baratheon to enable her son to succeed to the throne.
  • Tywin himself hunkers his army in the haunted ruins of ancient Harrenhal, built by Harren the Black to be impregnable but then melted by dragonfire back in the legendary days.
  • It is to this gloomy ruin that little Arya Stark, aged 10, tough tomboy daughter of the executed Lord Eddard Stark, arrives through a series of accidents, fights and massacres, a witness to and survivor of the brutality and sadism all around her.
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • meanwhile Robb Stark, 15, heir to his father’s house, is declared King of the North and leads his armies to victory against Lannister forces at Whispering Wood and Oxcross
  • and also meanwhile, the brothers of the late king Robert Baratheon – young courtly Renly, and hard old Stannis – both declare themselves King in the South and raise armies from different sets of bannermen and subjects to fight each other, Stannis leading his army to besiege his brother in the ancient citadel of Storm’s End on the east coast of Westeros…
  • while an eerie sub-plot unfolds concerning Stannis’s conversion to the new religion, the way of the Lord of Light, which is replacing the old religion of the Seven gods. The old way was administered by septons in their temples, called septs. In a haunting chapter Lady Catelyn, distraught widow of the executed Eddard Stark of Winterfell, prays in a smallfolks’ septon en route back from trying to broker a peace between the brothers Baratheon – and the outlines of the crudely drawn seven gods dance and mock before her eyes…
Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • …but just as war between the brothers seems inevitable, King Renly is struck down in mid-sentence in the safety of his own tent by a shadow which seemed to slide into the tent and raise its sword and cut wide his throat with no physical presence. Is this new black magic controlled by the Red Lady, the priestess Melisandre, devotee of the Lord of Light, who has found favour at grim King Stannis’s court?
  • And while Lord Eddard Stark’s heir, Robb continues his successful drive in the west against Lannister forces, sneaky Theon Greyjoy, who spent 10 years as a ward in Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, and desperate to impress his harsh father Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands,  returns to capture Winterfell with a small handful of fighters. But the lad finds keeping a castle can be harder than winning it…
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • And meanwhile, a thousand miles away on a different continent (Essos), Queen Daenerys (aged 14), sole survivor of the overthrown House Targaryen follows her lonely destiny. She was betrothed to the savage Dothraki Khal Drogo by her brother, Viserys, as part of a deal whereby Viserys hoped to use the savage’s soldiers to reclaim his throne, both Viserys and Daenerys being children of the mad king Aerys Targaryen of Westeros whose overthrow and murder by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark is the mainspring of all the plots. But Viserys went mad with impatience and was killed by Khal Drogo, who himself was turned into a lifeless zombie by a captured witch – leaving Daenerys to fend for herself.
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • In a bizarre twist at the end of the first book Daenerys walked into the funeral pyre of her husband with three fossilised dragon eggs she had been given as curious wedding gifts, and not only survived the flames but the eggs cracked to hatch three baby dragons thus, apparently, starting a new Age of Dragons when magic will once again work in the world – but to what end…?
  • This book sees Daenerys venturing across the arid deserts of Essos accompanied by her loyal knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, a small band of Khal Drogo’s surviving followers and her three baby dragons, seeking help in the slave cities of the south to return to Westeros and reclaim her rightful throne, unaware of the complex machinations and battles going on back in Westeros for that very throne..

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of ‘A Clash of Kings’ which aired in the States – and in the UK on Sky Atlantic – last year, and is now out on DVD.

Series 3, based on the third novel, ‘A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow’, starts airing on Sky Atlantic, also in March 2013.

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