Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

‘Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,’ said Mrs. Bowles. ‘Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you’ve got to tease people with stuff like that!’

It is 1999 and books are banned. Why? Because they make people think, ponder, reflect – and that ends up making them unhappy. And society in 1999 is dedicated to making people happy.

How? By offering them the all-day-long totally immersive experience of room-sized TVs playing endless soap operas in which you, the viewer, are included through computer-controlled scripts designed to tailor the storylines to suit your age and gender. By ensuring that even if people go out walking they have seashell-type little earpieces pumping raucous meaningless music into their brains all the time. By providing a world of physical activities, sports and gymnastics for the disciplined and, for the not-so sporty, building highways where you’re not allowed to drive slower than 55mph, and are encouraged to hit anything which trespasses onto them, cats, dogs, even people.

Or you can:

head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball.

Anything, anything at all, to stop people reading or thinking. Books are banned, religion is banned, festivals are banned, all art is abstract, and politics has died out due to lack of information or interest. People are just ruled.

In this world firemen protect citizens from the risk of being infected by ‘ideas’ by burning books wherever they are found. Enemies, snitches and gossips can anonymously report work colleagues or neighbours as suspected to be hiding books, and then the firemen turn up in their salamander-shaped fire engine, beat up the suspects to find the stash of forbidden books, throw them all in a pile and torch them with their kerosene flamethrowers.

The books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers.

Part one – The Hearth and the Salamander

Guy Montag is one of these firemen and his story opens with this poetic invocation of the joys of incineration:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

Wow. Bradbury is nothing if not vivid!

Guy’s story is simple in outline. He becomes disillusioned with being a fireman, rebels against the powers that be, and escapes.

More specifically, after one particularly brutal burning, where the old lady who owned the house where books were hidden, not only refused to leave the building but herself lit the match which sent it up like a bonfire, thus turning herself into a human torch, Montag finds he has, almost without realising it, secreted a book in his jacket, which he then brings home.

Next day he takes off sick with a temperature. His wife, Mildred, is an extreme case of the bored suburban housewife. She has nagged Guy into paying a fortune to have three of the four walls in their living room converted into wall-sized TV screens, the ones which run the endless soap which the computer tailors to include her in the plots and scenes and conversations. Even when Guy is sick in bed, she won’t turn the deafening volume of the TV soap down, and listens to his complaints for the bare minimum before running back to her ‘real’ life, her ‘real’ family.

For Guy is having a crisis of conscience. Watching the woman prepared to incinerate herself rather than live in a world without books has shaken him. And, over the past few weeks, he’s found himself bumping into the idealistic young woman who’s moved in next door, Clarisse McClellan.

‘She was the first person in a good many years I’ve really liked. She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted.’

Clarisse is mercifully uninfected by the repressive culture. She likes flowers and nursery rhymes. She despises the people who go car-racing or window smashing. She yearns for a simpler time.

To his dismay Guy finds himself agreeing with Clarisse, beguiled by her honesty and openness. It makes returning to the gloomy house where his wife is either a) totally immersed in her wall-to-wall TV soap or b) even in her bed (they have separate beds) has the seashells plugged in, hissing stories and music, so that even in the darkest midnight hour, when he tries to tell he his secrets, his worries, his fears… she’s not listening, she can’t and won’t hear him. He is alone.

The hollowness of Mildred’s drugged, media-addicted life is emphasised by an earlier scene, when Guy returns home dirty and sweaty from a hard day burning books, and in the darkness of their bedroom his foot hits an object. When he stoops, it is an empty bottle of painkillers. Mildred has taken an overdose.

Guy calls emergency but instead of an ambulance, or concerned medics and nurses, the two guys who turn up are bored technicians who poke a tube with a digital camera lens down her throat guts and pump her stomach empty, at the same time administering a complete blood transfusion. They stand around yacking and one smokes a cigarette as the machines pump. It’s just another job. They tell Guy they get about ten of these a week. Once finished, they pack up and tell him she’ll probably feel hungry in the morning, bye, and he is left feeling bereft and uncomforted.

Indeed Mildred does feel hungry in the morning and has no memory whatever of her suicide attempt. When Guy describes the whole thing she laughs and says what a vivid imagination he’s got. He’s left wondering whether it was a suicide attempt, or whether she just took a few pills before going to sleep, woke up and took some more, woke up and took some more, and so on.

And worse, he wonders if it makes any difference. To her or to him. Her life is such a matter of indifference to her and, he realises with a start, to him, too.

While Guy is still in bed feeling feverish, his boss at the firestation, Captain Beatty pays a call. There is something uncanny and wise about old Beatty. At the knock at the front door Guy hastily stuffs the book he took from the old lady’s house under his pillow and remains in his sick-bed. When Beatty comes into his bedroom, takes a seat, lights his pipe and makes himself at home, Guy is paranoidly certain, certain… that Beatty knows he is hiding a book.

The scene is handled as powerfully as a fairy tale, as a fable: old man Beatty wisely and tolerantly explains that all firemen, sooner or later, experience a moment of doubt about their work, may even take a book home to read in secret. The authorities don’t hold it against them. Everyone has to find out for themselves how empty and pointless books are. So long as the fireman in question hands it in within, say, 24 hours, no more will be said about it. He looks at Guy. Guy, lying in his sickbed, sweats and turns red. Surely he knows!

Beatty takes his time. He leisurely explains how the firemen came about, how society willingly turned its back on books and learning. Why their job is so important.

Eventually the captain leaves. Guy gets up, shaking. Now is the time. He makes Mildred turn the bloody TV off and listen to him and watch him as he gets a chair, stands on it and reaches up to the ventilator grille in the hall. Guy stretches out and pulls over and down a sack which he lowers to the floor, gets down and opens up. The sack is full of books. Mildred is horrified and squirms away from these infectious objects. Guy himself sits there stunned. What has he done?

At that moment there is another ring on the front door bell and Guy and Mildred freeze in terror. Is it the captain back again? Panic sweat silence. After a few more rings, whoever it was goes away. The reader’s heart has stopped alongside Guy’s and Mildred’s. We are caught in Guy’s terror and guilt.

Part two – The Sieve and the Sand

For the rest of that cold November afternoon, Guy reads at random passages from his forbidden stash of books out loud to his bewildered wife, who keeps complaining that they don’t make sense. He mentions how the books remind him of Clarisse. Who? asks the wife. The young woman who moved in next door. Oh, says Mildred, I forgot to tell you. She was killed by joyriders. The rest of the family have moved away. Guy is devastated. How can all that young beauty and innocence just be snuffed out like that?

Then there comes a snuffling at the door.

The Hound? Is it the Hound? At the firestation there is an eight-legged machine nicknamed the Hound. Every human has a distinctive combination of hormones and secretions which gives them a unique chemical ‘small’. The Hound’s sensors can be set to this combination, then it is set loose to hunt them down. Being mechanical it tracks down its prey unrelentingly, unceasingly, until it finds and brings him down, holds him splayed with his mechanical legs and then the target is:

gripped in gentling paws while a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the Hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine.

Lying there now, with his wife huddled in a weeping neurotic ball, with the pile of incriminating books sprawled across his hallway, Guy is certain, sure that he can hear… a mechanical sniffling and snorting at his door. It is the Hound! The Hound has come to trap and kill him with its merciless shining needle!

They wait and wait. the snuffling ends. Guy opens the door. Nothing there. Guy takes one of the books, an old Bible, and goes to visit an old man he met once on a park bench, months ago, years ago. The old man was convinced Guy was going to turn him in, but they got talking and Guy was sympathetic to his stories of books and literature. The man gave Guy his card. He’s named Faber. He was a literature professor until one term, forty years ago, nobody turned up for his class. Society had lost interest.

Now Guy turns up on his doorstep, initially terrifying Faber who thinks he’s going to be arrested. But Guy shows him the Bible and they talk. Faber fills in some of the history which he lived through, how the government slowly got rid of books as part of its campaign to make everyone equal and happy.

Together they stumble towards an idea that maybe the books can be saved somehow. Maybe they can get back to the literate society which Faber remembers from his youth. Maybe – here’s a plan – they could plant books on every firemen in the land and so get the firemen abolished – by themselves! Obviously not just the two of them, it would need a network. Hmmm.

Faber gives Guy a device he’s built, an emerald-green earpiece. Via it Faber can hear Guy talking and Guy receives Faber’s messages. They are two-become-one.

Guy goes home. His wife’s two ghastly suburban wife friends come round for a party with the immersive TV show. Montag appals them by turning the TV walls off and then insisting on reading poetry to them, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, to be precise, which is indeed a bleak and nihilistic poem.

Not surprising that the women are all upset and one bursts into tears. Mildred forces Guy to put the book in an incinerator, and tries to cover up by saying it is part of a fireman’s training to occasionally dip into these nonsensical books in order to ridicule them – but the two women don’t really believe it and anyway Guy runs them out of the house.

Faber hears all this via the earpiece and is appalled at Guy’s rashness. What Faber thought they’d agreed should be the next step was for Guy to return to the station and confront Beatty.

Captain Beatty is waiting for him, with his hand open. Without a word Guy hands over the book to him. Beatty greets him like the prodigal son returned to the fold, reinforces the idea that books are pointless, silly, contradictory, only make people unhappy.

(His role – as wise father confessor who has himself experienced all the urge to rebel, has had all the illegal thoughts, and has overcome them in order to obey the system – reminds me very much of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Captain Beatty invites Guy to sit down and play cards with the rest of the men. Then the alarm goes off, they jump down the pole to the garage, suit up and race off to fire someone else’s house.

Part three – Burning Bright

Except that the fire engine stops in front of Guy’s house. Beatty teases Guy: is he really surprised, after his performance with the poetry? First the two housewives turned him in, then his own wife, Mildred. And Mildred blunders past him carrying a suitcase, weeping, without makeup, stumbles into a taxi and is gone.

And Guy is so conflicted, transported, bewildered by the contradictions of his situation, that he has no hesitation at all about burning his entire house down, burning the house of lies and alienation and unhappiness to the ground, and burning the books which fly along the hallway.

Then Beatty arrests him, smacking him in the face. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making the emerald earpiece link to Faber fall out of Guy’s ear (Faber has been listening in to everything that’s happened). ‘Hello, hello,’ says Captain Beatty, picking it up. ‘I thought you were doing more than just muttering to yourself. So you have an accomplice. Well, we will track him down and arrest him, too.’

And Guy snaps. He is still holding the flamethrower. ‘No,’ he says, and before he knows it, his hands have flicked the switch and turned Beatty into a flaming torch. Stunned, dazed, Guy makes the other two fireman turn their backs and coshes them unconscious.

Then in a nightmare of terror, just as he thought he could relax, the Hound appears out of nowhere and leaps at him, jabbing its steel needle into his leg, but Guy still has self-possession enough to turn the flamethrower on the Hound and burn out its innards, making it spring backwards, having administered a fraction of the fatal dose.

Rummaging in the garden where he had stashed a few remaining books, Guy turns and hobbles, one leg completely anaesthetised and numb from the Hound’s partial injection, down the alleyway.

Then there is the terrific scene I remember from reading the book as a boy, where Guy has to run across one of the ten-lane highways that ring the city. It is completely empty and floodlit like a gladiator’s arena. He sets off limping and is half-way across, when he hears the roar of a carful of joyriders revving up and aiming straight at him. At the last minute Guy trips and falls headlong and the car swerves a fraction to avoid him, the driver knowing that going over a bump at 150 mph would fling the car into the air and crash it. That’s all that saves him. No morality or sympathy. And while the car decelerates a few hundred yards further on down the highway, and spins to a turn in order to come back and try to hit him again, Guy limps to the other side of the highway and melts into the dark alleyways.

He gets to Faber’s house and tells him what’s happened. Faber turns on the TV. There is a massive manhunt out for Guy and they have brought in another Hound from another precinct. They watch as a police helicopter equipped with a camera sets off following the new Hound as it lollops through the city on its eight mechanical legs.

Quickly, Guy tells Faber to disinfect the entire house, burn the bedspread they’re sitting on, the rug he walked across, the chair he sat in, dowse everything in disinfectant, turn on the garden sprinklers. He asks Faber for a suitcase of the old man’s clothes to change into later. They take a swig of scotch, shake hands, then Guy runs off.

He makes a detour to the house of fireman Black, one of his colleagues, creeps in through the porch, hides some of his books in the kitchen and sneaks out again. Black will be betrayed. The fireman’s house will be torched. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Through the city’s darkened back alleys Guy runs, glimpsing through people’s windows, on their giant TV screens, live footage of the police helicopter following the Hound as it beetles towards Faber’s house, encounters the wall of sprinklers, hesitates, then picks up Guy’s scent.

Faster faster Guy runs in a breathless, terrifically intense chase, until he makes it to the river, the river on the edge of the city, just a minute or two before the Hound, strips off his clothes, wades far out, clutches the suitcase and lets himself be carried fast fast fast by the current away from the Hound, the city, the helicopters, the police, the fire service, his burned house, his murdered captain, far away into the cleansing healing countryside.

Saved and lost

Faber had told him to look for the old disused railway lines. When Guy has drifted down the river, moiled in the water, until he breathes country air, trees, hay – he clambers out naked and reborn, dresses in Faber’s old clothes, smells the countryside, looks up at the stars. Free!

His foot clinks against something. It’s a disused rail. He sets off stumbling along it wondering what he’ll find. What he finds is a small fire with four or five old geezers crouching round it for warmth. They welcome him to the circle, make a simple meal of bacon fried in a pan. the leader is Granger. He explains there is a very loose network of them all across the country, rebels, outcasts, who have memorised entire books. A community of memorisers, ‘bums on the outside, libraries inside’.

They hear the jets screech overhead. All through the book conversations have been interrupted by the roar of jet engines, and the narrative has been punctuated by radio announcements of looming war, of enlistment and call-ups. Now Bradbury goes into full-on hallucinatory, poetic prose mode to describe the nuclear war which ends the book.

‘Look!’ cried Montag.
And the war began and ended in that instant.

He gives a slow-motion nightmare description of the bombs falling, the last hundred feet, the last yard, the last inch. And then – Whoomf – the entire city jumps into the air, cartwheels, and falls as ashes.

The bums are knocked flat, and then slowly clamber up again, covered in dust and spume from the river. That’s it. The war is over. The city is gone, as hundreds of other cities all round the world are gone. Granger makes a speech about how people back there will be needing them, about how they’ll try to rebuild, about how they won’t flaunt their book knowledge but how, just maybe, the wisdom they carry might just about maybe prevent there being any more future wars. Guy joins the scruffy old men as they set off back towards the ruins, wondering what they’ll find.


Themes

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 after all these years, I see it through the prism of the two books of short stories I’ve just read as:

  1. less a novel with a plot than as a series of linked set-piece descriptions, often very brilliant and evocative
  2. less a novel than one of Bradbury’s many fables – that’s to say, a simplified story with a strong moral message
  3. an expansion of the theme which occurs in at least three of his short stories, that the future will burn books

Political correctness

I was astonished to see that the book contains an attack on political correctness. It attributes the death of books and literacy to a politically correct wish not to offend. When Captain Beatty calls on Guy, he explains how the books came to be banned, how the entire present state of civilisation came about. It was a question of not wanting to upset anyone’s sensibilities, particularly the sensibilities of minorities.

‘You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of this.’

And:

‘The bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat -lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.

‘Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God!’

The population did it to themselves. Not wishing to offend any of the thousand and one minorities, authors censored themselves till their books, plays and movies were so bland no-one wanted to read them. Meanwhile, comics, sex and soap operas proliferated because they a) made people happy b) didn’t upset any particular minorities, in fact c) didn’t upset anyone. They were, in a sense, content free.

‘The public itself stopped reading of its own accord… I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them…’

America’s once and future wars

I had forgotten that the whole story is set against the looming prospect of war. According to the novel, America has started and won two atomic wars between 1960 and 1999. Now another one is in the offing. The characters’ conversations are continually interrupted by the deafening roar of jet bombers flying overhead.

Faber, for example, tells Guy not to even bother trying to overthrow the system; just let there be another war and society tear itself to pieces.

Guy hears the official radio announcing the mobilisation of a million men (in reality, ten million, Faber tells him.) When Mildred’s ghastly housewife friends come visiting they all empty-headedly declare the war will be over in 48 hours, just like the government promises.

A radio hummed somewhere. ‘. . . war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its –‘ The firehouse trembled as a great flight of jet planes whistled a single note across the black morning sky.

And as he walked he was listening to the Seashell radio in one ear… ‘We have mobilized a million men. Quick victory is ours if the war comes…’

‘Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the TV `families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.’

‘The Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be, back next week. Quick…’ [said Mrs Phelps]

You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy discs, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.

Thus ever-present threat of war is as much a part of the fabric of the story as it is of George Orwell’s contemporary dystopia, Nineteen Eight-Four. Contributes as much to the sense of dread and menace, as if Guy’s personal tragedy is reflected by the whole world coming to grief.

And then of course the entire world does blow up. Guy’s story turns out to be an invisible footnote to the end of civilisation as we know it.

Anti-Americanism

It is also striking that Bradbury was aware, in 1953, of America’s unpopularity.

‘Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?’

Was he aware of this in 1953, or was he predicting it for his dystopian future? Either way it was remarkably prescient to anticipate the anti-American feeling which certainly dominated the world I grew up in in the 1970s, the left united against American commercial and military imperialism, against its support for dictators all round the globe and, right at the heart of the inferno, the epic mess of the Vietnam War.

The future will be stupid / TV / the internet

Beatty/Bradbury makes it quite clear – there will be no need for government intervention or oppression – ‘technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure’ will manoeuvre the whole population into willingly abolishing books, literature and thinking.

The thrust of the book is that American society is dumbing down into a brainless landscape of immersive video experiences and cheap thrills (wrecking balls, fast cars).

It would be easy to extract from the book all the moments when people’s experiences are mediated through the media: the centrepiece is Mildred’s addiction to her TV soaps, supported by the little TV party she has with her friends who are also fully paid up members of the TV ‘family’.

But, more subtly, the radio is present in the background, at his house, at the firestation, whispering rumours of war.

And then, during his terrified flight, Guy watches his own running relayed, first on Faber’s TV, and then through the lounge windows of the houses he runs past, Guy can see the live helicopter footage of the police chasing him. Like O.J. Simpson’s famous car chase.

On one level the entire book is a sermon against the dumbing down of America. 65 years later how does that message, that fear, hold up?

Personally, despite all temptations to the contrary, to throw your hands in the air and bewail the dumbing down of the social media age, I wonder, I’m more inclined – like Nietzsche – to confront all the woes of the age but, by an effort of will, to overcome them and assert that I don’t think it is.

More books are being sold and read than at any time in human history. Despite its visual content and the streaming of TV and video over laptops and smartphones, in reality the internet is still largely a reading experience. People read texts and tweets and emails. And argue and discuss them, all the time, in epic, unprecedented numbers.

Sure, most of the twitter storms and media frenzies which make the headlines are pitiful and stupid: but so was most of the arguing in pubs and front rooms and beauty salons for the last hundred years; the only difference now is that anyone can read the outpourings of everyone else.

We may be appalled at the stupidity of much of what appears on the internet, but a moment’s reflection suggests there is also an unprecedented wealth of highly intelligent, thoughtful and stimulating material out there – TED talks, millions of interesting blogs, countless new sources of detailed statistics, data and information.

In fact probably more people are taking part in written-down debates and arguments than at any point in human history. You may not like a lot of what is being written and debated and discussed, but books are not being burnt. There is no tampering with free speech in the free West. Quite the opposite: there has been an unprecedented explosion of quite literally, free speech.

If you give in, if you submit to the headlines about Trump and Brexit it is easy to despair. But then there was much more to despair about when Europe went to war in 1914, about the chaos of the 1920s, about the rise of fascism in the 1930s, about the world war of the 1940s, about the Cold War and the real threat of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s, about the widespread economic collapse of the 1970s, about the renewed Cold War confrontation of the 1980s. Relative to all those periods of global chaos and holocaust, the present seems amazingly peaceful and free.

The affluent society

In the 1950s and 60s American intellectuals worried that people were becoming so affluent, so comfortable and easy, that their lives were becoming hollow and meaningless. Mildred is the symbol of that feared, valium future, with her addiction to immersive TV soaps and her seashell headphones and the telltale suicide attempt in the opening pages which reveals for all to see how hollow and empty that life really is.

It was only reading some of the critiques of the book by young contemporary bloggers that I realised how this is an overlooked aspect or theme of the book, because that sense of American wellbeing has disappeared.

In the book everyone is middle class and has pretty much all they want. Money and jobs aren’t an issue. The problem is that everyone is entertaining themselves to death. The fundamental basis of the book is that America is too wealthy and how corrupting that affluent complacency became.

Whereas the last ten to twenty years have seen the reverse. For the first time American living standards have fallen. For the first time children can expect to be worse off than their parents. For the first time the ‘squeezed’ middle class is experiencing declining wages and standards of living. This – from everything I read – is the background to the revolt against the political establishment which gave rise to Trump, the unhappiness of huge parts of America which have experienced long-term economic decline.

Behind the louder themes of dumbing down, and nuclear war, and burning books, and a repressive society – possibly this quiet subtler thread is now the most telling part of the narrative. It foresaw an America which got steadily richer and richer and more and more hollow. For some decades, into the Me Generation 1970s, this seemed to be the case. But now, from the vantage point of rust belt, opioid-addicted America, Bradbury’s concern about the country becoming too wealthy, affluent and complacent seems like a period piece.

Although, on the face of it, a nightmare dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 is in fact a message in a bottle from a much happier, much more optimistic era in history.

Movie adaptation

Fahrenheit 451 was adapted into a movie by French director François Truffault. He was hot property in the 1960s. His adaptation looks incredibly clunky to us, now,


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Tripwire by Lee Child (1999)

Novels of all types begin with a plot or fabula – a series of logically and chronologically related events, usually involving the same or a related set of characters. The author then creates from this a story, whereby different elements of the fabula are deployed in ways to create suspense, or irony, or mystery.

One of the main pleasures of reading a novel is working your way through the story back towards the fabula underlying it. In detective and thriller novels, this has become the main element of the text Whodunnit, and why?

The fabula

Thirty years ago in the Vietnam War, a U.S. helicopter pilot named Victor Hobie is sent on a mission, carrying a couple of military policemen to collect a notorious crooked American soldier, Carl Allen from a remote part of the jungle. The chopper is shot down and crashes, killing all on board except the criminal Allen who, however, has half his arm chopped off by a rotor blade and half his face burned by kerosene.

In a very bad way, Allen nonetheless swaps dog tags with the nearest body (as it happens, the tags of the pilot, Victor Hobie) and crawls off into the jungle.

Weeks later he is picked up by a U.S. patrol more dead than alive and taken to hospital. But as soon as he is half way mended, he breaks out of the hospital and makes his way, first of all to the secret location in the countryside where he had buried his stash of cash and other valuables; then uses this to buy his way through native villages across Vietnam, into Cambodia and then across the border into Thailand.

Thai doctors fix a prosthetic attachment to his stump of an arm, and he chooses a stainless steel hook. Not much can be done for his half-burned face. Eventually, Allen returns to the States and uses his assets to set himself up in business as a lender of last resort, using intimidation tactics to terrify his debtors.

Thirty years later he has established a respectable front organisation, Cayman Corporate Trust, with swish offices on the 88th floor of the World Trade Centre. He has adopted the name of the man whose dog tags he stole, Hobie, along with a grim nickname, ‘Hook’.

The trigger of the plot is that a man named Chester Stone has inherited the cinema film and projector company set up by his grandfather and expanded by his father, but which is now running into big trouble. Stone needs a loan of a million dollars to tide him over for six weeks until some new business comes in. Stone’s finance director points him towards Hobie, so Stone goes to meet him and takes out a loan, signing over some of the shares in the company as security.

What Stone doesn’t know is that Hobie plans to take over his entire company, by force and physical intimidation if necessary, and then demolish all the properties, factories and so on which it owns along the Long Island shore – and develop it as prime real estate land.

Hobie / Allen’s plan is complicated by the fact that he has been tipped off that someone has been snooping around the U.S. Army’s forensic facility in Hawaii, asking questions about Victor Hobie. And that, as part of the ongoing repatriation programme of U.S. military corpses, the army has just gotten round to crating up and shipping home the bodies from the site of the long-ago helicopter crash, delayed for so long partly because the Vietnamese authorities drove a hard bargain, demanding money for access, and partly because of its inaccessible location.

Hobie is tipped off about both of these situations, which threaten to unmask him and reveal his fake identity to the authorities. That is the meaning of the title, Tripwire. For thirty years Hobie has had in place a set of two ‘tripwires’ which would force him to bolt – the shipment of the bodies from Vietnam, and anybody snooping in Hawaii. Now both tripwires have been triggered at the same time.

His assistant, Tony, begs him to carry out the long-held plan, to liquidate his assets and flee the country, adopting a new identity. But Hobie is mesmerised by his project to fleece Stone, liquidate the Stone company, and sell of the Long Shore property at a vast profit. He wants to complete this last, grand plan.

And so he doesn’t hesitate to take Stone’s wife, Marilyn, hostage, along with the pretty woman estate agent who Marilyn had invited to come and value her and Chester’s house.

The story

This is the long, complicated back story which Jack Reacher (and the reader) has to unravel, starting with a trigger incident and then slowly working back through clues and investigations.

When we meet Reacher he is happily digging holes for swimming pools in Key West in Florida, hard exercise which has made his six foot five body even more formidable and fit. In the evenings he works as ‘muscle’ in a strip bar where the girls, unsurprisingly, are attracted by his size and strength and chivalrous nature. He looks, one of them says, ‘like a condom crammed with walnuts’ (p.23).

In the opening scene a private investigator, name of Costello, comes to the bar asking after a ‘Jack Reacher’. He’s been sent by a Mrs Jacob. Reacher tells him he’s never heard of Reacher or Jacobs. Later Reacher discovers Costello’s body, shot in the face with his fingertips cut off.

Intrigued, Reacher figures Costello must have been a retired cop, from New York by his accent, and with typical ‘Reacher luck’ rings around New York precincts till he is answered by a jaded old cop who says, ‘Sure, Costello, yeah he retired and set up as an investigator to pay off his alimony’ – and helpfully hands over the name and address of Costello’s office.

So Reacher’s Quest begins. He gets a plane to New York and goes to Costello’s office, only to find the door swinging open (as so many doors swing handily open in Reacher’s adventures) and the secretary’s computer handily left on. He uses it to get the address of the client ‘Mrs Jacob’ who Costello had mentioned, hires a car and motors out to her house.

To discover that ‘Mrs Jacob’ is none other than Jodie Garber, daughter of Reacher’s own mentor in the Military Police, Colonel Leon Garber. He knew her when she was an already-beautiful 15-year-old and he 24. Now she is a beautiful 29-year-old, in fact ‘achingly beautiful’ (p.81). Named Jacob because she married a man named Jacob, though she is now conveniently divorced and single again.

Reacher turns up as she is hosting a funeral party for her Dad who has just passed away from heart disease. Lots of Army top brass and officials who Reacher mixes with, embarrassed about his casual Key West clothes.

Once the guests leave Jodie and Reacher do some catching up. She explains that her dad had asked her to find Reacher, because he was involved in a case but, becoming increasingly poorly, needed his best M.P. to help him. Hence she commissioned Costello to find Reacher. Ah so.

But they have barely got chatting before two armed men try to shoot them. Reacher being Reacher handles the situation and he and Jodie roar off in her car. Now she is On The Quest, too. Now she is On The Team.

Reacher always assembles small teams, usually with one male sidekick, and always with a nubile and available woman who he ends up sleeping with. In Make Me it was investigator Chang, who he sleeps with. In Killing Floor it was Police Officer Roscoe, who he sleeps with. In this book it is attractive Wall Street lawyer Jodie Jacob, who… he sleeps with.

(‘Sleep with’ doesn’t really convey the sense of frenzied physical activity which the books tastefully hint at. In several of them there are fleeting references to the woman straddling Reacher. Given that he is six foot five of solid muscle trained to kill in 20 different ways, I can imagine that riding him is the only way to avoid serious physical injury.)

Jodie and Reacher go visit her father’s heart doctor whose receptionist tells them he was always chatting to old Mr Hobie, another patient with heart disease, in the waiting room. So, following this tip, off they go to interview Mr and Mrs Hobie, who tell them that, Yes, they asked the colonel to help them find the remains of their son. He was a model son, a medal-winning soldier and yet for all these years the Army has refused to confirm he is dead. So they are hoping against hope that he is still alive in Vietnam somewhere.

The Hobies had come across a researcher who they paid eighteen thousand dollars to track their son down and who came back with a photo of a gaunt fifty year old man in U.S. combat fatigues apparently in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp. The bounty hunter asked for more money to fund an expedition to liberate him.

Reacher takes Jodie to meet this guy, Rutter, who turns out to be a con artist, who had rigged up the photo in the New York botanical gardens amid tropical plants. Reacher beats the crap out of Rutter, takes his gun and his car and all the cash he has, half to repay the Hobies what he swindled them out of, half to fund what is now Reacher’s Quest.

Thrillers generally have information instead of psychology. Characters don’t develop much, but they often take you to interesting places, and explore interesting subjects. In fact, many thrillers contain at their core a sort of Wikipedia level of basic information on the chosen topic or subject area.

In this case the novel includes extensive information about what happened to the American Missing In Action in the Vietnam War. Using his wartime credentials, and the fact he’s with the daughter of the widely respected Colonel Leon Garber, Reacher blags his way into first the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and then on to the military Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, a special facility that identifies the forensic remains of U.S. soldiers.

At the latter Reacher meets up with his old mentor, General Nash Newman, a forensic anthropologist (p.412). Threaded throughout the book we have had descriptions of the bodies of the American soldiers killed in that helicopter crash all those years earlier, being transported from the jungle to a military airport, being loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force plane with full military honours, and flown to Hawaii.

It is here that there is a memorable scene as Newman invites Reacher to study the seven bodies from the helicopter crash, reduced pretty much to charred skeletons, and figure out the puzzle.

The scene features the nearest thing to emotion in a Reacher novel, namely horror at the precise way each of the seven was dismembered, crushed or burned to death as the chopper crashed.

But it is also a Sherlock Holmes-level of close examination and deduction. We follow Reacher as he examines each of the bodies in turn before realising that the truth is staring him in the face — there are seven bodies but fifteen hands. The survivor had his hand chopped off in the disaster. They are looking for a one-armed man.

Meanwhile back in the World Trade Centre, the torture continues. Two policemen follow up a clue and go up to Hobie’s offices on the 88th floor, where they discover that Hobie is holding Chester, Marilyn and the state agent woman hostage. Hobie and Tony immediately get the drop on the cops, disarm and handcuff them.

Hook Hobie is a psychopath. He takes the woman cop into the bathroom of the swish offices, and tortures her to death to the terror of the other hostages. Chester and Marilyn have bought some time by telling Hobie that the remaining share certificates are held in trust, and can only be handed over with a lawyer as witness.

It’s hardly high feminism in action, but it’s worth pointing out that Marilyn, Chester’s wife, from the get-go is much more tough-minded, focused and practical than her lily-livered husband. While he goes into catatonic shock after being kidnapped, Marilyn becomes a classic Lee Child character, devising strategies to try and redeem the situation. It is she who persuades Hobie to let Sheryl, the estate agent whose nose Hobie had violently smashed, to be taken to hospital.

Grudgingly (and improbably) Hobie consents. Tony drives her to the nearest hospital, drumming into her that if she calls the cops Chester and Marilyn will be killed. She does this, putting off the cops, claiming her broken nose was an accident. But she also follows Marilyn’s instructions and alerts a law firm Marilyn knows, to expect a strange call.

Marilyn tells Hobie she is calling the law firm which must be witness to signing over all the share certificates to Stone’s company. Prepared for the call, the lawyer at the other end says they’re reluctant to do anything in this situation, she should really contact the police etc.

Hobie is standing right by Marilyn and can hear everything she says, so it’s like the scene you’ve seen in hundreds of TV shows and movies where the hostage has to say things which appear anodyne to the bad guy listening, but signal her real intent to the people at the other end of the line.

The climactic shootout

Jodie’s firm tell her she has been booked in for a big business meeting about the liquidation of a multi-million dollar company, and so she and Reacher hasten back from Hawaii mulling over what they’ve learned about the helicopter crash and the likely fate of Victor Hobie.

After having more sex at her Manhattan apartment, and freshening up, Reacher drops Jodie at the World Trade Centre. It is here, on the 88th floor, at Hobie’s offices, that the climax of the novel comes.

In the lift Jodie meets the private detective hired by the law firm Marilyn had contacted. The two of them walk into a trap in Hobie’s office, are disarmed, beaten up a little, and plonked on the sofa next to Chester and Marilyn.

All through the novel Hobie has been kept informed of the researches of Reacher. It was, after all, Hobie’s goons who killed Costello and then, following the same paper trail from Costello’s office that Reacher found, had tried to break in and kidnap Jodie – only to have Reacher save her life and scoot her away.

Hobie also has a paid snitch at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, who tips him off about Reacher’s visit. So for some time Hobie has known that Reacher was on his scent. Now he holds his razor sharp hook against Jodie’s pretty face and tells her to phone Reacher and ask him to meet her there.

Knowing something is wrong, Reacher says he’s still in St Louis and it will take him some time to get there. OK, says Jodie. Hobie hears all this and settles down to wait. Unbeknown to him Reacher is still just outside the World Trade Centre. He bluffs his way past security in the standard Reacher style, and takes the lift to the 88th floor. Takes out the hall bulb so it’s dark in the hallway, and buzzes to say there’s a delivery.

Now throughout this final stage of the story, Hobie has been accompanied only by his fixer, Tony, and another tough guy. The tough guy opens the door and Reacher immediately attacks him, disarms him, pushes him over to the wall and breaks his neck. Using a fire axe he chops his lower arm off, then arranges the body, with severed hand next to it, carefully on the floor, and ducks down behind the reception desk to wait.

Noticing the tough guy’s absence, Hobie himself comes out to the reception area but still holding Jodie by his hook with a shotgun in the other hand. Hobie freezes when he sees the dismembered body, overcome with traumatic memories of the helicopter crash exactly as Reacher had hoped.

But Jodie is entirely blocking his face so Reacher can’t get in a shot. Tony the fixer follows carrying a shotgun and, walking clear of the other two, Reacher has a clear shot and shoots his head off with his handgun. This makes Hobie turn, scoop up the shotgun and before Reacher can re-aim, fire a huge, scattergun blast at the reception desk Reacher’s hiding behind, which blows into smithereens.

Reacher is aware of terrible pain in his head and blood pouring down his face. Jodie tells him he has a nail sticking out of his forehead. After a minute’s stand-off, Jodie ushes backwards against Hobie who trips over the corpse on the floor and shoots the other barrel of the shotgun accidentally into the corpse.

Blood flies everywhere. That’s the two barrels of the shotgun used up, so Hobie scoops out of his pocket one of the little handguns he had confiscated off the cop-turned-investigator who had accompanied Jodie to the meeting.

He holds this gun against Jodie’s side. It is a classic movie standoff with Hobie knowing that if he kills Jodie, Reacher will immediately shoot him, but if Reacher tries to shoot Hobie, Hobie will kill Jodie. Impasse.

The two protagonists weigh the situation and discuss it like pros, like all the characters in Reacher novels who spend their entire lives calculating odds and making plans.

‘I’ll shoot her,’ Allen said.
Reacher shook his head again. The pain was fearsome. It was building stronger and spreading  behind both his eyes.
‘You won’t shoot her,’ he said. ‘Think about it, Allen. You’re a selfish piece of shit. The way you are, you’re always number one. You shoot her, I’ll shoot you. You’re twelve feet away from me. I’m aiming at your head. You pull your trigger, I’ll pull mine. She dies, you die one-hundredth of a second later. You won’t shoot me either because, you line up on me you go down before you’re even half way there. Think about it. Impasse.’
He stared at him through the pain and the gloom. A classic standoff. (p.521)

The impasse is broken by Jodie who suddenly kicks back against Hobie, giving Reacher just time enough to pull up his gun. Hobie beats him to it by a fraction of a second, fires and hits Reacher full in the chest but Reacher still has the momentum to fire a shot which, with typical Reacher luck, blows Hobie’s head to smithereens.

Days later Reacher regains consciousness in hospital. The doctors have removed the nail and other debris from his head. And it turns out that all that pool building in Key West has built up his musculature to such a peak of toughness that the bullet’s momentum was slowed and it only bruised a rib.

Captain America. Superman. Jack Reacher.


Jack Reacher novels as ternary systems

A binary numeral system has two values, represented as 0 and 1. A binary system has two states, off and on. A ternary system has three states.

Calculating plans As in the other Jack Reacher novels, all the characters spend most of their time calculating what to do next, coming up with plans and schemes.

‘We were chased and attacked there, but nobody out here is paying any attention to us.’
‘You been checking?’ she asked, alarmed.
‘I’m always checking,’ he said. (p. 352)

The other guy was busy calculating the odds. (p.29)

Hobie moved his arm and tapped a little rhythm on the desktop with the point of his hook. Thought hard, and nodded again, decisively. (p.57)

Then he made his second great breakthrough. Similar to the first. It was a process of deep radical thought. A response to a problem. (p.130)

There was silence on the line again. Just the same faint hiss, and breathing. Like the old woman was thinking. Like she needed time to adjust to some new considerations. (p.136)

Hobie nodded, vaguely. He was thinking hard. (p.139)

It was a good plan, almost worked. (p.181)

Reacher changed his plan. (p.287)

Tony laughed. Jodie looked from him to Hobie. She saw that they were very nearly at the end of some long process. (p.495)

Lee Child characters view life as a sequence of problems, to be thought through and solved. Have a problem = unhappy. Have a plan = happy.

He could see Gerber’s problem. In the middle of something, health failing, unwilling to abandon an obligation, needing help. (p.93)

Jodie was the problem. (p.104)

‘Those two assholes playing at being my enforcers will be no problem.’ (p.141)

‘What about this Reacher guy? He’s still a loose end.’
Hobie shrugged in his chair. ‘I’ve got a separate plan for him.’ (p.141)

They paused in the hot Missouri sunshine after they paid off the cab and agreed on how to do it. (p.313)

Hobie has put in place a plan for what to do if the secret of his false identity ever comes out.

When he discovers Mrs Jacob is on his trail he dispatches men to kill her.

He devises a plan to take Chester Stone’s company off him.

Chester, meanwhile, is devising a plan to keep his company afloat.

For her part, Marilyn Stone, sensing the financial trouble her husband is in, devises a plan to sell their house – hence the presence of the estate agent.

And then reacts to the plight of being kidnapped not with panic, but with a series of strategems intended to wrest some control and agency back to her and her husband.

And so on, throughout the text. There is no end to the characters’ scheming and planning.

Binary Therefore, you could say that, for the purpose of these stories, all Lee Child characters operate in a binary system, having just two mental states: problem – where they are confronted with a situation, complexities, barriers – or plan – a solution, a way forward which manages the problem.

Child has Reacher reflect that this simple-minded vision of life as a sequence of problems requiring planning and solving stems from his upbringing in the Army, which gave him a very binary view of life.

His own career had been locked tight inside the service itself, where things were always simple, either happening or not happening, good or bad, legal or not legal. (p.474)

And, in a later passage, we are also shown how Reacher’s obsession with planning everything out, about thinking in terms of strategic advantage, combat and victory, is also the legacy of his army training.

Combat is about time and space and opposing forces. Like a huge four-dimensional diagram… Stay calm and plan. (p.508)

Stage 1: analyse threat. Stage 2: implement plan. OK. But I think there is another, third, element.

Shrugging I couldn’t help noticing that the characters are always shrugging. I began to underline the word ‘shrug’ and realised that it occurs on almost every page, sometimes twice a page.

DeWitt just shrugged. (p.374)
DeWitt shrugged. (p.376)
DeWitt just shrugged again. (p.378)
DeWitt shrugged. (p.379)

Why? In practice there’s a variety of reasons, but at its simplest it’s because a character doesn’t know what to do or say next.

She looked up at him, astonished. ‘But why?’
He shrugged. (p.91)

McBannerman shrugged and looked blank. (p.122)

‘OK,’ she said. ‘Where to first?’
Reacher shrugged. This was not his area of expertise. (p.149)

‘But when? How?’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe early one morning…’ (p.277)

‘I need to call somebody’s lawyer.’
The doctor looked at her and shrugged. (p.319)

‘Why list them as missing?’
Major Conrad shrugged. (p.327)

‘And what do we tell ourselves? That we were attacked by a ghost?’
He shrugged and made no reply. (p.359)

‘Why would she say she walked into a door if it was really a car wreck?’
O’Hallinen shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ (p.361)

‘So what are you going to do?’ she asked.
‘About what?’
‘About the future?’
He shrugged again. ‘I don’t know.’ (p.449)

‘Are you going to look for Hobie?’
He shrugged again. ‘Maybe.’ (p.466)

Why do characters shrug on every page?

I realised it is often a third ‘state’ to add to the ‘Problem / Plan’ dyad. It denotes a moment when a character is presented with a question or challenge which they can’t, at that moment, process. Which doesn’t fit with any existing plan or strategem. Which needs to be processed in order to generate a new plan. Or, quite often, a question which the character hasn’t considered yet. Or a question the character is deliberately not answering.

Whatever the precise motivation, it represents a kind of third state, intermediate between 1. being faced with a threatening problem, and 2. coming up with a planned solution. Neither 1 nor 0, it is in between. Neither yes nor no, it is the ‘maybe’ state.

Thus Lee Child characters can be said to exist in one of three possible states.

  1. Problem – where they’re presented with a challenge or threat, long-term strategic or physical and immediate
  2. Plan – where they have devised a plan to solve the problem
  3. Shrug – the intermediate stage, where a character has a problem but hasn’t yet formulated a plan, or is simply batting the problem aside

(In fact, rereading the shrug moments, I realise there’s an alternative explanation to some of the shrugs. They are a response to elements which are outside of the current game. What is Reacher going to do after he’s solved the Hobie mystery, Jodie asks. Reacher shrugs, because that is a scenario beyond the current game, outside current concerns.  Not relevant. Ignore. This is particularly true of poor Chester Stone who is kidnapped and beaten up and stripped early in the story, held prisoner in Hobie’s office and does nothing but shrug whenever anyone talks to him or asks him a question. His persistent shrugging indicates that he is hors de combat.

‘You ready?’ she asked.
Chester shrugged. ‘For what?’ (p.481)

Also, there might be a lot of shrugging for the same reason that all the characters are described simply as ‘saying’ things – he said, she said. Because Child is deliberately reducing all verbs (and lots of human variety) down to a bare minimum.)

Pauses Quite often in the novels, characters pause.

She gazed at the photograph for a long moment, something in her face. (p.96)

They paused a beat… (p. 296)

She was quiet for a beat. Amazed. (p.357)

She was silent for a moment. (p.495)

Child uses a handful of distinctive phrases to describe this moment, a long pause, a long moment, occasionally stretching out to the verge of discomfort (i.e. making the other person in the conversation uncomfortable).

The long pauses struck me as another marker for when a character hasn’t yet formulated a plan. Remember the old icons you used to get on Microsoft computers where a timer or an hourglass icon jiggled for a few seconds while a programme opened or closed or saved.

That’s what the pauses indicate a character is doing in a Jack Reacher novel. Processing information. Preparing another plan.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian, so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader in its war against its European enemies which had broken out in 1792.

In 1799 Napoleon carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais, a divorcée, in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one. Thus, in 1810, he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and, at the height of his power, allotted all of them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III being just six years old – fled to Switzerland and began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight Hortense’s estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things a bit clearer. it shows how Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon (second from left) married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, ‘King of Rome’, later referred to as Napoleon II, who died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in some detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon I had created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins didn’t just disappear when Napoleon fell from power, but their sense of imperial entitlement continued to exert an influence on Louis right up to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly written book does what more academic histories often fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you right at the heart of this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened just as he dreamed, exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he died. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon I’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or even to mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, prevented any of it from reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21.

The significance of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon I, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life). So from this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis was convinced that it was his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was to restore the Napoleonic name and rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon I spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets, starting with Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25. This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, Louis’s books boil down to two central ideas:

  • the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest
  • and universal (male) suffrage which would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’s strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor in 1852. Both times he won by huge majorities.

So one of the fascinations of Bresler’s book is to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and to overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

Whereas other histories dismiss both these events in a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. He tells us that he has visited the exact sites of both events and walked through the action. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. You might not get the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis which you might get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, it puts you right there, right on the spot at some of the crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After Louis’ first coup attempt, the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves to hold up his books, and spent a lot of time reading.

Louis and the loyal friends who had assisted at the coup and so been sentenced alonside him (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them.

One of the most flabbergasting things Bresler tells us is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two illegitimate children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did during a week of merciless violence in June 1848. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon managed to find a new home, and his supporters raised the money for him to stand for election to the new Chamber of Deputies. To everyone’s surprise but his own, he was elected.

In the debates that ensued, Louis was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stepped up from his modest activity in the assembly, to stand in the election for France’s first ever president, running against General Cavaignac, the man responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals.

To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got only one and a half million.

Louis spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to ‘rule for life’, succeeding in December 1851, when he staged a coup against the National Assembly. He followed this up by holding a plebiscite to appeal of the entire male population of France in December 1852, which approved of him declaring himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening over the long term i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly, an apparent step backwards to the pomp and trappings of Napoleon I.

But Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper-class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited.

What mattered in this world was not the press or the horribly common deputies in the National Assembly: it was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or his cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values would ultimately triumph. It was God’s will. It was inevitable. And Bresler helps you really appreciate how this fondness for Empire, pomp and grandeur, was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He may have been a poor public speaker – he had a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.

But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life, in towns and villages the length and breadth of the land. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis may have insisted on imperial protocol, but as a person was always modest and approachable. Queen Victoria expected to dislike him but was charmed on their first meeting. Everyone was.

Thus, in 1851, while the deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised that the 1851 coup led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades (again) which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression afterwards which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left-wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes.

Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to review the sentences and some 3,500 were eventually reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper article dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines for breaches were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he encouraged the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Probably the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad, straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. Bresler shows how closely Louis followed these plans for a new imperial capital.

The Emperor selected the Elysée Palace as his Paris residence and the palace remains to this day the official seat of the French President. He inaugurated a calendar of weekly balls and concerts at which all the great and good could meet and mingle, intrigue and do business.

A new Opera House was built, amid an outpouring of fine arts and gilded decoration. The Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III supported Britain and Turkey in their bid to halt Russian expansion into the Balkans, the reason war broke out. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim the foreign debts which the Republic had inherited from the monarchy it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of Mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbour, the United States, was bogged down in its own brutal civil war (1861-65).

But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy who, therefore, never gave him the unstinted support he required
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of the republican President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over, the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.

True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She apparently broke down in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. By this stage seriously unhinged, Carlotta was committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the characters and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia.

It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war on Prussia but the French Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. Within weeks the main French Army was surrounded and neutralised at Metz and the army marching to their relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to when the decisive engagements of the war were over.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather. Bresler quotes the accounts of exasperated generals that Louis made and reversed judgements, confusing everyone until he eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made, Louis was accompanied through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. Must haven been an embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court only a few years earlier, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany, before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the French government refusing to capitulate and fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. They eventually broke the siege, fought their way into the capital and the government finally capitulated.

The Germans marched about the place with characteristic arrogance and the German leaders assembled in the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire which had been created by Bismarck. The new German Reich was built on the humiliating defeat of France.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, Paris collapsed into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic and started executing the rich and Catholic priests. The new national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris – this time by French forces – who, after more privation and hunger, themselves finally broke into the city, the cue for vicious street fighting, in which the enraged government forces were encouraged to take revenge on the ‘communards’ for all the atrocities they were said to have committed, including executing the archbishop of Paris. It is still stunning to read that French forces killed 20,000 of their own people in just one week.

Napoleon III missed all this. He was in England, at Chislehurst. Bresler shares with us his entertaining investigations which tend to suggest that as far back as 1860, Louis – who had spent his entire childhood in exile and six years in prison – had been making plans in case the same thing happened again. Thus a British agent probably acting for him had used a large amount of money to buy Camden Place, a fairly modest (for an emperor) mansion in Chislehurst overlooking a wide expanse of grass and woodland (now home of the Chislehurst Gold Club).

Here he joined his wife, Eugénie, who had fled Paris with their son before the Prussians arrived, and here he was to live for the last three years of his life until his death in January 1873 from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon III. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment flared up severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into full barrister mode to marshal evidence for the prosecution from two modern specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams.

Bresler met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so that the minuscule fragments can be passed in urine – should never have been carried out. What happened was his English doctors carried out a first procedure, but less than half the stone was destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated.

All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure the English doctors carried out dislodged some infected bladder tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on., just as he had tried in 1836 and 1840.

But the crucial element in raising the troops was that Napoleon should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, the king who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is. These apparently anachronistic sentiments of both royalists and imperialists, were to play a role in helping bitterly divide France during the long drawn out Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Reading Bresler’s book helps you understand their strong and abiding emotional appeal to large sectors of the French public.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the local tourist board officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist chaps in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. Why isn’t there some plaque or guide to the precise events and locations, things which Bresler recreates for us in dramatic detail?

At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico and is as affected as a sentimental novelist.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

Bresler visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), and especially all the houses in London which he rented. Lastly of course he visits the grand Camden Place where Louis and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club.

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal tic or token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by the word ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. Louis loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales – Eugénie for short.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – who was for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of other young ladies who were presented to him at the numerous balls and concerts which Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. After (or even during) the ball, a flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. The Emperor made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him, the flunky reappeared, the young lady retired, presumably counting her blessings. But if Napoleon liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – one victim leaves a wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache began to melt and wilt with the heat of his exertion before, with a final grunt and grimace it was all over, the Emperor stood up and the lady was despatched back to the changing room, helped back into her upper class costume, and led away..

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was very probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour. How novelish this all is!

A propos of Italy, Bresler gives an entertaining description of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel, who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

There’s a strong flavour of Harvey Weinstein about Napoleon III.

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. But none of us get any younger. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed – at which point the Empress Eugénie stormed round to Margot’s house in person and shouted that she was killing the Emperor – to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugénie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a very tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among Louis’ advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was, for example, all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck had described Eugénie as ‘the only man in his Government’, though just as able as all the men to make a catastrophically bad decision – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Louis who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress, and quite a few of these were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity, and the text is cluttered with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of the stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert, and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth.

(In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume that his main motivation for going to Paris to see his university chum will be to have the kind of sexual adventures i.e. sex, which were considered impossible and unacceptable in the England of the time – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

One last point. In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory.

Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for la patrie.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with the first Napoleon – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had a land Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

‘Boasting’. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp gloire explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity and yet is so weirdly at odds with France’s miserable military record of the past 200 years.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917 shame the army
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration, national humiliation
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 the French Army plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)

Bresler’s book is a highly entertaining, insightful, emotional and personal account of the strange life and enduring legacy of this most unlikely of political figures.


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Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-45 by Ruth Brandon (1999)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind.
(Surrealist declaration, January 1925, quoted page 233)

Born in 1943, Ruth Brandon will turn 75 this year. She’s written four novels and seven biographies of figures from the early twentieth century (such as Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt). This big book (524 pages) is a long, detailed and very accessible account of the origins, rise and spread of the Surrealist movement, from its sources in the Great War, through into the 1920s and 1930s when it was, arguably, the dominant art movement in Western Europe.

However, Surreal Lives is, as the title suggests, more a story about the people than about their writings or art. And when it does touch on the latter, it’s mostly about the writing than the paintings. Around page 325 Brandon briefly refers to the core Surrealist painters – Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Joan Miro – at which point I realised that we’d heard almost nothing about them in the preceding pages.

No, the central thread of the book is the life and career of the ‘pope’ of Surrealism, the writer, poet, critic and organiser, André Breton. Each of the nine longish chapters focuses on a key figure in the history of Surrealism – the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the word ‘Surrealism’, the joint founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, the inventor of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp, Breton’s partner in crime the poet Louis Aragon, the Catalan phenomenon Salvador Dalí who joined the movement right at the end of the 20s – but the text always reverts back to their effect on Breton, their threat to Breton, how Breton managed them, alienated them, dismissed them from the movement, and so on.

Along the way we meet plenty of colourful characters, such as the experimental writer Raymond Roussel, Breton’s close friend Jacques Vaché who committed suicide aged just 25, the American photographer Man Ray, the millionaire socialite Nancy Cunard (who had an affair with Aragon), the domineering Gala Eluard who left her husband the poet Paul Eluard to become Salvador Dali’s lifelong muse and protrectress, the young psychiatrist Jacques Lacan whose collaboration with the Surrealists made his name and who went on to become one of the most influential French intellectuals of his day. All these and many more.

The book is full of stories of scandalous behaviour, passionate affairs, casual sex, drug addiction, madness and suicide, in the best bohemian manner.

I was particularly struck by the ‘open marriage’ of Paul and Gala Éluard, both of them enjoying multiple partners. For a while the marriage blossomed into a ménage à trois with the painter Max Ernst, and I enjoyed the anecdote of the three of them travelling to Rome to lure the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico into the Surrealist camp, using Gala’s body as bait. All four of them went to bed together, though de Chirico later said he didn’t enjoy it – and he didn’t join the movement!

But, as I’ve mentioned, in its focus on the writers, on their manifestos, questionnaires, articles and reviews, their letters and diaries, Surreal Lives tends to be very text-based and so doesn’t shed much light on the art of Surrealism (for example, the first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and I don’t think Brandon even mentions it.)

but then this reflects the historical reality, since Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, founded by three poets (Breton, Aragon and Philippe Soupault) and dedicated to writing volumes of verse, manifestos, publishing a succession of magazines (La Révolution surréaliste 1924-29, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution 1930-33, Minotaure 1933-39), and so on.

It was only towards the end of the 1920s that the Surreal painters came to prominence – in 1928 Breton wrote Surrealism and painting to reflect this. It was only with the arrival of Salvador Dali in their midst in 1929 that the visual arts side of the movement began to vie with the writing and then, during the 1930s, to dominate it.

So Brandon’s focus on the writers reflects the history, but not the Surrealist legacy as we experience it today. Most of the Surrealist writings have disappeared, a lot was designed to be ephemeral anyway, a lot was never translated into English.

Instead Surrealism’s enduring impact in the English-speaking world has been via the bizarre and striking paintings of Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte and many others. The Surrealist heritage is almost entirely visual and Brandon doesn’t have a lot to say about the visual arts (or sculpture). The only visual artist she describes in any detail is Dalí (although the chapter about him is actually about the trio of talented Spaniards – Dalí, Luis Buñuel the film-maker and the poet Frederico García Lorca, and their close relationships and rivalries).

I can imagine a completely different book which would cover the exact same period of time, but focus on the relationships between Arp, Miro, Masson, Tanguy and so on, trying to clarify their relationship to the artists who came before them and how they thought of and interpreted ‘surrealism’. None of that is here.

For this reason, and because the influence of Surrealism becomes considerably more diffuse in the 1930s, with a bewildering cast of hangers-on, increasingly diverse artists and writers all showing its burgeoning influence – I felt the first half of the book was the most compelling. I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the character and importance of Apollinaire who coined the word Surrealism, and of Duchamp’s trips to New York and his early friendship with Man Ray. I was also thrilled by the riveting account of Dadaism in Zurich and Berlin which, for the first time, really explained the origin and history of that movement to me, making it real in terms of the people and personalities involved.

I’ve known the names of many of these people – Tzara, Aragon – for decades. Brandon’s book for the first time brought them vividly, fascinatingly, to life. It’s a great read.

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray (Paris, 1930)

I made brief notes on the first four chapters or so, before my review began to feel too long. For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. A bas Guillaume

We start with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, writer and art critic who was gifted with an uncanny sense for the new and important, who had championed cubism in the early 1910s and is here because of his role as patron to the young and ambitious André Breton, the humourless bully who would become the pope of Surrealism.

Apollinaire encouraged Breton and introduced him to the other ‘musketeers’ of the movement, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. And it was Apollinaire who coined the world ‘Surrealist’, in a review of Parade, an avant-garde show put on by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in May 1917, based on a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau set to music (and experimental noises) by Erik Satie. Cocteau had himself described the ballet as ‘realistic’ but, with its experimental music and highly stylised costumes, Apollinaire described Parade as sur-realistic, the French word ‘sur’ meaning on or above. Above-realism. Beyond-realism.

This new alliance – I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds – has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.

As with all the other characters in the story – Duchamp, Tzara, Dali and so on – this is a very personal history and Brandon gives full descriptions of the characters’ height and build, their faces, eyes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, their charisma and presence. The aim is on getting to know these people, feeling as if you were being introduced to them at a party. Brandon deals with their theories about literature and art as they emerge from the personalities, but is thankfully lacking in the jargon-heavy theoretical interpretations of an art scholar like the feminist, Whitney Chadwick. It’s a people-first account.

The most remarkable event in Guillaume Apollinaire’s life was that, despite being the doyen of the avant-garde, he made strenuous attempts to volunteer for the French Army (despite being Polish by birth) and surprised everyone by loving the Army and fighting bravely. He was invalided out in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head, but died suddenly of the Spanish flu which swept the world in 1918.

2. The death of art

The next chapter focuses on the life and early career of Marcel Duchamp. Since reading the World of Art account of Duchamp by Dawn Ades and Neil Cox I have a much better sense of the overall shape and purpose of Duchamp’s career. It’s still very interesting to have loads of details added in about his time in New York during the War, how he made fast friends with the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky, soon to be known as Man Ray, and also the bull-like connoisseur of fast living and high life, Francis Picabia.

They got to know the circle around the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his art gallery and magazine, titled ‘291.’

Duchamp was invited to stay in the vacant apartment of business millionaire Walter Arensberg, who became a lifelong patron and sponsor. The descriptions of the drunken parties they attended, of drunken debauchery, through which shine Duchamp’s icy detachment, his addiction to chess and bad puns, are all super-readable.

Brandon takes the incident when Duchamp’s wonderful Nude descending a staircase was rejected by the organisers of the 1912 Cubist Salon des Indépendants as the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting with oils on canvas (which he didn’t enjoy doing, anyway).

Duchamp vowed to abandon ‘retinal art’, which appeals only to the eye, and try and evolve an art of the mind, founding – in the process – the whole idea of ‘conceptual art’. Hence his massive importance through to the present day.

3. The celestial adventure of M. Tristan Tzara

Next we jump to Zurich during the Great War where I found Brandon’s account of the birth of Dada extremely illuminating. She describes how a disparate gang of émigré artists (Emmy Hennings [Germany], Tristan Tzara [Romania], Jean Arp [Alsace], Marcel Janco [Romania], Richard Huelsenbeck [Germany], Sophie Taeuber [Switzerland] and Hans Richter [Germany]) crystallised around the tall, blonde figure of Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916.

It was in this tiny bar-cum-theatre that this disparate group staged their epoch-making anarchic performances, shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones or to the accompaniment of a big bass drum, wearing cardboard costumes, playing random instruments, packing the performances with schoolboy pranks and silliness. The Cabaret had been going for several months before they came up with the word ‘Dada’, precisely who was responsible and what it means continuing to be a subject of argument to this day. Anti-art, anti-reason and logic, anti-bourgeois, Dada was deliberately anti everything which had led to the stupid, slaughterous war.

While Zurich was a kind of playground of irresponsible émigrés, Berlin at the end of the war witnessed the collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire (November 1918) leading to street fighting between organised, armed Communists on one side and the police and army militias on the other, to decide the future of the country. (It was during this street violence that the the well-known Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by right wing militias in January 1919). The philosophy of Dada appeared here and Berlin Dada was founded by John Heartfeld, the inventor of photomontage, and the satirical painter George Grosz.

The fiercely political Richard Huelsenbeck had argued with Tzara back in Zurich – Tzara saw Dada as another new art movement which would propel him to superstar status in the European art world, whereas Huelsenbeck saw it as a tool in the life or death struggle for Europe’s political future. ‘Dada is German communism,’ he said, simply.

Tzara proved himself the most feverishly active of the Zurich Dadaists, pouring out provocative manifestos, sending out invitations to contribute to Dada magazine to all the avant-garde artists he’d heard of anywhere in Europe, with the result that Duchamp, Picabia and many others got roped in.

Tzara’s invitations found their way to Apollinaire, and so on to his acolyte Breton, along with wartime pals Louis Aragon and his closest friend Soupault. The ‘three musketeers’ invited Tzara to Paris.

Brandon gives a hilarious account of the anticipation on both sides as they waited for the Great God of Dada to make his pilgrimage to Paris – only to be seriously disillusioned by the short, dark, nervous figure who actually materialised, and the respectful relationship which followed but never blossomed into real friendship.

4. Dada comes to Paris

The three very young friends, Breton, Aragon and Soupault, had already published the first number of their magazine Littérature, in Paris in March 1919, with financial help from the grand old man of letters, André Gide. In 1920 they published a joint work by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the result of days spent doing ‘automatic writing’, i.e. setting down words and sentences unfiltered and just as it came to them.

Although they tried to muster enthusiasm for madcap Tzara and his notion of Dada ‘happenings’, Brandon depicts the Parisians as more intellectual, detached and sceptical than the original Dada gang.

It turned out that Dada was a product of the unique war-time conditions in Zurich, of a mood of hysteria amid the bloodshed. Post-war Paris on the contrary, quickly returned to being a battlefield of avant-garde sophisticates, determined not to be impressed by anything. Jean Cocteau, refused a place on the editorial board of Littérature, complained in his new journal that the Dada events were boring. He complained that ‘not a single Dada has killed himself or even a member of the audience.’ Dull, eh.

It began to be clear that Paris Dada might shock the bourgeoisie – or those members who bothered to turn up to their rather tame happenings – but not many of the over-sophisticated Paris élite. What next? Brandon pinpoints this as the crux: Dada didn’t lead anywhere because it wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, it was against the whole idea of leading anywhere. But the Paris contingent thought it should lead somewhere.

The three musketeers had been experimenting with ‘automatic writing’ just before Tzara arrived, and Brandon gives a fascinating account of what that meant in practice, namely the way the poet Robert Desnos had the ability to be put into a trance or half-sleep and then write, actually write poems, while in this dream state.

Tzara’s arrival led to several years of Dadaist outrages, performances and feverish manifestos, few of which had the drive to really épater les bourgeoisie. It was after one particularly disappointing performance in 1923 that the group and its various hangers-on and associates made the decisive split which led to the founding of a new movement, named by Breton ‘Surrealism’, after the word Apollinaire had introduced seven years earlier.

And so, in June 1924 the final edition of the Dada-era Littérature appeared; and in December 1924, the first edition of La Révolution surréaliste was published, inaugurating the first phase of Surrealism (p.229).

The word ‘revolution’ was used right from the start but, as Brandon points out, at this stage none of the Surrealists were politically revolutionary; the revolution they had in mind was purely cultural and all they really knew about it was that it would involve dreams.

‘Only dreams offer man real liberty’ (quoted page 230).

They set up a ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ at 15 Rue de Grenelles, opening hours 4.30 to 6.30, in order to ‘gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind’. Breton liked questionnaires – he wanted to be scientific and factual about his investigations of the unconscious mind: so Littérature contained many and La Révolution surréaliste even more.

Other themes

That’s a thumbnail summary of the first 230 or so of the book’s 458 pages of text, taking us up to about 1925. The rest of the book continues in the same vein: introducing new characters as they arrive on the scene, with long chapters devoted to Louis Aragon, Buñuel and Dali, and so on.

The chapter on Aragon was particularly interesting in explaining the appeal of his early lyrical poetry and prose (Paysan de ParisTraité du style 1928, and Irene’s Cunt) and how this airy fluency was squeezed out of him by Breton’s fierce policing and encouragement – Breton banned novels and lyrical writing from the movement, two things Aragon excelled at – in September he made an attempt at suicide.

But apart from the lengthy excursions into the private lives and writings of these lead figures, I’d say three big themes emerge in the rest of the book:

1. The pope of Surrealism

Breton exerted a steely grip over ‘his’ movement in a whole host of ways, including kangaroo courts which held ‘trials’ of anyone accused of betraying Surrealist values or bucking Big Breton’s authority. The first of many ‘heretics’ were his old colleague, Philippe Soupault, and the radical dramatist Antonin Artaud, both expelled after a ‘hearing’ into their crimes, in November 1926.

In 1929 a dissident group of Surrealists based round the writer Georges Bataille began publishing a rival magazine, DOCUMENT. In its nihilism, Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 reflects the bitterness of these schisms, plus the turmoil in his own personal life. This is the text which contains the notorious line that the most Surrealistic act conceivable would be to run out into the street with a loaded gun and start firing at passersby (p.265). Means modern America must be the world’s most surreal nation.

Writers who were expelled from the ‘movement’ and who often took their revenge in vituperative criticism of Breton, included Robert Desnos (him of the automatic writing experiments), the pornographic fantasist George Bataille, experimental writers Raymond Queneau and Michael Leiris and, in the deepest cut of all, his closest compadre, Louis Aragon.

In 1931 Breton went ahead and published criticism of the way French Communist Party officials had given Aragon the third degree over a piece of pornography by Salvador Dali which was published in the fourth number of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Aragon had begged him not to include criticism of the Party, to which he was becoming passionately attached. Breton did so anyway, and the one-time musketeers never spoke again.

2. The impact of Dalí

The arrival of Dali, and to a lesser extent Buñuel, at the end of the 1920s, was a much-needed shot in the arm to a movement which was running out of steam. Dali not only crystallised his own peculiar style of painting in the early 1930s but helped to cement a Surrealist visual identity, the one posterity now remembers it by.

Brandon’s extended chapter about Dali, Buñuel and Lorca is absolutely riveting on everything from the backward culture of 1920s Spain, through their collaboration on the famous Surrealist movies Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to the collapse of Buñuel’s fortunes during the Second World War just as Dali was rising to fame and fortune in America.

And the stories about their bizarre sex lives! According to Dali, (gay) Lorca was in love with him and tried to sodomise him on two occasions. However, Dali was not gay (although he was not exactly a ‘normal’ heterosexual, being obsessed with masturbation and voyeurism). The closest Lorca could get to having sex with Dali, who he was obsessed with, was by hiring a (flat-chested and therefore boyish) woman, who he had sex with while Dali watched. It’s worth buying the book for this extraordinary chapter alone.

From the moment of his arrival Dalí dominates the story till the end of the book. The final chapter relates the contrasting fortunes of Dali and Breton, who were both compelled to spend the Second World War in New York. Dalí thrived, gaining enormous publicity through a series of ever-giddier publicity stunts. He was on the front cover of Time, he sold everything he painted and began to get seriously rich. Breton, in sharp contrast, refused to learn English, refused to give interviews, and struggled to make a living delivering broadcasts on the French-language part the Voice of Liberty radio service.

Breton was disgusted that, for Americans, Dalí became the face of Surrealism. The final pages in the book are devoted to a thought-provoking debate about who, in the end, had the most lasting legacy, Dalí the showman, or Breton the thinker and doctrinaire.

3. Surrealism and communism

In the later 1920s and then throughout the 1930s Breton’s rule became more dictatorial and more overtly political.

Breton’s relationship with the Communist Party of France was troubled (he was formally expelled from it in 1933) and fraught with paradox. He decided he wanted to put his movement at the service of the Party and the proletariat at precisely the moment – the late 1920s – when Stalin was cementing his grip on the Soviet Union, expelling Trotsky in 1928 and introducing the doctrine of Socialist Realism (in 1932).

Insisting that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, and larding his manifestos with references to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but excluded from alliance with the official Soviet Party line, Breton sought out the leading exponent of World Revolution, travelling with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin). Even here, as Brandon shows, Breton couldn’t stop himself from lecturing Trotsky (of all people) just as he harangued all his colleagues back in Paris. I’d love to know more of what Trotsky made of his humourless acolyte.

Surrealism’s relationship with Communism is a vast topic, the subject of countless books. It of course varied from one Surrealist writer and painter to another, and also varied with individuals over time. What comes over from the book is that their vexed and troubled relationship with Communism became more central to the movement in the 1930s. Whenever Communist commissars or officials of the French Communist Party appear in the narrative, it’s hard not to sympathise with their patronising attitude to the artists. Compared to the fratricidal stresses they were having to negotiate and the fraught power politics back in Moscow, the Surrealists must have seemed like spoilt schoolboys.

Footnote – surreal suicide

Early in the Second World War Albert Camus wrote his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus to address what he saw as the most pressing issue facing intellectuals, the issue of suicide. The immediate context was France’s catastrophic defeat and occupation by Germany in 1940 which, for many ordinary French people, had overthrown all their values and made them wonder if there was any meaning or purpose in the universe.

But reading this book about often quite hysterical artists made me realise that a surprising number of Continental artists and writers were afflicted by suicidal thoughts between the wars.

In fact Breton included the question ‘Suicide: Is It a Solution?’ in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1925 (to which the Surrealist writer René Crevel had answered ‘Yes, it is most probably the most correct and most ultimate solution.’)

Later on, the writer Jacques Rigaut said: ‘Suicide should be a vocation… the most absurd of acts, a brilliant burst of fantasy, the ultimate unconstraint…’ (quoted page 375) before he did, indeed, kill himself.

It sheds much light on Camus’ work to read it against the wave of artistic suicides in the previous twenty years.

  • January 1919 Andre Breton’s bosom buddy Jacques Vaché takes an overdose of opium
  • December 1925 Russian and Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself
  • July 1928 Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis shoots himself
  • September 1928 Louis Aragon takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but survives
  • November 1929 Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut shoots himself through the heart
  • April 1930 Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself through the heart
  • December 1931 American poet Vachel Lindsay poisons himself
  • March 1932 English artist Dora Carrington shoots herself
  • April 1932 American poet Hart Crane jumps overboard an ocean liner
  • December 1935 German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky takes an overdose
  • February 1937 Uruguayan playwright and poet Horacio Quiroga drinks a glass of cyanide
  • October 1938 Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni drowns himself
  • August 1941 Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself
  • September 1940 German literary critic and culture theorist Walter Benjamin took a morphine overdose
  • March 1941 English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, drowned herself
  • February 1942 Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig takes a barbiturate overdose

Read in this context, Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ seems less like a bold new concept than a belated attempt to catch up with and define a mood of nihilism which began during the Great War itself and had became steadily more oppressive during the 1930s, well before France’s humiliating defeat.


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Futurism by Richard Humphreys (1999)

This is a nifty little book, an eighty-page, light and airy instalment in Tate’s ‘Movements in Modern Art’ series.

In its seven fast-moving chapters it captures the feverish activity of the Italian Futurists from the eruption of the First Futurist Manifesto, which was published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909 – until the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, to which many Futurists had attached themselves – in 1944.

Thirty-five hectic years!

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

That founding manifesto is worth quoting at length (this is just the middle part of it):

  1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
  2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
  3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
  4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with ardour, splendour, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervour of the primordial elements.
  7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Humphrey makes the point that, despite the movement’s noisiness and name, there is actually very little about the future in Futurism, not in the sense that H.G. Wells and other contemporary science fiction prophets conceived of a future of shiny space ships, worlds transformed by technology, super-intelligent beings, death rays, aliens and so on.

Futurism was much more about getting rid of Italy’s enormous historical and cultural past – a vast artistic albatross around their necks, which the Futurists thought prevented Italian artists and writers from engaging with the exciting new developments of the present.

This insight explains their lack of interest in the future, but their obsession with destroying the past, in order to liberate artists and writers to engage with the technological marvels of the present. 

It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.

Museums: cemeteries!… Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!

It explains their feverish iconoclasm – Italy’s museum culture was strangling the current generation so – Away with it!

In truth I tell you that daily visits to museums, libraries, and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for artists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner… But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!

So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!

Historical and social background to Futurism

Humphreys gives some historical and social background. Italy was only unified as a state in 1870 and in the following forty years its economy failed to keep pace with the progress experienced by the more heavily industrialised nations of northern Europe. Urban Italians in the north (Milan, Turin) felt ripped off by capitalist industrialism, while Italians in the south (Naples to Sicily) lived in astonishing rural poverty. The result was forty years of political and cultural turmoil.

Seeking distraction from domestic problems, the government embarked on colonial adventures, notably in Abyssinia where the Italian army managed to be defeated by the locals at the Battle of Adua in 1896. Humiliation heaped on humiliation.

Futurism was just one among many voices and movements seeking cures to Italy’s apparent stagnation, including Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Nationalists, neo-Catholics and right-wing proto-Fascists.

The Futurist present

In the fifteen years or so leading up to 1909 the world of science and industry had generated a dazzling array of new technologies which were transforming human existence and age-old ideas about time, travel, communication, vision, language, space, matter.

This might sound exaggerated but the inventions of the period included the electric light, the telephone, the telegraph with its huge cables laid across the floors of the world’s oceans, the x-ray, cinema, the bicycle, automobile, airplane, airship and submarine. One of the very first movies was about a manned flight to the moon. Anything seemed possible.

Why then, raged the Futurists, were people still queuing up to look at Botticelli, when outside their windows human existence was changing at unprecedented speed?

Futurist manifestos

Futurism was a writers’ movement before it was an artistic one (like Symbolism). The manifestos were themselves embodiments of the new style, the new attitude towards language, the new verbal excitement! And, being a loquacious race, there were plenty of them!

Futurist members

The driving force (pun intended) was car-mad Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

The principal artists were Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, and Luigi Russolo, and the Italian and Swiss architects Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone.

Offshoots included the wonderful English artist C.R.W. Nevinson, and the Canadian Percy Wyndham Lewis, who set up his own copycat movement, Vorticism, in London, which for a while included the poet Ezra Pound and the anti-romantic intellectual T.E. Hulme.

In France the artist Robert Delaunay, in Russia the artists Mikhail Larionov and Kasimir Malevich and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, all drew inspiration from Futurism’s dynamic iconoclasm.

Futurist art

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was probably the most important Futurist painter. Humphreys shows him developing quickly from social realism in 1909, through a version of Seurat’s Divisionism in 1910, and then – like all the Futurists – responding to the dazzling impact of Braque and Picasso’s Cubism in 1911.

States of Mind - Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

States of Mind  II- Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson was immensely influential during this period, with his idea that human beings are driven by an élan vital or life force, which pushes us forward through the subjective experience of time, bursting through the encrustations of traditional life and traditional clock time.

This notion chimed perfectly with Cubism which adopted multiple viewpoints, as if the viewer were in numerous different positions at the same moment.

And it also helped to explain the Futurist concern to capture movement in time. Of Boccioni’s States of Mind  II- Those who go (above) Humphreys writes that it includes:

  • lines of force which are intended to convey the trajectory of moving objects, as well as drawing the viewer’s visual emotions into the heart of the picture
  • simultaneity to combine memories, present impressions and future possibilities into one orchestrated whole
  • emotional ambience in which the artist seeks by intuition to combine the feelings evoked by the external scene with interior emotion

Specifically, Those who go depicts ‘the oblique force lines of the passengers’ movement in the train as is speeds past a fragmentary landscape of buildings’ (p.32).

I found all this fascinating and insightful. This is a short but extremely useful book.

Humphreys goes on to analyse how Futurist principles were applied in the paintings of Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Giacomo Balla.

Abstract speed by Balla is a triptych of paintings intended to show the effect of a car approaching, passing, and having passed. Below is the third of the set, showing a simplified green landscape against which the lines of force show the air turbulence caused by the car which has just passed by, tinged by pink representing the car’s exhaust fumes.

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Further sections describe:

  • Futurist literature – Marinetti’s wholesale attack on traditional syntax especially in his famous book, Zang Tang Tumb, promised ‘the complete renewal of human sensibility’.
  • Futurist sculpture – its use of movement and ‘lines of force’ easily grasped in Boccioni’s wonderful Unique forms of continuity in space (1913) – illustrated at the top of this review – and now in Tate Modern.
  • Futurist music – the attempt by Luigi Rossolo to create a new ‘art of noises’, conveying the sounds of the city through a set of ‘noise intoners’ with names like Exploder, Crackler, Gurgler, Buzzer and Scraper, the use of machine sounds which hugely influenced modernist composers like Antheil, Honegger and Varèse.
  • Futurist photography – from the evidence here, the attempt to capture blurred motion by Anton Giulio Bragalia.
  • Futurist cinema – using every trick available including split screens, mirrors, bizarre combinations of objects and painted frames to convey movement, abrupt transitions, dynamic energy, epitomised by Amado Ginna’s Vita Futurista (1916).
  • Futurist architecture – As early as 1910 Marinetti and collaborators in Venice, from the top of St Mark’s Campanile, threw thousands of pamphlets then bellowed from a loudspeaker at the confused crowd below inciting them to burn the gondolas and tear up the bridges. Futurist architects, led by Antonio Sant’Elia, threw out Art Nouveau curves and natural motifs in favour of soaring vertical lines, rejecting the entire European tradition in favour of thrusting, machine-led New York. – Construction for a modern metropolis by Mario Chiattone (1914)

The Vorticists

I’ve always thought Christopher Nevinson was a much better Futurist than any of the Italians. Marinetti (who called himself ‘the caffeine of Europe’) recruited Nevinson who became a paid-up Futurist when he signed the ‘Vital English Art’ futurist manifesto in 1914. Nevinson’s paintings are harder-edged, more finished.

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

In London Marinetti stirred things up with a Futurist exhibition held in 1912, but drew a blank when he encountered an artistic entrepreneur almost as forceful as himself in the shape of Percy Wyndham Lewis.

In 1913 Lewis created ‘Vorticism’, combining hard-edged Cubist-Futurist inspired visuals with texts supplied by Ezra Pound or T.E. Hulme, all wrapped up in their inaugural magazine, BLAST!

I’ve read a lot about Lewis and Pound but Humphrey is the first author I’ve read to identify the fundamental difference between the Futurists (who the Vorticists dubbed ‘automobilists’) and Lewis’s gang.

Whereas the Futurists wanted to throw themselves into the speeding world, to lose themselves in the milling crowd, and their art investigated emotions and ideas stemming from movement – Lewis was an unrepentant individualist, determined to keep the world and the ghastly hoi polloi at a distance.

The essence of his notion of ‘the vortex’ is that it is the utterly still point at the centre of the incessant motion of the modern world. It is a detached observer. For Lewis the emotional (and in some cases, even spiritual) element in Futurist painting made it soft, made it dispersed. Lewis wanted an art which was hard and clear and focused.

Humphreys also references Edward Wadsworth and the sculptors Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, all of whom showed the clear influence of the Futurists.

Epstein’s Rock Drill (1914) may be my all-time favourite work of art.

London had been stunned and stunned again by Roger Fry’s two landmark exhibitions of post-Impressionist art in 1910 and 1912. It reeled again from the Futurist exhibition opened on 1 March at the Sackville Gallery and featuring Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini.

In these years just before 1914, for the general public, journalists and their readers, ‘Futurism’ became the generalised term for all avant-garde art.

The Futurists at war

In one of the manifestos Marinetti notoriously wrote that ‘war is the sole hygiene of the world’, and the artists responded to the advent of the Great War with enthusiasm, holding a number of pro-war happenings.

However, their art wasn’t as violent or inspired by war as you might expect.

Boccioni was killed in 1916 and his final works show – astonishingly – a return to the figuratism of Cézanne.

Just before the war Carrà was in Paris having second thoughts about ‘Marinettism’, as its critics called it. When he was called up in 1917, he was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico. They collaborated for a while on a completely new style which they called ‘metaphysical painting’ by which they meant: instead of Futurist movement, stillness; instead of fragmentation, structure. Instead of immersion in the flow of modern life, de Chirico and Carrà sought detachment, poise and simplicity. And a hint of humour.

They were part of a widespread ‘return to order’ which affected artists and composers across Europe. De Chirico’s odd, dispassionate classicism was to be one of the tributaries of Surrealism a few years later.

Nevinson served on the Western Front and made much more exciting images of war than anything – on the evidence here – the Italian Futurists managed, for example the wonderful Le Mitrailleuse (1915).

Futurism and Fascism

In the turmoil immediately after the end of the First World War, despite the death or defection of the first wave of Futurist artists, Marinetti tried to maintain the Futurist brand with theatrical performances and pamphlets.

Although attracted by some anarchist and left-wing ideas, he in the end plumped to support Mussolini, whose Fascist Party marched on Rome and seized power in 1922.

Humphreys is good on the surprisingly broad and liberal cultural atmosphere which Mussolini maintained in Fascist Italy, partly under the influence of his Jewish mistress, partly because he wanted to encourage all the arts to support his idea of a neo-classical resurgent Italy.

The first wave of Futurists had died or fallen away during the Great War. Now Marinetti had to whip together and motivate lesser talents.

In the 1930s there was a great vogue for airplanes all across Europe, and the book concludes with some vaguely modernist paintings of cockpits and swooping machines of the air. The Futurist brand staggered on into the Second World War with Marinetti, now an overt Catholic, giving his unstinting support to the Duce. But by then the initial buzz and thrill of 1909 Futurism was only a distant memory.

Futurism today

The Futurists insisted that humanity destroy its enervating attachment to clapped-out traditions, accept the violent reality of human nature, reject artificial and sentimental morality, and live on the basis of how life is now – not what it used to be, or how we would like it to be.

I warm to many of these ideas, particularly given the anti-sentimental findings

  • of modern genetics and evolutionary psychology (which tend to prove that we have much less ‘say’ over our character and behaviour than we like to think)
  • of ever-accelerating computer science (which has already undermined old-fashioned ways of thinking, talking, writing and communicating)
  • of environmental degradation (no matter what we say, we are destroying the planet, exterminating countless species every year, filling the seas with plastic, melting the ice caps)
  • of modern war, of which there never seems to be an end (Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria)

As a thought experiment, reading and falling in with the Futurists’ worship of speed, violence and the utterly modern, at the very least opens up new ways of feeling about our present situation.

Stop whining about Brexit and Trump and Weinstein, Marinetti would have yelled! Embrace the chaos!


Related links

Related art reviews

Marcel Duchamp by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins (1999)

God, he was gorgeous!

Marcel Duchamp in New York (1917) by Edward Steichen

Marcel Duchamp in New York (1917) by Edward Steichen

This is a really thorough, scholarly and in-depth biography-plus-analysis of the life and works of the godfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, part of the Thames and Hudson ‘World of Art’ series.

We are told that it was ‘written with the enthusiastic support of Duchamp’s widow’, and sets out to ‘challenge received ideas, misunderstanding and misinformation.’ No doubt, But to the casual gallery-goer like myself Duchamp is a ‘problem’ because his oeuvre seems so scattered and random: its three main elements are the Futurist paintings (chief among them Nude descending a stair); the readymades (like the bicycle wheel (1913), wine rack (1914), snow shovel (1915), or urinal (1917)); and then the obscure late works, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and the even more obscure, Etants donnés.

This is the first and only account I’ve ever read which shows how these apparently very diverse products all arose naturally and consecutively from Duchamp’s artistic and philosophical interests. It creates a consistent narrative which explains and makes sense of them.

1. A crowded context

A common error in thinking about history – in thinking about the past generally – is to pick out one or two highlights from history – or ‘major’ writers or artists – and focusing on them alone, Picasso, the Holocaust, whatever.

But of course the past was as densely populated and packed with myriads of competing people, ideas, headlines, events, political parties, issues, theories and ideas, was as contingent and accidental – as the present. These ‘events’, these ‘great artists’, were intricately involved in the life of their times. Duchamp’s career more than most benefits from the thorough explanation of his historical context which the authors provide, because his artistic output is so ‘bitty’ and fragmented.

Thus the book begins by locating Duchamp’s life within a large family itself made up of artists (his grandfather was a well-known artist in Rouen, two of his brothers and one sister became artists). I particularly enjoyed the account of the art world of Paris circa 1905, when young Marcel moved there to join his brothers. It was fascinating to learn about the various ‘movements’ or clubs of artists famous in their own day, who have now completely disappeared from the historical record. In particular, it was news to learn that young Marcel initially made his way as a caricaturist, a cartoonist and illustrator for magazines.

Regarding caricature and humour, the book goes to some length to describe the intellectual life of the age, dwelling at length on theories of humour developed by writers like the poet Charles Baudelaire (On the essence of laughter, 1855) and Henri Bergson (Le Rire, 1900). Baudelaire thought comedy stemmed from the abrupt undermining of humanity’s aspirations towards goodness and angelic grace by moments of earthy reality or brute clumsiness. Pratfalls. Laurel and Hardy. On a verbal level, this structure is enacted in the double entendre or double meaning, which nowadays has come to mean saying something ‘respectable’ which also has a sexual interpretation or undertone.

Bergson thought humour was the result of perceiving people as machines or types, rather than individuals. In his view, lots of humour comes from an expectation of someone behaving with mechanical routine which is somehow undermined, or continuing to behave with routine nonchalance after some disaster. The example given is of a boring office functionary who every day dips his quill in the inkpot until one day his naughty colleagues fill it with mud. Ha ha.

Freud wrote an entire book giving a psychoanalytic theory of humour (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905) speculating that they are socially acceptable ways of sharing socially unacceptable base drives, like sadism (cruel humour) or sex (dirty jokes).

The juxtaposition of the cerebral and the coarse; the role of mechanism in humour; the fundamental primacy of the erotic. These are contemporary ideas which the intellectual Duchamp would have been familiar with and fed into his work and worldview.

1. The authors are just warming up with these early theories of humour; later the book will bring together a mind-boggling array of references to explicate Duchamp’s mature works.

2. This sequence is an example of what you could call the teleological approach of so many biographies of great personages – the tendency to find the seeds of later works in the personage’s earliest experiences and sayings, a direct line from infant, childhood or earliest experiences/productions to the adult’s life and work.

One example among many: the authors relate the fact that one of his earliest surviving sketches is of a lamp (Hanging glass lamp, 1904) to the fact that a gas lamp appears in both of his monumental late works, The Bride Stripped Bare and Étant donnés. Maybe, who can say.  But it makes for an entertaining game of ‘sources and origins’.

2. Cubo-futurism

My favourite works of Duchamp’s, more than the readymades or the two big weird works, are his early semi-abstract paintings of walking human figures. I have always loved the energy of Italian Futurism and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, so I love Duchamp’s masterly paintings of walking people turning into machines.

Nude descending a staircase number 2 (1912)

Nude descending a staircase number 2 (1912)

Or are they revealing the machine within the human; or showing the multiplicity of realities which the human mind converts into sequence but which, in an Einsteinian universe, may be permanently present; or his copying of the secrets of movement which in his day had only just been captured by pioneering photography. Or all four.

It’s fascinating to watch the progression in these paintings from the depiction of a kind of mechanised human through to full machine. It’s hard to see the last two of these paintings as human in any way.

And it’s here that the book makes the big link for me, because it shows in great detail how Duchamp, by 1913 completely disillusioned with painting, nonetheless used sketches and designs for the bride paintings as the basis of the strange, enigmatic and over-determined big work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even which he would devote the next 15 years to creating, and tinker with for the rest of his life.

3. The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even

This is divided into two parts (top and bottom) with the top depicting the ‘bride’ in an extremely abstract, semi-mechanical form, and the bottom half originally showed the ‘bachelors’ competing for her favours. Apparently, at a very early stage, this was partly inspired by a fairground attraction where you could throw balls at puppets of a bride and groom, if you hit the bride she fell out of the bed stark naked (well, as naked as a puppet can be). Duchamp was attracted to the mechanical aspect, the puppet/mannequin aspect, the game aspect, and the sudden shock of nudity aspect. All four are recurrent themes.

By the time he painted the design onto this big glass sheet, the bride has evolved into a peculiar set of shapes in the top section, while the bachelors have evolved into a rack of male suits, now known – in the extensive mythology which Duchamp spun around the piece – as the ‘Malic Moulds’.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp as reconstructed by Richard Hamilton

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp, as reconstructed by Richard Hamilton

But that makes it sound too rational and understandable. The authors devote tens of pages to analysing the slow evolution of his sketches and thinking. For example, the way the whole thing is painted onto a big sheet of glass undermines the idea of the canvas as an opaque object. Now it can be seen from both sides and changes aspect (and mood and meaning) depending on what it is placed in front of.

It’s really the steady abstraction and stylising of the images which takes some explaining. It’s part of Duchamp’s reaction against what he called retinal painting i.e. he lamented the way all painting from the impressionists onwards was made to be judged purely on its appearance, devoid of intellectual or symbolical meaning.

Duchamp found this retinal superficiality distressing and thought he could escape from the entire artistic trend of his day by moving towards a more scientific type of technical drawing (technical drawing having made up, as the authors point out in their thorough opening chapter, part of the school education of Duchamp’s generation).

Thus he made extensive preparatory sketches for all the different parts of the mechanism. Not only that, but he wrote an extensive set of notes, known as the The Green Box. Like T.S. Eliot’s contemporary Modernist poem, The Waste Land, The Bride Stripped Bare is designed to be read with its notes, the notes are an integral part of the understanding. In Duchamp’s case, the Green Box notes are more like a manual for understanding, a user’s guide. Thus the book includes a detailed analysis of every aspect of the mechanism, numbering and identifying all the parts, and explaining their derivations.

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) Marcel Duchamp (1915-1923) with annotated parts

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) by Marcel Duchamp (1915-1923) with annotated diagram of the parts

The authors go into rather mind-boggling detail in their analysis of the work. We learn the relevance of Einsteinian physics (is The Bride depicting a fourth dimension?), of medieval alchemy (note the design of the pipes and limbics of the mechanism), of Surreal theories of the erotic (for a start the way bride and bachelors are trapped in different quadrants of the work), and many other ideas and illusions. There is  he importance of engineering design, technical drawing, the influence of Hertz’s discoveries about radio frequency, and so on and so on.

For once this isn’t a case of critics over-analysing a work of art because Duchamp himself, in his notes and in numerous interviews throughout his life, invoked a wealth of ideas, sources, and ideas which all contributed to manufacturing The Bride. Here’s a sample paragraph from the hundred or so about The Bride which make such bewildering and strangely gripping reading.

Attempts have been made to construct a narrative of the implied mechanical functioning of the Glass: to make visible the ‘cinematic blossoming’, as Duchamp put it, of the Bride and her interaction with the Bachelors. However, to succeed, these attempts would require the application of a consistent logic to operations that remain notional, inconsistent or at least multiply determined. The erotic is not rational. It is, perhaps, only a sexual encounter in the terms in which Breton saw it, as an extra-terrestrial observation of the inconsistencies, non-reciprocities and ambiguities of human sexuality. (p.107)

But:

The fascination with kinetic energy and ‘fields of force’ in both visual and linguistic terms runs throughout the Large Glass and the notes,  which together form a fantastic catalogue of forms of propulsion and motion, and of the more invisible source of energy and modes of communication. For instance, the Bachelor Machine is powered by steam and is also an internal combustion engine; it includes gas and a waterfall, springs and buffers and a hook made of a substance of ‘oscillating density’. This was, Duchamp noted, a ‘sandow’, initially the name of a gymnastic apparatus made of extendable rubber, and by analogy a plane or glider launcher. The Bride runs on ‘love gasoline’; she is a car moving in slow gear; her stripping produces sparks; she is a 1-stroke engine, ‘desire-magneto’; the 2nd stroke controls the clockwork machinery (like ‘the throbbing jerk of the minute hand on electric clocks.’)

I began to find the authors’ extended investigation of the Bride, their exposition of Duchamp’s vast catalogue of ideas and interpretations, horribly addictive. Is the bride an avatar of Diana, Roman goddess of virginity? Or the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali? Or is she the Virgin Mary, undergoing a secular apotheosis?

The discourse generated by this one intensely intellectualised piece will go on growing forever. It is a dizzying, terrifying and strangely reassuring thought…

4. Dada and the readymades

Once clear of the hermeneutic jungles of the Bride Stripped Bare, the book goes on to investigate Duchamp’s association with the anti-art movement, Dada, founded in Zurich in 1916 and which opened offices in Paris and even distant New York – and in his arm’s length relationship with Surrealism.

The key events of this period (1913 to 1923) is the invention of the readymade. At various points he selected a wine rack, a public urinal, a bicycle wheel on a stool, and a number of other everyday objects to exhibit in various art exhibitions in New York and Paris. The urinal is one of the most iconic works of the art of the century because thousands of conceptual artists have looked back to it for liberation, although the story of its exhibition is rather complicated (the way Duchamp signed the urinal R. Mutt, titled it Fountain, and anonymously submitted it to a art exhibition whose board of judges he himself was sitting on. When it was rejected by the others he resigned for the board and wrote a letter complaining about the outrageous treatment of Mr Mutt. And so on.)

Fountain (1917 / replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

Fountain (1917 / replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

The point was rather simple. What is art? When Duchamp posed this question, art theory was dominated by notions that the work of art had some kind of moral or spiritual or social purpose. The Victorians thought Art should portray The Beautiful. Mathew Arnold thought Art could protect and elevate the Imagination, protecting it from the brutal vulgarities of industrial society. Duchamp’s contemporaries in Soviet Russia thought Art could help bring about a new revolutionary society. The Surrealists’ leader, André Breton, thought Surrealism was a literary and artistic movement which would give people direct access to the unconscious mind and so liberate society from its repressions.

Everyone believed Art should do something.

Duchamp stands to the side of all this angsting and stressing. His readymades say that Art just is. One of the big things I’ve learned from this book, and from the Dali/Duchamp exhibition I recently visited, is the way Duchamp thought the key ingredient in a readymade was that it must not be beautiful. He was trying to get away from any idea whatsoever of ‘the aesthetic’.

While the nihilists of Dada tried to create a kind of anti-art, Duchamp spoke about creating an a-art, in the same sense as amorality doesn’t mean moral or immoral – it means having no morality at all. So a-art (or an-art, it doesn’t really work in English), means Art which has completely ceased to be Art. He wanted to evade the whole question of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘taste’, of ‘style’ of the special agency of the artist’s ‘touch’ – all of it. Hence:

  • a snow shovel (1915)
  • a ball of string between metal plates (1916)
  • a comb (1916)
  • Underwood typewriter cover (1916)
  • a urinal (1917)
  • a coat rack nailed to the floor (1917)
  • a hat rack (1917)
  • 50cc of Paris air in an ampoule (1919)

As regular readers of my blog know, I think all of these attitudes have been completely swallowed, subsumed and assimilated into our modern consumer capitalism. All art – whatever its original religious, spiritual or revolutionary intentions – is now just a range or series of decorative, ornamental and amusing brands in the Great Supermarket of life. Thus Duchamp’s great ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ icon is now available in any number of formats and channels, about as subversive as a Beatles T-shirt.

And as to ‘What is Art?’ Art is whatever art gallerists, art curators and art critics agree to call art. Simples.

5. Tinkering

By the mid-1920s Duchamp wasn’t painting and had finished The Bride. He was happy for word to go around that he had abandoned art for professional chess. Other Dada artists gave up altogether; it was the logical conclusion of their anti-Art stance.

But Duchamp in fact continued a career of low-level tinkering, especially in Surrealism (which he was never officially a member of. He:

  • served on the editorial boards of the Surreal magazine, Minotaure and the New York magazine VVV
  • designed the glass doors for Breton’s gallery Gradiva
  • arranged a New York exhibition for Breton
  • arranged the New York publication of Arcane 17 and Surrealism and painting
  • designed the cover of Breton’s volume of poetry, Young cherry trees secured against hares
  • served as ‘producer-arbitrator’ for the Exposition internationale de Surrealisme in 1938
  • decorated the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibition in 1942 with reams of string and suggested the contributors’ faces in the catalogue were replaced by random photographs from the papers
  • was co-presenter, with Breton, of Le Surrealisme en 1947 in Paris
  • hand-coloured 999 fake plastic breasts to be included in the catalogue
  • helped organise the 1959 Exposition internatoinale du Surréalisme with the theme of eroticism. Entry to one room was through a padded slit shaped like a vagina (Rrose Sélavy – Eros c’est la vie – was, after all, the punning meaning of the female drag identity Duchamp jokily created in the 1920s. Maybe Eros c’est mon oeuvre would have been more accurate.)

Retired from making, maybe, but quite obviously still involved with the art world.

6. Étant donnés

In fact, in secret, in the last twenty years of his life Duchamp was working on an even weirder piece, titled Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, French: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage).

The viewer has to look through two pinhole cracks in an old door to see a tableau of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, her legs spread wide apart to reveal her hairless vulva, while one outstretched arm holds a gas lamp up against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp

The view inside Étant donnés (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp prepared a ‘Manual of Instructions’ in a 4-ring binder explaining and illustrating how to assemble and disassemble the piece. It wasn’t displayed to the public until after Duchamp’s death in 1968 when it was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also home to the Bride.

What on earth is it about, and how does it relate (if at all) to Duchamp’s earlier pieces?

Well, for a start, both rotate around naked women (hardly a very ‘revolutionary’ or ‘subversive’ subject – arguably the exact opposite). This takes us right back to the opening chapters where the authors had pointed out how many of Duchamp’s early cartoons and illustrations took the mickey out of the French feminist movement of 1905, and of women’s rights and aspirations, in general.

  • Femme Cocher (1907) Marcel Duchamp Women had recently been allowed to drive hansom cabs. This cartoon, showing the absence of a woman driver parked outside a hotel which could be rented by the hour, suggests the woman driver is picking up extra money by popping in to ‘service’ her customer. Misogyny?

Moreover, before he adopted the Cubo-Futurist style, many of Duchamp’s earliest paintings depicted women stripped bare (aha) as they will appear in The bride and Étant donnés – walking, stretching, sitting – all naked. What is happening in an early painting such as The Bush (1911)?

In the same year, Portrait (Dulcinea) is an early attempt at portraying movement, the same woman appearing five times, each time progressively more undressed (though admittedly, this is not easy to make out).

So, naked women were a recurrent theme of his career. Indeed, one of the more easily readable exhibits at the current Dali/Duchamp exhibition is a photo of Duchamp playing chess with a naked lady in the 1960s. Old man and naked young woman. Hmm.

But this is just the obvious place to start, with the shockingly crude image of a naked woman. As with The Bride the authors t go on to use Duchamp’s own writings to bring out the dizzying multiplicity of meanings and interpretations which this strange, unsettling piece is capable of, for example reviewing the fifteen ‘operations’ in the instruction manual he wrote, which explain how the object was to be assembled.

As I read the densely written chapter about it, I realise that the detailed, hyper-precise instructions surrounding Étant Donnés, which all lead to a frustrating, flat, unemotional and profoundly disturbing outcome – all this reminds me of the detailed instructions which Samuel Beckett included in the texts of his carefully constructed artifice-plays. Same fanatical attention to detail for a similarly bleak and deliberately emotionally detached product.

Having finished the book and looking back in review of his career, the readymades seem almost the most accessible part of it. These two big works are genuinely subversive in the sense that, while invoking a kaleidoscope of interpretations, they continue to puzzle and baffle rational thought.

7. Duchamp cartoons

Which thought – possibly – brings us back to the very beginning of Duchamp’s career. His first exhibited works were shown at the 1907 Salon des Artistes Humoristes and his earliest paid work was as colleague to a gang of caricaturists and cartoonists who worked for Parisian magazines with titles like Cocorico, Le Rire (the Laugh) and Le Courrier français.

More than his interest in sex, or machines, or even chess, it is arguable that this taste for the drily humorous is the central spindle of his oeuvre.

Is the idea of the urinal not funny? Is he not, as thousands have pointed out before me, taking the piss out of the art world? Are not all his Surrealist interventions, ultimately, comical? And isn’t his last, great, puzzling work, in effect — a peep show of a naked lady? And the fact that so many critics have written about it with such po-faced seriousness, isn’t that itself comical?

You can’t help feeling all the way through, that Duchamp was having le dernier rire. After all, why shouldn’t modern art be itself funny, or the subject of humour?

Toilet humour

1950s revival

Lastly, in a very useful coda, the authors explain how Duchamp really had gone largely into retirement, living in a small New York apartment with the last of his many companions, when the 1950s dawned and with it the birth of an American avant-garde scene.

The Black Mountain College poets and writers and composers – John Cage the composer, Robert Rauschenberg the painter and Merce Cunningham the choreographer – took inspiration from Duchamp to oppose the intensely male and retinal work of the then dominant Abstract Expressionists, to kick back in the name of a dance and art and music which questioned its own premises, questioned its own ‘coherence’ and – in Cage’s music in particular – sought to escape the control and input of the composer completely, just as Duchamp had sought to escape the controlling influence of the artist in his readymades.

Rauschenberg’s close friend Jasper Johns used deliberately ‘found’ motifs like the American flag, numbers, letters, maps to depersonalise and demystify his art, and also combined it with readymade artefacts, just as Duchamp had. (As can be seen at the current Royal Academy exhibition about Johns.)

By 1960 his example was being quoted by all sorts of opponents of Abstract Expressionism, and his influence then spread across the outburst of new movements of the 60s – Fluxus, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Land Art, Performance Art and so on. And is still very much with us today.

If the first half of the twentieth century belonged to the twin geniuses Matisse and Picasso, the second half belonged to this idiosyncratic, retiring but immensely intellectual and thought-provoking genius.

Conclusion

Duchamp’s greatest hits are summarised in the book’s promotional blurb:

  • The originally controversial Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was a vital inspiration to the Futurists and remains a cubist classic.
  • Fountain (a ready-made urinal) continues to inspire conceptual artists of all stripes.
  • Large Glass (1915- 1923) continues to beguile.
  • Duchamp’s last work Étant Donnés (1946-1966) continues to disturb.

His achievement was to produce works and critical writings, ‘provocations and interventions’, which made innumerable artists, critics and curators reconsider their whole idea of what a work of art could be and mean. He opened up whole new vistas of the possible, and this is without listing some of the other ‘interventions’ the authors cover, like his half-serious financial ventures, his attempts to design and sell a rotorelief machine or – most teasingly of all – his teasing theory of the ‘infra-thin’.

It’s hard to imagine a one-volume book about Duchamp which could both cover the nuts and bolts of his biography and career, and also follow him out into the more vertiginous aspects of his relentless theorising about art in general and his own peculiar masterpieces in particular, better than this one.

Tu m' (1918) Duchamp's last work, painted as a commission to go above shelving in a New York apartment

Tu m’ (1918) Duchamp’s last work, painted as a commission to go above shelving in a New York apartment. In French the phrase requires a verb to complete it, so it’s unfinished. Pronounced in English it sounds like ‘tomb’ i.e. the summary and end of his painting career.


Related links

Surrealism-related books

Surrealism-related exhibitions

Red Gold by Alan Furst (1999)

The fifth of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series of historical espionage novels, and sequel to The World At Night, Red Gold picks up the career of French movie producer Jean Casson, and follows his further adventures in occupied Paris from 18 September 1941 until 5 April 1942. Once again the book is divided into ten or so ‘chapters’, each sub-divided into short sections headed by a datestamp – so there is a strong sense of the passage of time and the specificity of time.

Jean Marin

The 42-year-old is now hiding out in a poor neighbourhood under a false name – Jean Marin – and down to his last few francs, when he gets chatting to a crook in a low dive. He is recruited into joining a gang which is pulling ‘a job’ in a railway yard, where the gang break in, cosh a guard, and steal sacks of sugar. Flush with his share of the take, Casson goes to a low-life club, picks up a whore and is staggering towards a hotel when he is badly beaten and robbed by some toughs, before stumbling back to his flat.

He has barely awoken from a semi-conscious sleep when there’s a knock at the door and the police arrest him. Oh well. Only a matter of time. He is driven to an out-of-the-way police station where, to his surprise, the arresting officer offers him a job with the Resistance. He is driven to another office where he meets the French officer, Degrave, under whom he served, briefly, as an Army film director up at Sedan, during the German invasion of June 1940. In the same haphazard way as in the previous book, he finds himself being recruited into the Underground and tasked with contacting the communists, who have their own separate clandestine organisation.

In this book we are introduced to rather more characters, with independent storylines. Weiss is a communist agent. He instructs Renan, an old working class activist, to steal machine guns from the Schneider factory. Renan knows it is doomed, makes the attempt, is shot dead after the Germans are tipped off. Similarly, Weiss gets some old pistols and a hand grenade to a group of four students who make an amateurish assault on a German bullion lorry in the village of Aubervilliers, managing to get killed in the process.

In a later episode a young amateur patriot, Slevin, tries to assassinate a Luftwaffe pilot on a flight of stairs down to a Métro station but fails miserably. None of these incidents directly affect Casson. They are there, presumably, to create an atmosphere, to indicate the growing number of attacks made on Germans as the occupation enters its second year.

Casson contacts Kovar, a screenwriter and novelist he met before the war, very left-wing. An interesting character, Kovar marched with the communists but is more of an anarchist. He fills Casson in on the situation in Russia ie the Germans are at the gates of Moscow. Kovar agrees to see if he can put Casson in touch with the FTP, the communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans. Sure enough, a few days later Casson is taken blindfolded to a safe house and interrogated by a 50-something woman, Lila Brasova, political commissar. Apparently satisfied, she says he and his people must put their money where their mouth is -ie give the FTP guns.

Later we see Brasova meeting with an NKVD officer named Juron, Weiss, who has been commissioning these ill-fated resistance efforts, and a senior NKVD executive, Colonel Vassily Antipov. (Those with good memories will remember Antipov as the mystery man who arrived in a Bulgarian village and recruited Khristo Stoianev right at the start of the first novel in the series, Night Soldiers.) They have a power conversation in which they try to assess whether Casson’s approach to them is genuine or a trap: Antipin tells Weiss the Centre (Moscow) thinks it’s a scam and wants Kovar and Casson liquidated. Give me a month to see if it’s a genuine approach, asks Weiss. OK.

In the event, at further meetings of this group, a deal is done whereby Casson gets to live but Kovar will be ‘sacrificed’. In a later scene we see Casson and Kovar meet one last time and the latter tell Casson he’s going to be making an exit. Towards the end of the novel Kovar evades an attempt by two FTP assassins to kill him, probably on a tip-off from the sympathetic Weiss.

Two strands dominate the second half of the novel:

Hélène

In The World At Night Casson had been desperately in love with the movie actress Citrine. In fact, he jumped off the boat taking him to freedom in England in order to swim back to France and try to be reunited with her. This novel starts a few months later when Casson has been unable to contact Citrine who was located at a hotel in the non-Occupied Zone. Half way through this book, Casson reads that Citrine has married a fellow movie director that he knows. Tant pis.

Luckily it doesn’t matter so much because Casson acquires a new ‘squeeze’, Hélène, the Jewish friend of Degrave’s mistress. She is being bullied by her superior at work, Victorine, who knows she is Jewish and progresses from bullying to extorting money from her. Throughout the novel there is a growing sense of concern about Hélène’s plight, as Casson and other characters read reports in the newspapers about Jews being rounded up, disappearing, and so on. He tries several avenues before speaking to a man, de la Barre, who arranges Hélène’s passage to the Non-Occupied Zone and onto a boat, the San Lorenzo, bound for freedom.

Smuggling guns

At the centre of the novel is a long mission undertaken by Casson and Degrave to collect guns from a tramp steamer arriving at Marseilles. This is told in meticulous detail, starting with a trip to Amsterdam (!) to see a lawyer who takes Casson on to visit a convict with a long political history, currently in gaol, one Visari. It is this venerable crook who, at their request, arranges the transport of French army machine guns from the Middle East to Marseilles.

Then Degrave and Casson drive a lorry down into the Non-Occupied Zone, on false papers. There’s a delay at the port where corrupt officials ask for more money. Finally, the crates of guns are loaded and surrounded by innocuous-looking sardine crates for cover. There follows a long, minutely described journey in a beaten-up old truck north through France. The map of the journey carries great conviction, as do the sights and sounds of central France in winter (it is December).

Unfortunately, they are pulled over by a carload of cocky young milice, ie right wing militia and there is a firefight in which the three youngsters are killed – Casson executing their wounded leader, before running their car over a cliff – but Degrave is mortally wounded and dies later in the cab. Casson takes his body to the priest’s house in a little village, who agrees to bury him, then on to the rendezvous at the Quai Gambetta in Chalon. Here he meets sympathisers who load the crates of machine guns onto a barge, burying them deep in gravel. Gravel which the contact, Henri, points out, is being taken north to Normandy. A lot of building going on along the coast, defences against an invasion.

Luna Park

With Hélène safely despatched on her trip to freedom, and the big gun-running job concluded, Casson is at a loose end and beginning to suffer, once again, from lack of funds. He moves into the cheapest possible hotel, counting the francs, before getting a job at the amusement park, Luna Park. All this time he has been using the identity Jean Marin, and lives in fear that he’ll be arrested and identified as the same man who broke out of Gestapo custody in the first novel.

Casson reads a newspaper and is horrified to see that the ship Hélène was due to leave France on, the San Lorenzo, was blown up in the harbour – probably Resistance sabotage. He is distraught at the thought that he might have been involved in bringing in the munitions which killed her, until he gets a message that Hélène is alive, a little shaken, but basically alright, and heading back to Paris.

In the final scenes Casson is beginning to go hungry and can’t resist getting back in touch with his ex-wife, Marie-Claire, in her luxury apartment in the 16th arrondissement. Here she not only gives him a bath and new set of clothes and jewellery to pawn but also has sex with him. Several times.

Marie-Claire had crept into the bed, then her bare bottom began looking for him. (p.238)

This is the turning point in the plotlines because Marie-Claire, with her impeccable connections among Paris’s élite, knows a senior figure in de Gaulle’s network. To Casson’s horror it is a short, fat, smug man he met a few times and took an instant dislike to, Gueze. Nonetheless, he agrees to meet him at the Bar Heininger (Furst fans know that the Bar Heininger features in every one of his novels, like a running gag). Gueze

  • gives some interesting analysis of the political situation among all the competing resistance groups, some right-wing, some communist, some backed by Army officers, some controlled by de Gaulle from London
  • arranges for a lecherous German records clerk, Otto Albers, to be blackmailed into ‘losing’ Casson’s records at the local Gestapo
  • knows the owner of the high class travel agency where Hélène works, and has a word, suggesting it would be lovely ‘favour’ if she could be despatched to the Lisbon bureau

Happy ending?

In the last ten or so pages there is a rather rushed sequence of events as Casson works with Weiss and a number of other agents in attempts to blow up barges carrying gasoline across France to the Mediterranean ports, where it will be shipped to North Africa to fuel Rommel’s war effort. Casson escapes arrest by a few minutes and two of Weiss’s operatives blow up a dam.

Back in Paris he gets two postcards, one apparently from Kovars indicating he made safely it to Mexico; one from Hélène safely ensconced in Lisbon. With these loose ends neatly tied up, Casson can settle to whatever undercover work his various managers, Weiss, Gueze or others, require. The novel ends on a cliffhanger as he hears footsteps approaching his room in a cheap hotel, and then a knock at the door.

Goodies? Baddies? We are not told.


Comment

Emotionless

Furst’s prose style is pared back, clipped, often skipping verbs to convey urgency. The characters register almost no emotion except fear. This makes for quick, exciting and often very evocative reading.

The Seine, south of Paris. A hard, bright dawn, the sun on frost-whitened trees. Factories and docks and sheds, half-sunk rowing boats, workers’ garden plots – stakes pulled over by bare vines. The Michelin factory, one end of it charred, windows broken out, old glass and burnt boards piled in a yard. Bombed, and bombed again. (p.194)

However, it can sometimes appear rather superficial – in the literal sense that you feel like you are fleeting over the surface of events. As with so many thrillers, any emotions the characters are experiencing are left so much to your imagination that, after a while, you get used to the characters actually having no emotions at all, and settle into reading the narrative as a simple succession of one damn thing after another, with no pauses or analysis.

For example, if I was Casson I think I’d be upset at some level by watching my colleague Degrave bleed to death, but Casson doesn’t break down at any point, he continues driving the lorry on to the rendezvous and then accompanies the barge to Paris and then resumes his ‘normal’ life, going straight into ‘meeting with lover’ mode. At some level this is not good for the reader who, I think, would welcome some occasional concession to human feeling.

In-depth knowledge of France and Paris

That said, there is no denying the depth of Furst’s knowledge of the French, of the customs and dishes of the parts of France his characters travel through and, above all, of Paris. At various moment his prose seems to echo the limpid simplicity of much mid-century prose, like Albert Camus’s.

Historical background

Similarly, this novel like its predecessors, is rich in historical background. The characters routinely read newspapers, listen to BBC broadcasts, or discuss the latest rumours, so that the reader is fully informed of the various developments of the Second World War, mainly the ongoing German attack on Russia which is the backdrop to the novel. In addition, at various points characters have conversations which bring out the attitudes and responses of the different political parties, the different elements of the Resistance and even of characters themselves to each new development.

It was particularly interesting to see how the characters reacted to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour ie some are distraught that the Americans are ‘defeated’; others delighted that previously isolationist America has now been forced into the war, which will cut it significantly shorter.

Sex as anti-suspense

But for some reason the novel never really gripped me. There are tense moments, and plenty of well-written scenes. Furst’s first two novels gripped you by the throat with their all-pervasive air of treachery and paranoia; they terrified me.

By contrast, a lot of the imaginative power of these latter novels is carried by the succession of sex scenes – by Furst’s sensual descriptions of one woman after another standing in her slip, undoing her skirt, pulling off her jumper, undoing her bra and generally stripping off for Casson’s (and the reader’s) delectation, in hotels and apartments across Paris. Sure, barges get blown up and a few people get shot (not that many, actually, for wartime) but the reader can be confident that within a few pages Casson will be feeling another old flame or current lover or temporary mistress stroking his thigh or pressing her bottom into his loins etc.

think the juxtaposition of tender, sensuous love-making with nerve-wracking secret meetings or sudden violent action, is meant to intensify both, make you feel this is life really on the edge. But, for me, the certainty that another lissom 20-year-old with a willing bottom will be along in just a few pages undermined all the action scenes.

The soft porn quality of Casson’s seemingly endless progress through a succession of willing women gave the whole book a rather unreal sense of fantasy, and this, for me, spilled over into the undercover, espionage and action sequences, making them also feel like harmless fantasy. Furst’s first two novels felt genuinely tense because you felt the characters could die at any moment; you and they are entirely focused on the fraught political environment they were operating in.

By contrast, the way Casson escapes the Gestapo, survives the milice shootout, is selected for survival by the NKVD, is released by friendly police officers (twice), and gets out of a meeting room just a few minutes before the Germans arrive, is of a piece with the unspoken confidence that he’ll open his hotel door and find yet another gorgeous woman waiting in his bed, wearing nothing but a smile. All this sex is a relaxant, nice and soft and easy-going but, for me, ruining any sense of fear and tension.

Métro as character

A great deal of effort goes into describing the characters’ journeys across Paris, generally by Métro. The Métro map, the arrangement of lines and their junctions, is described more fully, and more repeatedly, than many of the actual characters.


Credit

Red Gold by Alan Furst was published in 1999 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 1999 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith (1999)

Havana had been the staging area for the treasure fleets of the Spanish empire. Over time silver and gold were replaced by American automobiles, which were replaced by Russian oil. All of this was handled in the warehouses of a barrio called Atares, and when the Soviet Union collapsed parts of Atares, like a half-empty vein, did too. One decrepit warehouse dragged down its neighbour, which destabilised a third and spewed steel and timbers into the street until they looked like a city that had undergone a siege, stone pulverised in heaps, garlands of twisted steel, not to mention the potholes and shit and doorways heady with the reek of urine. (p.230)

This is not the Havana of the tourist brochures.

Arkady Renko

The fourth in Martin Cruz Smith’s series of novels about Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, opens on a down note with the deaths of two main characters from previous books. Arkady was contacted from the Russian Embassy in Havana by an official asking him to come and investigate the disappearance of his old friend/sparring partner, ex-KGB Colonel Sergei Pribluda.

Pribluda was working undercover at the Russian Embassy in Cuba, something to do with investigating the murky world of sugar and trade deals. His body – or a horribly bloated, waterlogged version of it – has been discovered in the broad Havana Bay. He was copying the local neumáticos, poor fishermen who can’t afford even the simplest boat, and so fish suspended inside inflated car inner tubes, with a bit of netting strung underneath to support the body. Not much protection against sharks or other underwater perils, but it wasn’t a shark that killed Pribluda. What did?

Much worse, we discover that Arkady had finally married Irina, the woman he met in the first novel of the series, the best-selling Gorky Park, but that she has died in a stupid mix-up in a shambolic Russian medical clinic, injected with penicillin when she had expressly stated her allergy to it. Arkady had popped out for a newspaper and returned to find her stone dead. After smashing the place up in a fury, he retreated to his apartment, from which he rarely emerges any more, no matter who comes knocking on the door, his mood not helped by the futility of police work in a post-communist Russia where crime rates have soared and half the politicians are from the mafia.

The call from Cuba offered a journey as pointless as everything else. Why not go?

Suicide

In fact so completely dark and ashen is Arkady’s world that in the opening scenes we see him steal a syringe from the forensic lab where Pribulda’s body is being cut open and later, back in his temporary apartment, get as far as raising a vein and pricking it, right on the verge of injecting 10 centilitres of air into his system, which will make his heart stop and kill him. Committing suicide.

But it’s at this moment that the burly minder and translator he’s been assigned by the local police, one Rufo Pinero, breaks open the apartment door and hurtles Arkady back against the apartment wall, stabbing once with a knife, narrowly missing and retracting his arm to try again when – he realises the long needle of a syringe is sticking out his ear, through which it has entered his brain. Arkady has stabbed him in self defence with the needle he was holding, without even realising it. Rufo staggers away, slumps to the floor and dies. That changes things.

The case

The cops are called and, ironically, Arkady who came to investigate a death now finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation. He is removed from his flat – now a crime scene – and parked at the empty apartment of the (presumed dead) Pribluda. Here, true to his incurably nosy character, Arkady searches everything and hacks into Pribluda’s computer, finding only hints and tips, nothing massively revealing.

Having stolen Rufo’s key from his still warm body before the cops came, Arkady now searches Rufo’s apartment, finding cryptic notes written on the wall by the phone. After some deciphering they appear to refer to his arrival in Havana and to another event occurring in a week’s time, with Angola written next to the time and date. Angola? Arkady is far from convinced that the bloated body found in the bay is Pribluda, anyway. And he finds a photo showing Pribluda, Rufo and some of the other police he’s met, with the words ‘Havana Bay Yacht Club’ scribbled on the back. What’s that about?

The tension is ratcheted up a notch after Arkady lets one of the investigating cops, sergeant Luna, into the apartment only for him to pull out a baseball bat and start jabbing Arkady with it, asking him what he knows about the Havana Bay Yacht Club. Swiftly the jabbing escalates to a full blown attack, Luna beating Arkady’s legs from under him and then mercilessly battering him on the ribcage, with a few final blows on the face for good measure.

Luna warns him to stay in the apartment and not to go out until the weekly flight to Moscow comes round, when Luna will drive him direct to the airport and put him on the plane. ‘Got that, Russian? Stay here. Don’t move.’

Ofelia Osorio

In fact it takes Arkady a few hours to recover consciousness and several days before he can even walk. But as soon as he can, he finds himself drawn out of the apartment, by visitors and invitations, though all against his better judgement. Slowly – and very enjoyably for the reader – a complex web of relationships is revealed as Arkady meets a cast of 20 or so disparate and colourful characters, each of them contributing fragments to the plot but also acting as a cross-section of Cuban types: cops, scientists, prostitutes, businessmen, garage mechanics, neumáticos, voodoo worshipers, as well as the few surviving old timers from the former Soviet Embassy, and a couple of sinister American exiles…

Lead character is the black policewoman Ofelia Osorio. We see her being harassed by her sexist colleagues at work, returning to her tiny apartment which she shares with her two daughters and her nagging mother, and we get a strong sense of their poverty, fighting over a banana, discussing how best to cook a mango skin.

We are also introduced to Ofelia’s one-woman crusade to try and cut down on teenage prostitution in Havana, or at least try to tackle the ubiquitous police corruption which turns a blind eye to it. She arrests a middle-aged German at a well-known love motel where foreign men take Cuban teenage girls – in this case the 14-year-old Teresa. As Ofelia interviews the German we get a feel for the impossibility of her task, as he ignores all her threats, confident in his foreign passport and his dollars.

And the young prostitute – or jinetera – turns the tables on Ofelia by bragging about how much money she makes a month, multiple times Ofelia’s own pitiful salary. And we are sadly shown how Ofelia’s crusade is driven by fears that her own young daughters, just a few years from jinetera age, will end up the same, walking the seafront touting for rich foreign men to sleep with. She is trying to secure the future for them but knows she can’t.

Frustrated, Ofelia returns to the hotel, the ‘Casa de Amor’, to pick up the other foreign man seen taking in a teenage Cuban, but stumbles into a blood bath. The foreigner has been comprehensively cut to pieces with a machete and the Cuban girl he was with has had her head almost completely severed. Ofelia realises she knows the girl, Hedy, and runs to throw up in the toilet. But it overflows, she realises it’s blocked and, pushing her hand through the blood and puke, she pulls out a scrunched-up passport and photo blocking the U-bend. It is a photo of Renko taken at the airport. The assassin must have mistaken the foreigner, similar build, even a similar name – Franco / Renko – for the Russian. Someone really has got it in for him, but why?

Slowly, through the course of the novel, these two lonely, damaged people, Arkady and Ofelia, find themselves being pushed together. She tells him about the hotel bloodbath; they discuss theories about a) what’s happening b) why someone’s trying to kill him. Later – in a film-like sequence – Arkady rescues Ofelia from the car boot where the increasingly wayward sergeant Luna had tied and locked her. After this harrowing event, they drive to a remote hotel, like bandits on the run, shower, calm down and, in the warm Havana evening, in a safe hotel room far from their enemies, become lovers.

Cast of characters

But while their love affair is slowly building in the background, plenty of other things happen in this multi-stranded narrative. At a party in his apartment block Arkady meets a whole roomful of disparate characters who will help shape the warp and woof of the narrative as well as providing all sorts of insights into Cuban culture and history.

For a start there is a black woman devotee of Santeria, a form of voodoo, who goes into a frenzy, moaning to the beating drums and picking up live coals for the fire. In fact there are several extended sequences explaining the differences between the various voodoo gods of Cuba and their present-day followers. Even Ofelia knows which voodoo clan she belongs to.

Then there is the desperate ballet dancer, Elaine Lindo, whose father was executed after he became involved in one of the many conspiracies against Castro, and who hopes against hope that a Russian like Arkady can get her out of the country so she can pursue her dancing career in the free world. She targets Arkady for seduction but underestimates her man and his disillusioned world-weariness.

The American exiles

And then there is a middle-aged black American, George Washington Walls who, back in the 1960s, was a well-known radical and urban guerrilla, who hijacked a plane and got it to bring him to Cuba: and now we see what the afterlife of such a figure looks like.

It looks very like being a capitalist entrepreneur, as he takes Arkady for a drive in his 1950s car and introduces him to an older American exile, John O’Brien. The two Americans take Arkady on a tour of the casinos abandoned after the revolution and explain their grand scheme to revive them, to make Cuba once again the playground of the Caribbean. They even offer Arkady a job as ‘head of security’ in their bright new empire.

Arkady has a shrewd suspicion they are bribing him, coaxing him into revealing other secrets: like what he knows about this damn Havana Bay Yacht Club. Later, when Arkady makes his way out to what was once the yacht club out at one end of the bay, he finds its luxury buildings fallen into disrepair – it became first a socialised sports club and then was abandoned. And he finds Walls waiting for him on a power yacht moored at the pier. What are they up to, these two smooth-talking, post-radical Yanks?

The scam

Among other colourful locations around Havana, Renko’s investigations take him to the city’s Chinatown. He knows from Pribluda’s computer records that Pribluda went for a ‘karate lesson’ here every week, with $100 cash. But when he asks the way to the address given on the computer, he finds it is now a hairdressing salon. Walking back Arkady passes a cinema where a ridiculous karate film is playing and suddenly recognises the film’s title as mentioned on Pribluda’s files. On an impulse he pays a few pesos and goes in. Barely has he sat in the darkened auditorium than a stylishly dressed, middle-aged man sits next to him and they get into a muttered conversation, the man wanting the money in return for a briefcase. OK.

Back at the apartment, Arkady finds the briefcase contains documents detailing how, at a very high governmental level, the Cubans have been defrauding the Russians out of about possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in their Russo-Cuban sugar trades. Partly by paying ‘commission fees’ to a supposedly neutral Panamanian company, which had been acting as referees in a trade dispute between the two countries, but which the papers show is owned by senior Cuban officials. Is this what Pribluda was investigating? Was this enough to get him murdered? But what has it go to do with the Havana Bay Yacht Club? Or with O’Brien and Walls’ plans to make Havana the Las Vegas of the Caribbean?

Only in the last thirty pages or so do all these disparate threads and characters suddenly and powerfully come together, as Arkady and Ofelia stumble over the conspiracy at the heart of the book – discovering too late that they have been trapped into taking part in it.

Dramatis personae

  • Arkady Renko – Moscow militia investigator with a colourful past as described in the three previous novels about him. Called to Cuba to investigate the death of his old adversary-friend Colonel Pribluda.
  • Colonel Sergei Pribluda – Arkady’s sparring partner in previous novels. The plot is triggered when his corpse is found in Havana Bay, so bloated the pathologist and Arkady aren’t even sure it is him.
  • Ofelia Osorio – black Cuban police officer, waging a one-woman campaign against the exploitation of Havana’s teenage prostitutes or jineteras. Through her eyes we explore Cuba’s poverty and corruption, its ambivalence about the communist regime and Castro, its hatred of the Russians who abandoned them, its deep attachment to voodoo beliefs and practices.
  • Sergeant Luna – big black ex-Cuban soldier-turned-cop who beats Arkady up and turns out to be a strong man for Walls and O’Brien’s conspiracy.
  • Dr Blas – Forensic pathologist, cynical witness to Havana’s murders and deaths, an educated amiable father figure, who shrewdly discusses the Pribluda case with Arkady, half-heartedly invites Ofelia to foreign conferences as a way of chatting her up, and is revealed at the end to be in on the conspiracy.
  • Rufo Pinero – ex-boxer, ex-soldier and now translator for the Havana police. The mystery really begins when he makes an unprovoked attempt to murder Arkady who, up to that moment, he’d been perfectly friendly with.
  • Erasmo – mechanic in the illegal garage downstairs from Pribluda’s apartment where Arkady is staying. He fought in Angola where his legs were blown off by a mine, and now gets about in a wheelchair or trolley. He introduces Arkady to elements of Cuba’s black economy and to the beauty of the many 1950s American cars which still cruise the streets. He is included in several old soldier photos Arkady finds, along with Luna and several of the other characters. Slowly it emerges that they all forged a bond as soldiers in Africa, and have brought that unity back to Havana, but for what purpose?
  • Mostovoi – Russian photographer working at the Russian Embassy. When Arkady breaks into his apartment he finds official photos, then a predictable range of porn photos, and then sinister photos of crime scenes, some of them connected with his case.
  • Olga Petrovna – a plump old lady who works at the Russian Embassy. Arkady eventually finds out that she and Pribluda were lovers, it was she who knew about Arkady from Pribluda’s occasional references to him, and it was she who wired him using Embassy facilities when Pribluda went missing, asking him to come investigate.
  • Bugai – official at the Russian Embassy. Arkady tricks him into confessing that Pribluda was on the trail of the Cuban government’s defrauding Russia out of millions of dollars over its sugar deals, and that Pribluda had to be ‘got out of the way’. And ensures that this confession is heard and taped by Olga Petrovna and police officials. Bugai’s fate will not be nice…
  • George Washington Walls – runaway American 1960s radical and airplane hijacker from the same generation of black radicals as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, who he name checks. But Walls is now a fully-fledged capitalist and entrepreneur, involved in O’Brien’s plans to revive Cuba’s casinos, and other, murkier plots.
  • John O’Brien – 70-year-old American exile who owns luxury yachts, fancy cars, and beguiles Arkady with his plans to revive Cuba’s casino business. Freely admits to running the Havana Bay Yacht Club which, he claims, is a harmless social club, ‘Come along and see for yourself!’ But underneath the charm he is planning something big… but what?

Fidel Castro

Dictator of Cuba after the communist revolution in 1959, well known for always wearing his Army fatigues, smoking an enormous cigar, for his big beard and interminable speeches, Fidel looms over the whole novel, all the Cuban characters not even referring to him by name, but just stroking an imaginary beard or pointing to their chins. (When Cruz Smith describes Fidel’s habit of never making his plans public, sleeping in any number of secret locations, decoying assassins with fake motorcades while he slips off in the opposite direction in an unmarked car and so on, it immediately reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s description of the identically paranoid behaviour of Saddam Hussein in The Fist of God.)

The crux of the novel turns out to be a conspiracy among Fidel’s senior army officers to assassinate him, with the organisational help and technical know-how of O’Brien and Walls, and their cohort of soldiers who met and bonded while serving in Angola – including Luna, Erasmo, Mostovoi and a few others.

Fidel’s one and only actual appearance in the novel is to attend a waterfront cultural display, a Noche Folklórica, with live music and dancing. He is given pride of place in a purpose-built stand and – in a gruesome touch – sat next to a life-size voodoo doll. Watching in the boat in which O’Brien and Walls have brought him, just offshore of the big musical performance, Arkady realises with a jolt that the doll is one which he and Ofelia discovered, earlier in the book, had been specially constructed so as to hold radio-controlled explosives. (It’s a long story). But now he sees the connection: Mercenaries in Angola + Their expertise in mines and explosives + Resentment of Fidel among the general population and especially the military + Walls and O’Brien’s grandiose plans for a post-communist Cuba = assassination of Fidel.

It all fits together. The Havana Bay Yacht Club was just an innocent name the conspirators gave themselves as cover for their meetings. And, in the final twist, O’Brien now reveals to a horrified Arkady that all they needed to make the conspiracy complete was the involvement of an outsider, of a hated Russian, to push the remote controlled switch, blow up the dummy, and then be gunned down by distraught patriots – thus disposing of the dictator and pinning the blame on Cuba’s now most-hated-enemy. Perfect! as he forces Arkady at gunpoint to take the remote control device.

Since we know that Castro is still, in fact, alive, it is giving nothing away to say that the conspiracy doesn’t succeed. But it comes desperately close. The assassination makes a thrilling central plot, it brings together the social and political themes of failed communism and disillusioned soldiers – and it also gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to do what he does best, describe the great man in a few lines of typical, throwaway brilliance.

In the front row’s places of honour were an empty chair and a man with a grey beard who looked as if he had been big once but had since shrunk into a stiff green shell of ironed fatigues. He had the abstracted expression of an old man regarding a thousand grandchildren whose names he could no longer keep track of. (p.314)

Angles

So it’s essentially a crime novel, but with interesting twists:

a) It’s set in Cuba (no doubt lots of other crime novels are, but I’ve never read any). The novel is drenched in descriptions of the sights and sounds of Havana, the smells and music, the scantily clad prostitutes and their razor-thin pimps and the somnolent cops, the rusting balconies of 1930s houses and the streets full of colourful 1950s American cars. And the pages devoted to explaining the voodoo cults which Cubans still believe in and widely practice are fascinating and compelling.

b) The hero is a disillusioned Russian, thus giving us a) an outsider’s view of everything but b) the outsider not just to the exotic location, but to us, the readers – not the usual Brit referring things back to London, but a melancholy, middle-aged man homesick for the frozen streets of his own crime-ridden, corrupt Moscow.

c) The combination allows Cruz Smith to spend pages describing Cuba, the streets of Havana and its bay, in particular; but to overlay or underpin these with continual references to the troubled political history between the USSR and Cuba. Russia spent billions supporting Cuba as one of the few countries which could boast a successful communist revolution, making it a flagship to the whole of the Americas and funding Cuban soldiers to fight in Africa and support other revolutionaries around the world. So much so that Arkady blames the Cubans for bankrupting Russia. Then, when the USSR collapsed, the tap was abruptly turned off. And now, in 1996 (when the novel appears to be set) the Cubans’ respect for Russia has turned to bitter hatred. As Rufo tells Arkady, the Soviet Embassy shed thousands of officials as Russia withdrew its technical and financial aid to the island. And so infuriated were the locals that they slashed the tyres of every Russian car and local taxis refused to give them a lift, so that the fleeing Soviet staff ended up having to walk to the airport.

So, as well as the pacey plot, there are numerous other levels, cultural, historical and political, on which to enjoy this novel.

Magic prose

The most obvious of them is Cruz Smith’s graceful command of the English language. Many people write novels, but not so many are actual writers, people who can make the language perform magic tricks.

‘It’s perfect.’ Arkady let out a plume of smoke as blue as the exhaust of a car in distress. (p.10)

‘Habit.’ Going through the motions, Arkady thought, as if his body were a suit that shuffled to the scene of the crime, any crime, anywhere. (p.25)

He lived in Miramar, the same area as the Embassy, in an oceanfront hotel named the Sierra Maestra, which offered many of the features of a sinking freighter: listing balconies, rusted railings, a view of the water. (p.63)

Mostovoi pondered the photograph of a Cuban girl lightly breaded in sand. (p.63)

Luna held up a key to illustrate and put it in a pocket. He had a voice like wet cement being turned by a shovel. (p.77)

They went past high rises that had the dinginess of fingered postcards… (p.137)

Most of the prose isn’t this showy but it is consistently enjoyable, fluent, casually poetic or, where it needs to be, to the point, factual, understated. It is effortlessly competent and appropriate. After recently reading several novels by John le Carré it is a relief to get away from the British class system, from obsessive references to jolly public schools and characters who say ‘old boy’ at the end of every sentence. To enter a realm where the writing is pure and free to fly, to perform acrobatics, a prose which simply tells you what is going on with a consistently wry, detached humour, and with poetry to throw away in wonderful asides.

Fishing boats with rod racks and flying bridges slid by, speedboats as low and colourful as sun visors, and power yachts with sun lounges and Jet Ski launches, oceangoing palaces of affluence and indolence sculpted in white fiberglass. (p.164)

There were no streetlamps on the Malecón, only a couple of faint headlights like the sort on luminescent fish found in an ocean trench. Although he latched the shutters closed and lit a candle, darkness continued to seep into the room with a solid, tarry quality. (p.208)

From its perch a canary seemed to examine Arkady for a tail. (p.226)

Outside they heard the ocean say, This is the wave that will sweep away the sand, topple the buildings and flood the streets. This is the wave. This is the wave. (p.244)


Credit

Havana Bay was published by Random House in 1999. All quotes and references to the 1999 Macmillan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Single & Single by John le Carré (1999)

Public school hero

Just like the narrators of The Secret Pilgrim and Our Game and the protagonist of The Tailor of Panama, the central figure in Single & Single, Oliver Single, attended a number of private schools and speaks and thinks – and is emotionally stunted – accordingly. He was bullied and harassed by the home tutor his parents hired with a view to getting him into the Dragon (preparatory) school, and his name was down for Eton from birth (where Andrew Osnard of The Tailor went, and where le Carré himself was a teacher, whoops, Master). But in the end Oliver disappointed his father, passing through a string of second-rate boarding schools before only just scraping into law school.

Back story

His father is the ‘legendary’ ‘Tiger’ Single (almost all the characters in these later le Carré novels are ‘legendary’, along with legendary tables, legendary inner sanctums and even legendary haircuts), in fact on his first appearance in the book he is introduced as ‘the one and only Tiger Single himself’, rather like a clapped-out comedian at the London Palladium in the 1970s.

Tiger had made good as a barrister in the mean chambers of Liverpool before coming down to London and setting up a brokerage and investment company named Single & Single. Despite his academic failings, Oliver manages to get his law degree and his father takes him into the firm as a partner, where he quickly uncovers the web of money laundering, offshore deals and criminal banking facilities which the firm offers to all kinds of unsalubrious characters.

The main partners in crime are a pair of very shady Georgians operating out of Moscow, the Orlov brothers, Yevgeny and the retarded Mikhail, accompanied everywhere by a sinister Polish lawyer, Dr Mirsky and a blond psychopath, Alix Hoban, who spends almost all his time creepily whispering into a mobile phone.

It is Hoban who, at a charged meeting in 1990 between the Orlov brothers and Tiger, outlines three sure-fire get-rich schemes. They are each based on the brothers bribing high officials in post-communist Russia in order to:

  • secure a monopoly in selling off Russia’s rusting scrap metal
  • seize control of Russia’s creaking oil infrastructure
  • and – sickest of all – to help set up a national Russian blood transfusion service whose real purpose would be to sell surplus blood at a profit to the West. The sums involved are hundreds of millions of pounds

So far so cynically crooked. However, all these schemes come crashing down with the Russia coup attempt of August 1991, which removes their high government contacts from power. Only after a hiatus of further trips to the East, many mysterious phone calls and some time later, do the brothers re-emerge with a new scheme which will make them and Tiger into billionaires – taking over the Asian opium and heroin trade.

While the business relationship has been deepening Oliver has made numerous visits to the Orlov family homestead, in a remote valley in Georgia, only half-jokingly referred to as ‘Bethlehem’. Prompted – or rather taunted – by one of Yevgeny’s daughters, Zoya, on one of these trips, something snaps inside Oliver when he discovers the full iniquity of this latest project. He is sickened and, in a strange mood of anxiety and disorientation, when he passes through Heathrow Customs on the way back from Georgia, makes the decision to request an interview with a senior Customs official. He wants to come clean and unburden himself.

Oliver is introduced to the sturdy, incorruptible Nathaniel Brock and confesses everything to him, forging with him that close, very personal relationship between controller and ‘joe’ which le Carré so often refers to simply as ‘love’. Olive tells Brock everything he knows about his father’s shady dealings with various international crooks.

However, even with Oliver’s confession, Brock doesn’t have evidence enough to prosecute anyone and asks Oliver to keep spying on his father and colleagues for a little longer. Eventually, when he can’t cope with his double life any longer, Oliver is spirited away, given a new name and identity in the West of England. Here he unwisely rushes into marrying Heather, a nurse, and has a baby daughter, Carmen. Years pass and their relationship collapses, and Oliver ends up separating from her and taking a room at a small hotel (reminiscent of the comfy boarding house in the West Country where Magnus Pyke retreats to in A Perfect Spy and the similarly isolated West Country house of Jonathan Pine, protagonist of The Night Manager). We learn through all the flashbacks that Tiger, faced with the evidence of his son’s flight / disappearance, ignores it, telling everyone Oliver is on an extended business tour of the world, scouting out new opportunities, occasionally returning home for personal meetings with Tiger…

But five years later, one fine day, one of his father’s fixers, the lawyer Alfred Winser, is taken from a run-of-the-mill business meeting in Turkey, to a bleak isolated spot on the coast, interrogated at gunpoint, then shot in the head – all of it recorded on video by the terrifying Hoban.

In media res

And this is where the novel actually starts, with the scene of a sobbing Winser begging to know what he’s done wrong, before he is executed. Bang. It then cuts to Oliver, labouring away at his (humiliating) new occupation as an entertainer at children’s parties. In among blowing up balloons and working a gruesome glove pocket, Oliver gets a series of phone calls which, it slowly transpires, are from his minder Brock, calling to let him know that his bank account has just had a huge amount of money paid into it and Brock and the police want to know why.

The whole of the backstory outlined above is told only after these rather puzzling opening scenes, recounted in flashbacks and memories, often shuffled out of chronological order and often told in very short snippets or scenes, which the reader has to piece together. (It is only on page 109 that Brock quietly but dramatically confirms that Oliver’s last name is Single – and we begin to make the connections with preceding scenes featuring Tiger and the firm.) It makes le Carré’s novels a lot more interesting that they’re structured like this and that they make you work hard to understand what’s going on.

Going forward

It is Winser’s execution that prompts the central crisis of the story. In one strand of the narrative it turns out that the murder has prompted Oliver’s drunk, irresponsible mother, Nadia, to tell Tiger where Oliver’s been hiding all these years: that explains the sudden payment of millions of pounds into the trust fund Oliver had set up for his baby daughter, the payment which was monitored by the authorities and prompted Brock’s calls to Oliver. It is a generous gesture by his father but also a way of communicating with him – and a threat.

But in the central strand of the story, it appears that Tiger himself has gone missing at the news of Winser’s murder… Why? And why was Winser murdered in the first place? In the execution scene, Hoban had said something about a ship being intercepted by the authorities, something Winser, even at the point of being shot, tearfully claimed to know nothing about.

Brock persuades Oliver to come out of hiding and track his father down: he is best placed to do so since he has a far better feel for his father’s behaviour and his network of crooked deals than any of Brock’s fellow officers.

And so the second half of the novel follows Oliver on an odyssey to find his missing father, which forces him to confront the ‘ghosts of his past’ (eg his miserable childhood), the terrors of the present (eg the hair-raising psychopath Hoban) and the wrath of the father he betrayed.

(This is all very similar in structure to Our Game, which opens with a hundred pages or so of puzzling events ‘in the present’ before the narrator reveals clues about the backstory, till it just about all makes sense, and then spends the second half of that book on an odyssey to find his missing friend / agent / betrayer, Larry, an odyssey which – just like here – takes the protagonist deep into the badlands of the Caucasus.)

The quest

The quest or journey is one of the oldest narrative structures in existence. Typically, the quester meets a range of people who shed light on both the world at large and his own identity, before arriving at some overwhelming truth. And that is exactly what happens here. Oliver:

  • confronts his mother at his parents’ massive country pile, Nightingales, a scene which inevitably unlocks scores of childhood memories, mostly unhappy, all those high expectations he was unable to fulfil
  • breaks into the Single & Single offices where he meets his father’s most devoted servant, an Indian called Gupta, before opening the safe in the ‘inner sanctum’ and finding incriminating paperwork which he passes on to Brock
  • flies to Zurich undercover with Aggie, the only woman on Brock’s team (‘straight-eyed and long-legged and unconsciously elegant’ (p.57) – in other words, a model, and sure enough, later on Aggie is described as looking like she should be in advert for smart rainwear, p.321). It comes as the opposite of a surprise that Oliver ends up having an affair with her
  • in Zurich interviews the Swiss lawyer Single & Single deal with, who reveals that his father also visited a week before (ie he’s on the right trail) and was terrified

Oliver is about to sneak out on Aggie from their Swiss hotel when she catches him red-handed and insists they fly together to Istanbul. Here Oliver goes to the heavily-guarded house of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky. He is out but Oliver is grudgingly admitted, accompanied by heavies down to the pool, where he meets the leggy, flirtatious Mrs Mirsky. After some flirting Mirsky himself arrives, sweeps Oliver up into his office, and explains the double cross which is at the heart of the novel.

The reveal

Tiger’s right hand man in London is ‘Randy’ Massingham, who has long been restive at his subordinate position. On the Orlov side the psycho Habon is obviously a threat. Between the two of them they have cooked up a scheme. Fragments of the Orlovs’ smuggling operations will be leaked to the Russian authorities, who will pick off bits and pieces. The aim will be to attach the blame to Single & Single in such a way as to a) discredit Tiger b) persuading the Orlov brothers to demand compensation money out of him using threats and menaces c) ultimately destabilise the Orlov operation enough for Hoban to take over and eliminate the brothers.

So Hoban gets Massingham to tip off the British authorities who will tip off the Russian authorities about a ship – the Free Tallinn – arriving in Odessa carrying tons of heroin. The Russians duly storm the boat, and in the resulting firefight Yevgeny’s beloved brother, Mikhail, is shot dead.

It is this – the death of his brother – which tips Yevgeny over the edge, which ages him decades overnight, which reduces him to a pawn in the hands of the manipulative Hoban. Hoban persuades Yevgeny that, since the tip-off came from London, Tiger must be behind it, the double-crossing b*stard. And it is this which leads to the outrageous demand Oliver has learned about on his odyssey – a demand hand-delivered to Tiger at his office along with a video. The demand was for the immediate refund of all moneys invested with Single & Single, plus punitive damages and costs and interest: £200 million in total! And the video is the film Hoban shot right at the start of the novel – a video of Alfred Winser begging for his life before having half his head blown off. No wonder Tiger emerged shaking from his office, drove straight to his country house to load a travel bag, flew on a fake passport to Switzerland and then…

For a heartless amoral crook, Mirsky is disarmingly frank with Oliver and doesn’t harm him, driving him back into town. Oliver reports back to Brock then takes Aggie to the house where he had previously met the Orlovs and their extended family. It is empty and abandoned, the only person left in it the now-almost-demented Zoya, cradling an armed Kalashnikov. They manage to talk her down, get the gun off her, make her soup and discover the family has returned to Mingrelia.

It is at this point that Oliver does finally succeed in eluding Aggie, setting off on a motorbike for a long night-time drive to an airfield in eastern Turkey. Here he charters a plane at an outrageous rate which flies him to the remote valley in the Caucasus which he had visited so many times in happier days. When he arrives everyone is very unfriendly, though he is allowed to make his way up to the Orlov family mansion on a hill.

Although he knows there is a price on his head, although he knows he could be shot dead at any moment, Oliver braves it out, talking to the shrivelled, shadow-of-his-former-self Yevgeny and his wife as if nothing has happened, trying to raise everyone’s spirits. Hoban enters and Oliver begins shaking with fear inside but hides it, insisting on making tea and then helping cook the evening meal for everyone, just like normal. Eventually they let him see his father, Hoban taking him out back to a filthy stable where Tiger is lying half-naked in the straw, prisoned in a massive chain and manacles.

The Massingham plotline

While Oliver’s odyssey across Europe has been going forward, it has been interspersed by a parallel plot strand based in London. Here the imperturbable Brock is in possession of Randy Massingham, formerly arrogant globe-trotting representative of Single & Single, now trying not to quake with fear in a seedy safe house in south London since he, too, received a letter and a copy of the video which said that not only he, but his gay lover, William, would meet the fate of Alfred Winser.

Thus Oliver’s adventures are interspersed with the much less glamorous, much more slow-burning, psychologically tense interrogation of the evasive, arrogant Massingham by calm, persistent Brock. In the end Massingham breaks, reveals the whole story and prompts Brock to realise he has to act now to save both Tiger and Oliver.

Bloody climax

Novels must end. Narratives must reach a conclusion. And endings are notoriously difficult.

The actual events in this one are as violent as any action movie. Brock and a team of SAS-style hard men fly to south Russia, where they meet up with Russian Special Forces and take helicopters to the Orlovs’ isolated valley. Thus Oliver is back in Yevgeny’s living room, pleading for Tiger’s life, trying to explain that they were stitched up, Tiger would never kill Mikhail, indeed he would never tip off the authorities and he never did, someone else has concocted the whole thing… when they hear the sound of helicopters flying overhead and, only minutes later, the room explodes as gas grenades detonate everywhere and the windows and doors are suddenly full of black-clad special forces men rushing in, throwing Oliver and the dazed Tiger to the ground, coshing Yevgeny and his old wife and then, as the wicked baddy Hoban goes for his gun, there is the ‘plop’ of a silenced gun firing and a red rose blossoms in his forehead. Cool, leggy Aggie, dressed in figure-hugging black, stands over the prostrate Ollie, having saved his life – Modesty Blaise come to life, an S&M princess. There stood:

Aggie, brandishing a submachine gun and wearing a panther suit and Apache warpaint. (p.413)

But what really distinguishes this violent ending from hundreds of others like it is the eerie detachment of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through. As his quest has continued Oliver’s consciousness has become increasingly overloaded with memories, dizzied by the complexity of his father’s scams and the conspiracy against him, and unsettled by the clashing of the two lives he’s been living, his old life and the new identity, wife and child he has ended up abandoning, not to mention trying to keep track of all the women he’s sleeping with.

It is in this heightened, almost delirious, mood that Oliver had bluffed his way into Yevgeny’s house and tried to persuade the sceptical hosts that nothing has changed, that they’re still all old friends, that good old Tiger wouldn’t hurt a fly, come on Yevgeny… And when the bombs suddenly explode and the guns start firing his mind collapses away from the chaotic present and his last thoughts are for his daughter, Carmen, 5,000 miles away in a suburban bedroom, and  his only worry that all the crashing and banging might wake her up.

The grail

And the immortal wisdom which is won at the climax of the quest? As in so many modern quests, the knowledge at the end of the rainbow has the taste of ashes, as he stands over the body of his short, shrunken, dirty, powerless and humiliated father, realising:

You have revealed the full scale of your immense, infinite nothingness. At the brink of death, you have nothing to plead but your stupefying triviality. (p.407)

Seen in a simple Freudian light, the whole book has led up to this moment of crushing insight, as Oliver realises he has triumphed over his father, reducing him to a nullity, travelling all this way not to rescue him – but to witness his utter humiliation.


Themes and style

Mingrelia

The Orlov brothers are not in fact Georgians, they are Mingrelians, a sub-ethnic group of Georgians, who live in the Caucasus. We learn quite a lot about their culture and history as we accompany Oliver on several business trips where he is shown around the stunning landscape and peasant culture by his proud hosts, the Orlov brothers. The novel is set in very much the same part of the world as Our Game, which gravitated around the protagonists’ involvement in the independence movement of the nearby Ingush people. Given all of Russia (or the world) to choose from, why the attraction of this tiny out-of-the-way part of it?

What’s interesting is the way that, in two long novels set in this small area, le Carré mentions but doesn’t make much of the Chechens, the not-much-larger ethnic group and nation neighbouring the Ingush and Mingrelians, but which caused Russia much more trouble in the 1990s, triggering two major wars, waves of terrorism, and the proliferation of the Chechen mafia inside Russia (as described in, for example, the opening scenes of Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thriller, Red Square).

Maybe it’s because the Chechen situation is complex and big, whereas the Ingush who feature in Our Game and the Mingrelians who feature in this novel, are tiny minority groups who le Carré is free-er to handle fictionally. Rather than take on the large and complex socio-economic-political issues of the Chechens, the relative obscurity of the Ingush and Mingrelians allows le Carré to focus not on big picture politics, but on the psychology of just a handful of individuals, doing what he does best, which is build up in-depth profiles of a small group of players, who are described in such a way as to become looming, unreally outsize avatars who, in their psychological potency and exaggerated style, drift loose of their ‘historical’ settings to become almost allegorical figures.

Easy sex

In the opening pages Oliver is described by his landlady as strong and silent (p.27), like a medieval hero striding out of a cave in his armour (p.33), with the ‘strong, upright, officer-class voice’ like the actors in courtroom melodramas (p.34).

He is six foot something and built like an ‘Alp’. When he’s finished doing a clown performance at a party of pukka mums, the one paying him begins to flirt with him. Rather like legendary Larry in Our Game and caddish Osnard in Tailor, poor Oliver is a babe magnet.

When he arrives in Mingrelia and is introduced to Yevgeny Orlov’s extended family, Oliver immediately notices Yevgeny’s fourth daughter, Zoya, sitting apart from the rest, nursing her sickly son, Paul, and something passes between them. Unfortunately, she is married to the psychopath Hoban. Partly to distract himself Oliver agrees to have lessons in Mingrelian back in London with one Nina, and after a day or two they’re having sex (‘Soon she shares his bed, p.175). In fact his father asks him how many times a day he’s screwing her? ‘Twice at night and once in the morning,’ as per family tradition? Archie from the Trading Floor asks, ‘Gave her one for breakfast, did we, Ollie boy?’ (p.209) She leaves bite marks on his shoulder.

However, it doesn’t last and when the initial plans with the Orlov brothers fall through, so does the affair (although Nina’s mother recommends an older male tutor if he still wants to learn the language, a man who was once, inevitably, Nina’s mother’s lover). Anyway, sex with Nina had never eliminated thoughts of Zoya out of Oliver’s mind and the next time he returns to Mingrelia the readers isn’t surprised when there’s a knock on his door late at night and it’s Zoya ready to be ‘taken’.

On the bed they fight until they are naked, then take each other like animals until both of them are satisfied. (p.188) Flinging herself round to him, she traps him between her thighs and lunges at him with ferocity, as if by taking him inside her she will silence him. (p.196)

(Very like the way Osnard ‘takes’ the drunk Louisa in The Tailor of Panama.) At dinner with the Orlovs, ‘The scent of Zoya’s juices is still on him. He can smell it through his shirt’ (p.189).

Much later, when he is driven to a safe house, and when he then flies under an assumed identity to Zurich, it is with the only woman on Brock’s team, ‘Aggie’. There is a thumping inevitability to the way they end up having an affair, she falling in love with him, him adding her to his list of ‘conquests’.

He saw a stalky girl appear, tall as himself but fit. High cheek bones, long blondish pony-tail, and that thing that tall girls have of putting all their weight on one leg while they cock the other hip. (p.118) [Sounds like a blonde Modesty Blaise.]

After Winser’s murder and Oliver has come out of hiding, he visits the penthouse apartment where his father used to live, now abandoned. First he stops at an apartment in the same building where Kat Altremont lives, his father’s long-time mistress and owner of a high-class restaurant near the Singles’ office. He is there to quiz her about his father’s movements but she immediately starts flirting with him.

She stepped forward, drawing the whole length of him against her, which was how she greeted all her men, chest to chest and groin to groin… (p.262)

And while he tries to get a straight answer out of her about why his father so suddenly fled, all she wants to do is rub her legs against him. In the lift up to his father’s penthouse room, she falls into his arms.

‘She feathered her tongue against his while her hands skimmed and dived around his crotch.’ (p.270).

When Oliver’s finished searching the flat, she says he’s more than welcome to come and share her bed.

When he visits the frightened lawyer, Conrad (‘our gallant doctor, our wizard of offshore’ p.288), in Zurich, he makes a point of flirting with the secretary in a bid to see whether she knows whether his father ordered a taxi or where he went after his meeting. She immediately starts to respond.

When Oliver talks his way into the heavily guarded compound of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky, in Istanbul, Mirsky is not there but his wife is. She is ‘blonde, long-legged’, Swedish, and wearing a bathing costume as she lounges by the pool and it is no surprise that she too begins to flirt with this uninvited intruder, criss-crossing her legs, stretching, showing off her assets. Basically, wherever he goes women start melting, swooning, flashing their breasts and grabbing his crotch.

And it’s not just Ollie. Even in the opening pages as the poor lawyer Alfred Winser faces his end, he has time to remember having sex with his reluctant wife, being tied to the bedstead of a house in Chiswick by ‘a chubby friend’, the deep white thighs of young Swedish women and once seeing a young woman topless in a field of poppies.

Oliver’s landlady remembers visits to the randy local bank manager who suggests they discuss her loan in bed (p.37).

Ollie’s ex-wife’s boss is remembered roaring with laughter and winking at ‘the husbands he was cuckolding’ (p.84).

When Brock’s homely wife rings him at work and tells him the local gossip, she includes the recent tale of one neighbour telling another neighbour to stop her husband standing outside her window with ‘his nasty nature in his hand.’ (p.100)

There is, in other words, a kind of permanent sense of arousal about this novel. Almost all the men are thinking about sex, and almost every female character begins to melt into the hero’s arms, whether he wants them to or not, in a way it’s difficult not to find a little ludicrous, more Bondish than Bond, like a kind of soft porn male fantasy.

It is a welcome relief that Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, really hates him and, when she finds out that he lied to her about his entire past, hates him even more. At least there’s one woman in the novel not in a hurry to get her kit off, but she is very much in the early parts of the book, before Oliver assumes his odyssey and begins to transform into a mythical figure.

Bombastic style

For the first hundred pages I thought we’d shaken off the phenomenal poshness of public school characters, the upper-class slang and schoolboy jargon which bombard the reader of Our Game and The Tailor of Panama – I thought it might be a normal spy thriller with normal people who talk like the people you know and meet and hear on the radio and see on TV.

But as the book progresses it becomes more dominated by bombast and hyperbole. Characters – especially the father figure, Tiger, with his rather laughable nickname – are ‘legends’, they benefit from multiple epithets like Greek gods, they are referred to as the Famous X or the Fabled Y or the Legendary Z, people pepper their speech with quotes from literature or the Bible or Shakespeare and generally sound like Mr. Cholmondley-Warner from the Harry Enfield sketches.

Repetition Why describe something once when you can describe it three times? Thus Heather calls Oliver ‘her gentle giant, her lord and schoolmaster’ (p.84) We are introduced to Brock’s assistant, Tanby, ‘Brock’s emaciated shadow’.

Cadaverous Cornish Tanby who drives Brock’s car for him when he needs to catch an hour’s kip. Fetches Brock’s Chinese take-in for him when he can’t leave his desk. Fronts for him, lies for him, hauls me upstairs when my feet are lame from drink. Tanby the calm voice in the storm, the one you want to throttle with your sweating hands. (p.90)

Whether this works or not depends on whether you prefer analysis and statements of fact, or whether you enjoy the rhythm of repetitive rhetoric.

Brock was putting names to Oliver’s worst apprehensions, raising unsleeping ghosts from his past, adding new fears to old ones. (p.113)

Tiger claims that S&S’s wealth is down to ‘Our own sweat and tears. Our intuition, our flair, our flexibility. Our merit.’ (p.191). Repeat repeat repeat is the mantra of this style.

Grandiosity Why refer to someone by name when you can inflate their importance using portentous abstract nouns? Thus Oliver the whistleblower becomes ‘The lonely decider. The idealist. The walk-in of all time.’ (p.230)

Why describe a scene when you can turn it into a kind of fairground show, complete with circus-master twirling his moustache and booming through a loudhailer? When Tiger phones down to Oliver and asks him to come up to the big office, to be officially made a partner in the firm:

It is not Elsie Watmore calling Oliver to arms but Tiger himself on the internal office telephone. It is not Pam Hawsley our fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden, nor Randy Massingham our Chief of Staff and raddled Cassius. It is The Man, live on stage, impersonating the Voice of Destiny… it is springtime in the young life of our budding junior-and-only partner fresh from law school, our Czarevitch, our Heir Apparent to the Royal House of Single… (p.125)

Single & Single isn’t a company, it is ‘a magic kingdom of which his father is benign and absolute ruler’ (p.128). Tiger is accompanied by:

The fabled Yevgeny Orlov, Moscow’s patriarchal fixer, power broker, travelling plenipotentiary and cupbearer to the Throne of Power itself. (p.129)

Why does le Carré do this, submit his characters to this sustained facetious exaggeration? Is it meant to be funny? It has the effect of distancing the reader and making the characters, and the entire text, seem fatuous and a bit stupid.

Famous We read of the ‘famous Wedgwood double doors’ into the ‘divine glow’ of Tiger’s presence (p.127). The ‘fabled Yevgeny Orlov’ (p.129). At the Kat’s Cradle restaurant, our guys take ‘the famous round table in the bay’ (p.150). ‘The Orlovs are family men. Famous for it.’ (p.152) The lift to the top floor isn’t a lift – ‘the famous gilded cage stood open to waft distinguished visitors to the top floor’ (p.210). When Oliver enters his father’s office – aka ‘the Tiger’s lair’ – it is to find him ‘standing in the fabled rotunda’ (p.215). Oliver isn’t forgetful; he is afflicted ‘with his legendary vagueness’ (p.306).

The expression ‘a legend in their own mind’ was coined to describe the pompous self-importance of various types who rose to prominence in the 1980s, not least the merchant bankers who liked to think of themselves as Masters of the Universe or Big Swinging Dicks. That’s who the bombastic self-importance applied to all the characters in this novel – and their lifts and offices – reminds me of.

Religion Why say the lift is going up when you can say it is going to ‘Heaven’? Why say Tiger had a private office, when you can refer to ‘the inner sanctum’ or ‘the holy of holies’? Thus Aggie’s mother was a GP ‘and visiting angel to the poorer Glasgow suburbs’ (p.60). Brock has ‘an almost religious sense of Oliver’s rarity’ (p.95). Brock ‘allows himself a pause for prayer and contemplation’ (p.98). Meetings of the Joint Crime Prevention Team which Brock attends are ‘informal prayer sessions’ addressed by ‘a wise woman from Research’. Brock is confident that by interrogating Oliver he has ‘committed no sin against Oliver’s soul’ (p.104). Brock tells him:

‘Alfie Winser was his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms, you’ll be pleased to learn. They trudged the same hard road, shared the same ideals. Amen’ (p.116)

Why Amen? What does that Amen do except make Brock’s dialogue sound like the humourless parody of a sermon?

The crowd of coppers hanging round a meeting room are a ‘congregation’. Oliver hugs himself ‘in some private ritual of prayer’ (p.122). Tiger’s smile ‘bestows a saintly purpose’ over his colleagues (p.128). Anyone who likes Georgia is ‘a true believer’, says one of Yevgeny’s people, ‘with the authority of the pulpit, ‘in holy confirmation of his faith’ (p.133).

‘Yevgeny’s office is a chapel of calm’ (p.158). ‘Tiger himself has chosen the path of solitude and contemplation’ (p.180). The helipad at Tiger’s country house ‘is a secret altar’ (p.233). When talking to Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, Brock ‘had a priestly tone for these occasions’ (p.250). When Oliver tells Conrad the lawyer what they think has happened it is not his version of events, it is ‘the Gospel according to Brock’ (p.290). ‘The room was a chapel of remembrance’ (p.309), and so on…

Bereft of any actual spiritual or religious content, the use of religious vocabulary is one of the many tactics used to heighten and exaggerate the language and create a permanent effect of ironic and facetious exaggeration.

Private school comparisons A really hard core English private education seems to mark its benficiaries for life, so that they refer everything in later life back to it, everything sparks memories of your prep school, or boarding school, or public school.

Thus the ‘wise woman’ who addresses the Joint Crime Prevention Team about modern crime speaks ‘with the firmness of a head mistress addressing her school leavers.’ (p.102) The Customs room at Heathrow where Oliver is questioned ‘reminds him of a boys’ changing room in one of his many boarding schools.’ (p.104) When Oliver sneaks off from Aggie, it isn’t as an adult, aware of his betrayal – instead he feels ‘like a schoolboy playing truant’ (p.383).

Oliver is seven years old. It is his first pony class and he is wearing a stiff bowler and tweed jacket. (p.232)

I’m sure we all remember our first pony class. (In fact this moment is a repeat of the memory of her first gymkhana which comes back to the leggy, posh totty Francesca, in The Tailor of Panama. Maybe there’s a first-pony memory in each of le Carré’s post-Cold War novels. But can you imagine Alec Leamas from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold reminiscing about his first pony? Or George Smiley? These aren’t just minor details, they are symptomatic of the completely different mindset and milieu of le Carré’s novels of the 1990s compared with those from the 1960s and 70s.)

The fact that most reviewers never refer to the phenomenally posh nature of his characters, the dialogue and the narrative prose is testament to the way most people working in publishing and book-reviewing themselves went to prep school, boarding school and Oxbridge, and regard this extraordinarily pukka, ironically superior diction as normal.

Great turns of phrase

Dealing with all the above on a page-by-page basis is so disappointing because le Carré is still very much capable of great turns of phrase and vivid descriptions which take you right there, in really well-imagined scenes.

The air inside the mortuary stank of putrefaction and formaldehyde. It nipped at the consul’s larynx and turned his stomach like a slow key. (p.47)

The Kurd dumped the fresh ice into the bathtub and withdrew, his mules slapping the wet stones. (p.51)

There are more firmly imagined moments and magical use of language in this book than in the previous few and for the first hundred pages or so it feels like it might be a ‘normal’ novel without le Carré’s usual barrage of bombast. He has a great way of shaping a sentence, lots of pithy encapsulations, a wonderful throwaway precision, which reminded me of his classic period in the 1970s.

…the pleasure cruisers and glass-bottomed safari boats, the little trawlers in their fishing-net mantillas.. (p.56)

A pink moon hung above him, cut to pieces by the razor wire coiled along the courtyard wall… A strained silence followed while Pode fiddled with papers and Lanxon gardened at  his pipe, gouging sodden tobacco onto an ashtray. (p.65)

The moon hung ahead of him making a white ladder of the sea. (p.83)

But…

Schoolboy prose

It is obviously a grown-up story. It is about a grown-up world and features lots of grown-ups. They have sex. They say ‘fuck’ a lot. They concoct wicked schemes. But one particular paragraph pulled me up short.

In the House of Single the tension is audible. The primly clothed typists tread gingerly. The Trading Room, barometer of morale, is buzzing with rumour. Tiger has gone out there for the big one! It’s boom or bust for Single’s! Tiger is poised for the kill of the century. (p.174)

It made me realise that a lot of this and the previous novels’ over-excited prose is more than schoolboyish, it’s actually childish. Not just the references to the characters’ jolly public school days. Not just the overgrown schoolboy banter and slang. But the actual mind-set which the prose conveys is like something out of Just William or Biggles. OK, there’s a lot of swearing and guns and sex to fool you into thinking it’s a book for grown-ups. But somewhere at the core of these texts is a gleeful adolescent rubbing his hands and yelling, Yes! the Great Spy has entered the Enemy Camp! The Master of Ceremonies awaits in the Holy of Holies! The Black-Clad Heroine stands over the Fallen Hero, Gun in Hand.

As the novel progresses the brilliant phrase-making diminishes and the bombast and exaggeration take over. And the louder the prose shouts the more the underlying mentality seems that of a 1950s boys’ comic. At a deep level, for all its geopolitical earnestness, and although le Carré is an often brilliant writer, this feels like it’s not really a serious book.


Credit

Single and Single by John le Carré was published in 1999 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2000 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999)

22 January 2012

The story  of the progressive rock group Yes is they were struggling musos from mediocre r&b bands in the late 60s with a shared interest in Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies and more advanced playing skills than were common in the pop or rock of that era; they stumbled upon a technique for piecing together short melodic fragments into long 10, 15 or even 20 minute pieces of fiendish musical dexterity; brought this to perfection on the albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’; took it too far in the overblown double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; by 1974 and ‘Relayer’, they’d gone from living in a shared flat to owning million pound homes and flying their wives, children and nannies first class on luxury holidays to Barbados, spending money like there was no tomorrow; so when Punk came along in 1976 and made them and their style of music look like dinosaurs, they turned out to be so in debt they couldn’t do the decent thing and dissolve the band, but struggled on into the 1980s, through complex personnel changes and rushed-out albums and immense stadium tours, to make the money needed to pay for the rock god lifestyle they could no longer afford.

Chris Welch’s book includes lengthy quotes from the numerous people who’ve been part of the band over the years and you read on in hope of illumination and insight, about the lyrics, the musical inspiration, the worldview of the band – but eventually realise the book and interviews are overwhelmed by the practicalities of organising another recording session, another tour, negotiating with more lawyers. Any of the hippy spirit I associate with the early 70s and those visionary album covers by Roger Dean is obliterated by the hard realities of the music business.

“They had been a very big band in America and lived their lives in an extreme way. They all had their own limos and in 1979 they were still very much buried in that 1970s rock-star-with-a-big-house image.”

Geoff Downes, Yes keyboard player (p.191)

“I was thrilled to be joining the music business in 1968 with Yes. It was all so exciting and for five years it was heaven. But after five years all progressive rock should have stopped… From 1974 onwards you were left with Yes and Genesis not doing very good versions of progressive rock.All the creative stuff had already been done.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.130)

“Tormato [1978] I hated. I just hated it and in a way I had kind of written them off. What happened was the songs were no good any more. Whoever was writing the main themes had run out of steam. The songs were pretty crap and a bit stupid.”

Trevor Horn, Yes singer and producer (p.196)

“Why should I care about Yes anymore? Yes was a big section of my life. How can it come back…? Yes was from a certain time in history. Those first three LPs I did with them were the real golden days of Yes. That was the creative time for the band when everybody was pulling together.”

Steve Howe, Yes guitarist (p.211)

“Yes as ever is guided financially. Most of its musical movements now are motivated by sheer lack of money. In other words, because money needs to come in fast all the time, the shortest possible route to money is taken. It means the quickest delivery of the wrong album, the quickest booking of the wrong tour. Anything to help the renegotiating of a publishing contract to keep the money coming in. So the group is always poorly financed and poorly structured which gives it no artistic freedom.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.227)

…which is why I was flabbergasted but then not surprised to discover that the bunch of hippies with their cool album covers which I remembered from my school days are still touring and recording albums. See all the details on the official Yes website.

Chris Welch is a veteran rock journalist, for many years with the legendary Melody Maker music paper. He met the band in their earliest London days and over the years he’s toured with them, interviewed them scores of times, as a band and as individuals pursuing their solo projects etc. He is, in other words, perfectly placed to write the story of one of the most famous and successful progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Except that being so close, and needing to maintain the friendship and trust of individuals who have had so many spectacular fallings-out, personal and professional rivalries and financial disputes, he is obliged to be tactful. Very tactful. There are hints, especially about the role of the players’ wives in the umpteen disputes and personality clashes which seem to have been much more a feature of the band than any kind of “love and peace” – but only hints. Someone more distant from the band might be able to tell the story rather more meatily.

Mr Welch is not an intellectual like Paul Stump whose book, ‘The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock’, is full of theories and ideas about progressive music and its connection with surrounding society, culture and politics. For Welch life is altogether simpler and this is a story about hard-working, prodigiously gifted musicians who persevered through all kinds of financial, managerial and relationship setbacks to create some of the greatest rock music of the century. It reads like an enthusiastic fanzine. Or like a very long version of the kind of profile piece Mr Welch has presumably written about them scores of times. It provides the raw data which you can then combine with Stump’s account of the social changes during the 70s to come to your own conclusions.

For me the story is straightforward: Listening to the albums in order you hear the emergence of the Yes sound in the first two albums, its peak in ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To the Edge’, its overripening on ‘Topographic Oceans’. And then the sound changes. It contains less and less of the magic of the early songs as the albums became better produced, more studio-bound, more computerised and synthesised and dead behind the eyes – until the disco drums and jazz bass of ‘90125’ announce the complete end of the progressive dream, the arrival of big hair and shoulder pads and the band photos seem to portray the more musically adept but still embarrassing older brothers (or is it uncles?) of Duran Duran. And that was by 1982. The band has carried on for over thirty years since then! Should we be amazed or impressed or appalled – or all three?

Probably my favourite track is ‘Siberian Khatru’ from the ‘Close To The Edge’ album. If you buy into the basic rock sound – dynamic drumming, propulsive bass, screechy guitar solos etc – then there’s an amazing variety of musical ideas here. I stopped counting after identifying 12 distinct musical ideas/riffs/sounds. I think it’s the way one track can contain so much invention and variety, and that so many of the ideas give the kind of visceral pleasure rock is designed for, that I like. Take the ending where guitarist Chris Howe solos over the organ riff – but the first half of the solo goes against all expectations in being very low in the guitar’s range with repeated inelegant phrases flopping back and forth against the organ backdrop – when a cliche rock god like Jimmy Page would have made the solo soar to orgasmic heights. Within the rock idiom, the music feels experimental, unexpected, full of energy and ideas. All the qualities which, sadly, had disappeared from their music by the end of the 70s.

In 1991 the band were strongarmed by their record company into recording an album with a hodge-podge lineup of old members and new, ironically titled ‘Union’. Notorious keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman nicknamed the album Onion, because just thinking about it made him weep. If I were sentimental I’d agree in lamenting the utter evaporation of the social, musical and artistic utopianism of the early 70s. For the last 30 years money, and money alone, has ruled the world of music as so much else.

I’ve linked to their albums on YouTube so you can sample the everchanging sounds of Yes and decide for yourselves:

Yes (1969)
Time and a Word (1970)
The Yes Album (1971)
Fragile (1971)
Close to the Edge (1972)
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Relayer (1974)
Going for the One (1977)
Tormato (1978)
Drama (1980)
90125 (1983)
Big Generator (1987)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Union (1991)
Talk (1994)
Keys to Ascension (1996)
Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
The Ladder (1999)
Magnification (2001)
Fly from Here (2011)

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