Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (1930)

He drew himself, as a wanderer, a lover, a fugitive, with reaping death hard at his heels…
(Narziss and Goldmund, page 228)

‘Narziss’ is a direct transliteration of the name in original German title, Narziß und Goldmund, but the word also translates as Narcissus, which is why some modern editions are titled Narcissus and Goldmund. Goldmund translates literally as ‘gold mouth’, though you can see why this wouldn’t work so well as a title. Narcissus and Gold Mouth might begin to sound too much like a fairy tale.

Narziss and Goldmund is longer than its predecessor novel, Steppenwolf (300 pages in the Penguin edition compared to Steppenwolf’s 250 pages). And it’s far more integrated and coherent than Steppenwolf, which is built up from a number of different texts, echoing the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s divided mind. By contrast, Narziss and Goldmund maintains a calm, lyrical and mellifluous sonority throughout, leading some critics to call it Hesse’s ‘most lyrical’ novel.

Narziss and Goldmund is set in the Middle Ages and both narrative and dialogue are couched in an unobtrusive but persistent cod-medieval style which might irritate some modern readers.

‘Mistress Lisbeth,’ he said, in a friendly voice. ‘I am not come to ask you for work. I wanted to give you greeting – you, and the Master. It irks me sore to have to hear you. I can see you have had much sorrow. If your father’s thankful apprentice can do you a service – name it – it would be my recompense.’ (p.224)

But, as mentioned, it is this low-key but persistent ‘medieval’ style which gives the book its distinctive flavour and tone.

Two opposites

The two central figures are ‘types’ – of the dry intellectual, the analyser and categoriser (Narziss) and the passionate lover of life, wine and women (Goldmund).

The first fifty or so pages describe in some detail how the pair first meet, as young novitiates at the ancient monastery of Mariabronn somewhere in North Germany. Narziss is himself a junior monk but already skilled and educated enough to be put in charge of the monastery school. One day young Goldmund is dropped off by  his father, a knight, who asks the monks to educate him. He never sees his father again. It slowly emerges that he’s never known his mother who, his father told him, was a wanton hussy who ran off when Goldmund was a baby.

This will turn out to be centrally important because there is a sense, in everything that follows, right up until his death, that this missing mother, the search for the Absent Mother, is central to his psyche.

Goldmund goes a wandering

Initially Goldmund is a good scholar. He is ragged by the other boys in fights and taunts which are presumably meant to reflect the bullying of schoolboys everywhere, in all times, but he fights back and establishes a place for himself in the hierarchy. There’s a naughty excursion from the monastery when a bunch of older boys sneak out of the premises to a nearby village, where they drink wine and chat up a peasant’s pretty daughter. She takes a shine to Goldmund, who is fiercely attracted to her and fiercely tries to repress the impulse.

Narziss and Goldmund forge a special bond based on Narziss’s uncanny insight into other people. They have many intense conversations. In one of them Narziss dwells on Goldmund’s absent mother and it comes as a revelation to Goldmund that there is this great hole in the centre of his life, and he breaks down in tears. It is that kind of very intense psychological bonding between the pair which gives the book its title.

But fate is fate, or biology is biology, and Goldmund goes out walking, picking flowers and marvelling at the beauty of the world. He falls asleep and is woken in a half-dream, by a beautiful gypsy girl, Lisa, waking in her lap, as she leans down to kiss him and, to cut a long story short, she takes his virginity, which is described in flowery euphemisms appropriate for 1930.

It is a revelation. Goldmund realises he is never going to be a monk, he’s not even that good a scholar. Goldmund returns to the cloister to tell Narziss he’s leaving, there and then. He packs his bags and leaves. He finds Lisa again the next day, but this time she is scared and runs back to the husband who beats her.

Now commences the long central section of the book where Goldmund goes on the tramp, vagabonding across northern Germany, and – this may be the slightly hard bit for a modern reader to swallow – everywhere he goes he is ‘desired and appeased by women’ (p.98). With his blonde hair, good looks and slim figure, Goldmund is a ladykiller, a babe magnet.

He quickly, comprehensively and intuitively becomes an expert at sex, a connoisseur, ready and able to give every woman what she wants, whether hard and fast, or slow and sensual, responding to all moods and needs. If you’d expected a spiritual classic, it certainly has a lot of deep psychology about life and destiny, but you’ll be surprised by the amount highly sensual, soft porn writing.

Drawn and clasped to one another, they lost themselves within the scented night, saw the white, shimmering secrets of its flowers, plucking its fruits, for which they thirsted, with gentle, ever-grateful, hands. Never before had spielmann struck such a lute, or lute known fingers so strong and cunning. (p.234)

The knight and his daughters

Pages 100 to 122 describe his adventures at a castle. He is taken in by an ageing knight who, when he discovers Goldmund is a scholar, hires him to write the life’s long adventurous life story in Latin. But the knight has two daughters, Lydia and Julia, and they are soon competing for his favours. It takes a bit longer than usual but Goldmund persuades Lydia into his bed where, however, she strips and kisses a little but, irritatingly, refuses to give him what so many other gypsy girls and peasant girls and farmers’ wives have already given him.

Worse, they’re lying there one night when the door opens and in comes the jealous younger sister Julia. Lydia is panicking when Goldmund overrides her and invites Julia to join them in bed. There follows a passage where Goldmund is kissing older, stiff Lydia on one side while with his hand he strokes and then begins to masturbate young Julia on his other side, who begins to make moans of pleasure.

See what I mean about a certain soft-porn 1970s feel? That’s one way of looking at it. The other is to see all these sexy passages as extraordinarily open, candid, honest descriptions of sex for their time (1930), and to place them in the wider context of the books and their serious concerns with human psychology and spirituality. In other words to see that Hesse’s books address the entirety of the human condition, sex and death and bereavement and loss and abandonment and friendship and love and art, and that the lyrically porny sequences are just an unashamed, honest inclusion of the role sex does play in many people’s lives.

This soft porn sequence is, alas, interrupted when the older sister leaps out of bed and threatens to tell their father. Both girls go. But Lydia goes to the knight and tells him everything. Goldmund is rudely awakened the next morning by the knight who is too angry to speak, who grabs his stuff in a bundle and marches him half a mile to the bounds of his land and then tells him never to return on pain of death. It is snowing. Goldmund sets off into the freezing cold.

An hour later, Hans a servant rides after him and delivers gifts from Julia – one golden ducat, an undershirt she has woven, and a side of bacon. Well, it’s something.

Goldmund comes to a village where he begs food and then is conscripted to assist as a villager gives birth, quite a traumatic experience for a young, sensitive mind. Typically what strikes Goldmund is the way the sounds of pain are so close to the sounds of a woman’s ecstasy, which triggers characteristic philosophical meditations. He dallies in the village a while i.e. has a brief ‘affair’ with a brawny village wife, Christine.

Murders Victor the vagabond

In this village he meets another vagabond, Victor. Victor is a seasoned, wily survivor, full of impressive stories of life on the road and Goldmund is taken under his spell. They travel on together for a few days but late one night in the forest, Goldmund wakes up to find Victor stealthily rifling through his clothes looking for the precious gold ducat Goldmund had told him about. When he resists, Victor starts to strangle him, in earnest, so Goldmund finds himself with his last breaths fumbling for the small knife he keeps mainly to cut up bread and cheese, and in a final paroxysm, stabbing Victor again and again and again until the grip round his neck loosens, and the man falls away from him, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds and there and then, in the dark early hours, in a forest in winter, Victor breathes his last, leaving Goldmund staggered and appalled. (p.127)

(And this reader thinking, yet again, that these German novels have a special affinity for knife murder.)

Master Nicholas and the nature of art

Goldmund comes to a nearby city, referred to as the Bishop’s City. On the outskirts he had come across an isolated chapel and been entranced by a sculpture inside it of the Mother of God.

In the city he makes enquiries as to who carved it and discovers it is a certain Master Nicholas the sculptor. To cut a long story short, Goldmund asks to be his apprentice. Nicholas tells him to draw something, anything, on a piece of paper he gives him and the result impresses him enough to take him on.

There follow extended passages meditating on the nature of art, on the meaning of reproducing the world and God’s creatures.

Goldmund realises he has within him the faces and personalities of all the women he’s encountered and realises he must make a particular carving, bringing the essence of all these women together to create a Mother of God.

Goldmund stays with Master Nicholas for two years while he works on this figure. During that period he has many many women – the tradesman’s wives and daughters – including the serving wench in a butcher’s house, Katherine, who he calls his ‘pork and sausage maid’ (p.179).

All through this period he is tormented by the contradictions in art between the soul and the physical, despising little people who are happy with decorations, driven by a striving for the unseeable essence of the subject.

Many lengthy discussions of the nature of true art. Goldmund ponders why Master Nicholas is a master sculptor, all right, but also a journeyman craftsman and that ability, facility, doesn’t interest Goldmund. Goldmund sits by the river and realises it is those endless flashes, light off the ripples, sudden glimpses of pebbles on the riverbed, the light through a butterfly’s wings – all the art in the world can’t compete with the beauty of the actual world.

Meanwhile, Master Nicholas has been thinking and offers to make Goldmund his heir, bring him into his workshop and to marry him to his daughter, Lisbeth. Unfortunately he makes Goldmund this offer at just about the moment Goldmund has realised he doesn’t want to be a journeyman like Nicholas. Nicholas goes white with anger when Goldmund embarrassedly turns down his offer, and makes it plain he must leave immediately.

Rather as he was ordered by the angry knight to leave the castle.

So Goldmund sets off on his rambles again, despite there being so many women in the city of whom he might have taken his leave (p.184). Last, and barely noticed, is the 15-year-old lame daughter of the burghers he’s been rooming with him. As he leaves the city, she offers him a drink of fresh milk and a crust of bread and, out of politeness, he leans down and kisses her. She closes her eyes in bliss. She has had a teenage crush on him all this time but, as in an American magazine romance, Goldmund doesn’t know or care. Then he is back on the road.

The plague

Goldmund hooks up with timid young Robert, a younger tramp. We learn it is ten years since Goldmund left the monastery (p.204). He now has a blonde beard (p.209).

The pair come to a plague village, whose villagers aggressively warn them away. But Goldmund goes in and finds a family dead in their beds, prompting characteristic Hesse reflections about Death. And the artist in Goldmund is attracted by their postures and positions…

As they walk on they discover that the whole countryside is ravaged, abandoned. Coming to an empty town, Goldmund notices a beautiful young woman (of course) leaning out a window and, as usual, picks her up. Her name is Lene (p.198) and she succumbs to Goldmund’s invitation to come with them, packs a small bag and off they go. She is ‘a sweet mistress… shy and young and full of love’ (p.201)

After much wandering they come across abandoned farm buildings, decide to settle there, fix them up and make a life, rounding up stray abandoned animals.

One day Lene and Goldmund go hunting, get separated, he hears her screaming, runs and finds her being raped, grab the scrawny rapist, strangles him and dashes his head to a pulp against rocks.

Goldmund carries Lene home, washes her breast where it has been scratched and bitten so hard it is bleeding. But, somewhat inevitably, Lene gets the plague and dies in a matter of days. Robert refuses to come near the hut she’s in, then runs off never to return.

Goldmund tends Lene till she dies and then, characteristically, studies the face of death. Then he sets fire to the hut, as a funeral pyre and to cleanse it, and hits the road again, wandering through a landscape of horror where the deserted villages and towns are surrounded by plague pits, passing processions of flagellants, watching the lynching of people scapegoated for the disaster, not least the burning alive of Jews in their houses in one town. Horror. The Kingdom of Bones (p.212)

But he watches it all with fascination, soaking up the suffering and despair, never tiring of watching the Grim Reaper at work.

Goldmund stumbles across a beautiful young Jewess (isn’t he lucky to come across so many beautiful young women) weeping beside a big burnt-out fire and discovers this is where 15 Jews from the nearby town were murdered and burned to death, including her father.

Goldmund is touched and offers to take her with him and protect her but can’t stop himself also trying to seduce her with honeyed worlds. Well, for once it doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, she is disgusted, says all Christians are alike, murderers and hypocrites (and she might well have thrown in the accusation that all men are alike) and runs off.

Goldmund’s head is full of all the images he has seen, a medieval panorama. With increasing urgency he wants to return to ‘the Bishop’s city’ where he lived and worked for Master Nicholas. When he finally arrives back there he is overwhelmed by happy nostalgia of re-seeing all the familiar sights, the old churches, the market square, the clear purling river.

But, inevitably, Master Nicholas is dead of the plague… and his beautiful, haughty daughter, Lisbeth? She is now yellow-faced, gaunt and shrivelled. He offers help but Lisbeth (and the raddled old servant Margret) scorn him.

Wandering the town’s streets Goldmund bumps into lame Marie, who had a teenage crush on him, and she invites him modestly back to her parents’ house. They are honestly glad to see him. Inspired, Goldmund starts drawing hundreds of pictures of everything he’s seen in the Landscape of Death.

Lady Agnes

One day Goldmund is struck by the sight of a haughty beautiful rich woman riding by on a horse. He must have her. It is a challenge. He places himself at the town gates every morning as she goes a-riding. He appears under the trees near where she stops the horse for her daily rest.

After a few days she deigns to talk to him. She gives him a token, a gold necklace, which gives him admittance to the castle. He goes there that evening, claiming to have found the lady’s necklace and wanting to return it. He is allowed into the busy castle courtyard, full of horses and bustle.

The lady’s maid takes him up to her ladyship’s luxury rooms and there, amid the fur and incense, on a rich white bed, he strips and makes love to her, as – inevitably – ‘she has never been loved before’!

If you let yourself go along with this mood, it is a scene of exquisite sensitivity; if you are a little more jaded, it is like an extended Flake advert.

But the next very evening, when he returns for some more soft-focus erotic goings-on, he is trapped and caught by the jealous husband, Count Heinrich.

As the big angry knight opens the bedchamber door, Lady Agnes pushes Goldmund into her closet. Here the knight discovers him but Goldmund is quick witted enough to pretend he is a thief who has broken in to steal the precious dresses and furs.

The count believes him and says he will be hanged in the morning. Goldmund’s wrists are tied and he is led down to a pitch-black dungeon and thrown in. As the churls are unlocking the door to the dungeon, two priests visiting the castle pass by, and one stops to ask if the prisoner is to be confessed and shriven, then tells the guards he will come at dawn to perform this service.

Goldmund spends the night trying to reconcile his soul to death, to never more see the sun or feel the wind or hear the birds. He also spends the whole night freeing his wrists from their tight cords, cutting himself badly in the process. When dawn comes, the door opens and a cowled monk descends the stairs into his cell.

Goldmund is fully prepared to whip up hi stool, dash the monk’s brains out, steal his habit and make a getaway. Imagine his amazement when the monk pushes back his cope and reveals the face of… his old, old, deepest friend, Narziss, now thin and gaunt with asceticism and the responsibilities of command. For Narziss has now become the abbot at Mariabronn.

Narziss raises Goldmund to his feet and says he spent a lot of effort the night before pleading with the angry knight for his life. Result: Goldmund will not hang. Instead the other monks dress his wounds, pack their bags, mount their horses, and ride out of the castle courtyard. Even at this late stage, and despite having learned his lesson, Goldmund still looks up at the windows overlooking the courtyard, hoping the beautiful Lady Agnes will be looking out of one at him. But no.

Goldmund rejoices as his horse carries him through the scenery of all his adventures, he reviews them, the many women, murdering Victor, the cold nights lying in the forest and so on.

Then they reach the old monastery and Goldmund is overcome with memories of his youth. Here he is kindly invited to stay as a guest, with no demands on him to become a lay brother let alone a monk, by his wise old friend.

After a spell of feeling a bit lost and bewildered, Goldmund decides on a plan, which is to work as a carver again, and create a wooden relief spiralling up the steps to a lectern where monks read texts to each other in the refectory.

This penultimate section of the book allows for:

  1. an emotional reunion of Narziss and Goldmund and a series of conversations during which they revive their friendship and remember the old times, the old abbot et al
  2. a series of debates between them about the nature of the scholarly intellectual mind and the artistic creative mind. Goldmund comes to realise he has led a chaotic and disorderly life, but when he tells Narziss how much he admires the other’s purity and devotion, Narziss says that’s only because he knows nothing of his (Narziss’s) intellectual doubts and uncertainties. Both envy the other his clarity and conviction, while both reveal they are, in fact, riven by doubts and uncertainties.

Womanising

Almost all of the long middle section of the book describing Goldmund’s wandering is, in my opinion, a little undermined by his endless womanising.

I take the point that it’s designed to show Goldmund’s immersion in ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and so point up the basic dichotomy between the Worldly Personality and the Scholarly, Secluded Personality. My criticism is that these worldly scenes describe the same schoolboy fascination with seducing and stripping nubile young women without any attempt to explore the deeper levels a heterosexual relationship can go to, let alone the complicated problems relationships often develop.

Instead it’s just one woman after another, just as in a porn film.

Anyway, this passage at the end of the book discards all the womanising and sensual rhetoric, and returns to much more abstract discussions between the two friends about art and religion.

There’s a lovely passage where, after a good long time of working on it (with a young boy assistant he’s been given, Erich) Goldmund shows his carving to Narziss, and it prompts the older man to a wonderfully insightful speculation about the intellectual and the artistic routes to God.

He mulls over how the intellectual personality strains to clear away all the clutter of the world in order to strive for the simplest, purest, most fundamental truths – while the artist throws him or herself into the things of the world, precisely into all the clutter, and, by dint of his or her passion, reveals beneath it the pattern underlying the world’s profusion.

‘I see you by the opposite way, the way which leads through the sense, reach as deep a knowledge as any that most thinkers achieve, of the essence and secret of our being, and a far more living mode of setting it forth.’ (Narziss addressing Goldmund, p.280)

This passage is worth rereading and savouring, as many passages of the book are, for example the couple of pages where Goldmund sits by the river, watching its ever-changing surface and pondering the nature of manmade beauty contrasted with the ever-fleeting beauty of the natural world.

Briefer but just as full of juice and wisdom is the passage where Narziss instructs Goldmund how to pray.

But, says the younger man, my mind is overwhelmed with doubts, about whether my prayers can ever be heard by a God who probably doesn’t exist and, even if he does, probably doesn’t hear them.

To which Narziss replies, imagine you’re singing a song. You don’t let yourself get swamped with doubts about whether you’re doing a good rendition or whether the composer would be upset by your voice or whether anyone’s listening properly and so on. You abandon yourself to the song. You give it your best shot. Singing is its own justification. Same with prayer.

I can see why Hesse inspires such loyalty among his devotees. He discusses serious problems with seriousness, he isn’t patronising or ironic, and his characters discuss ideas which occur to any educated person clearly and simply, and sometimes, with a depth of feeling or insight which clearly derive from the author’s lifelong engagement with these ideas.

And the depth and seriousness leave their mark on the reader. Some of these passages are really stirring.

Goldmund hits the road again

But all good things come to an end. It takes Goldmund two years to carve the wooden relief and when it is finally done, and installed on the steps and pulpit, he returns to his workshop and feels empty and spent.

He begins another work, a statue of the Mother of God, but goes absent for long walks in the country, feeling increasingly restless. He encounters a young peasant woman, Francisca, but is struck that, although he uses all his old tricks and tells her romantic tales of life on the road etc, she listens politely as to an old man, as to her father. Ah. He is old.

Back in the monastery, Goldmund realises he has grey in his hair and wrinkles round his eyes but more than that, he feels old.

So he leaves the monastery. With Narziss’s blessing he departs, leaving the narrative to describe Narziss’s sudden sense of emptiness. Narziss admires the way Goldmund’s wastrel, vagabond life has made him capable of creating such exquisite carvings which will bespeak the glory of God and his creation long after Narziss and his dry, scholarly theology is forgotten.

Goldmund returns, a broken man

Inevitably, Goldmund returns, in the autumn of the same year, but much changed, transfigured. Now he is an ill old man and Erich his assistant is appalled to see him, help him back into the workshop and put him to bed. After some days, Narziss comes to see him and is also appalled. Now Goldmund is grey-haired and sick, he has broken ribs and internal injuries.

As his health fails, Goldmund tells Narziss what happened. Turns out his real motivation to leave was not a general romantic urge to hit the road, but that he’d heard that Lady Agnes was in the area with Count Heinrich. Improbably, Goldmund had managed to secure an audience with her, but the Lady told him to his face that he is no longer the golden youth, the blonde sex god, that he was – and she turns away, uninterested.

Heartbroken, Goldmund rides off and doesn’t mind when his horse stumbles and throws him down into a gulley. He lands hard in a stream, breaks some ribs and lies all night in the freezing mountain water. Next day he staggers up and on and eventually is found and placed in a hospice, where he stays for months, sells the horse, uses up the money Narziss gave him and eventually realises he had to stagger back to Mariabronn.

Here Goldmund dies. On his deathbed, he says he is not afraid of death. In what we now realise was the great defining conversation of their youths, when Narziss had identified the central pillar of his personality as being the absence of his mother. Goldmund says that Narziss had given back his mother, restored the image of his mother to the central place in his life.

Now the pains in his chest feel not like the broken ribs and infections, but as if his mother, his beloved mother, the earth mother Eve, is putting her fingers between his ribs and pulling out his heart, taking it to her. For only with a mother can you die. ‘How can anyone love without a mother, and how can we die without a mother?’

And on these last words and their rather shocking image, Goldmund dies, leaving Narziss distraught.


I’m caught between two views, as I am with all the Hesse I’ve read.

Against

With my hard hat on, I know it is romantic twaddle. By that I mean that every scene is lit with a sentimental romantic light, and profoundly unrealistic.

1. Painless vagabonding Take the way he survives as a vagabond, with no food or money, and travelling across north Europe in the winter, for not weeks, or months, but years on end. I know people did do this, but a lot of them died of starvation and exposure. After a week sleeping rough in a forest, with no food and no blankets or bedding you would be in very poor shape, more a J.G. Ballard character at the end of their tether than a handsome swain.

2. Women everywhere Whereas Goldmund is always in such tip-top condition that, wherever he goes, every woman that he meets – virgin or housewife – throws themselves at him, and he ploughs his way through hundreds and hundreds of women.

3. The dialogue And then there’s the diction, the sub-Tennysonian melliflous fake medievalism, all palfreys and pilgrims, varlets and churls, like scenes from a thousand pre-Raphaelite paintings. As a tiny instance take the moment when Goldmund speaks to the haughty, high-born lady by the ivy-covered town wall, and offers his devotion:

‘Oh’, he replied, ‘I would as lief make you a gift as take one. It is myself I would offer you fair woman, and then you shall do as you will with me.’ (p.231)

It is all written in this style.

4. Lucky And the way he keeps landing on his feet – in the castle of the knight who needs a Latin scholar, in the household of the Master artist Nicholas – is more like a fable or fairy tale than an adult narrative.

5. Sex And the way there always just happens to be a nubile and beautiful young woman in the offing for him to seduce, fondle, strip and make love to… is more like a 1970s soft porn movie than reality.

Gently he unclasped the white fur at her neck and unsheathed her body. (p.234)

Indeed, the entirety of Goldmund’s adventures could be devastatingly critiqued as a sustained example of male wish-fulfilment, as the most basic sexist fantasy that more or less every women you meet is ready and willing to have sex with you, at no more than a smile and a wink.

None of the women appear to have periods or any other medical problems or difficulties. And nobody in this dreamworld appears to have a sexually transmitted disease.

6. Death as romantic And take the fundamentally romantic notion that Death is somehow romantic, seductive and sensual, a warm loving mother luring you into her bosomy embrace – an image which emerges in the plague scenes and recurs at the end.

‘I’m curious to die because it’s still my belief, or my dream, that I’m on my way back to my mother; because I hope my death will be a great happiness – as great as I had of my first woman. I can never rid myself of the thought that, instead of death with his sickle, it will be my mother who takes me into herself again, and leads me back into nothingness and innocence.’ (Goldmund, p.297)

Twaddle. Having seen death up close, I found absolutely nothing redeeming or good about it at all. It is the grief-stricken cessation of life. The sensual penumbra Hesse casts over it is late-romantic, 1890s sentimentality.

For

On the other hand… although the plots which deliver them up may be questionable, the intensity with which Hesse describes the emotional and sexual entanglements, especially the menage a trois at the knight’s castle, are conceived and described with an intense sensuality which really goes home to your imagination, reminding you of the best and most sensual experiences in your own life.

Similarly, the vagabonding is to be taken with a pinch of salt: it’s a narrative framework, a scaffolding, an age-old narrative trope designed to deliver a steady stream of situations which allow Goldmund/Hesse to meditate on the meaning of life, and death, of art and suffering, as he encounters and observes them.

And although he may not have anything blindingly original to say about these subjects, nonetheless reading a Hesse book means that you engage with these questions in a sustained and serious way for several days, through the medium of his lyrical and measured prose. And this can turn out to be a very moving and thought-provoking experience.

And because the characters in the books cover quite a range of topics, chances are that some, at least, of the subjects will touch a chord. For me it was the entire sequence with the Master carver and in particular the scene where Goldmund sits by the river and mulls over why some art may be technically finished and immaculate but doesn’t move you, whereas other, less finished works, for some reason touch your soul.

Conclusion

The hokiness of the plot, and the often sentimental romanticism of the worldview, and the questionable womanising, are all forgiveable because the book delivers a steady stream of deeply pondered thinking on a range of perennial topics.

Credit

Narziß und Goldmund by Hermann Hesse was published in 1930. It was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in an edition which appeared in 1932, titled Death and the Lover. Penguin Modern Classics republished this translation in 1971, with the different title of Narziss and Goldmund. All references are to this 1971 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard (1987)

The sutures of my skull were opening, letting the cool wind into the chambers of my brain. I stared up at the cloudless, cyanide sky, like the domed roof of some deep psychosis. (p.275)

This is a poor book. It is long, packed with detail, has an exotic setting, a reliably demented protagonist on a mad, quixotic quest – and yet it feels like a shadow of Ballard’s earlier works.

The Day of Creation shows the peculiar thing that happened to Ballard’s writing after he had revealed the source of his strange delirious worldview by describing his boyhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in Empire of the Sun. It was like cutting off Samson’s hair. Overnight the neuroses which had enmeshed Ballard’s fiction, were freed and disappeared. The weird alchemy which held together Ballard’s first ten or so classic novels, and nearly a hundred short stories of obsession and psychological collapse, didn’t exactly disappear but somehow, magically, lost their genuinely disturbing power.

One symptom of this is that Ballard’s novels got longer. The Atrocity Exhibition barely stretches to 110 pages but I think it’s his best book. Crash, 171 pages, Concrete Island 126 pages, High Rise 140 – he was best in short, extremely concentrated, bursts.

By contrast The Day of Creation is a bloated 287 pages long and has lost its reason for existence long before the end.

The plot – part one

The story is told in the first person by Doctor John Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). Having been born and raised in British Hong Kong, Mallory didn’t fit in at medical school in Cambridge or in England more generally, and so took up jobs with aid agencies, ending up working for the World Health Organisation.

A series of overseas assignments ends with one bringing him to the dead end town of Port-la-Nouvelle somewhere in the heart of Africa, between Chad and Sudan.

I found the opening chapters of the book deeply confusing. It took me a while to understand that it opens with Mallory being forced to his knees by a soldiers from a rebel group led by skinny, angry rebel leader, General Harare, once a dental student, now afflicted with boils and bad teeth, whose guerrillas periodically invade what is left of Port-la-Nouvelle, do a little gentle looting and return to the forest.

Specifically, he finds himself on the wrong end of a rifle held by a 12-year-old rebel girl who probably has a tale of terrible suffering behind her but when Mallory moves to take the rifle off her, she pulls the trigger. Luckily there’s a duff cartridge in the chamber so the gun doesn’t fire. He seizes the rifle and throws it away.

We learn that all this is being photographed by a young Japanese woman photographer, Miss Matsuoka, a type of the ambitious and amoral photojournalist. About fifteen minutes later the rebels have been fled as the town’s official army force arrives led by the ‘huge and clumsy’, 6-foot (p.28) Captain Kagwa and the situation sort of returns to normal.

‘Normal’ is that Mallory has been here in this empty town for the best part of six months, living in a scruffy trailer and, by his own admission, hitting the whiskey bottle at breakfast and carrying on drinking all day (p.72).

He had a brief affair with one of the only other white people in the locality, Nora Warrender. She kept a little sanctuary for wild animals with her husband till her husband was shot dead by the rebels. Mallory caught her on the rebound and they slept together for a few days until Mallory realised she had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever.

What seems like half an hour after the traumatic encounter with the rebels, a light airplane flies in and disgorges none other than Professor Sangar, sometime biologist-turned-television documentary maker, who has flown in on some cock-and-bull mercy mission with a plane full of rice, an assistant and a camera crew for whom he can pose as saviour.

Except that, as the deeply antagonistic Mallory who takes an instant dislike to the preening fool bluntly points out to him: a) the locals don’t eat rice, at all, their stock food is manioc, and b) there’s no locals here, anyway; they’ve all long ago fled the rebel guerrillas.

Sangar is actually laconically laid back about all this but is accompanied by an extremely tense and jumpy assistant, an Indian named Mr Pal who takes umbrage at every one of Mallory’s sarcastic quips.

All this is presumably intended to be satire on TV bullshit artists, particularly scientists-turned-TV gurus (remember that the car-sex-obsessed lead figure of Crash is a once-reputable scientist-turned-TV presenter). But not only is it crude satire, but it feels very clumsily deployed.

In fact the whole opening thirty or forty pages felt deeply clumsy, introducing characters pell-mell in the midst of events which are so badly described I didn’t understand what was going on.

What is the book about?

In a similar manner, it took me some while to understand the central plot of the book, in fact I only actually understood it from the blurb on the back:

Mallory has remained in Port-la-Nouvelle, despite having no patients to speak of (they’ve all run off to avoid the rebels) because he has developed the entirely irrational, quixotic and obsessive idea of rewatering this dry, arid part of central Africa.

The Port has jetties and quays which stretch out into Lake Kotto but this is bone dry, having dried up two years earlier, and whose bottom is not just dry but covered in parched dust.

Similarly, the one-time river which flowed into it is an arid ditch. Mallory has been using the small funds given to him by the WHO to pay for the drilling of a series of wells across the lake bottom, driven by a mad fantasy of a third river Nile to fertilise this whole region.

What happens next I found incomprehensible in every way. Mere pages after the rebels have left, and way before we have really understood and processed the depths of Mallory’s quest, and entirely by accident, a bulldozer which is meant to be extending the town’s small runway, lifts the immense root of a rotted old oak tree out of the sand at the end of the runway and… a trickle of water emerges. A trickle which turns into a stream, and then a good solid flow of water.

I didn’t really understand how such a flood of water comes from one dislodged tree root and I struggled to understand what happens next: which is that the source of this water appears to move, to shift location from coming out of one small scooped hole, and turns into a flood which moves further and further back into the jungle. As well as flowing downstream to begin to refill the barren lake, the source moves backwards, upstream. We find Mallory wading miles into the jungle to try and find the ever-receding source.

In some mystical way the accidental breaking open of a small spring changes morphs into a mighty river whose source is deep in the jungle, and the river becomes so mighty that, as the days go by, it gets bigger and bigger, it refills Lake Kotto, so that Port-la-Nouvelle’s piers and jetties are once more lapped by water and the level rises so high that it starts to threaten the runway and the lower parts of the town with inundantion.

But here’s the thing which I found genuinely incomprehensible: because the water didn’t come from the wells he’s sunk – and despite the fact that the river is doing just what he wanted it to, namely rewatering the region – Mallory takes against it and declares the river his enemy.

As futilely as he once drilled wells in a bone dry lake-bed, now he futilely tries to block, dam and reroute the river. It’s become Him against The River. I didn’t understand this, follow it or believe it, but it becomes the core of the remaining two hundred or so pages.

Ballard loses it

Now, I have faithfully accompanied Ballard as he described the manias of obsessed protagonists who feel compelled to revisit the derelict gantries of Cape Kennedy, or live in hotels in abandoned resorts, or go to die on the derelict beaches of nuclear testing sites, or set off south towards the radioactive wastelands and — I understood all of them.

Ballard had the gift of taking you inside the heads of each of his deranged protagonists to the unnerving extent that you began to understand their obsessions and visions.

But not in this book. The basic obsession is overthrown in the first thirty pages. Mallory’s abrupt taking against the river and declaring it The Enemy seems utterly irrational and unnecessary. His alienated relations with Captain Kagwa or the worn widow-woman Nora Warrender are, on paper, right out of the standard Ballard handbook for the detached, alienated relationships between the handful of characters which his books normally describe. But somehow, eerily, without any of the real psychological punch which all his previous novels conveyed.

Lacking the strange and uncanny setting of so many of his earlier stories, the unnamed African location comes over as strangely dull and boring. Ballard’s described tropical jungle before. Compare and contrast Day of Creation with the opening scenes of The Crystal World which are dazzling, or the just-as-good opening pages of the brilliant short story A Question of Re-Entry.

Those stories had some pretty cheesy, clichéd elements (like the globetrotting media star who’s turned his back on fame to live with a primitive tribe in the Amazon rainforest who is at the heart of Re-Entry). But they were carried by the fierceness of vision, the charge of Ballard’s imagination, and also the sentence-by-sentence brilliance of Ballard’s language.

But overnight his gift with the English language seems to have abandoned him, and the force that drives his earlier fictions – the powerful combination of intense scenario with crisp but somehow visionary prose – has evaporated. Instead the book is a collection of mannerisms. Whatever ‘it’ is, Ballard had lost it.

The plot – part two

The first effect of Mallory’s ill-fated attempts to dam and reroute the river (why?) is that the half-built dam made of logs and empty oil drums suddenly gives way. Mallory himself is caught by the flood and tumbled down to the bottom of the gravelly torrent, is nearly drowned and only just rescued up by Kagwan’s soldiers to spend the next few weeks recuperating at Nora Warrender’s refuge for rare animals, where he lives in uneasy company with her group of feminist black women.

And where he learns that the collapsing dam made of oil drums and logs had caught up the Japanese snapper Miss Matsuoka and killed her. This seems to have no impact on anyone at all, least of all the reader.

After all this confused motives and off plotting, it’s only around page 100 that the book finally settles into a groove. Recovered from his near-drowning, Mallory decides to steal the knackered old ferry, the Salammbo, which has just arrived at the newly navigable quayside of Port-la-Nouvelle, and to use it to follow the river to its source. I still don’t understand why he wants to do this, but it is at least a comprehensible narrative device: the quest, the odyssey.

The 12-year-old girl who tried to shoot him, then ran off into then jungle, has emerged in recent days as a kind of damaged orphan and built herself a home-made coracle made from plastic wrapped over a metal frame. She’s paddling around in the river in the darkness on the night when Mallory wades out into the river under the noses of a couple of Captain Kwanga’s half-asleep guards, and stealthily unties the front and rear mooring ropes.

As the boat slowly starts to drift away from the quay, the soldiers realise what’s up and start shouting, one of them clambers down into the shallow river and bangs with his rifle butt on the steamer’s sides. But Mallory manages to ignite the starter motor, then get the big diesel motor engaged and, as the Salammbo heaves about and begins to head upstream into the magic river, two things happen: the soldiers start shooting at it, and the girl paddles enthusiastically close to the steamer but then loses control and, just as her coracle is crushed under its heavy progress, Mallory pulls her to safety, then returns to the helm.

And so they set off up this fanciful African river, this unlikely pair, Mallory the shiftless doctor, a heavy drinker crushed by a sense of failure and inadequacy, who has entered into an irrationally intense love-hate relationship with the river, and the girl whose name, we learn, is Noon, whose black face bears networks of scars she’s picked up in an obviously abused childhood and who, as a result, Mallory thinks suffers from mutism. She is dumb.

It is a journey or metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Mallory, just as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Marlow. Hence the Heart of Darkness-style illustration on the first edition of the book. But unfortunately, Conrad’s novel is a timeless classic, whereas this novel is a confused mess.

Cover of the first edition of The Day of Creation showing the old steamboat Salammbo which Mallory steals

The steamer had been operating as a ferry. It is carrying on its deck a black Mercedes limousine, ordered by Captain Kwanga who has grand visions of himself rising to become governor of a province which is newly enriched by the new river flowing through it. For the next hundred pages or so Kwanga’s repeated attempts to recapture the Salammbo are motivated by angry wish to get hold of his stolen limo.

Things happen. Noon turns out to be a handy pilot, warming Mallory about sandbanks and blockages ahead, as they chug forward under the protection of the overarching tropical canopy. There’s a bag of rice in the boat, which Mallory boils a ration of each day, and Noon turns out to be a dab hand at jumping into the river and spearing fish on a spear she’s made from a sharp leaf. Nonetheless, quite quickly Mallory is feeling feverish. He hadn’t been eating properly to begin with, had been drinking heavily, and now is not eating enough. This combined with his weakness from his near-death experience when he was half-drowned when the ramshackle dam collapsed fifty pages earlier, all means that he is in very poor shape, and quickly becomes feverish.

And THIS, you realise, is the place Ballard wanted to get to: the first half of the book often felt clumsy and rushed because this is the point, the core, the aim, the focus of the narrative, possibly the image Ballard began with: the image of a half-mad, obsessed, feverish white man struggling to steer a decrepit steamer up a mysterious river in the heart of Africa, helped only by a dumb-mute African girl. Possibly this is the key image you’re meant to take away from the novel, and it is weird and intense, if with a rather heavy sense of déjà vu.

Captain Kagwa comes chasing him in a military helicopter which, to being with, strafes the steamer with machine guns. The second time they return, the helicopter is equipped with pontoons which means they can land on the water, and discover that Mallory has run aground on the half-submerged equipment of a quarry which the river has flooded. Thus Kagwa can warily clamber out along the submerged metal to within hailing distance of the bridge.

At that point Kagwa lets off a pistol shot which misses Mallory although a ricochet cuts part of his scalp. Mallory lifts the rusty old Lee-Enfield rifle which originally belonged to Noon (the one she nearly shot him with) and shoots, not Kagwa, but one of the helicopter’s landing pontoons which bursts and starts to deflate so that the helicopter almost immediately starts to lapse into the water. The pilot shouts at Kagwa who clambers his way back to it and just about manages to climb in as the chopper rises into the sky.

Exhausted, and bleeding from his head, Mallory collapses. He’d found a deckchair from somewhere and now Noon resourcefully rigs up a sun canopy over it. In this deckchair Mallory lapses into the classic Ballardian mental state of fever dreams, delirium, hallucination and driving obsession. He must get to the source of the river (whether to block it for good or rechannel it into the desert to make the Sahara bloom, is unclear and increasingly inconsequential).

There I sat like a totem, propped in the bows of this strange ship piloted by a child on its journey towards the sun. (p.139)

(This, incidentally, reminds the hard-core Ballard fan of the scene in The Drowned World where the central figure, Dr Robert Kerans, is captured by the crew of a pirate ship and tied to an old chair placed on a table and worshipped as a tribal god.)

I didn’t mention something which happened earlier. Irrationally convinced that it was he who created the river (although we saw that it arose by sheer accident when a bulldozer clearing the huge stump of a dead oak tree at the end of the town’s runway unwittingly releasing an underground stream), Mallory is not surprised when Sangar laconically informs him that rivers need to be registered with the authorities and with national geographic societies etc, and so he – Sangar – has used his radio to contact world geographical societies and magnanimously named the river – the Mallory.

This seemed improbable and silly at the time, and becomes more and more silly as the book progresses. But then again, the book’s intention is not ‘realistic’, but entirely programmatic. Contriving to get the river named after him allows Mallory to hallucinate that the river is his alter-ego, his other self, an ally and an opponent, as he enters the increasingly fevered state.

After our escape from Captain Kagwa I was aware that a duel was taking place between myself and the Mallory (p.139)

This sounds intriguing, if pretty contrived, but repetition soon drains it of meaning and brings out its silliness.

Already I had begun to resent the river, and realised that in the Mallory I had created a dangerous rival. (p.143)

I needed to destroy the Mallory, but at the same time I wanted to enlarge it… (p.146)

During his numerous trips to the engine room to adjust and fix the motor, Mallory has picked up an elaborate set of oil streaks across his increasingly thin and wasted body, not to mention rust and paint marks and blood stains from the wound in his head. When Noon looks at him, Mallory realises that he is turning into a savage. Heart of Darkness all over again.

And then they bump into Sangar the documentary film-maker and his sidekick, Mr Pal again. The pair are cruising the other way down the River Mallory (with the current) in a long ancient launch, loaded, obscurely with defunct television monitors, and Sangar greets Mallory in his sly, laconic way. The ferry collides with their overloaded launch and Mallory has to help the pair aboard with as much of their equipment as they can save before the launch sinks. He discovers that both Sangar and Mr Pal are as emaciated and malnourished as he is.

Suddenly I realised that the entire dynamic of the story is from Waiting For Godot. In part one of Waiting For Godot we are introduced to a handful of characters engaged in absurd projects, led by the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon. But the play is in two parts, and part two opens to reveal the same handful of characters, but this time in a significantly advanced state of decay. Same here: Sangar and Mr Pal are in almost as bad shape as Mallory, both have lost lots of weight and have running sores.

  • With its swollen eyelids and fungal skin infection, [Mr Pal]’s youthful face resembled that of a starved apprentice in a backstreet tannery. (p.158)

And I thought again of Godot when I read this sentence, right at the end of the book when a weakened Mallory tries to help injured Sangar to his feet amid the mud and detritus of the burst barrage:

Together we tottered in the shifting earth, trying to find our footing in the sliding mud, two tramps dancing on a garbage hill. (p.262)

Surely that is a conscious decision to reference Godot which is about two utterly destitute tramps.

More than that, their intention of making some kind of ‘documentary’ about Mallory and his quixotic quest, has also degraded. They don’t have batteries for their equipment. No lights, no tapes. They do appear to actually film sequences of Mallory and the girl, but it appears hopelessly random.

Ballard’s intention is obviously to say something important about the TV Age. He has his illiterate, mute freedom-fighter girl-child, Noon, become entranced with Sangar’s camera equipment and, finding herself caught on tape by Mr Pal, she begins to practice posing for the camera. Ballard editorialises that she has leapt from the Stone Age to the late 20th century in a few days, bypassing language on the way (p.160)

In these passages about the decrepit TV presenter and his desperately ill assistant (who ends up dying of malnutrition-caused infections) you get the strong sense that it is probably more interesting to read Ballard’s interviews about the TV age and the other subjects touched on in the book, than these rather clumsily fictionalised ‘ideas’.

In another surreal touch (one of many consciously surreal touches with which the book is stuffed) Sangar and Pil’s equipment – cameras and tapes and monitors and mixing desks – which Mallory brought aboard the steamer from their sinking launch, contains tapes of what appear to be radio programs about Africa. These are of a jokey Marxist provenance so that the words ‘neo-colonial’ and ’empire’ are liberally thrown around. The satirical-surreal aspect is that the mute damaged black girl, Noon, is fascinated by the tapes, and spends hours inside the limousine playing them over and over on the car’s expensive sound system. Damaged, mute African girl plays expensive tapes of Western lecturers sounding off about neo-colonialism. That rustling sound you can hear is a thousand doctorates about Ballard and neo-colonialism being finalised for submission to their Cultural Studies tutors.

Sangar and Pal both go drastically downhill as the steamer putters north. Pal slips into a delirious fever and eventually dies. Sangar is covered in sores and eventually tries to attack Mallory, who pushes him overboard into the river, before passing out.

Mallory wakes up in a bed surrounded by bare bosoms. Slowly he realises he has been ‘rescued’ from the Salammbo by none other than Nora Wallender, now with short cropped hair, and leader of a gang of four tough, possibly vengeful black women.

He has woken up aboard the Diana, ‘a bordello boat, the white ship of the widows’ – previously a floating brothel to service government soldiers, hence the way its bedrooms or ‘cubicles’ are covered with rococo paintings of topless nymphs cavorting in a fantasy French countryside.

He remains there for three or four days, fantasising about taking control of the boat and captaining these black Amazons, only to discover he is barely strong enough to stand up, and any of the women can just nudge him and he collapses. He realises some of the women go ashore, not only to stalk and shoot birds to cook and eat, but he watches them stalk and shoot a male soldier. Maybe they’re taking their revenge on all the men who ever fucked them.

Suddenly one day the Diana starts sinking. The women think it’s holed, but Mallory realises the level of the river is falling. While the women try to identify the leak, Mallory grabs Noon’s arm, they jump into the river and make it back to the Salammbo.

One week later they arrive at the place where passage of the river becomes impossible because of cataracts. Not only that, but local farmers have dammed one wing of the river with an extensive barrage and siphoned the water off into an extensive system of irrigation channels. ‘His’ river has turned the desert green again.

He is promptly arrested by General Harare and brought to him at the ruined infirmary of the abandoned French airfield at Bonneville. All of the scenes with either Captain Kagwa or General Harare are tripe. Ballard’s ear for dialogue was always poor, and the ‘conversations’ between these characters are a mix of raw ‘ideas’ and show-off sentences – ‘They have water now, doctor, their precious see-through gold’ – with very little concern for notions of character or psychology. They all sound the same.

The plot becomes even less rational than before. Close up Mallory can see that the water from the makeshift-dammed river has been used very badly; the nomad farmers simply don’t know how to manage water. Thus most of it is polluted with human faeces, and mixed with engine oil so it ends up polluting not nurturing their crops, while the nomads continue to live on hovels assembled from the detritus of the abandoned French air base, sheets of asbestos and the like.

Similarly, having been more or less co-opted into General Harare’s ragtag crew, Mallory suggests that they completely dam the Mallory, dry it up and so prevent Harare’s enemy, Captain Kagwa advancing up the river with his boats.

Harare agrees and so Mallory rams the Salammbo into place on the cascades between the river bank and a central island, thus creating a caisson around which the native women can build a dam across the second branch of the Mallory, damming it for good and drying up the river course all the way back down to Port-la-Nouvelle. The barrage is an impressive collection of post-industrial detritus:

Less than a month later the barrage across the river was complete, and the Salammbo, which had carried us so untiringly from Port-la-Nouvelle, sat in its last anchorage, surrounded by a refuse tip of freezers and enamel stoves, water coolers, aircraft tail-planes and radio antennae, together forming a terminal moraine of modern technology.

Ballard-land! Like the ziggurats of abandoned washing machines or televisions erected around the The Unreal City.

Mallory gets used to life in Harare’s crew. They let him continue sleeping in the wrecked bridge of the Salammbo, while he treats Harare’s sick soldiers with ineffectual medicine. Everyone is suffering fevers brought on by the foetid, malarial waters of the River Mallory, which have been diverted into a thousand blocked, unflowing, brackish irrigation channels, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and infectious diseases.

There is some kind of satirical irony going on here – that Mallory’s intention had been to ‘turn the Sahara green again’ but the reality turns out to be a poisonous fiasco. Is he telling us it is pointless digging wells and irrigating the Third World?

Meanwhile, the Diana, the brothel ship, which Mallory and Noon had escaped from a few chapters earlier, shows up and moors next to the barrage built around the Salammbo. Nora Warrender and her crew of four black widows quickly recruit young widows from the surrounding nomad villages, rig up the ship’s lights to a generator, open a bar and it’s business as usual, with groups of soldiers rowing out to the ship to drink beer and then be taken below by the sometimes teenage whores, to be serviced.

Ballard, as usual alert to surreal possibilities, has his almost-blind and malnourished TV presenter Sangar rig up a basic closed-circuit TV network playing into a TV monitor set up in the bar, so the drunken sailors can watch themselves getting drunk. Sangar sits out of the way of the violent drunks, leaning his head against a cage of marmosets, these fierce creatures chatting away as if describing to Sangar a seen he can no longer see with his own eyes.

In a deep fever, staggering with hunger, Mallory finds himself stumbling belowdecks on the Diana, waking to find a very young whore dressed in flashy clothes wiping his feverish brow, who he then only half-remembers touching up, pushing back onto the sweat and semen-stained mattress, and fucking. He drifts back to sleep. Later, the presence of her ancient Lee-Enfield rifle clinches the fact that this was Noon.

I know Ballard’s books are meant to be transgressive in all kinds of ways, but – personally – I didn’t like the way the central character is described increasingly lusting after Noon’s barely pubescent body, noticing her budding breasts etc, as the journey progresses.

And now this ritual deflowering. It’s not so much that it’s a pedophilic scene, as that it’s just so horribly inevitable: hairy, sweaty, deranged middle-aged man is put into forced proximity with a 12-year-old girl who keeps stripping off to go fishing in the river and… It seems so hairily, sweatily inevitable that he’ll end up fucking her. How much more interesting if they had kept up a strange adult-damaged child relationship right to the end.

I felt soiled by this scene.

Next thing that happens is Captain Kagwa’s gunships and helicopter arrive, having fought their way steadily upstream despite the river being dammed up. They make a heavily armed attack on the Diana and in doing so destroy the barrage, unleashing a tidal waves which sweeps down into the pool below it, sweeping away all Kagwa and Harare’s fighting men.

The next chapter starts with Mallory surveying the devastation. On the one hand this is an impressive scene; on the other, Mallory subjects it to the same rubbish, cheapjack psychology which underpins the entire narrative, the notion that Mallory somehow ‘created’ the river, has been engaged in a duel with it, and has finally ‘destroyed’ it, although not before it poisoned and infected a host of nomads who dammed it up and are now dropping like flies due to malaria.

‘You poisoned her, Mallory, with your sick river, like all these desert people. They’re sick with your dream…’ (p.263)

He sets out in search of Noon (as he has done plenty of times before), kicking the decrepit Sangar out of the way after having a typically stagey dialogue with him about who’s to blame for this disaster, ‘It’s all your fault etc’.

Mallory climbs the muddy, rubbish-strewn river bank up to the (by now) heavily battered limousine parked on the bank of the now empty, slimy river. Sure enough Noon is inside, sick and ill. Mallory is just trying to reassure her when Kagwa’s helicopter clatters into the clearing (yet again). It lands with the same old French pilot handling a carbine and watching as Captain Kagwa gets out and walks towards the limo, unbuttoning his holster.

At that moment Noon pushes her hand into Mallory’s hand. She is clutching some bit of metal which, he suddenly realises, is a bullet. For the entire length of this humungous narrative she has guarded this, the third and final of her bullets. In a typically salacious detail, Noon forces Mallory’s nails into her nipple ‘to give him courage’.

Mallory puts the bullet into the breech, cocks the bolt and, as Kagwa walks towards them coolly taking his gun from his holster, Mallory shoots him through the head.

That kind of blunt assassination reminds me of similar moments in previous fictions, particularly when the protagonist of The Drought simply rises to his feet and shoots dead the man who’d been preventing his people get to the beach.

Anyway, so that’s General Harare and Captain Kagwa dead. Mallory goes to check on Sangar but when he gets back to the limo, Noon has gone. Again.

Cut to a few days later and Mallory has rigged up a kind of raft with an outboard motor and has headed up over the cataracts, into the upper river, looking for Noon (again). He’s brought Sanger along with him. He was about to abandon him by the wrecked barrage, but suddenly saw Nora Warrender and the widow whores watching him (like a Greek chorus) and was shamed into bringing Sanger along, clutching his (by now) utterly broken and ruined cine-camera.

(This demented character clinging on to a cine-camera which is broken beyond repair but has become a psychological talisman is a direct copy of Wilder, the TV documentary maker who sets off to climb the massive luxury apartment building in High Rise, at first to make a documentary about the occupants, but by the end he has forgotten the point of his quest, and the gutted camera is just one among many trinkets and talismans he has picked up in his increasingly psychotic odyssey.)

Mallory and Sangar now enter a primeval zone of hard rocks and lizards. In case we hadn’t realised it, Ballard rams home the symbolism that the journey up the river is also a journey back in time, or at least time zones. They keep glimpsing Noon in her metal skiff, just half a mile ahead then disappearing round a bend in the narrowing river.

Finally they arrive at a ‘When dinosaurs ruled the earth’ landscape of volcanic rock and trilobite fossils where the water smells of sulphur and hot springs and the Mallory opens out into a huge ‘primeval lake… the original mud world’.

Here Mallory repeats the rather forlorn attempt to explain how the river came about: some tectonic shift fractured the bed of a huge primeval lake and created an underground river which the soldier in his bulldozer released when he dug up the giant tree root way back at the start of the novel; and then, in the bit that doesn’t make any sense, the river somehow went overground, creating an actual surface river; and that’s the river which the narrator, with breath-taking irrationality, is convinced that ‘he created’ (p.279).

I never really understood or bought into this basic premise of the book, which is why I remained outside its imaginative forcefield.

Finally, exhausted beyond endurance, the reader arrives at the final pages, in which Mallory clambers out of the river into the warm sulphur mud banks and wades through these towards the last of several pools above which rises the source of the damn river. It narrows, three feet wide, two feet wide, then only a hand’s-width wide. Mallory kneels by its silvery presence amid the hot sand, trying to cradle it, to separate it from the silver sand and then:

The Mallory died in my arms.

We are now so far beyond narrative logic that we are in a Surrealist painting: a mad doctor kneels at the source of a mythical African river cradling it as it dies in his arms.

Looking up he scans around for Noon and sees her in the distance, turning to look back at him, with the body and face of a woman his own age. Surrealism. Drugs. Hallucination. And then, of course, she vanishes without a trace.

He kicks the walls of some pools which are drying out, makes them puddle together and push Noon’s abandoned skiff into a further pool, he lets himself slip and be carried down back towards the raft where Sanger is still desperately clinging with his smashed cine-camera, and both of them, too weak to move, let the raft slowly set off on its last journey to the sea.

Epilogue

Two years later. The river has long disappeared and Lake Katto and Port-la-Nouvelle have returned to their former dusty barrenness. It took three weeks for Sanger and Mallory’s raft to drift back the full length of the river, and then for them to be picked up police and taken to hospital. During his long recovery, Sanger disclaimed all knowledge of Mallory.

Did Mallory dream the whole thing? Above all, did he dream Noon? Did such a girl ever exist, or was she an entirely fictional justification for his psychotic quest to go to the source of the river?

The events definitely happened. He’s been flown by government helicopters up the dry bed of the river and seen the Salammbo still embedded in the ruined barrage. But of Captain Kagwa and General Harare and their men, and Nora Warrender and her vengeful widow women, no trace has ever been found.

Mallory has got another job working for WHO 30 miles away to the south-west. But every weekend Mallory drives back to this dusty town, and scours the footprints left in the dry mud along the river bank. He swears he has seen the distinctive footprints of his dream girl-woman.

Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart. (p.287)


Ballardian clichés

Antagonists Ballard characters, even as they go slowly mad, always need an antagonist. In some ways his stories are like narratives stripped down to the basic bare-bone structure:

Protagonist sets out on Quest; has one loyal Helper; two or three peripheral characters; and is pitched against an Antagonist, who dogs his steps and blocks his path.

In this book the Antagonist is Captain Kwanga, and this explains the surreal detail of the captain’s Mercedes limousine being trapped aboard the steamer Mallory has stolen. It gives a sort of rational pretext for what is really a far deeper narrative structure which Ballard wants to construct (and which, by this stage, the regular Ballard reader may well be a bit bored with).

Calm The other characters are always telling Mallory to calm down and not get so carried away, there are continual references by everyone to his unhealthy obsessions.

I totally understand how these references are designed to portray Mallory as a deeply unreliable narrator, and how it justifies Ballard’s intention to make Mallory’s obsession with the river so utterly irrational. My complaint is that, in the half dozen or so narratives preceding Creation, Ballard had used just the exact same technique and precisely the same word, so that the narrator of Hello America or Empire of the Sun is repeatedly told by the other characters to calm down. I get it. He is using a tried and tested technique. Except that in the other books, it works. Here it just feels like going through the motions:

  • Calming myself, I stood and watched Captain Kagwa climb the gangplank

Dreams All-too-easily the word ‘dream’ slips off the end of Ballard’s pen, to describe the protagonist’s hopes, ideas and intentions. Everything becomes a dream. The whole location and situation becomes a dream.

  • When I returned to the launch Sangar and Mr Pal were still sitting together against the engine-locker, two Alice-like figures stranded in this backwater of the wrong dream. (p.156)
  • I knew now why I liked her to bathe naked in the river, to immerse herself in that larger dream that sustained our journey. (p.169)
  • ‘You’re still obsessed with this absurd dream? To reach the source of the river?’ (p.174)
  • An immense white dream flows silently across the land, spreading over the drained surface of the lake. (p.284)

Fever The narrator quickly gets a fever as most Ballard characters do. Then, up at the barrage, the rancid waters of the dammed Mallory ensure that everyone gets a fever. The word ‘fever’ or ‘feverish’ appears on every page. The idea and the word ‘fever’ are essential and utterly predictable elements in Ballardland.

Illness In pretty much all his core stories, Ballard characters become ill and quickly deteriorate to advanced stages of malnutrition and illness. It’s where Ballard like to have his characters.

  • Exposure sores covered my face and forehead, flourishing in my beard like fungi in a damp meadow. (p.172)
  • Sangar’s face was covered by the brim of his wide straw hat, but I could see that his lips and cheekbones were pocked with insect bites that had festered for weeks, his neck inflamed by a sun-induced viral response. (p.173)

Put bluntly, Ballard has to move his protagonists as quickly as possible into a condition of almost complete collapse in order to justify his prose style, which is one of almost continual fever dreams and hallucinations.

The plots are not sequences of meaningful events in the traditional sense, but scenarios concocted to position his characters into situations where they can experience Ballard’s intense, weird and visionary psychological states.

There were unstated bonds between myself and this antique vessel. The metal debris in which it was embedded set up a constant wailing and groaning, and in my fever I almost believed that I was embarked on an even stranger voyage across the garbage pits of the planet. (p.235)

Ballard’s imagination is a non-stop fountain of weird sentences like that, but the rest of his creative mind sometimes struggles to concoct the ‘plots’ or situations which can justify them.

Motives Ballard characters are always unsure of their own motives and everyone else’s motives. In pre-Empire books this creates an unsettling ambience of uncertainty and human alienation. It makes all the human relationships ‘ambiguous’ and fractious. In the post-Empire books it is just part of his schtick.

  • I was wary of revealing myself to this likeable but sly opportunist, particularly as I was still unsure of my own motives. (p.157)

Naked Nakedness has become an increasingly prominent aspect of these later stories. It’s a very prominent feature of The Unlimited Dream Company that the protagonist early on strips off and from then on dares the inhabitants of Shepperton to look at him and acknowledge it. It’s an important part of the apparition of ‘President Manson’ in Hello America that he is naked, sitting naked in an old wicker chair in front of a huge array of TV monitors so that Ballard gets to describe the images projected from the screens flickering across his pale, fat naked body.

And here, in this book, it’s an important element that soon after he’s stolen the steamer, Mallory strips off, partly to be naked with all the continual sense of sexual arousal that implies, partly so that his body can display the increasingly complicated matrix of diesel oil smears, rust from old machinery, paint from the peeling ship’s hull and bloodstains, a coded indication of his decay.

It is typical that it is only after three or four days aboard the Diana and mingling with its female crew, that Mallory realises he has been naked all along. Neither he nor any of the women have noticed or commented on it. It’s as if Ballard is mounting a sustained campaign to get his readers to relax about being naked. Like every other aspect of his liberal 1960s treatment of human sexuality, this seems terribly naive and dated now, now we are in the grip of a new Victorianism which is reviving fear and revulsion at male sexuality.

Physical collapse In Empire of the Sun the extreme physical deterioration of the characters was explained by their situation i.e. years of slowly starving on minimum rations from their Japanese gaolers which, in the last months of captivity, dwindled almost to nothing.

So it’s all-too-easy to believe in the bone-thin characters, wasted and exhausted, covered in festering sores and with bleeding gums, who stagger through that narrative. In this book, however, all Mallory or Sangar would have to do it contact the outside world and a World Health Organisation plane would fly in all the money and food they wanted. Thus the malnutrition to which Ballard submits both Mallory and Sangar seems utterly wilful and contrived and unnecessary and therefore silly, therefore a bit insulting to the memory of the genuinely starved characters in Empire.

Audiobook

Credit

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard was published by Victor Gollancz in 1987. References are to the 1993 Flamingo paperback edition.


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The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908)

Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert’s mind realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get back to peace, it might never recover peace. (Chapter Ten, The War in the Air)

The War In The Air is often referenced because in it Wells so accurately anticipated lots of details of aerial warfare – dogfights, bombing raids, even what the earth looks like from up in the air – none of which existed or were possible when he wrote the book in 1907 and when the most primitive flying machines had only just been invented.

In other words, I knew before starting that it was a masterpiece of imaginative prophecy.

But my heart sank a bit when I began to read it and realised that it’s another one of Wells’s mongrel books, in that it’s a real mish-mash of subject matter and tone.

Thus he chooses to recount the outbreak of this epic world war (sometime around 1914, i.e. in his then-future) and the triumph of the mighty German airfleet – via the adventures of the comic figure of Bert Smallways, keeper of a failed second-hand bicycle shop in suburban Kent. Bathos.

Bert Smallways

In fact, once you settle into them the fifty pages at the start of the novel which describe the suburban adventures of Bert and his business partner, Grubb, are both interesting and amusing. Interesting because they’re packed with Edwardian social history. Wells gives a review of how the Kentish village where grandfather Smallways lives (Bun Hill) is slowly engulfed by the spread of London suburbs, roads, railways, telegraph as the 19th turns into the 20th century, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and new-fangled motor cars.

Amusing because Bert and Grubb’s pitiful attempts to set up and run their bicycle repair and hire shop are played entirely for laughs.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles – indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency. (Chapter 2)

I enjoy this kind of gentle, Dad’s Army-type humour about the foibles and failings of ordinary English folk.

What makes it a Wells novel, though, is that this review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it, into the future.

After the bicycle and car, old grandfather Smallways then watches the further developments of aerial monorails which soon criss-cross the country, dangling from vast metal pylons, and soon put the railways out of business. Wells also describes the advent of a new style of motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel at previously unheard-of speeds.

I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold speculations about near-future technological developments.

One of these is the development of a new kind of flying machine which Bert and his mates, in among their other misadventures, read about in the newspapers. they even glimpse displays of the new flying machines because they live quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines go up and fly around.

Mr Butteridge inventor of the airplane

The rambunctious inventor of this new type of airplane is a certain Mr Butteridge who is treated with characteristic Wellsian facetiousness: he is fiercely secretive about his invention as well as being passionately in love with his mistress.

After several comic mishaps which made me think of The Last of the Summer Wine (Bert and Grubb take two young ladies for a Bank Holiday spree until Bert’s motorbike suddenly catches fire, leading to much mayhem), Grubb and Smallways are forced to acknowledge that their bicycle shop is no longer a going concern. So they close it down, and go down to the seaside to try their luck as ‘entertainers’.

They have just set up stall on the beach at Littlestone and begun singing to bored holiday-makers and curious children when everyone sees a strange sight – an air balloon coming drifting not very far above the ground trailing ropes behind it.

Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers proceed to do, grabbing the dangling tow ropes to pull down and stabilise the balloon just above the cobbles of the beach.

Butteridge explains that he was taking a pleasant day’s flight when his companion became ill. He then sets about manhandling the unconscious lady in all her Edwardians bustles over the side of the basket between its ropes and stays. It’s a fiddly, difficult business and he is just in the middle of it when a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and his lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket suddenly to the side so that Bert tumbles head-first into it and then — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high up into the sky in the runaway balloon.

No matter how preposterous the story, Wells has a real gift for fiercely imagining all the details of the scenarios he works up. On almost every page there are vivid touches which take you that much further into the story, and overcome your rational indignation at its silliness. Here’s Bert, having just fallen into the balloon’s car and half-stunned himself.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

‘Like elves inside a hill’. That image has stayed with me for several days since I read it.

Anyway, Bert drifts east in the balloon over the English Channel, across France and then across Germany. There is a comic sequence in which he tries to land and throws out the iron anchor at the end of a rope which then proceeds to ravage its way across a small German town, smashing windows, ripping off rooftiles and prompting an angry crowd to chase him shouting abuse in German. It is only when the balloon drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles, that he is finally shot down and comes back down to earth.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

With the German attack fleet

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of declaring war against Britain (as so many people in 1908 feared she would do) and is mobilising this vast secret fleet of airships. Bert is taken before the commander-in-chief, the tall, blonde, merciless Prince Karl Albert.

But there is a complication: up in the balloon Bert had had time to rummage around in the basket’s various cupboards and drawers, fortunately finding food, but also uncovering a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design.

And discovering that Butteridge had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. The revelation that Butteridge was a traitor floors simple-minded Bert. But worse is to come for the German high command now mistakes him for Butteridge, under the impression that he has fled England with plans to deliver to them. Bert is forced to go along with their misunderstanding and pretend to be a famous inventor!

You can imagine the comic misunderstandings as Bert pathetically tries to play up to his role of genius, despite being nothing more than a failed second-hand bicycle salesman. Because of the comical German accents I was reminded of the TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo. It feels about that level of silliness.

And because the Germans think Bert has brought them important plans, without a bye-your-leave he is ordered to accompany the fleet as they set off on the aerial attacks which will mark the outbreak of the war in the air, as a technical adviser.

So Bert is bundled into the lead airship of the German fleet, the Vaterland, put under guard of the humane, English-speaking Kurt, and up he goes, witnessing the sight of the vast German attack fleet of the future, scores of vast zeppelins, each of which carries a number of new-design fighter planes, or Drachenflieger.

This allows Wells to give soaringly evocative descriptions of what it is like to fly, what it is like to rise above the level of the clouds into pure sunshine, what it is like to look down over the patchwork quilt of farmland, over sunlight reflected on rivers, over cities, and then over the broad Atlantic Ocean. All invented: no human being had done this when Wells wrote his lyrical descriptions of what it must be like.

The battle of the North Atlantic

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airship fleet comes to the help of the German High Seas fleet as it attacks the American Atlantic fleet of the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Wells gives a really vivid description of watching a sea battle among the huge dreadnought battleships of the day, the shells, the explosions, the sight of men like ants swarming out of the guts of wrecked ships as they sink, and then wriggling in the water amid explosions of steam and oil.

Nobody had ever seen sights like these before. Wells’s imagining of them is vivid and often disgusting. Bert is sickened by the sight of so much destruction, pain and death.

Attack on New York

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells fully describes, before going on to intensely imagine the attack on New York (subject of chapter 6). After the airships have flattened Wall Street and the City Hall, the New York authorities surrender.

But the population of this great metropolis can’t understand or accept this and spontaneous attacks on the hovering airships break out from all over the city, with the result that the terrible, inflexible Prince Karl Albert orders Broadway to be demolished. Bert watches the incendiary bombs fall, smashing buildings and sending flame waves through the thronged streets, burning countless men, women and children to death. Horrible anticipations of the firestorms which will destroy Coventry, Hamburg, Tokyo, 35 years later.

That night a storm comes up, battering the German airships, and in the middle of it America’s air force attacks, the plucky little fighter planes taking on the huge German airships, the battle illuminated by lightning and thunder, to Bert’s terror.

The Vaterland is hit by bullets, then its steerage hit by American planes, so that it tips nose upwards, some airmen falling down through the galley to their deaths, while Bert fastens himself inside a locker. For days the Vaterland drifts helplessly with the wind northwards, over desolate Canada, till the remaining crew down her in a barren frozen wasteland. Here the Prince takes charge of the survivors, makes the wounded comfortable, distributes rations, builds a camp and orders all the men to erect a vast radio antenna in order to contact the rest of the fleet and call for rescue.

A world at war

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence, the Germans get their radio working and discover that the whole world is at war: air fleets have burned London and Berlin and Hamburg and Paris, Japan has devastated San Francisco, and China has mobilised its fleet of planes and airships.

Hence the title of chapter 8 – A World At War. Wells gives an overview of what happens: turns out all the nations of the world all along had secret fleets of airships which they are now launching at each other. Half of Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then flies across the entire American continent to attack Niagara, which has become the American base of the German fleet. Even the nations of South America launch fleets of their own.

The uniquely new aspect of aerial warfare is that air fleets can bombard enemy territory but can’t really hold it. Rebellions against the ‘victors’ can break out anywhere, and airships are relatively cheap and quick to build so that at some remote location a ‘conquered’ country can quickly build a new fleet, which can then sail to the main cities of the attackers, and devastate them.

Wells makes the impassioned case that air warfare will therefore, of necessity, by an unstoppable logic, be relentlessly destructive, each side able to inflict potentially endless devastation on the other’s centres of population, but never being able to securely hold them and quell opposition. The resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Camp Niagara

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and conveys them all to the town of Niagara, which the Germans have turned into their land base in the United States.

Bert is dragooned into the base of German flight crews, heaving and carrying crates of ammunition or tanks of liquid hydrogen and so on, to provision the resting airships. All at once the zeppelin he arrived in lifts off and Bert, running to watch, witnesses the epic battle between the entire German fleet of 67 airships and the 40 airships of the Southern Wing of the approaching Asiatic fleet.

The battle is, as usual with Wells, grippingly and thrillingly described, as little Bert Smallways looks up at the sky turned fiery battlefield, as well as witnessing the Asiatic forces land and storm the American buildings held by shooting German airmen.

Bert watches the lead German airship destroyed by attacking Asians till it crashes into the river above Niagara Falls, gets caught in the bridges and man-made paraphernalia around the islands, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery. Bert runs to the edge of the falls to watch the wreckage be washed, half-submerged, down the river.

There goes Kurt, the only German who was his friend, and the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

On Goat Island

Now Bert is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. Hiding behind trees and bushes he watches the Asiatics seek out the last hiding Germans and chop them to pieces with swords. Then mine and set fire to all the remaining buildings of the Niagara base. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons, and so depart.

Suddenly all is quiet. Bert realises with a shock that he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to the mainland was destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed onto it.

Bert wanders round the entire perimeter of the island realising he is stuck. He discovers a locked-up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk for a meal. Then sits and watches the amazing Niagara falls and the smouldering ruins of the town across the waters.

Although Wells couldn’t know it, this long passage reminds me of a later English sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard, the poet laureate of abandoned cities, ruined motorways, moribund high rises and derelict amusement arcades.

Bert finds the corpse of an Asiatic flyer who had fallen onto a tree trunk and been spitted. He discovers another body snagged in bushes at the edge of the island. This one he pokes with a long stick to dislodge and is heart-broken to see it turn over and reveal the face of Kurt, the English-speaking German who was so kind to him, yet had felt an eerie foretaste of his own death (they had got to know each other and had several long conversations on the zeppelin flight across the Atlantic).

Bert’s eerie solitude ends with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the mighty and militaristic Prince Albert himself and a servant.

The Germans seize Bert and start bossing him around, ordering him to repair the broken Asiatic plane. He discovers that they have hidden all the food in the refreshment cafe.

Eventually, their arrogant manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, seizing the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, Bert threatens the two Germans – who promptly turn tail and run.

Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island and trying to hide from / eliminate the other. Bert doesn’t know whether the Germans have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference for this situation might be Lord of the Flies but it reminded me more of the movie Hell in the Pacific where Lee Marvin plays a World War Two pilot downed on a remote Pacific island with a Japanese castaway, both of them at each other’s throats.

In the end Bert tracks the pair down, discovering the prince asleep. Foolishly the German reaches for his sword and – as in a thousand movies – Bert pulls the trigger before he knows what he’s done, killing Prince Karl. The other German runs off leaving Bert to endure more anxious hours wondering whether he’s about to be ambushed at any second, until eventually he finds a rope the German had tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge in order to escape. The rope is frayed and broken. Looks like the German failed in his attempt, and must have drowned.

Bert now fixes the broken Asiatic fighter plane (they are very small and the motors are not unlike those of the motor bikes Bert is familiar with. I was struck that Wells foresees that the wings of fighter plans will flap, profoundly wrong).

Among the Americans

After further comic mishaps Bert eventually flies the little plane off the island and makes it some way south before running out of fuel and crash landing somewhere in the American countryside.

He wanders past various isolated settlements until he reaches a provincial store full of good old boys. When Bert tells them his remarkable story, they give him food for free, and then bring him up to date with the news, namely that the war has escalated into a global conflagration and led to the widespread collapse of civilisation all around the world.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

When one of the tobacco-chewing old timers laments that some Brit named Butteridge died just after inventing a new kind of flying machine which might have protected the Yanks against the Asiatic hordes (he says an estimated army of a million Asians has landed on the Pacific coast) and goes on to say that rumour has it that some spy shot him and stole his balloon and all his plans – Bert chokes into his beer, and reveals that he was that man and that he still has Butteridge’s original plans stashed away in his chest-protector (an item of clothing he has managed not to remove in the entire previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, very smelly).

Accepting this revelation very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president in order for America to defend itself. But where is the president? Well, the saloon drinkers know that he and his cabinet are constantly on the move to escape the relentless bombing of the Asiatic air fleets.

Bert and the American village leader, Laurier, set off by bicycle (the monorails, which had replaced trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed). It turns into a six-day-odyssey across a bombed-out, ruined America, through smouldering towns, past gangs of suspicious locals armed with guns, past black men strung up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

The Great Collapse

In the final chapter – The Great Collapse – Wells adopts his hieratic, prophetic tone.

He reveals that ‘we’ – the author and his audience – are now living in the peaceful era of the World Government, ‘orderly, scientific and secured’. He is looking back to what is now far enough in the past to constitute a particular historical era. He and his audience, looking back, can see how, just as Western civilisation reached its peak of productivity, wealth, peace and security – it exploded in this great catastrophic war.

A universal social collapse followed, as if it were a logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were great populations, great masses of people found themselves without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which firearms and military executions were not being used to keep order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters, and in the populous districts, and even here and there already among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.

And then came the great plague.

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: six years after the book was published a world war erupted, leading to four years of unprecedented destruction which nobody expected or could control, which led to the end of four major empires, the utter collapse of Russia into years of anarchy and civil war and something similar in Ukraine and Poland, plus major collapse in Germany.

All followed by the influenza epidemic which killed more people than all the fighting (it infected 500 million and may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths).

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

And Bert Smallways? He and Laurier finally track down the President of the USA and hand over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are also telegraphed to Britain.

Being simple and cheap to make it can be mass produced by communities all over both countries. But the result isn’t, as you might expect, to fight off the Asiatics or to win the war. It is to end Western civilisation, which collapses into local warbands, warlords, medieval city states, gangs of prowling vigilantes, stragglers, beggars, bringers of disease, famine and pestilence. It is 14th century Europe at the time of the Black Death.

Bert sails back to Britain

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, the survivors are picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, they are shot at in Madeira, and finally arrive in Wales to discover complete social collapse.

The buildings and monorails (and the advertising hoardings Wells hated so much) still stand, but there is no money, no credit, no central authority, half the people are dead, the other half starving, armed bands protect precious arable land.

Bert makes his way across this devastated landscape, into England, to Birmingham where what’s left of the government is still trying to fight the war. He finds there is no place for him here and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships.

He hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, and finally arrives at his brother’s house in Bun Hill to find his brother lean and feverish, his wife upstairs dying of plague, and Edna – the Helen of Bert’s great odyssey, the woman whose memory has kept him going through thick and thin – living with her mother at Horsham and terrorised by a local hoodlum, Bill Gore, who wants to marry / rape her.

By this time, as you might expect, Bert has been considerably changed by his experiences. He is no longer an innocent abroad, no longer the man who threw up when he saw his first battle.

Now he is lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed.

When local tough Bill comes a-visiting Edna the next day, Bert doesn’t even bother parlaying but simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off.

Bert then swaggers down to the local pub, announces he’s just shot the local gang leader, and asks who wants to join the Vigilance Committee he’s setting up? Intimidated, they all do. Bert establishes himself as the leader of the gang.

And he marries Edna and they farm the land, raising crops and livestock, living from year to year, defending their community against marauders. Edna bears 11 children, most of whom live, there are rich years and lean years, occasionally the shadow of an airship floats overhead, whether one of ‘ours’ or one of ‘theirs’ nobody knows or cares any more.

I found Well’s description of the complete social collapse of early twentieth century civilisation, and its quick reversion to medieval levels of society, powerfully compelling. Reminded me of the umpteen television series about the end of civilisation which I watched as a teenager in the 1970s, such as Survivors.

And I found the brief overview of Bert and Edna’s lives, now converted into tough farmers who breed and then, in their own time, pass away and are buried, genuinely haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, the book’s last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bent-over old man of 63, worn by decades of work in the fields, and one of Bert’s younger children, a son, Teddy, who’s come to stay.

They wander through the ruins of Bun Hill while old Tom tells the little boy about ‘the old days’, when there was ample food, when people could read, when there was clean water and sewerage and electric power and motor cars.

All gone now. Now they live amid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who must have made these fabulous buildings.

Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters left over from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north known as LONDON. One of the villagers went looking for booze there, got lost and swears that, as soon as the sun went down, the souls of the millions of dead rose again, and walked the streets in all their old finery, dodging between the hansom cabs and the motor cars, until they saw him and all crowded round to abuse him, and he saw that their faces were all screeching skulls.

The book is titled The War in The Air, which sounds quite energising and romantic. I had no idea it ended with such a powerfully imagined vision of the complete collapse of Western civilisation and its reversion back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


Wells’s vivid imagination

When Bert and Grubb take two young ladies out for a Bank Holiday spree all goes fine until Bert’s antique motorbike springs a petrol leak which then catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while first Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh, upper-class chap who offers the chaps his tarpaulin to smother the flames.

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

‘We ought to have done this before,’ panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

I think that’s just a brilliant passage. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is wonderfully accurate. I’ve seen flame eat through a covering material just like a ‘bright red smile’.

And then the reflection of the red flames in the goggles of the Edwardian motor car driver is like a close-up from a movie. Brilliantly imagined and described.

Although his plots are often ludicrous, almost every page of a Wells novel contains moments like this, intensely imagined and vividly written.

Political pamphleteering

They also contain long passages in which Wells gives vent to his personal feelings of outrage at corrupt government and warlike generals.

Here he is, taking his place in the long tradition of liberals and humanists lamenting that governments waste so much money on building ever-more sophisticated and expensive weapons of war, while the children of the countries the arms are meant to be ‘protecting’, starve in the streets.

So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up, several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius, and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost – that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.

And though Wells didn’t know it at the time, this was more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships of his day, the competition to build which helped fuel rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.

After all the huffing and puffing, after all the warmongering newspaper editorials and speeches, after the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and Deutschmarks, the British and German fleets ended up bringing their decades of rivalry to a climax at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’). Thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in port until it was scuttled in 1918. Futile waste of money doesn’t begin to describe it. Hence Wells’s rage.

Wells’s prefaces

Wells was as profuse in interpreting his own novels as he was recklessly prolix in writing them. This novel had a whole series of prefaces tacked on the front as the years went by, in each of which he manages to give the novel a different spin.

1921 preface

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises The War In The Air, alongside some of his other novels, as a ‘fantasia of possibility’, meaning that he takes one scientific idea and then pursues it to its conclusion.

Some of these ideas (the notion of a time machine or invasion from another planet) are obviously fanciful. This one was a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

In an interesting insight, or suggestion, Wells argues that aerial warfare will eliminate the old-fashioned idea of a war with defined fronts, of specific locations where armies fight each other and either win or lose.

Instead, he predicted that the militarisation of the air would lead not only to vastly greater destruction than mankind had ever known before – but that it would also make wars oddly indecisive. Both sides would be able to reduce each other’s civilisations to smoking rubble before it was really clear who had won.

This didn’t happen in the immediate future, in the First World War, when airplane technology wasn’t advanced enough to make any impact on the conflict. But it is very much what happened in the Second World War, when Allied bombing and the Russian advance reduced Germany to rubble, but not before the Germans had devastated towns and cities across the continent, namely in Britain, but also in the devastating Blitz on Poland right at the start. America devastated mainland Japan for months without persuading the Japanese to surrender. It took not one, but two atomic bombs, before the Japanese finally saw sense.

1918 preface

By contrast, the 1918 preface doesn’t mention any of this. In this one Wells makes a shorter, sharper point, arguing that – in light of the catastrophe of 1914-18 – there could only possibly now be one position in international affairs, which was to call for a World Government.

Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice.

This idea – the necessity of a World Government to prevent the end of civilisation – was to be the central issue Wells plugged away at for the rest of his life.

Regarding the narrative, Wells in his 1918 preface refers to it as ‘a pamphlet story – in support of the League to Enforce Peace’.

I am just struck by the way that Wells’s restless imagination was unable to stay in one place even when he was referring to his own works: this one novel was, at various times, both a ‘fantasia of possibility’ and ‘a pamphlet story’.

And in neither preface does he mention the more obvious fact that it is also a broadly comic novel.

You can see why, to ‘serious’ critics and writers, Wells’s novels became a byword for being artistic messes – scientific prophecies jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against jaw-dropping science fiction visions, sentimental love stories morphing into daring espousals of Free Love.

From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books, which become steadily longer and more chaotic.

In order to enjoy them you have to abandon literary criticism, have to forget the urgings of Henry James or Joseph Conrad that the novel ought to be a high-minded and beautifully written aesthetic whole – and just accept that they are part-pamphlet, part-technological prophecy, part Ealing Comedy, part self-interested plea for free love, part awe-inspiring visions of a future world in ruins – and enjoy all the different bits, styles and tones of voice, as you stumble across them, for their own sake.

Wells’s underlying sense of futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I also couldn’t help getting the strong feeling that underlying all Well’s bumptious humour and angry politics and technological wizardry is a deep, abiding sense of the futility of all human effort.

Sooner or later in all his books, that note is sounded and seems, to me, to be the foundation of all this writing.

Here is Lieutenant Kurt (the only German who treats Bert decently, as the sit in the base in Canada waiting to be rescued) admitting to Bert that he will never see his sweetheart again.

‘You’ll see ‘er again all right,’ said Bert.

‘No! I shall never see her again…. I don’t understand why people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I am dead and done…. Oh! It’s all foolishness and haste and violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and selfish ambition – all the things that men have done – all the things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and confusion life has always been – the battles and massacres and disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings, the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all, as though I’d just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for him to die. I’ve lost heart, and death is over me. Death is close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine beginnings!… It was all a sham. There were no beginnings…. We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York – New York doesn’t even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!

‘Think of it, Smallways: there’s war everywhere! They’re smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere. Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among themselves! No place is safe – no place is at peace. There is no place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead – dripping death – dripping death!’

‘We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness.’

Wells felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and that the latest technological discoveries of the Scientific Age meant that these once-small and localised struggles would now spread right around the globe, become unstoppable, spelling a universal war, and a sky dripping with death.

He could see it, literally imagine every detail of it, see the bombs falling and the cities destroyed and the fleeing human ants incinerated by firebombs – way before any of his peers could and he warned about it in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, most people ignored it and carried on writing about love affairs and garden parties, and it drove Wells wild with frustration.

Hence the despairing tone at the end of yet another preface he wrote to this book, this time at the end of his life, in 1941, in the depths of the new world war.

Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in [the 1921 preface], twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but 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 – 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 – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – 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 – 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

1914 The World Set Free – 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

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
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
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

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

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

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

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

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

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The adventures of William Mandella, one of the first to join up for the elite forces organised to fight the Taurians who humans encounter as soon as they discover interstellar travel, in a novel often taken as an allegory for the undending Vietnam War, in which Haldeman himself actually fought.

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

The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper (1827)

“The man I speak of was of great simplicity of mind, but of sterling worth. Unlike most of those who live a border life, he united the better, instead of the worst, qualities of the two people. He was a man endowed with the choicest and perhaps rarest gift of nature; that of distinguishing good from evil. His virtues were those of simplicity, because such were the fruits of his habits, as were indeed his very prejudices. In courage he was the equal of his red associates; in warlike skill, being better instructed, their superior. ‘In short, he was a noble shoot from the stock of human nature, which never could attain its proper elevation and importance, for no other reason, than because it grew in the forest:’” (Duncan Uncas Heyward speaking of Leatherstocking in Chapter X)

The Prairie is the third of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, written at speed after The Last of the Mohicans (1826) established Cooper’s reputation, and published just a year later.

It is set at the very end of Leatherstocking’s life, in the year following the Louisiana Purchase i.e the sale by the French to the young American government of the vast expanse of land extending west of the Mississippi. (The character Dr Battius makes an entry in his journal dated specifically to 6 October 1805 in the middle of the novel).

Leatherstocking is now over 80 years old (in chapter XXVIII he says he has lived ‘fourscore and seven winters’), living alone (apart from his loyal but elderly dog, Hector) in the wide, dry, barren prairie lands west of the Mississippi. 87 and still hunting? Cooper addresses this improbability by mentioning on the first page (expanded in a footnote added to the 1832 edition) the legendary American frontiersman Daniel Boone, who died at the advanced age of 85, factual support for the longevity of his fictional character.

A lot of Cooper’s contrivances – for example, his heavy use of long-winded comedy characters – haven’t stood the test of time. More successful is the trick of giving his hero a different name in each book. Thus he is Leatherstocking in The Pioneers, Hawkeye in Last of The Mohicans but in this book is referred to only as ‘the trapper’, as if 80 years of living in the wilderness have not only carved lines in his face and wasted his gaunt body, but also worn away his name itself and almost all signs of individuality, so that he has become a living symbol, an embodiment of a dignified, free way of life.

The plot – part one

The trapper is minding his own business in the middle of the wide prairie when a wagon train lumbers into view, carrying some twenty men, women and children, led by the boorish, low, cunning Ishmael Bush, his careworn wife Esther, their no fewer than fourteen children, and no-good brother Abiram White. It’s impossible to paint Cooper as a racist or white supremacist as the book is drenched in Leatherstocking’s contempt for white farmers destroying the forest (‘their wantonness and folly’ Ch XIX; the ‘wasteful temper of my people’ Ch XX), the arbitrariness of white law, the uselessness of white learning – and the Bushes, representatives of white settlers, are depicted as violent, stupid, criminal lowlifes. As the Pawnee chief Hard-Heart says:

‘Your warriors think the Master of Life has made the whole earth white. They are mistaken.’ (Chapter XVIII)

By contrast with their own narrow brutal worldview, the Bushes’ first sight of the trapper is as a larger-than-life figure, supernaturally enlarged in silhouette against the effulgence of the setting sun, the first of many tall, dark, mythic American heroes…

The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the centre of this flood of fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the gilded background, as distinctly, and seemingly as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal; the attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded, as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character.
The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful. (Chapter I)

v

Opening scene of The Prairie as the Bush family see the silhouette of the solitary trapper against the setting sun

Along with the Bushes is a spirited young woman, Ellen Wade, ‘a sprightly, active, girl, of eighteen, who in figure, dress, and mien, seemed to belong to a station in society several gradations above that of any one of her visible associates’. Ellen is reluctantly travelling with the Bush clan because both her parents are dead and Ishmael, as her ‘father’s brother’s widow’s husband’, has been lumbered with her care – but Ellen is secretly in love with a young and impulsive frontiersman named Paul Hover.

The trapper learns all this because he is present when she walks a distance from the Bush camp to meet the impetuous young man. They have barely started bickering like true young lovers before they hear a thundering of hooves, and lo! a band of Sioux Indians comes galloping up and seizes all three. (In the same way that his account of the Indians in Last of the Mohicans is confusing, once again Cooper refers to the Sioux, the Dahcotas and the Tetons interchangeably, which has you reaching for Wikipedia to discover that the Dakotas – here spelt Dahcotas – were one of the three main divisions of the Sioux nation. It seems that Cooper incorrectly uses the term ‘Teton’ when that should refer to one of the other divisions, the Lakota.)

In a prolonged sequence the leader of the Indians, Mahtoree, menaces the threesome, before setting off with his men to scout out the sleeping Bush campment. Here, in several edge-of-your-seat moments, he hovers with a drawn knife over a sleeping guard as if to stab him – before cutting the bonds of the pioneers’ horses, cows and pigs and shooing them back to the group of Indians (and the trapper) on a hill overlooking. The trapper seizes a moment of inattention to grab a knife off the Indian guarding him and strike through the cords binding the Indians’ horses, whooping loudly. Off run the Indian horses and off run the Indians after them.

The trapper strolls down to the Bush camp to find them all awake and angry that Indians have stolen all their cattle. They accuse him of being in league with the Indians. In his resigned, 80-year-old way, the trapper ignores all their shouting and, pointing out that they now need a place of refuge, guides them to a tall rocky bluff by a stream on top of which, over the next week, the Bushes set up a fortified camp.

From this point onwards several plotlines develop.

1. Dr Battius For a start, we are introduced to the pompous naturalist, Dr Obad Battius, who is also travelling with the Bushes, much given to quoting Latin tags and placing every animal encountered, including other humans, into their correct Family, Genus and Species.

“Woman, I forbid you on pain of the law to project any of your infernal missiles. I am a citizen, and a freeholder, and a graduate of two universities; and I stand upon my rights! Beware of malice prepense, of chance-medley, and of manslaughter. It is I — your amicus; a friend and inmate. I — Dr. Obed Battius.” (Chapter XI)

Battius feels a very stage-comic character, the joke scholar, like something out of Sheridan, with the added pedantry of Shakespeare’s Polonius.

“Perfection is always found in maturity, whether it be in the animal or in the intellectual world. Reflection is the mother of wisdom, and wisdom the parent of success.” (Chapter XIV)

But he isn’t as funny as the comic characters in The Pioneers which is, essentially, a comic novel – here, in the rougher environment of The Prairie and surrounded by the brutish Ishmael and his oafish sons, the humour seems more contrived.

“Am I man enough! Venerable trapper, our communications have a recent origin, or thy interrogatory might have a tendency to embroil us in angry disputation. Am I man enough! I claim to be of the class, mammalia; order, primates; genus, homo! Such are my physical attributes; of my moral properties, let posterity speak; it becomes me to be mute.” (Chapter XVII)

Instead, as the text progresses, we find Battius and the trapper engaged in evermore lengthy debates about the nature of knowledge, of science, of culture and readiness for death. Although tinged with comedy, Cooper has clearly put a lot of effort into creating these careful dialogues which I suspect the modern reader mostly skips to get on to the next bit of action, rather as we are inclined to skip the subtleties of the different non-conformist Protestant sects which are carefully delineated in The Pioneers. We see what we want to see and the modern mind, obsessed with sexism and racism and, maybe, environmentalism, sees that everywhere. Living in a post-Christian society means we are mostly blind to the subtlety of the Battius-trapper debates, which – in another era – could easily have formed the core of a review of the book.

2. Paul Hover is the young lover/hero, but he also is often played for laughs. In this vast man’s world, Paul is a bee-keeper, which immediately makes him an odd figure; but Cooper then gives him the comic attribute that more or less every time he opens his mouth, in any situation, whether making love to Ellen or being chased by Indians, he speaks in bee-keeping terminology, about hives and queens and honey and comb and so on. In this he is a carbon copy of Benjamin from The Pioneers, an ex-sailor who referred  to absolutely everything in naval terms. But it doesn’t work here: The Pioneers is a comic novel where you expect to read slowly to savour the comic situations and repartee; Mohicans and Prairie are action-adventure stories and the reader wants everything to be streamlined to emphasise the excitement: both Hover’s apiarism and Battius’s pedantry get in the way.

3. Asa dies Ishmael’s eldest son, Asa, doesn’t return from an expedition to kill game. Ishmael, his wife and sons all go scouting for him and eventually find his body, shot in the back and then horribly disfigured, hidden in a brake of grass. They extract the bullet which has the mark of the trapper on it. They bury Asa and vow vengeance.

3. The secret in the tent The first dozen or so chapters are threaded with a ponderous mystery – Ishmael keeps a tent in his camp separate from the people and goods, a tent which obviously contains some portentous secret – Ellen and the trapper and the Doctor are angrily pushed away by Ishmael whenever they get near it. Gold? Some rare animal? A person? The reader is kept guessing…

4. Duncan Middleton Out of the wilderness arrives an officer, Duncan Uncas Middleton, strolling in on Battius, Hover and the trapper as they are feasting on a bison they have shot and cooked.

a) The trapper is galvanised when the soldier mentions his middle name – Uncas – which is, of course, the name of the younger, more heroic of the two Mohicans in Last of The Mohicans. Duncan is none other than the grandson of the Major Heyward who featured in that novel and ended up marrying one of its two female leads, Alice Munro. As tribute to the young warrior Uncas who died rescuing Alice and her sister, Heyward gave his son the middle name of Uncas and it became a family tradition. The trapper is in tears as he hears all this and as, I imagine, the reader is meant to be.

b) Chapter 15 is devoted to Middleton’s backstory, namely he is an officer in the US Army which recently moved in to hold Louisiana once it was relinquished by its French owners, and he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a Spanish grandee (the French themselves seized much of this territory from its original Spanish conquerors) – Inez de Certavallos. Although she, her priest, and the father all try to convert Middleton to the Catholic faith, he holds true to his simple Protestant roots, and on this basis they are married. But on the very day of the wedding Inez disappears, to everyone’s horror and consternation. Some time later, Middleton learns from a drunk that she was kidnapped by one Abiram White, a notorious slave trafficker.

Aha. The same Abiram White who is accompanying the Bushes, Ishmael’s wife’s brother! Now we know who is hidden in the tent which Ishmael is at such pains to keep everyone away from – Middleton’s long-lost wife, Inez! And now, while Ishmael and all his sons are away looking for the son who never came back from the hunt (in the scene described above), Dr Battius, Paul Hover, the trapper and Captain Middleton ride up to the rock-top fastness. Here they are confronted by Ellen who promised Ishmael to keep it secure, along with Ishmael’s trigger-happy daughters, but in a comic storming of the rock they make it to the top and liberate Inez from her trap. Middleton and his long-lost wife are reunited.

The plot – part two

From this point onwards, i.e. for the second half of the novel, it becomes a prolonged Chase, reminiscent of the prolonged chases through the New York forest in Mohicans, but this time over the small hills and gullies of the endless, open, exposed prairie.

  • Knowing the Bushes will return and not be happy to find their camp taken, their girls tied up and Inez liberated, our Team (Middleton & Inez, Hover and Ellen, Dr Battius and the trapper) circle away from the rocky camp and head back towards the very clump of reeds where the Bushes found Asa’s body, because that’s the last place they’ll look.
  • Here they uncover an Indian hiding in the reeds who emerges in dignified silence and mounts the horse he summons. He will turn out to be Hard-Heart, legendary chief of the Pawnee tribe, enemy of the Sioux – a man of ‘faultless form, unchanging eye, and lofty mien’ (Ch 28). He converses with the trapper, before setting off back towards his village.

The Pawnee and the Palefaces, illustration

  • Soon afterwards the trapper realises from the sound of thunder and the wave of birds flying towards them that a vast stampede of wild bison is heading directly towards them. The trapper saves them by stepping out in front of the brake of reeds and scaring the leaders either side of it, helped by Middleton and Hover, but it is a close thing, with some strays rampaging through the reeds close to the (as ever) defenceless maidens.
  • Our Team realise the stampede was started by Sioux who have picked off stragglers, as part of their hunting. They watch the Indians approach the brake then the trapper decides to creep round and approach them, exposing himself and trying to distract them from the rest of the Party. The Sioux – or Dahcotas as they call themselves – whoop with pleasure but allow the trapper to have an extended conversation with their leader, Mahtoree.
  • The trapper thinks he is getting somewhere with his distraction when he is disconcerted to see the rest of the Gang – Hover, Middleton, the maidens and Battius – emerging from the reeds behind him. They have seen Ishmael and his posse approaching from the other side and decided the Indians present a better chance of survival.
  • After their initial surprise, the Indians see the settlers approaching looking none too friendly. When the trapper says that the Bushes’ settlement is completely unguarded and ripe for looting and he can show them where it is, Mahtoree has our Team mounted up on spare horses and they all gallop back towards the Tall Rock, Ishmael and his boys firing their rifles at them from just out of range and, of course, having no horses of their own to follow on.
  • In a wordy sequence the trapper manages to persuade the Indians that Battius is a special Medicine Man so that they allow him to straggle a little behind the main posse. At which the trapper instructs the naturalist to make off in a different direction to a secret rendezvous. By this time the Sioux have arrived at the bottom of the Tall Rock, cross that the Medicine Man has disappeared, but about to enjoy some looting. As the Indians dismount and consider how to tackle the rock, not least because Ishmael’s infuriated wife Esther is taking pot shots from above – the trapper signals to the rest of  his gang and they spur their horses (one for the trapper, one carrying Middleton and Inez, one carrying Hover and Ellen) and whoosh, they are gone over a ridge into a gully, up the other side, and have a good lead on the Indians, who on balance, prefer the loot to pursuing the escapees.
  • They ride 20 miles then make a camp as night falls. The trapper has a long argument with Dr Battius where the latter defends civilisation and law and culture and the trapper pours scorn on all of it and laments the wastefulness and folly of the white man who has laid waste the primeval forest, despoiling the work of God and is now invading the plains and bringing with him nothing but waste and folly – “What the world of America is coming to, and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end, the Lord, he only knows…. How much has the beauty of the wilderness been deformed in two short lives!” (Chapter XXIII)
  • As dawn wakes the Team they slowly realise the horizon is very red. It is because a prairie Fire is rampaging towards them. The guys panic, the women bewail their fate, but the trapper makes them pull up all the grass in an area 30 feet around them and then himself lights the grass at the edge of this clearing. The grass takes and burns towards the inferno, thus creating a brake of barren soil and ash around our Heroes. And so the raging fire passes close but not over them. The dazed survivors thank the trapper for saving their life and they head slowly through the ashes towards the nearest river.
The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827)

The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827) showing the trapper (and Hector his dog) Duncan Middleton in green, the beautiful and diminutive Inez with black hair, Ellen Wade and the bee-keeper Paul Hover, with the pedantic naturalist Dr Battius at right

  • They come across an incinerated Bison but are astonished when the corpse starts moving and is then thrown off to reveal the same Pawnee brave they met at the brake the day before, hiding under it. They spared each other then and are friends again now, especially when the trapper tells Hard-Heart that they are pursued by the Pawnees’ enemy, the Sioux.
  • They make quick time to the river where the Indian impressively creates a coracle out of a hide and a few sticks. One by one he ferries the Team across the wide fast river in the coracle tied to his horse. As Dr Battius, characteristically, dithers and discusses the seaworthiness of this little invention, the Sioux posse arrives on the river bank and starts shooting bows and arrows. That decides the naturalist who hops in and they are safely guided to the other shore by the valiant and faithful Pawnee, while our guys on the safe shore take a few shots at the Indians. One lucky shot kills Mahtoree’s horse from under him and this causes confusion and delay.
Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

  • Hard-Heart and the trapper agree to head down the river for a while, instead of going in a straight line to the Pawnee village. They make a camp, make beds for the maidens, and then fall asleep. In the morning they awaken to discover that a thick snow has fallen during the night and this, of course, will show the Indians there are no tracks towards the Pawnee village. Barely have they thought this than they spy the Sioux circling carefully towards their hiding place. No point fighting. The trapper stands up and hands himself and his followers over to the delighted Tetons and their mighty leader, Mahtoree. (Chapter XXIV)

The plot – part three

Chapter XXVI Fade out the last scene and fade up on a new setting, a week later. We are in Mahtoree’s Sioux village, a scattering of a hundred teepees near the river. Also camped there are the Bush family with their wagons, uneasy allies of the Sioux. Middleton and Hover have been tied and bound and thrown on the ground, not far from the stake where Hard-Heart has been tied up. The old trapper has been left free to roam (rather like David Gamut in the Huron village in Mohicans). Proud but fickle Mahtoree approaches and commandeers the trapper to accompany him to his teepee and translate his words to the strikingly beautiful Inez, who he wishes to become his wife. The maidens (dark Inez and blonde Ellen) accept Mahtoree’s pledges and he leaves, but not before his distraught (third) Sioux wife first pleads with him to stay loyal to her on account of the little baby boy she bore him only a year previously and, when he haughtily ignores her and sweeps out of the teepee, she takes off all her jewellery and decorations, places them in a pile before Inez, withdraws to a corner in mourning.

Chapter XXVII Emerging from his teepee Mahtoree is confronted by angry Ishmael who demands the trapper translate that he wants his captive (Inez), his niece (Ellen) and the trapper himself to be handed over. Mahtoree smiles, says no way, but, seeing as Ishmael’s wife, Esther, is old and shrivelled, Mahtoree generously offers to give him his own cast-off Sioux wife. The trapper struggles to keep a straight face as he translates this and sure enough, Esther explodes into a rhodomontade of recriminations against savages, her husband, her good-for-nothing sons and men in general. Mahtoree proceeds to a council of Indian elders which is to decide what to do with Hover, Middleton, and especially their enemy, Hard-Heart. They have barely started the debate when Mahtoree asks the Paleface’s medicine man to be brought in, by which they mean Dr Battius, who has been stripped, shaved except for a mohican strip of hair and redressed in Indian warpaint and feathers, so that he looks quite comical

Chapter XXVIII A detailed description of the council of the Dahcota elders at which Mahtoree attempts to whip them up into enmity against their tied-up Pawnee prisoner, but to everyone’s surprise, an extremely old and venerable Indian, known by the name the French gave him back in the day, Le Balafre, laments that he has no son to be a support in his old age and continue his line – and then adopts Hard-Heart as his son – to Mahtoree’s inexpressible anger. But Hard-Heart refuses! The Pawnee cannot become a Sioux. In fact he has already pledged to become the trapper’s son (in an earlier scene, where the trapper pledged to carry word of his death back to his tribe and fetch his beloved colt to his graveside and there kill it so that Hard-Heart – in the manner of the Vikings or the ancient Egyptians – will have a steed to carry him to the Happy Hunting Grounds.) The scene ends in high drama as Mahtoree authorises his creature, a low-hearted Sioux named Weucha, to menace Hard-Heart with a tomahawk, swinging it round his head hoping to make him flinch or beg for mercy, but the noble youth stands undaunted until, with complete surprise, he grabs Weucha’s arm, seizes the tomahawk, embeds it in Weucha’s skull as deep as his eyes, and with a wild whoop, leaps over the aghast Sioux and skids down the slope to the river just as his fellow Pawnees arrive in force!

Chapter XXIX Mahtoree leaves a wicked old Sioux to arm the crones of the tribe and murder the remaining prisoners (Hover and Middleton) but the trapper sets them free, while all the time giving a running commentary on the skirmish of the two tribes down by the river. Meanwhile the Sioux women have packed their teepees and children onto horseback and exited. The old crones are dispersed by the braying of Dr Battius’s donkey (an animal they have never seen before and associate with his Dark Magic) but before the trapper and the boys can stop laughing, a heavy hand is clapped on his shoulder and he discovers Ishmael and his six brothers pointing rifles at them. The trapper, Hover and Middleton are tied and bound, packed up along with Inez and Ellen onto spare horses, and the Bush party heads off in the opposite direction from the Sioux tribe.

Chapter XXX A pitched battle between the Pawnees and the Tetons begins with the opposing chiefs, Hard-Heart and Mahtoree spurring their horses to a sandbank in the middle of the river and having a fierce duel. Hard-Heart’s horse is shot from under him and as he tries to extricate himself from  his fallen horse Mahtoree advances to deal the death blow when Hard-Heart throws a knife which buries itself deep in the other’s body. This is the signal for a massive melee in the river, with the Pawnees fighting the Sious back to their side but themselves being thrown back. But as the Sioux press their advantage and push the Pawnee into the river, shots ring out from the flank and a brace of Sioux braves fall. It is Ishmael and his sons attacking their former enemies. This breaks the Sioux who flee and are massacred mercilessly, Cooper dwelling on several particularly gruesome ends. Boys adventure heaven.

Chapter XXXI Ishmael Bush impresses by acting the judge before his family and his prisoners. (Hard-Heart, who he helped win the battle of the creek, has come in peace to observe proceedings.) He freely admits he was persuaded by his brother-in-law to kidnap Inez and now bitterly regrets it. He announces her set at liberty and also Captain Middleton (whose bounds are therefore cut by his sons). Similarly, he asks Ellen her wish and she tearfully expresses her gratitude to Ishmael for taking her in when no-one else would, but says her heart is set on Paul the bee-man. So Ishmael orders them both set free. Finally he charges the trapper with murdering his son, using the evidence of the bullet found in the body. The trapper calmly says he saw who did it, it was Abiram White. The cowardly murderer immediately overdoes his shouts of innocence and as Ishmael’s boys advance towards him, turns to run, trips and drops dead at their feet. The released prisoners ride off with Hard-Heart.

Chapter XXXII A grim and sombre, melodramatic and Gothic chapter in which the Bush family trundles across the plains in its wagons until it comes to a likely place to camp, and here Ishmael orders Abiram out of his wagon and declares his sentence is to die for the murder he committed and the wretched man pleads and grovels for his life, until Ishmael laments and sets him on a gallows made from a dead tree and a platform of rock, tying his hands so that he will eventually, from weakness, totter off the ledge and be hanged. The wagon train continues and camps further on. But Ishmael can’t rest and walks back, suddenly hearing terrible cries on the wind, blasphemies and crying and then a terrible scream of horror! It reads very much like one of Dickens’s most gruesome scenes of vengeance and the macabre. Ishmael and his wife cut down and bury the wretch, and next day their wagon trail lumbers out of the story.

Chapter XXXIII Hard-Heart and his Pawnees are noble hosts to Middleton, Inez, Hover and Ellen, the Doctor and the trapper. Middleton notes his ‘artillerists’ have arrived and are being treated hospitably. After a few days hospitality, our friends pack up and leave. Hard-Heart declaims a noble speech of friendship. They get into boats lined up along the river and the current bears them away. But they haven’t gone far before the trapper asks to be set ashore on a sandbank. Middleton, Hover, the Doctor all beg him to come with them to ‘the settlements’ where they will make him comfortable. But the old man ‘who has acted his part honestly near ninety winters and summers’ wants nothing to do with ‘the waste and wickedness of the settlements and the villages’. He wants to spend his last days in complete freedom. He asks one favour, that they take a few beaver pelts, sell them in the settlements and buy a new trap which they can send back to the Pawnee village. He gets out with old Hector and asks Captain Middleton if he may borrow his dog who (we learned in the middle of the book) is in fact a descendant of a pup of Hector himself, given to Heyward and Alice decades earlier; Middleton says, Yes of course, take anything. The friends he has guided to safety are all in floods of tears.

He was last seen standing on the low point, leaning on his rifle, with Hector crouched at his feet, and the younger dog frisking along the sands, in the playfulness of youth and vigour.

Chapter XXXIV In the last chapter we see the dignified intelligent Middleton and Inez, and the rougher more boisterously American Hover and Ellen, married and settled. The Autumn of the next year duty takes Middleton close to the Pawnee village and, accompanied by Hover, he makes the journey there to renew friendship. He finds the village attending the dying trapper. Propped in a chair, he is now very weak. His dog, Hector, is dead. He makes the last of his countless sententious and high-minded speeches – pointedly reminding Hard-Heart that he is a Christian white man at the end. Nonetheless, we are reminded that he adopted Hard-Heart as his son in the village of the Sioux, promising to take his last words to his tribe when we all thought the Sioux would execute Hard-Heart; and right to his last breaths his Indian son dutifully obeys and comforts him. Middleton promises to pay for a simple headstone. The old man looks into the glory of ‘an American sunset’ and passes from this world. Not a dry eye in the house. It is a majestic ending.


Native Americans

Cooper’s attitude towards the Indians which feature so prominently in this and the previous novel is multilayered. On the one hand he freely admits the Indians are a ‘wronged and humbled people’, and ‘the lawful owners’ of the land (Ch XXV), which is being stolen from them by the whites (or the ‘Big-Knives’ as they are generally referred to) and who Cooper describes as ‘hungry locusts’ (Ch XXVIII). Hence their understandable antipathy to whitey.

“Could the red nations work their will, trees would shortly be growing again on the ploughed fields of America, and woods would be whitened with Christian bones.” (Chapter XXV)

Yet his hero is also quick enough to criticise and fear the savagery of some tribes and nations – in Mohicans the Iroquois, in this novel, the Sioux. The trapper inhabits a world in which there are hundreds of tribes of Indians, with a wealth of different characteristics and behaviours, themselves locked in a bewildering complex of inter-tribal wars and alliances. Through this world he has learned to pick his way. To us, nearly 200 years later looking back, there is just ‘the tragedy of the Indians’, driven off their land in a succession of betrayals and massacres, hemmed into ‘reservations’, and condemned to alcoholism and extinction. But reading Cooper makes you aware that, at the time, the Indians were equal players over vast parts of the continent, their war bands as powerful or more than the settlers who encroached, perfectly capable of massacring even full army units (like General Braddock’s in 1755 or General Custer’s 111 years later) let alone isolated bands of white settlers.

In this semi-embattled context, what stands out is not Cooper’s criticisms of, but his repeated admiration for, the native traditions and culture of some of the Indian tribes. After all, the closest friend and confidante of Leatherstocking to the end of his life is Chingachgook, the ‘Mohican’. And here is Cooper’s sterling depiction of Hard-Heart, the Pawnee chief, who Leatherstocking ends up adopting as his son, and who tends to his last days:

The Indian in question was in every particular a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions. As he cast aside his mask, composed of such party-coloured leaves, as he had hurriedly collected, his countenance appeared in all the gravity, the dignity, and, it may be added, in the terror of his profession. The outlines of his lineaments were strikingly noble, and nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well-known traces of his Asiatic origin. The peculiar tint of the skin, which in itself is so well designed to aid the effect of a martial expression, had received an additional aspect of wild ferocity from the colours of the war-paint. But, as if he disdained the usual artifices of his people, he bore none of those strange and horrid devices, with which the children of the forest are accustomed, like the more civilised heroes of the moustache, to back their reputation for courage, contenting himself with a broad and deep shadowing of black, that served as a sufficient and an admirable foil to the brighter gleamings of his native swarthiness. His head was as usual shaved to the crown, where a large and gallant scalp-lock seemed to challenge the grasp of his enemies. The ornaments that were ordinarily pendant from the cartilages of his ears had been removed, on account of his present pursuit. His body, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, was nearly naked, and the portion which was clad bore a vestment no warmer than a light robe of the finest dressed deer-skin, beautifully stained with the rude design of some daring exploit, and which was carelessly worn, as if more in pride than from any unmanly regard to comfort. His leggings were of bright scarlet cloth, the only evidence about his person that he had held communion with the traders of the Pale-faces. But as if to furnish some offset to this solitary submission to a womanish vanity, they were fearfully fringed, from the gartered knee to the bottom of the moccasin, with the hair of human scalps. He leaned lightly with one hand on a short hickory bow, while the other rather touched than sought support, from the long, delicate handle of an ashen lance. A quiver made of the cougar skin, from which the tail of the animal depended, as a characteristic ornament, was slung at his back, and a shield of hides, quaintly emblazoned with another of his warlike deeds, was suspended from his neck by a thong of sinews. (Chapter XVIII)

The noble and the distasteful are mingled, for the chief has the scalps of his enemies attached to his leggings – just as Uncas is an undoubted hero in Mohicans and yet unnecessarily murders the French sentry to get his scalp – because it is the way of his people. All this Hawkeye notes, regrets, but knows he cannot change. Their land, their customs. You can’t say, their land, their customs, except the ones I don’t like and which I’m going to change – that’s what the Christian missionaries said, and the government lawyers and the Sunday schoolmarms, to the Indians’ ruination.

Even in enemy Indians, Leatherstocking respects their unbending dignity and stoicism. He recalls to Middleton the silence of the Indian desperately clinging to a bush over a vast waterfall, who he shot and who plunged to his silence (during the siege of Glens Falls in Last of The Mohicans).

Cooper had met and talked to Indians in the country around his hometown in New York state and then further afield, so he had more experience of Native Americans than any of us. According to some historians, Cooper’s Indian novels are the single most influential source of later Western cultural ideas about Native Americans. This is a heavy burden to bear, and we know that he was inaccurate in many aspects of the names and histories of the tribes he describes. But overwhelmingly, Cooper’s image of the Indian is positive, endlessly repeating the idea that they were noble, dignified, stoic, restrained, physically beautiful specimens of humanity, awesomely in tune with their environment and the beasts in it.

During this rude interruption to the discourse, the young Pawnee manifested neither impatience nor displeasure; but when he thought his beast had been the subject of sufficient comment, he very coolly, and with the air of one accustomed to have his will respected, relieved Paul of the bridle, and throwing the reins on the neck of the animal, he sprang upon his back, with the activity of a professor of the equestrian art. Nothing could be finer or firmer than the seat of the savage. The highly wrought and cumbrous saddle was evidently more for show than use. Indeed it impeded rather than aided the action of limbs, which disdained to seek assistance, or admit of restraint from so womanish inventions as stirrups. The horse, which immediately began to prance, was, like its rider, wild and untutored in all his motions, but while there was so little of art, there was all the freedom and grace of nature in the movements of both. (Chapter XVIII)

‘All the freedom and grace of nature’, wow.

Cooper’s environmentalism

Whatever we modern and impeccably politically correct readers make of Cooper’s attitudes to the Indians, there is no doubting his contempt for the white settlers and farmers, who his hero sees as unambiguously bad thing. If Cooper is racist, it is directed at white people. Their despoliation of the beautiful natural American environment is not only wasteful and ruinous, though that is bad enough – in defacing the wonderful works of the Creator, the activity of most white people is actively blasphemous.

“… it will not be long before an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels, to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert, from the shores of the main sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains; fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!” (Chapter XVIII)

The beauty of unspoilt America, the nobility and manliness of its finest natives, and the wicked, wasteful, ungodly ways of its white settlers – these are the bedrock themes of these novels, emphasised again and again and again.

Cooper’s style

‘Long-winded’ does not begin to convey the circumlocutory nature of Cooper’s periphrastic periods.

While the exterior of the naturalist was decidedly pacific, not to say abstracted, that of the new comer was distinguished by an air of vigour, and a front and step which it would not have been difficult to have at once pronounced to be military. (Chapter x)

As Dr Battius is sneaking towards the secret tent, he is terrified to feel a hand on his shoulder and a whispered enquiry, and…

So soon as the heart of the naturalist had returned from its hasty expedition into his throat, as one less skilled than Dr. Battius in the formation of the animal would have been apt to have accounted for the extraordinary sensation with which he received this unlooked-for interruption, he found resolution to reply… (Chapter XI)

Cooper is self-aware. He even calls his own hero ‘prolix’, as he sets off on another long rambling sententious exordium about the nature of ‘the savage’… But you take the rough with the smooth in a book as old as this, and at other moments his 200-year-old style is rhetorically effective; some of the natural descriptions remind us of the school of American landscape painters which his work inspired. Here are our boys looking up at the tent on top of the high rock, as a gust of wind sweeps past them.

… a rushing blast of wind swept by the spot where they stood, raising the dust in little eddies, in its progress; and then, as if guided by a master hand, it quitted the earth, and mounted to the precise spot on which all eyes were just then riveted. The loosened linen felt its influence and tottered; but regained its poise, and, for a moment, it became tranquil. The cloud of leaves next played in circling revolutions around the place, and then descended with the velocity of a swooping hawk, and sailed away into the prairie in long straight lines, like a flight of swallows resting on their expanded wings. (Chapter XIII)

The wind blowing a gust of leaves across the open plain like swallows on the wing – not bad! So the long-winded style works quite often (and just as well in such a very long book).

For earlier generations Leatherstocking was an archetypal figure, a legend of the frontier. But for readers in the 21st century, I think the books’ power comes from the sheer variety of scenes, settings and characters which they contain – the stampede of bison, the prairie fire, crossing the river under fire from the Indians, all these scenes join the deep forests, the high mountains, the thundering waterfalls and hidden caves of the earlier books, and through all of them stride the haunting figures of the noble Indians, true ‘owners’ of the land.

The Leatherstocking books give you a powerful sense of what life must have been like, 200 years ago, in a world we can’t really imagine – or wouldn’t be able to without the lengthy, sometimes verbose, but amazingly varied, often powerful and vivid descriptions of this classic novelist.


Credit

I read the 1987 American Penguin edition, which has a useful introduction by Blake Nevius but, alas, no notes. The central point he makes is that the novels’ fundamental structure is the ‘romance’, an idea stretching back 2,000 years to the New Comedy of the Romans, which places a boy meets girl romance at the centre of a narrative – more often pairing two pairs of boys and girls, to give variety and contrast. The tradition goes right through Shakespeare whose comedies generally feature a pair of couples (think of Demetrius & Hermia, Lysander & Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Orlando & Rosalind, Oliver & Celia in As You Like It) and on into the 18th century novel which is, classically, about wooing and wedding (whether taken seriously in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or played for laughs as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Thus both Mohicans and The Prairie feature a couple of couples: in The Prairie the more working class, rumbustious pair of plain-speaking Paul Hover and bosomy Ellen Ward are set against the aristocratic dignity of the virtually unspeaking Inez – a sort of doll or icon of femininity – and the intelligent, dignified officer Middleton who is the right sort of stuffed-shirt character to receive the trapper’s final words and wishes right at the novel’s end. Mohicans has the upmarket Alice, eventually married to Major Heyward, contrasted with the more ample-figured i.e bosomy, Cora. Since she has to die so does Uncas, in a big slab of tearjerking 18th century sentimentality.

Dressing up and disguises feature prominently in this comic tradition and partly explain the silly bear and beaver costumes in Last of the Mohicans or the ludicrous makeover Dr Battius receives to turn him into an Indian medicine man.

But the novel adds to this love-interest-with-disguises basic recipe a wealth of new influences, most obviously The Chase – hunt, pursuit, capture, rescue – and Landscape. After the trapper has established the Bushes on their rocktop encampment, the rest of the novel is just a sequence of interlocking chases, pursuits, perils and escapes. And these are not only exciting in themselves but allow for variety of scenery – open plain, firestorm, bison stampede, river battle, snowfall, Indian camp.

Nevius asserts that readers of Cooper often struggle to remember the details of plot – but they always remember the vivid brilliant pictures that Cooper creates in our minds’ eyes.

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson (1892)

The auctioneer was surrounded by perhaps a score of lookers-on, big fellows, for the most part, of the true Western build, long in the leg, broad in the shoulder, and adorned (to a plain man’s taste) with needless finery. A jaunty, ostentatious comradeship prevailed. Bets were flying, and nicknames. The boys (as they would have called themselves) were very boyish; and it was plain they were here in mirth, and not on business.
(Chapter IX – The Wreck of the Flying Scud)

Robert and Fanny and Lloyd

Fanny Stevenson Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne in France in 1876 and became deeply attached to her. She was ten years older than him (b.1840 compared to Stevenson’s 1850) and had three small children by her husband Samuel Osbourne, who she had married at the tender age of just 17. Samuel was an adventurer who headed to California to take part in the silver rush, brought his family out to stay with him, but was consistently unfaithful to Fanny until she decided to cut loose and took her children for a prolonged trip to Europe.

Fanny’s choice In 1876 Fanny returned to America prepared to reconcile with her husband. So infatuated was Stevenson that he saved up for three years to have the fare to travel out to California there to woo her (the journey described in his travel book The Amateur Emigrant) and poor Fanny was faced in 1879 with the choice between unfaithful husband and ardent devotee – who just happened to be a literary genius into the bargain. Eventually she chose the sickly Scotsman and they were married in 1880, Stevenson acquiring two step-children Isobel (b.1858) and Lloyd (b. 1868), the third, Hervey, having died as a child in Paris. They spent two months in the Napa Valley near abandoned mine workings, an experience fictionalised into the novel The Silverado Squatters.

Stevenson’s travels They moved back to Britain for a while for Robert to patch up relations with his scandalised parents. For the next seven years they moved around England and Scotland, Devon, Bournemouth, spending the winter months in the south of France or Switzerland. These were the years of his masterpieces – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, as well as The Black Arrow and much poetry.

The South Seas In 1887 his father died and Stevenson returned to America, wintering in New York state. In 1888 he was in California charting a yacht to take him, Fanny and Lloyd to the islands of the South Seas and there began an extensive period of travel among the islands of the Pacific, getting to know customs, traditions, languages and politics. Lloyd was now 20 and very close to RLS. Stevenson restlessly wrote wherever he went, and in a wide variety of forms, children’s and adult poetry, adventure stories and romances, short stories, novels, travel books, essays and letters.

Collaborations with Lloyd Osborne It was here during his south sea travels and after he settled on an island of Samoa that Stevenson collaborated closely with his step-son Lloyd on three novels: The Wrong Box, The Wrecker and The Ebb-Tide. And, whereas he wrote two more novels and a number of south sea stories which are part of the ‘canon’, it is maybe no coincidence that most people haven’t heard of these three collaborations.

The Wrecker

The Prologue of The Wrecker, titled In The Marquesas, describes the litter of whites, beach bums and local South sea natives who live near the harbour of Tai-o-hae, ‘the French capital and port of entry of the Marquesas Islands’. It has colour and flavour and promises much.

Outside, the night was full of the roaring of the surf. Scattered lights glowed in the green thicket. Native women came by twos and threes out of the darkness, smiled and ogled the two whites, perhaps wooed them with a strain of laughter, and went by again, bequeathing to the air a heady perfume of palm-oil and frangipani blossom.

A schooner enters the harbour and the captain, Mr Loudon Dodd, is invited along to the whites-only club, where they drink and roister and the inebriated captain finds himself boasting about all kinds of scrapes and semi-crimes he’s been involved in. His host, back at his house, says surely that was all bluff. Oh no, says Dodd, it was all true. ‘Pray tell’, asks his host. Alright, says Dodd.

Dodd’s life story At which point the novel cuts away to become a completely different book from the one promised – a long, humorous, self-deprecating first-person narrative of Dodd’s life and times. Dodd’s dad was a typically boosterish American businessman who sends his son to college to  learn how to gamble on the stock market. But the young boy wants to be an artist! They square the circle by sending Loudon to Paris to study sculpture – so that he can provide the statues needed for the new state capital the father is crookedly involved in.

Student in Paris Loudon’s adventures in student Paris are all firmly tongue-in-cheek, told with a drollness which is completely at odds with the pithy, psychologically acute style Stevenson demonstrated in his classic adventures, The Black Arrow or Ballantrae.

At this time we were all a little Murger-mad in the Latin Quarter. The play of the Vie de Boheme (a dreary, snivelling piece) had been produced at the Odeon, had run an unconscionable time–for Paris, and revived the freshness of the legend. The same business, you may say, or there and thereabout, was being privately enacted in consequence in every garret of the neighbourhood, and a good third of the students were consciously impersonating Rodolphe or Schaunard to their own incommunicable satisfaction. Some of us went far, and some farther. I always looked with awful envy (for instance) on a certain countryman of my own who had a studio in the Rue Monsieur le Prince, wore boots, and long hair in a net, and could be seen tramping off, in this guise, to the worst eating-house of the quarter, followed by a Corsican model, his mistress, in the conspicuous costume of her race and calling. It takes some greatness of soul to carry even folly to such heights as these; and for my own part, I had to content myself by pretending very arduously to be poor, by wearing a smoking-cap on the streets, and by pursuing, through a series of misadventures, that extinct mammal, the grisette.

San Francisco In Paris he meets a fellow American art student, Jim Pinkerton, who is lousy at art but addicted to doing dodgy business deals, he nicknames him ‘the Irrepressible’ or ‘the Commercial Force’. This man is to loom large in his life because, when Loudon’s father dies after one business crash too many, Loudon, deprived of daddy’s monthly stipends, falls on very hard times and after trying all available options, is forced to travel back to the States and out to California where he becomes a side-kick and cultural fig leaf for Pinkertson’s numerous scams and cons: selling counterfeit brandy, organising a preposterous regular sea-side picnic, wild speculations on all and every business venture.

A taste of the South Seas Suddenly in chapter eight we learn that Loudon has taken to exploring San Francisco, the secret slums and hidden places – there are rich descriptions of its multi-cultural shops and bars and dives.

My delight was much in slums. Little Italy was a haunt of mine; there I would look in at the windows
of small eating-shops, transported bodily from Genoa or Naples, with their macaroni, and chianti flasks, and portraits of Garibaldi, and coloured political caricatures; or (entering in) hold high debate with some ear-ringed fisher of the bay as to the designs of “Mr. Owstria” and “Mr. Rooshia.” I was often to be observed (had there been any to observe me) in that dis-peopled, hill-side solitude of Little Mexico, with its crazy wooden houses, endless crazy wooden stairs, and perilous mountain
goat-paths in the sand. Chinatown by a thousand eccentricities drew and held me; I could never have enough of its ambiguous, interracial atmosphere, as of a vitalised museum; never wonder enough at its outlandish, necromantic-looking vegetables set forth to sell in commonplace American shop-windows, its temple doors open and the scent of the joss-stick streaming forth on the American air, its kites of Oriental fashion hanging fouled in Western telegraph-wires, its flights of paper prayers which the trade-wind hunts and dissipates along Western gutters.

And in amid these he starts listening to tales of sailors and seafarers of the remote romantic south sea islands, visits a seafarer who has a collection of south sea island artefacts, gets bitten by the bug. So he enthusiastically falls in with Pinkerton’s latest scheme to bid for a ship which they hear has been shipwrecked on Midway Island, the brig Flying Scud. It’s meant to be a rigged auction i.e. Pinkerton has arranged to buy the ship from the auctioneer at the nominal sum of $100, so everybody is surprised when a well known, seedy lawyer, Bellairs, starts bidding against Pinkerton and the bidding climbs to the absurd and giddy heights of $30,000 then $40,000.

By now our boys have realised something very suspicious is going on – maybe the brig must have been packed full of Chinese opium! Loudon notices that the captain of the wrecked ship – Captain Trent – is at the auction, looking very nervous. Our boys eventually win the ship but at a budget-breaking cost of $50,000. In the corridor Loudon overhears Bellairs telephoning the man whose instructions he was obeying, a certain Mr Dickson. But when Loudon gets hold of his address and goes to visit and question Dickson, he finds he has beaten a hasty retreat from his boarding house. Why?

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Voyage to Midway Pinkerton and Dodds hire a schooner, the Nora Creiner, appoint a Captain Nares and hire a dodgy-looking crew. Pinkerton appoints Dodds his agent for the mission – which is to find the brig, find the opium, take it on to Honolulu to sell, and return to San Francisco with the profits. There is a brisk clear good humour about the narrator’s tone which seems different from any other Stevenson I’ve read. It has an often modern sense of comic timing and a brisk easy pace. Stevenson’s sentences are generally more broken up with semi-colons and edgy angular additions and clauses; The Wrecker‘s sentences run on smooth and debonair.

I was presented to the commissioner, and to a young friend of his whom he had brought with him for the purpose (apparently) of smoking cigars; and after we had pledged one another in a glass of California port, a trifle sweet and sticky for a morning beverage, the functionary spread his papers on the table, and the hands were summoned. Down they trooped, accordingly, into the cabin; and stood eyeing the ceiling or the floor, the picture of sheepish embarrassment, and with a common air of wanting to expectorate and not quite daring. In admirable contrast, stood the Chinese cook, easy, dignified, set apart by spotless raiment, the hidalgo of the seas.

The Flying Scud Eventually they reach the site where Captain Trent said The Flying Scud ran aground and, sure enough, find it. The captain, crew and Loudon spend days ripping the poor brig apart and, sure enough, do eventually find boxes hidden in the mats of rice – and they do contain opium – but only a few hundred pounds of the stuff – value, at the absolute maximum, maybe $10,000. Whereas Pinkerton had bid $50,000 for the ship! It looks like a complete bust. Sadly captain Nares and Dodd conclude they’ve done everything they can, set fire to the hulk and sail on to Honolulu.

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

The mystery Here I didn’t quite understand some scenes but I think Loudon disposes of the opium to two agents Pinkerton has arranged to meet him. He then bumps into the captain of the British warship which found and rescued the crew of the Flying Scud, is invited to a party aboard, and quizzes the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. From all this he discovers that the survivor of the Scud, who later paid Bellairs to bid against Pinkerton, and who gave his name as Dickson, was in fact one Norris Carthew, an Englishman from a noble family. What the devil is this all about? Dr Urquhart gives the impression of knowing but Loudon fails to wangle it out of him and is left as completely perplexed about the mystery of the wrecked brig as we the reader, and the narrator is the intrusive kind who comes right out and confronts the reader with it:

I have never again met Dr. Urquart: but he wrote himself so clear upon my memory that I think I see him still. And indeed I had cause to remember the man for the sake of his communication. It was hard enough to make a theory fit the circumstances of the Flying Scud; but one in which the chief actor should stand the least excused, and might retain the esteem or at least the pity of a man like Dr. Urquart, failed me utterly. Here at least was the end of my discoveries; I learned no more, till I learned all; and my reader has the evidence complete. Is he more astute than I was? or, like me, does he give it up?

Pinkerton’s bankruptcy So Loudon sails back to San Francisco and confronts Jim and his new wife, Mamie, with his failure to find treasure on the ship. Pinkerton, for his part, explains about his bankruptcy – an official receiver was called in, who could only secure 7 cents in every dollar for the creditors.  Jim was thoroughly pilloried in all the newspapers and now lives in a shabby apartment with shabby clothes and is working as the meanest type of clerk.

Loudon inherits a fortune Which is why, when Loudon receives a telegram telling him he’s inherited a fortune from his doting grandfather in Scotland, they all celebrate wildly with a champagne dinner and pack up and head to the country for a rest and recuperation. Within days Pinkerton is back to his classic best, a wheeling-dealing shyster, going to the office of the local newspaper, investigating mining operations, sniffing for new business ventures.

More Flying Scud mystery Loudon leaves him and returns to San Francisco where he dines with Captain Nares who he got to like and respect during the long voyage. Nares says they still haven’t got to the bottom of this Scud business. Loudon is then buttonholed by the lawyer Bellairs, who reveals himself as a weedy, uneducated shyster but who menacingly says he knows all about Loudon’s inheritance and makes vague threats to undermine him or Pinkerton or both. In addition, Bellairs says he knows all about the fake mate on the Scud, Norris Carthew. What? Loudon is puzzled: what fake mate? Who is Carthew? Why does is matter?

Bellairs goes on that Carthew comes from a venerable family in England, in Dorset, aha yes you can’t fool old Bellairs. Loudon wonders what on earth he’s babbling about.

Chasing Bellairs Next day, in a passage which I read twice but still didn’t understand, Loudon discovers that Bellairs has left his hotel and set off East, presumably to go to England and find Carthew, and decides to follow him. Why? I know the narrative has to take us to England and Carthew but Loudon’s decision to do so is extremely flimsy.

Across the Atlantic Loudon and Bellairs find themselves on the same transatlantic ship and get to know each other more, Bellairs alternating between wanting to be friends and show off his miserably uneducated mind, and sudden bursts of aggression and threat. Loudon finds out the whole of the poor man’s life story, which I won’t bother repeating here.

Stallbridge-le-Carthew From Liverpool the odd couple find themselves making American tourist day trips to local towns and then heading further south, to Gloucester, Bath and so by stages to Dorset. Bellairs disappears, presumably to get to Carthew first – and Loudon races to the fine ancestral pile of the Carthews arriving before the lowlife lawyer. Here Loudon is treated to a guided tour of the grand Carthew mansion, the gardens and stables and prize-winning horses and flower beds, and then the local village and the local inn kept by ex-servants of the Carthews.

From these people he learns that Norris was the black sheep of the family, the second son, wanted to be an artist (don’t they all) argued with the father and was packed off to the colonies. He has, apparently, only recently returned, promptly had a big fight with his mother, and has disappeared again. Through the roundabout method of examining the inn-keeper’s daughter’s stamp collection, Loudon gathers that Norris has gone to Barbizon, a village in France a little north of Paris and a popular hang-out for would-be artists. (In fact a place Stevenson knew well and visited when his cousin, the artist Bob Stevenson, was a regular visitor there in the 1870s.)

Barbizon Loudon sets off straight away, across England to London and then across the Channel to France and so on to Barbizon. He arrives to find the place packed with art students as in his day, and even knows some of the older-timers who show him round. And as there aren’t many Anglos he is almost immediately introduced to the dapper Carthew, who is going under the false name of Madden. Loudon recognises him as one of the sailors rescued from the Scud and Carthew admits it and admits using a fake name in San Francisco.

They talk late into the night, with Loudon giving his side of the long convoluted story of The Flying Scud – rather wearing the reader’s patience by this time – beforeCarthew says he will tell his side of the story.

And now,” said he, “turn about: I must tell you my side, much as I hate it. Mine is a beastly story. You’ll wonder how I can sleep. (Chapter XXI)

Carthew’s life story Once again, as in the switch right at the start of the text to Loudon Dodd’s point of view, we don’t get anything like a crisp narrative focused on explaining whatever the secret is behind the wrecked ship. The exact opposite: we get a long, long, long account of Carthew’s childhood and teenage years and prolonged arguments with his father about his wish to become an artist, the family force him to go to Oxford where he is kicked out with huge debts, after which he is packed off to Europe and makes even more debts gambling, before the disgusted family sent him even further away, all the way to Sydney Australia, to contact a lawyer who would pay him a living allowance only if he regularly visited the office. It is a strange kind of echo or just repeat of the life story of loudon which we had to crawl through in the early chapters.

Carthew puts up with this treatment in Australia for a while, spending all the money before he has it and ending up a homeless bum in a Sydney park, before he gets a tip to go and work on the railways where he discovers the joys of manual labour and rough proletarian company.

Scheme to do business in the South Seas Back in Sydney with his pay saved up, he bumps into a well-known speculator, Tom Hadden, who gets him interested in the vast profits to be made trading in the south seas. They recruit a legendary old sea captain, Bostock, ‘a slow, sour old man, with fishy eyes’, who introduces them to another captain, one Wicks who was indicted for murder when he struck down a mutineering crewman and has been in hiding as a cabman in Sydney for three years. He says he knows a good schooner that’s been laid up rotting while a massive lawsuit fights around it which has finally settled and they can get her cheap.

The deal is done, they pool their money, buy the schooner, rename her Currency Lass, hire a Chinese cook, Carthew has a final interview with the lawyer who’d been paying him his stipend to inform him he’s off for six months trading in the south seas, and they set sail.

Business success and nautical disaster After ten days sailing they come to an island where they are steered in by the drunk pilot and the captain makes a good deal with a susceptible white trader, enough to pay off the price of the boat and make a handsome two grand profit. The businessmen celebrate and are merrily sailing on towards San Francisco, when they are caught in a severe storm. The main boom swinging round hard cuts off the foremast at the root and then is blown overboard shattering the main mast. The ship now has no power of movement at least 1,000 miles for the nearest port.

Journey to Midway One of them has been reading the maritime guidebook by Hoyt which claims there is a coaling station only forty or so miles away at Midway Island, so they pack the whaling boat with food, all their gods and the money, and row there, arriving next day to find no station, no people, no civilisation, just a low coral island haunted by gulls and driftwood. Here they settle in, building a fire, cooking meals and slowly despairing.

Rescue Five or six days in they are in the middle of a despairing card game when they spy a sail. It is the Hull brig The Flying Scud which the second part of this yarn has all been about. They light a big fire with driftwood and to their amazed relief the ship comes up and anchors outside the reef. They take their whaling boat out to it and are helped aboard, asked questions, fed, to their great relief.

A hard bargain But then the captain, Trent, invites them all down into his cabin along with the big Scandinavian first mate, Goddedaal, and the mood changes. Thoughtfully he puts it to them that there is a price for their rescue. Once he’s heard the story of the big profit they made at the island, he says his offer is this: hand over the entire £2,000 profit and he’ll take them to San Francisco; refuse, and he’ll dump them back on the island. Even his own first mate is appalled and sinks his head in his hands. But as he insists and even threatens them, Mac, the unstable passionate Ulsterman in the Lasses crew, whips out a clasp knife and in the ensuing scuffle it ends in Captain Trent’s neck, he collapses onto the table and bleeds out. At which the huge Scandianavian goes berserk, whipping up a stool, bashing out Hemstead’s brains at one stroke, breaking Mac’s arm at the next, at which point Carthew draws his pistol and shoots him, then a crew member puts his face round the door and they shot him and then – in a pitiful scene, unlike anything else in the book and destroying forever its sense of humorous deprecation – our crew hunt down and methodically slaughter the whole crew of the Scud, refusing their pleas for mercy but shooting them like animals and throwing them overboard. This has all the horror of a very modern sensibility, like something as cruel and amoral as a contemporary movie, but all told in incongruously Victorian prose. Our crew throw the bodies overboard, make an effort to clear away the blood, getting drunk on raw gin until they pass out.

Saved The next morning they awake with terrible consciences and the psychological damage is described in depth by passages which must surely have been by Stevenson. They dispose of the last bodies, clear more blood, are going through the ship’s papers when they spot the smoke of a coal-fired ship approaching. In a mad panic they try and hide all evidence of the slaughter, search for the ship’s papers and dispose of as many as possible. Wicks comes up with the mad idea of stabbing his writing hand as if in an accident to explain why the most recent parts of the ship’s log were written by Goddedaal. And as the steamer anchors and a jolly boat rows towards them, Wicks hurriedly assigns them all identities from the slaughtered crew: he himself will impersonate Trent, Carthew with be Goddedaal, and so on.

Almost caught All goes sort of well as the young officer sent to investigate accepts their story and takes them, with their chests containing the treasure, back to the ship which turns out to be a Royal Navy boat, the Tempest. Here they start like guilty things at the least questioning, Wicks is permanently trembling and the climax comes when someone taps Carthew on the shoulder and recognises him as Carthew; he faints clean away. Their saviour is the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. he realises Wicks’s stabbed hand is self-inflicted, he hears Carthew mentioning the dead shipmates in his delirium and eventually the two guilty men confess what happened. Surprisingly the doctor helps them cover it up, helps smuggle Carthew off the ship in San Francisco and carries on covering for them, even when Loudon tracks him down to question him.

Tied up threads And thus almost all the mysteries of The Flying Scud, the ship Pinkerton and Loudon set out so innocently to buy and do a little trading with, are sorted out, from the nervous appearance of the crew in the Frisco bar where Loudon first saw them, to the crazy auction, where Bellair was under instructions from Carthew – masquerading as Dickson – to pay any sum to ensure nobody else came into contact with it. And when Loudon overheard Bellairs speaking to Dickson/Carthew on the phone and then rang the same number and asked him why he wanted to buy the Scud so badly – the conspirators in their paranoia took it as a sign that the authorities were onto them and scattered to the four winds, Carthew travelling back to England, revealing something of  his disaster to his appalled mother, before hurrying on to France.

Where Loudon finally tracked him down to hear the whole of this long and grim narrative.

Epilogue The final few pages consist of a letter to one Will H. Low, who I don’t think we’ve heard of before. The narrator of the letter seems to be a newspaperman (?) who has helped arrange the publication of this whole narrative. (There is a sarcastic aside where he claims to be ‘wholly modern in sentiment, and think nothing more noble than to publish people’s private affairs at so much a line’, a thought which sheds light on Henry James’s contemporary story, The Aspern Papers). He describes what became of all the participants. Pinkerton is now in business with Captain Nares, who keeps him on the straight and narrow. He’s bought a newspaper and has plans to become state senator. Dodds is in partnership with Carthew: Carthew bought another schooner and Dodds manages it, going on the voyages as super-cargo. Hadden and Mac (whose hot temper caused all the trouble) took a turn at the gold fields in Venezuela, and Wicks went on alone to Valparaiso. Why is he writing this letter?

Why dedicate to you a tale of a caste so modern;—full of details of our barbaric manners and unstable morals;—full of the need and the lust of money, so that there is scarce a page in which the dollars do not jingle;—full of the unrest and movement of our century, so that the reader is hurried from place to place and sea to sea, and the book is less a romance than a panorama—in the end, as blood-bespattered as an epic?

And he describes how the authors were discussing recent nautical tales and disasters – so maybe this letter is being written by Stevenson in his own character (?). Stevenson then explains how he and his collaborator thought to make the story into that modern genre,

the police novel or mystery story, which consists in beginning your yarn anywhere but at the beginning, and finishing it anywhere but at the end;

The risk of these is they often appear mechanical contrivances. Hence the decision to give such a very very long lead-in to the main characters – hence Loudon and his pa back in the States, and the long section about being an art student in Paris, and the long sections about Pinkerton’s preposterous schemes.

All this is meant to draw the reader in – but I defy any modern reader of this book who wouldn’t have found it do exactly the opposite and eventually tire and exhaust them so much that they give up reading the book before the mystery proper even appears.


Humour

Stevenson’s speciality is derring-do and adventure, risks and perils and threatening – often Gothic horror – tension. By contrast, this long book is written in a tone of urbane drollery. Once in Honolulu, Loudon goes to visit one of the men contacted by Pinkerton to take receipt of and fence the opium, a Mr Fowler.

This gentleman owned a bungalow on the Waikiki beach; and there in company with certain young bloods of Honolulu, I was entertained to a sea-bathe, indiscriminate cocktails, a dinner, a hula-hula, and (to round off the night), poker and assorted liquors. To lose money in the small hours to pale, intoxicated youth, has always appeared to me a pleasure overrated.

The last sentence is not exactly Wilde, but it is a deliberate epigram, intended to be dry and witty. The books is full of this kind of effect, far from the style used in KidnappedThe Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae. Whereas the narrators of those books talk up the action, and contrive an atmosphere of tension and melodrama, the narrator of The Wrecker takes a self-deprecating view of himself and everything around him, with a steady stream of epigrams, witticisms and a self-conscious punning attitude to words.

In such a mixed humour, I made up what it pleases me to call my mind, and once more involved myself in the story of Carthew and the Flying Scud. The same night I wrote a letter of farewell to Jim, and one of anxious warning to Dr. Urquart begging him to set Carthew on his guard; the morrow saw me in the ferry-boat; and ten days later, I was walking the hurricane deck on the City of Denver. By that time my mind was pretty much made down again, its natural condition.

For all the thousands of times I’ve heard people having their mind made up, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make the fairly obvious joke claim that their mind is made down, and it is typical of Loudon to go on and joke that this is pretty much his mind’s natural condition.

In his humorous mode, the narrator is well aware that he is writing rubbish. When Loudon and Captai Nares are ransacking the shipwrecked Scud, they find some artists’ pencils which gives Loudon a moment’s pause.

“Yes,” I continued, “it’s been used by an artist, too: see how it’s sharpened–not for writing–no man could write with that. An artist, and straight from Sydney? How can he come in?”
“O, that’s natural enough,” sneered Nares. “They cabled him to come up and illustrate this dime novel.”

One small moment particularly struck me: Loudon creeps up behind him to eavesdrop on the lawyer Bellairs as he makes a telephone call to his client from the auctioneer house:

I scarce know anything that gives a lower view of man’s intelligence than to overhear (as you thus do) one side of a communication.

How prophetic, now that all of us have multiple moments on any bus or train where we are forced to listen to half a conversation as someone natters on their mobile phone and are invariably drawn to conclude that both participants are imbeciles.

Psychological acuity

A feature of Stevenson’s successful books is their psychological insight. Jekyll and Hyde is a sustained investigation of the human mind, but his other successes throw out all kinds of insights into human nature. In my review of The Master of Ballantrae – itself a sustained contrast between the two psychological types of the feuding brothers – I’ve mentioned the scene where the servant Mackellar tries to kick the wicked Master over the edge of the ship they’re sailing on in a storm – the acuteness comes in from the way the Master actually respects Mackellar for trying to kill him and Mackellar, in turn, can’t help admiring the master’s largeness of spirit, even while still detesting him. Peculiar insights into human behaviour like this litter the better books.

And so – through the essentially light and mostly dry ironic style of The Wreckers – there are occasional moments of something deeper, more visionary. Safely back in San Francisco Loudon takes captain Nares to dinner and both of them find it hard to reconcile the intensity of their hard labour dismantling the Scud in the harsh glare of Midway Island, amid the screeching seagulls and the crash of the waves, with the polite restaurant they now find themselves in, formally dressed and waited on hand and foot.

The same night I had Nares to dinner. His sunburnt face, his queer and personal strain of talk, recalled days that were scarce over and that seemed already distant. Through the music of the band outside, and the chink and clatter of the dining-room, it seemed to me as if I heard the foaming of the surf and the voices of the sea-birds about Midway Island. The bruises on our hands were not yet healed; and there we sat, waited on by elaborate darkies, eating pompano and drinking iced champagne.
“Think of our dinners on the Norah, captain, and then oblige me by looking round the room for contrast.”
He took the scene in slowly. “Yes, it is like a dream,” he said: “like as if the darkies were really about as big as dimes; and a great big scuttle might open up there, and Johnson stick in a great big head and shoulders, and cry, ‘Eight bells!’—and the whole thing vanish.”

If the plot and dialogue are given in an almost entirely even, sensible, sober, rather ironic style, it is the ‘strange’ moments like this which keep the reader reading… Just about.

Until the final grisly scenes. The massacre at the climax of the book comes in chapter 24 of the book’s 25 chapters. I.e. it is only at the very very bitter end of the text that we have anything like Stevenson’s characteristic psychological depth and this itself is a little overwhelmed by the amount of blood and gore. Still, the feelings of the sailors as they land on Midway and realise they are doomed to starve to death – and then their feelings in the aftermath of the massacre – are completely at odds with everything which preceded them and leave an odd, damaged taste in the mouth.

Old words and phrases

One of the main appeals of reading old books is they have a different way with the English language: individual words are used in a different sense from our contemporary meanings, and entire phrases appear which you can puzzle out but which have long disappeared. Therefore, reading old books gives you a sense on the wider possibilities of the English language and, even if only momentarily, expands your mind.

That was a home word of Pinkerton’s, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can’t see is why you should want to do nothing else.”

‘A home word’? Presumably meaning, a particularly telling or accurate saying.

“Just let me get down on my back in a hayfield,” said he, “and you’ll find there’s no more snap to me than that much putty.”

‘Snap’? Presumably meaning vim, vigour, zest, energy.

It was blowing fresh outside, with a strong send of sea.

‘Send’ being, apparently, the heave of the sea, the motion of the sea against a vessel.

Just before the battle, mother

In a typically comic touch, Loudon not only finds himself made the reluctant front man for Pinkerton’s surprisingly successful business venture of organised trips to have picnics on boats out of San Francisco, but after humming it once finds himself called upon to sing the full version of the classic American tune ‘Just before the battle, mother’ until his performance is advertised on the posters and becomes a regular part of the excruciating routine. Listening to it gives a sense of how long long ago this society, its values and morals, its fundamental beliefs and values, are from our own.

Conclusion

Very broadly speaking there are two Stevensons: Bad Stevenson rambles without focus, his plots unravelling into increasing preposterousness and he exhausts the reader in endless peregrinations which eventually make you vow never to read one of his justly-forgotten books ever again. The classic example is the awful New Arabian Nights and, I’m afraid, this novel jostles into that group.

Then there is Brilliant Stevenson – as in Kidnapped and Treasure Island – works which make you think you must track down and read every word this genius of atmosphere, pace and incident ever wrote.

Until you find yourself reading another long, gruelling, amusing but ultimately inconsequential folly like The Wrecker. And so the would-be fan finds themself ping-ponging from one pole to the other.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)

If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.
(Chapter IX – Mr Mackellar’s Journey with the Master)

Like Treasure Island and KidnappedThe Master of Ballantrae is a gripping, fast-paced adventure story told in the first person, serious and foreboding and Gothic. It starts off in a gloomy old Scottish mansion and takes its protagonists, powerfully and vividly, to the immense forests of New World.

A mix of texts…

The narrative is presented as the written account of Ephraim Mackellar, steward of the Durrisdeer estate in Scotland. He writes as an old man, telling his story long after the events, lamenting the many misfortunes which befell the noble Durie family during his time of service. We know it is a written account because Stevenson himself intervenes at a few points, as the Editor of Mackellar’s manuscript, to make comments and explain how he has edited and is presenting it to us.

The text further foregrounds its own artifice when Mackellar’s account itself breaks off to include long chunks taken from the supposed autobiography of the Irish soldier of fortune ‘Colonel’ Francis Burke, and also to include the texts of letters from the various protagonists.

… and styles

The way the narrative is assembled from various sources means it deploys various prose styles. Whereas the old retainer Mackellar’s style is a kind of ‘honest old Scotsman’, Burke’s is completely different – foppish and Anglicised, while the letters of, for example, the Master himself, reveal his venom and cruel sarcasm.

The story is set in the 18th century and concerns two Scottish brothers who develop a life-long blood feud which spills over into blackmail, murder, madness and revenge – and their different attitudes to life, the way they hold themselves and speak, are also brought out through differences in manner, speech and style.

Heteroglossia

The net effect of all this is that the book is rich not only in straightforward adventures and melodramatic scenes, but in the range of voices and styles it uses. It is a good example of the Russian literary critic Bakhtin’s theory of ‘heteroglossia’ – meaning the novel’s distinctive ability to incorporate a host of voices and styles.

And these voices are often themselves in competition or are themselves compromised or questioned:

  • Mackellar considers Burke’s version of events to be unreliable, advising us to read between the lines
  • Mackellar uneasily says that many critics have questioned his role in the events he’s describing, so he is touchy about key moments where different interpretations are possible
  • and at the heart of the story is the radically different interpretations the two feuding bothers put on central events

So it is easy to show that this text is a virtual battlefield where numerous conflicting voices compete. And to attribute to this conflict and clash of voices and styles, much of the book’s energy and thrill.

The plot

We are in Scotland, in the mid-18th century, near the town of St. Bride’s, on the shore of the Solway firth. Here stands the house of Durrisdeer, home of the noble Durie family, built in the Continental style with fine gardens, and attended by numerous servants. The Durie family consists of:

  • the old Laird, who has relinquished control of the estate and likes to read classic books by the fire
  • his eldest son, the Master of Ballantrae, James Durie, not yet 24 in 1745, a determined, arrogant man, rumoured to have fathered a child by a wench in the village
  • the second son, Mr. Henry Durie, an honest, solid sort of young man
  • Miss Alison Graeme, a near kinswoman, an orphan and the heir to a fortune which her father acquired in trade, a spirited, independent-minded woman, much in love with the dashing Master

It is generally accepted that, in time, Miss Alison will become the Master’s wife, and her fortune will go a long way to paying off the big debts the Durrisdeer estate has acquired.

The toss of a coin

When Bonny Prince Charlie lands in Scotland in July 1745 and raises an army to march south and claim the throne that is rightfully his, families all across Scotland are placed in a quandary: whether to throw in their lot with the ‘rebels’ – backed as they are by a large number of Highland clans and appealing as Charles does to their patriotism as descendant of the last Stuart king of Scotland – or to remain loyal to the anointed king of Great Britain, George II, from the royal (German) house of Hanover, who have been rulers of Great Britain since 1714. The conflict between the brothers is real and psychological but also reflects the conflict at the heart of Britain’s seriously divided society and body politic.

At Durrisdeer, as at so many other gentry houses, the family is split by divided loyalties and decides to hedge their bets with a pragmatic solution: one son will go off to join the rebels, the other will stay at home with ostentatious loyalty. But which son should do which? There is a violent quarrel about whether James the Master or young Mr Henry should go to join the Prince and the Master, with his characteristic violent frivolity, suggests they toss a coin for it. The fateful toss decides that he, the Master, will ride to join the rebels while Mr Henry will stay at the estate, representing loyalist support for the established king.

With some bitterness the Master rides off, leaving Miss Alison in tears. In the following weeks the old Laird, Miss Alison and Henry follow, on tenterhooks, the progress of the prince’s invasion. They follow as the Bonny Prince succeeds in penetrating as far into England as Derby, before the Hanoverian English army stop his advance, and then pushes the combined Scottish, Irish and French forces all the way back into Scotland and, at the notorious battle of Culloden, slaughter the flower of the Scottish aristocracy. Many of the survivors are hanged in the subsequent reprisals and the Highlands are laid waste in a vengeful campaign which resonates with Scottish nationalists to the present day.

Nothing more is heard of the Master, for months, and then years, and the family dolefully conclude he must be dead. During this time Mr Henry grows into the role of the careful, responsible guardian of the Durrisdeer estate, taking all the burden and responsibility upon himself, and Miss Alison finds herself eventually, reluctantly, marrying him, and blessing the estate with her fortune.

News of the Master – and a second narrator

Then one day, out of the blue – on 7 April 1749 to be precise – a pompous preening Irish aristocrat, one Colonel Francis Burke, arrives at Durrisdeer, bearing the not-entirely-unexpected news that the Master survived Culloden after all. Burke is invited in for dinner and afterwards, by the fire in the big baronial hall, tells the most amazing account of his and the master’s adventures in the three years since the disastrous battle. (Mackellar elaborately explains that some time later the Colonel sent him a written version of his memoirs, and he now includes in his manuscript excerpts from that written account.)

The Master and Burke’s adventures

Briefly: the Master and Burke escaped pell-mell from the battlefield of Culloden, agreeing to co-operate even though they spend a lot of time arguing. They made their way with other survivors across country to one of the French ships which brought the rebel army, and now collects them off the coast. But in a disastrous turn of events, the ship is seized by pirates, led by the bizarre and manic Captain Teach. Sizing up the situation, the Master and Burke immediately throw their lot in with the pirates and so escape walking the plank, which is what happens to the rest of the crew and passengers.

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

There then follow a gruelling 18 months as Burke and the Master assimilate with the pirates, taking part in various adventures and attacks. Early on the Master realises that ‘captain’ Teach is a hopeless strategist, often drunk and making bad decisions – and leads a rebellion against him, persuading the crew to name him quartermaster and effective leader. But with the kind of psychological realism which lifts Stevenson’s adventures a cut above the rest, the Master realises that he needs to keep Teach alive, as both a psychopathic mascot for the crew when they go into battle, and a useful lightning rod for ongoing disaffection among a group of man much given to drunken grumbling.

Eventually, after many adventures, the pirate ship makes the mistake of running up the jolly roger as it approaches a strange ship at sea, only to discover it is a Royal Navy warship. They turn tail and sail to an empty waste spot they know on the American coast, and are saved by a fast-descending fog from pursuit. The Master organises a party to celebrate their escape and gets the whole pirate crew legless, steals all their accumulated treasure, and then rows the ship’s skiff ashore, with Burke and the one pirate they slightly trust – a certain Dutton who claims to know his way about the marshes where they are planning to go ashore.

From the moment they land every step of Burke and the Master’s adventures are fraught with peril and excitement; they could almost have made a story on their own, as the lads make their way through up the beach in a thick fog, then into impenetrable wooded marsh, terrifyingly aware that there are Red Indians in the woods nearby, trying to avoid getting captured and scalped, and also falling into the treeacherous quicksand which surrounds them. At last, when they think they are nearing habitation, the Master cold-bloodedly leaves Dutton to drown in a quicksand, stealing his portion of the treasure.

Eventually, after many days, they come across the crew from another anchored ship making a fire and food. It is a trader out of Albany, New York, with a cargo of slaves, and the Master and Burke cockily stroll up to them and offer to pay their way to Albany as legitimate passengers. Thus rendered respectable, they sail up the Hudson River and put up at the ‘King’s Arms’ in Albany to find the town up in arms against the French. Worried that they might be on a wanted list – as both pirates and rebels from the Uprising – they masquerade as loyal subjects of King George; but as soon as possible set off across country heading northwards to join the French (in what will eventually become Canada).

There follows a long sequence of travel through the wastes of unspoilt, untamed colonial America, paddling a native canoe they’ve got hold of with the help of a native guide, Chew. After some days of rough travel, Chew dies of some unknown ailment and then they drop and smash the precious canoe. Now they are lost in  the middle of uncharted wilderness, with no means of transport and no guide.

Burke reports that, with the advent of these adversities, the Master became even more savage than usual and railed with particular bitterness against his brother. For the first time he tells Burke about the toss of the coin which sent the Master off on the ill-fated Culloden campaign, led him into a life of piracy and now has led him to certain death, without canoe or guide or food, lost in the barren wastes of America. He pledges to take revenge against the brother who ‘betrayed’ him.

Burke’s narrative takes the reader deep into the vast untamed forests of the East coast of America. It resonates powerfully of the ‘Leatherstocking’ series of novels by James Fenimore Cooper, the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans, which is set in almost exactly the same year (1757).

Back in Scotland

And that is where we leave Burke’s narrative – on something of a cliffhanger – to return to ‘the present’ in Scotland.

The three members of the family listen to all this with very different emotions, but its main effect is to create bitter division between Mr Henry and his wife, Alison, who only married him out of pity when she thought the dashing Master was dead. Now a great animosity grows between them. Burke has brought with him letters for the Master which are designed to sow and foment dissension between the three members of the family. The one to Mr Henry is full of accusations and recriminations about how he has ‘stolen’ that Master’s patrimony.

Burke leaves the Master’s contact details in Paris (where he and the Master both now safely live) and Mr Henry, with a misplaced sense of duty, decides to pay the Master a regular allowance.

More years go by and the narrator explains how conscientious Mr Henry gets a reputation for penny-pinching and miserliness, not only in the neighbourhood but within their little household, where his embittered wife treats him with more and more scorn – what no-one realises is that he is pinching the pennies to fund the lavish, spendthrift lifestyle of his distant brother. It is not a happy house.

The Master returns

After seven years the Master returns, set ashore by the local smugglers who have been periodically referred to throughout the book as a local feature.

The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black

‘The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black.’

He announces his return to a startled Mackellar, Henry, Alison and old Laird, and proceeds to re-establish himself in the manner to which he’s become accustomed. The narrative paints him as an unmitigated cad – hypocritically presenting himself as a kind and loving son to the old Laird and Miss Alison – but whenever he is alone with Henry, taking every opportunity to jeer and insult him, blaming him for everything that’s gone wrong in his life, completely heedless of the way Henry has bled the estate dry to fund his lifestyle.

Enraged by the treatment of his good honest master, Mackellar breaks into James’s correspondence and discovers letters which prove that the Master long ago sold out the Jacobite cause by becoming a spy for the Hanoverian government – all the time boasting to his father, to Alison, to the servants and peasants of the heroic risks he is running by returning to Scotland. What a bounder!

Eventually he goes too far by telling Henry to his face that  his wife, Alison, has in fact always preferred him, James, and is still in love with him.

Taunted beyond measure, Henry punches the Master in the face and insists on a duel. A terrified Mackellar helps them get swords off the wall and walk out to a patch of flat lawn in the grounds. Here they fight and Henry’s steady controlled anger begins to tell over the Master’s flash flourishes. At the climax of the duel, the Master cheats, grabbing Henry’s sword, and making a lunge – but Henry pulls his sword free of his grip and plunges it right through the Master’s body.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Appalled, Mackellar establishes that there is no sign of life. The Master is dead! They stagger inside and tell first the old Laird and then Alison. But when they finally return to the duelling ground to remove the body… it has gone!

They follow a trail of blood and broken bushes down to the bay and realise that the smugglers must have removed the body – for the Master had timed his worst taunts and insults for the very night he had arranged to flee Durrisdeer and the pirates have kept their part of the bargain, carrying him off dead or alive.

The Master gone

The old Laird sickens and dies. Henry and Alison have a child, Alexander. Mackellar shows Alison the letters of the Master proving he is a spy and hypocrite but she appals him by burning them. On the upside the letters reveal to her what a cad the Master is and she is finally reconciled to her husband. But it is too late: Henry has changed drastically since he killed his brother. He is now a haunted man, sometimes almost unhinged. On the rare occasions when the subject is raised, Henry is almost demented, claiming his brother is a devil and that nothing can kill him. Years later Mackellar finds Henry showing his young son the patch of ground where the duel took place and explaining that it was here that a man fought a devil. Mackellar worries for his sanity.

In India

Mackellar’s text is then interrupted a second time by an excerpt from Colonel Burke’s memoirs. It is a much shorter snippet which describes how chance took him to India, where his path crossed James Duries’s once more. The Master is in company of a wiry Indian named Secundra Dass. I was hoping that the Indian adventures would be as long and convincing as the pirate and Leatherstocking escapades of the American section – but this episode is disappointingly brief – only really long enough to introduce Dass, who will turn out to be a key character in the story’s final scenes.

Slight return

In the spring of 1764 James returns once more to Durrisdeer, accompanied by his Indian familiar, Dass. Now the old Laird is dead, the Master is harsher and more abrupt than before. He swears he will be a vengeance on the house and a plague to the family. Goaded beyond endurance, Henry has his wife pack all their things and in the dead of night they flee the house. Next morning the Master is incensed to discover their flight and, in Mackellar’s presence, swears to track them down and destroy them.

It doesn’t take long for him to discover that Henry, Alison and Alexander have taken ship to New York. Remember Alison’s family inheritance? It included land in New York, thither they have now gone to build a house and live in peace. But the Master sets off after them, accompanied by Mackellar.

The crossing of the Atlantic is one of the most vivid things in the book. After Henry and family have fled, Mackellar is left alone with the Master and they develop a peculiar relationship, Mackellar hating and detesting the Master for his selfishness and wickedness, for the way he has persecuted his good brother – and yet part of him admires and warms to the Master’s indomitable refusal to be beaten, his genuine charisma.

This ambivalence feels very Stevensonian; although the plot moves from drama to melodrama and then into Gothic horror and a lot of the characterisation is hysterical and stagey – nonetheless, there is something very penetrating about the love/hate, or admiration/disgust, relationship which grows up between the honest retainer and the dastardly villain.

There is a particularly vivid moment on the ship over: Mackellar is recounting tales to the Master who is sitting on the bilges of the ship as it heaves and yaws in a big swell and at a particularly low plunge, Mackellar, obsessed with the Master’s evil determination to harm Henry and his family, lashes out with his foot, aiming to push the Master overboard and be done. The Master leaps cannily out of the way.

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

The scene itself is dramatic but what raises it is the way Stevenson makes the Master thereafter respect Mackellar for taking positive action to defend his lord. And for his part Mackellar, though he tried to kill the man, cannot repress feelings of respect and attraction for his mastery. For me, this odd relationship between Mackellar and the Devil is one of the most interesting things in the book.

New York

When they arrive in New York the roles are reversed. The Master finds Mr Henry well established with a tidy house, servants, and having established good friendships with the governor and other authorities. All the Master’s barbs, taunts and attempts at public humiliation rebound on his own head.

Stymied in his attempt to pull rank, the Master adopts a different tack and sets out to humiliate the family. He secures a shabby shack and sets himself up as a tailor, sitting outside under a big sign which proclaims his parentage and asserts his degradation at the hands of his brother.

But Henry is now – in public – a much changed man, more confident, less feeling. He routinely strolls along to his brother’s shack and sits there quite comfortably, sunning himself, ignoring his brother’s remarks and even existence, but quietly enjoying his humiliation.

However – in private – Mackellar finds Henry liable to hysterical outbursts when his brother is mentioned. Part of his mind really does believe James is the Devil, an unkillable spirit sent to torment and pursue him to the grave.

And it is now that the Master reveals another plan, to journey back into the wilderness. Way back in Colonel Burke’s long account of their wanderings after escaping the pirates, it’s mentioned that the pair buried their treasure, the loot they stole from the pirate ship. Now James asks Henry for money to fund an expedition to find that treasure, buried out in the wilderness. Henry, now passed beyond normality into a realm of pure obsessive hatred, organises for the Master and Dass to set off accompanied by a gang of low cut-throats who he commissions to murder him.

In the wilderness

Having despatched his devilish brother into the wilderness with a pack of murderers, Henry discovers that an official expedition is setting off along much the same route, led by Sir William Johnson. Mackellar and Henry get themselves invited along.

Some days into the journey they encounter the only survivor of the Master’s expedition, an obvious cut-throat named John Mountain.

In a particularly egregious bit of test-stitching, Mackellar explains that the account of the expedition we are about to read has been pieced together from several sources:

  • A written statement by Mountain
  • Conversations with Mountain
  • Two conversations with the key player, Secundra Dass

Briefly, the Master quickly realises that he’s been despatched into the middle of nowhere with murderers commissioned to kill him. Mountain is impressed at his attempts to defuse the conspiracy by playing the crooks off against each other, planting suspicions that their leaders are planning to betray them etc. On one occasion the Master tries to run away, only to be caught and brought back, once more at their mercy.

Finally, the Master plays his last trick and falls ill, wasting away over many days and finally dying and being buried by the loyal Dass. On his deathbed the Master reveals the whereabouts of the treasure and off the murderers go to find it.

Mountain’s account now goes on to describe how one by one the members of the expedition are murdered, their bodies discovered each morning, horribly scalped. Maybe a solitary Indian brave is proving his manhood by picking them off. Maybe, it crosses the reader’s mind, the Master’s spirit is taking some kind of supernatural revenge. Certainly, the sequence of uncanny deaths in the fearful wastes takes the story across a border into the realm of Gothic horror – a kind of cross between Edgar Allen Poe and the Blair Witch Project.

Finally, only Mountain is left alive and he gives up the treasure hunt, turning tail and fleeing the wilderness, travelling day and night back towards civilisation in a blind panic. And this is the condition he’s found in by the well-armed and well-provisioned Johnson expedition, and by Mr Henry and Mackellar.

As John Mountain gives this detailed account to Mackellar, Johnson and Henry, Mackellar is horrified to see the impact it has on his good sweet master: the once-solid Mr Henry snaps, upon hearing of the Master’s death, he rolls his eyes and is almost gibbering. At the end of the tale Henry refuses to believe his brother is dead, convinced he is a supernatural spirit and that nothing can kill him.

Ignoring these outbursts, the solid Sir William Johnson orders Mountain to take them back along the trail, to the place where they buried the Master.

Dead and alive

And here in the Gothic horror climax of the whole tale, the expedition comes to the burial place only to find the Master’s loyal Indian servant, Secundra Dass, working feverishly with a spade, up to his knees in the grave, digging up his master’s body.

As they watch in horror, they see Dass uncover the Master’s body and pull it up to the surface. When our chaps enter the clearing and confront him, Dass ignores them in his frenzy and carries on trying to revive the Master. In his Indian accent he explains that this is an old Indian trick he and the Master agreed on (aha, the reader realises – the entire rather spindly excuses for Dass’s presence were all designed to build up to this artifice). The Master’s sickness was feigned and Dass taught him the Indian trick of swallowing his tongue and going into a state of suspended animation.

And as Dass chafes his hands and body the Master, sure enough, opens his eyes and his mouth begins to move.

And at that moment Henry, at the end of a long tormented life, driven beyond sanity by the jeers and bullying and haunting of his brother, gives up the ghost and drops dead on the spot. But the Master’s eyes moving was itself only some kind of reflex action, for he too expires despite all Dass’s efforts.

And it is left to Mackellar to bury both brothers there in the wilderness, leaving a wooden sign over their graves, and there the narrative comes abruptly to a full stop.


A key factor in the book’s success is the immediate establishment of Mackellar as the recognised authority for this tale and a brisk spinner of prose. Although other texts intervene, Mackellar’s is the main manuscript and the dominating voice for the majority of the story.

The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome. It so befell that I was intimately mingled with the last years and history of the house; and there does not live one man so able as myself to make these matters plain, or so desirous to narrate them faithfully.

June the 1st, 1748, was the day of their marriage. It was December of the same year that first saw me alighting at the doors of the great house; and from there I take up the history of events as they befell under my own observation, like a witness in a court…

The narrative voice is four-square and candid, sharing with us all his impressions in an open, winning style with many vivid Scots expressions and turns of phrase thrown in:

My pen is clear enough to tell a plain tale; but to render the effect of an infinity of small things, not one great enough in itself to be narrated; and to translate the story of looks, and the message of voices when they are saying no great matter; and to put in half a page the essence of near eighteen months—this is what I despair to accomplish…

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

This brings us to the use of –

Anticipation

The narrative is given added tension by frequent use of prolepsis or the anticipation of events, generally using variations on the ‘little did we know then…’, ‘if only things had been different…’ formula which give the reader an enjoyably thrilling sense of dread and expectation.

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

… it is a strange thought, how many of us had been storing up the elements of this catastrophe, for how long a time, and with how blind an ignorance of what we did.

Doubles

So much has been written about the double or Doppelgänger in adventure fiction that I won’t add to the pile. Stevenson’s strict Calvinist upbringing is often blamed for giving him a starkly dualistic sense of the world, hordes of upright holy elders concealing a seedy world of sin and vice; and plenty of commentators have lined up to say that the Edinburgh of his day was a city divided between the clean, rational elegance of the New City and the filthy, vice-infested slums of the Old Town. With this upbringing some critics make it seem almost inevitable that he’d go on to write novels about the divided self, of which Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde is the classic example and this  rambling Gothic yarn is the longest example.

Maybe. But:

  1. A lot, probably most, of Stevenson’s fiction isn’t about doubles.
  2. Two is the smallest number. Two is an easy number to manage. For example, a doubleist could argue that The Black Arrow is about two sides in a conflict and young Dick Shelton must decide which side he’s on. But civil wars tend to have two sides, there was no real psychological doubling involved. Similarly, in The Wrecker, the narrator, Loudon Dodds, becomes friends with the entrepreneur Jim Pinkerton, and their characters are fairly different. But this doesn’t mean they represent opposite aspects of something; just that a novel, a story, a narrative, tends to focus on a handful of characters, and two is the smallest possible number of characters, and so a preponderance of pairs is inevitable in all forms of narrative.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

The two F-16 Falcons were already airborne and three minutes distant. There is a squadron at Pensacola Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle that maintains a five-minute-to-scramble standby readiness round the clock. Its primary use is against drug smugglers, airborne and sometimes seaborne, trying to slip into Florida and neighbouring states with (mainly) cocaine. They came out of the sunset in a clear darkling sky, locked on to the tanker west of Bimini and armed their Maverick missiles. Each pilot’s visual display showed him the smart missiles’ lock on the target and the death of the tanker was very mechanical, very precise, very devoid of emotion. (p.428)

Colonel Mike Martin, ex-Parachute Regiment and SAS, was the hero of Forsyth’s 1994 novel, The Fist of God, where he almost single-handedly won the Gulf War – first by organising resistance groups among the occupied Kuwaitis, then by infiltrating into Baghdad itself and radioing back information from a top secret source inside Saddam’s cabinet, before then going on to locate and help destroy Saddam’s top secret Supergun which was primed to launch a nuclear weapon at the invading Allies, before escaping unscathed back to Allied lines. Phew!

7/7

Well, Mike’s back! The novel opens with Mike, now retired, doing up a nice cottage he’s bought in rural Hampshire and, being a manly sort of man, doing it all himself. Forsyth then gives an account of 7/7, the co-ordinated Islamic suicide bombing of London buses and Tube trains. As I read this (and the countless other factual sections of the novel) it occurred to me that Forsyth doesn’t so much write or describe the events which makes up his novels; he reports them. He doesn’t write novels; he files them.

One of the throwaway mobile phones bought by the suicide bombers is left over in the bags of stuff left with their Middle Eastern mentors and instructors and so ends up being taken back to Pakistan, where a lowly jihadist uses it when his own one runs out of battery, just long enough to give the Pakistani security forces a location for the call, and a snatch squad to be dispatched to the working class, fundamentalist quarter of Islamabad, accompanied by a British observer. They break into the fifth floor apartment, shoot dead a jihadist who reaches for a gun, capture the other three, then hear a bustle from the bedroom, run through and are just too late to stop a turbaned man throwing himself out the window to his death.

Before he jumped the man had attempted to trash the laptop he was using, but US and British experts can extract a surprising amount from even a badly damaged computer. The dead man was Tewfik al-Qur, international banker for Al Qaeda. There was disappointingly little that was really useful on the laptop, except for several documents referring to something called ‘Al-Isra’. What’s that?

The Koran Committee

Cut to the States where Forsyth gives a full explanation of the history and structure of the CIA and its history of involvement with Islamic terrorism, before explaining that it’s to answer that question that the head of its Mid-East division convenes a meeting of ‘the Koran Committee’, four leading academic experts on the Koran and Muslim teaching.

One of the four is Dr Terry Martin, the gay brother of Colonel Mike (who we also met in Fist of God). The four agree that Al-Isra is the term referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s night flight up into the seven heavens as described in The Koran (p.54). As used in the documents salvaged from the laptop, they guess it must refer to a major AQ attack, but they have no idea what. In the car to the airport, his colleague says if only we had someone who could infiltrate AQ as one of their own, but we don’t know anyone like that.

‘I do,’ replies Terry, ‘My brother,’ then wishes he could bite his tongue off. The car is, of course, bugged. The CIA contact British Intelligence and we witness high-level discussions about the feasibility of infiltrating a Westerner into AQ. Not from a standing start, no-one could get in without a tremendous amount of vetting among himself and his family, tribe, clan etc – but what about impersonating an existing AQ member?

The Afghan

Where would you find one? Well, what about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, would there happen to be someone there who is the spitting image of Colonel Mike (with the dark colouring, black hair and brown eyes he inherited from his Indian grand-mother and which came in so handy infiltrating Baghdad 15 years earlier)? Yes, there is! And would Colonel Mike in fact just happen to have fought side by side with that inmate in the far off days of the Mujahideen resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Yep.

For incarcerated in ‘Gitmo’ is one Izmat Khan, senior commander in the Taliban, who could be the double of Colonel Mike and who Mike in fact not only met, but whose life he saved during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yes! As Sacaramanga would say, ‘Funny coincidence department!’

So the plan is hatched: the CIA will brief and train Colonel Mike to infiltrate AQ ranks to find out whatever Al-Isra is – and prevent it!

All this is established by page 100 of this fast-moving 400-page thriller. The remaining 300 pages tell the twists and turns of Colonel Mike’s attempt to impersonate Khan, larded with huge amounts of trademark Forsyth factual background and journalistic thumb-nailing.

There are three strands:

1. Operation Crowbar

Mike replaces Khan at Gitmo, is returned to Afghanistan after a carefully arranged trial, where the CIA arrange him to be ‘liberated’ by fighters in a staged break-out. Thus ‘set at large’, Mike makes his way into Pakistan and to the nearest radical mosque. He identifies himself as the legendary fighter known as ‘The Afghan’. Word is passed of his escape and he is moved into a ‘people funnel’ which carries him to the United Arab Emirates, to a safe house where he is interrogated by the suave Westernised Dr Al-Khattab. This is the hinge of the plot and Mike swings it when he mentions that he has actually met the Sheikh aka bin Laden (which he did in a cave complex in Afghanistan all those years ago) and, via a lengthy string of intermediaries, word comes back that OBL remembers him. Thus ‘approved’, Mike is dispatched with one of his minders to the Philippines, there to join a cargo ship.

2. The rogue ship

All these chapters are interspersed with other chapters telling the fate of two innocent cargo vessels, captained by European crews. Both are hijacked by terrorist pirates who force the captain of the first one, the Java Star, to radio mayday, before killing him and all his crew. The hijacked ship dumps all the ‘wreckage’ it can for passing boats to find, then sneaks into a creek of a nearby island and is transformed by hired Chinese engineers. Transformed to a) be full of powerful explosive b) look like another cargo ship, The Countess of Richmond. This also is hijacked, and its captain and crew murdered and genuinely sunk.

The Java Star will now masquerade as The Countess of Richmond except that instead of genuine containers of filk and teak, it is carrying explosives. Only in the final pages of the novel do we realise that it is going to be used, not to enter a highly populated port and detonated, as Western experts are worried – but to ram the newest biggest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. Why?

Because, after the massive protests attending the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005, the organisers of this biennial summit of the most powerful leaders in the world solved the problems of security and protestor containment, by holding the next G8 summit aboard the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner in the world.

(And so narrative strand emerges during which we see the ship docked, boarded by the national leaders, and then departing New York, all from the point of view of its First Officer, David Gundlach, p.432.)

3. The safe house in the Rockies

Interspersed is the third strand, the events surrounding the real Izmat Khan who is transported from Gitmo to a specially-built security facility high in the Rockies near the Canadian border, built solely for him and manned by CIA and Army. It is a shame that, towards the end of the novel, as the ship plot reaches its climax, an Air Force fighter plane (a F-15 Strike Eagle, described in loving detail) develops a mechanical fault and crashes while flying over the base.

In a convenient coincidence the wreckage falls on the security post, killing half the staff and, miraculously, tearing down the wall of Khan’s cell. By the time the security guards recover from the disaster Khan is long gone into the snowy wastes.

Khan comes across a local who had heard about the plane crash, saddled his horse and was riding to help. A seasoned fighter, Khan kills the American, stealing his horse and gun and provisions.

But a highly-trained US snatch squad is soon on his tail. This strand climaxes as the squad finally catch up with Khan as he stands in a phone booth at a settlement next to a rough road through the mountains. He is looking for change in the pockets of the dead American’s winter coat and dialling a number he was given years earlier, the number of the AQ organiser in the West. Just a few words would alert AQ to the fact Colonel Mike is an imposter.

The phone booth happens to be just across the border into Canada but the captain in charge of the snatch squad tells his best sniper, a half-Indian tracker, to take Khan out. Bang. The back of the Afghan’s head is blown off.

The explosive climax

During the Java Star’s long steam from the Philippines through the Indian Ocean, round Africa and into mid-Atlantic, Colonel Mike had been racking his brains about how to either a) send a message to his CIA/SIS minders b) sabotage the ship or killing some or all of the crew of seven. But neither is ever quite feasible and so he continues to play the role of Afghan fanatic, set on suicide, along with the other terrorists, not really knowing what is hidden in the hold of the ship, nor where they are steering or why. All this is kept entirely to himself by the Jordanian AQ leader of the crew, Ibrahim.

In the tense last few pages we watch as the Queen Mary steams towards the rogue Countess of Richmond, now stationary in the water and claiming, over the radio, to have an engine malfunction. Most of the crew slip into an inflatable dinghy which Colonel Mike knows they’re going to use to pull away from the ship and video whatever the event is going to be, instantly transmitting video of the ‘spectacular’ to websites which will beam it round the world to admiring Muslim youths.

As the crew, except the fanatical leader, descend the ladder into dinghy, Colonel Mike, coming last, leans down and slashes the side of the dinghy wide open, then cuts the arm of the crew member holding the rope to the ship. Instantly, the dinghy starts to drift astern the ship, taking water, and is quickly dragged down by the weight of its outboard motor, taking all hands, yelling impotent threats of abuse till the last.

Mike climbs back up the rope ladder and returns to the bridge, where the leader-cum-captain tells him he should have left. The dinghy was full, Mike replies, and I want to be martyred here with you.

The captain grunts then blows the small explosive charges which had been placed in the ship’s hold a month earlier. These blow open the lids of the six huge containers holding Liquid Gas Petroleum. In a flash Mike realises this heavier-than-air and hugely combustible gas will now silently roll across the surface of the sea towards the Queen Mary. When detonated it will cause an explosion as big as an atom bomb, incinerating everything in a five mile radius, including the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on earth.

His eyes flick from Ibrahim to the radio, then to the red button at his side, obviously linked to a detonator. Ibrahim sees the movement and in a flash realises Mike is an imposter and traitor. Mike goes for the knife he’d used earlier, but Ibrahim pulls a gun quicker. Mike realises he has no chance of reaching the detonator but goes for it anyway, lunges for the button, takes a bullet direct to the heart but carries on to press the plunger. Mike, Ibrahim and the Countess of Richmond disappear in a vast plume of fire.

Which can be seen from the Queen Mary 2, still 15 miles away and unscathed. Satellite, helicopter, plane and escort ships investigate and conclude the Richmond blew up but now poses no threat. The QM2 steams on unmolested. Colonel Mike has saved the leaders of the Free World and 4,000 other sailors, diplomats and bureaucrats.

Epilogue

Ten pages detail the investigation which pieces together the story of how terrorists funded the capture of two ships and the creation of, effectively, a bomb ship, but with the covering papers of an innocent cargo ship. Dr Al-Khattab is arrested and (improbably) sings like a canary, revealing the identities of hundred sleeper agents in the UK (if only) and confirming the story of ‘the Afghan’. He is amazed and appalled to learn the man he OKed for the job was in fact a Western agent.

The novel ends with a hymn to the courage of Colonel Mike, in the form of a muted description of the ceremony held to mark his death at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

[Is there a Forsyth novel where the SAS don’t play a massive role? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on a retainer to write what sometimes seems like extended recruitment literature for them.]


The good and the bad

When I summarised the plot to my teenage son, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘That sounds awful; the impersonation story sounds sooo unlikely and then all those convenient coincidences! How cheesy!’ Well, yes. There is something laughably preposterous about the whole story.

But I enjoyed reading it. Why? Because I enjoyed the factual research which dominates, which saturates, the text.

Izmat Khan isn’t really a character, he is a token through which Forsyth is able to retell the long, lamentable story of Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion (1979). The account of his childhood on his father’s tiny farm in the mountains, of the village and tribal structure, of what happened to it during the years of the mujihadeen resistance, of the US cruise missile strike which wiped out his entire family and village and gave him an unswerving hatred of the West, all this is fascinating. As is the detailed account Forsyth gives of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a bloody uprising inside a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Powerful, convincing and a true event, into which Forsyth skilfully inserts his Taliban ‘hero’.

Just as fascinating is the long account of Colonel Mike’s military career, especially the awesome training of the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS.

Fascinating is Forsyth’s account of the rise of the Taliban within Afghanistan, and the parallel rise of Al Qaeda under the tutelage of bin Laden.

Equally absorbing are the many places where Forsyth explains the measures taken by US and British security to address the threat of terrorism, especially the astonishing advances in computer technology and digital communications.

Just flicking back through the pages I come across the description of how the F-15 Strike Eagle malfunctions, with a lengthy explanation of how its advanced ejector-seat technology works, the sensors within the pilots’ suits which allowed the air base to monitor their temperature, pulse and so on, the microphones and headsets which can be patched through to the radios of the rescuers who set off to find them in the snowy wastes – all this is fascinating and compelling, for the gadget-obsessed teenage boy in all of us.

When the Army trackers finally shoot the fugitive Khan, the event is described coldly and clinically. If you expect your ‘novel’ to pay some kind of homage to human life, you will be disappointed. What Forsyth’s novels do is pay a kind of homage to the technology of killing. Whether the homage is revoltingly right-wing, cruel and violent for its own sake – or is factual and precise, accurate and unillusioned – is a matter of taste.

Lying prone at Captain Linnett’s feet was his leading sniper, Master Sergeant Peter Bearpaw. He was a half-blood Santee Sioux with a Hispanic mother. He came from the slums of Detroit and the army was his life. He had high cheekbones and eyes that sloped like a wolf. And he was the best marksman in the Green Berets.

What he cradled as he squinted across the valley was the Cheyenne .408 by CheyTac of Idaho. It was a more recent development than the others, but over three thousand rounds on the range it had become his weapon of choice. It was a bolt-action rifle, which he appreciated because the total lock-down of a closed bolt give that tiny extra stability at the moment of detonation.

He had inserted the single slug, very long and slim, and he had burnished and buffed the nose tip to eradicate the tiniest vibration in flight. Along the top of the breech ran a Jim Leatherwood x24 scope sight.

‘I have him, captain,’ he whispered. (p.395)

All the sentences are factual. They are lean. There isn’t a redundant word. You can dispute the fundamental stance of Forsyth’s hero worship of soldiers and policemen. But if war, conflict and killing are to be described, this is the way to do it. Without grandstanding rhetoric, without fancy words, with no attempt at all at psychology or feeling. Instead, the complete devotion of the prose to the craftsman and his tools. A rhetoric of efficiency and effectiveness. Forsyth’s novels contain page after page with this taut, thrilling, heartless velocity.

I read this novel when it came out and remember being so disgusted with how far Forsyth had fallen from the heights of Day of the Jackal that I threw it away. Now, having read all his novels in order of publication, I realise DOTJ was a one-off achievement and almost all Forsyth’s other books are rubbish, if judged as ‘traditional’ novels.

But their merit is the immensely thorough and absorbing descriptions of the settings and political histories, the technology and organisations which they explain in such loving detail.

Rather than unsatisfactory novels with an immense amount of background information, I read Forsyth’s novels as fascinating articles about recent conflicts and geopolitical issues, studded with compellingly described technological information, all livened up by cheesy thriller plots – which you are under no obligation to take at all seriously.


Credit

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All quotes and references are from the 2007 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)

Bond laughed, partly in admiration. ‘You’ve been taking mescalin or something. It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life.’ (p.168)

Shrublands

The tremendous battering Fleming has submitted Bond to over the previous seven novels begins to show, as M – a recent convert to healthy living and wholefood diets – insists he takes a rest cure at a sanatorium in Sussex named ‘Shrublands’. Fleming’s description is amusingly sardonic throughout, from the brylcreemed youth who drives him in a taxi to the spa, through the old health food ‘doctor’ who prescribes his rest cure treatments, to the repellent, fat, old men and women who populate the place.

Bond submits with bad grace to the round of massages, hot baths, and the starvation diet of nut cutlets and dandelion tea, though there are several highlights: 1. He flirts with the unusually pretty, firm-bodied and ‘strict’ health therapist Patricia Fearing until, with dumb inevitability, while she’s massaging him he reaches up and kisses her. For all her flurried objections, Bond knows it is a done deal, and (rather callously) describes bonking her in her little bubble car up on the Sussex Downs.

2. More importantly, someone tries to kill him. He notices a tiny tattoo on the wrist of another ‘guest’, the handsome six-foot Count Lippe, then makes a bad mistake by phoning the Cipher Section of the Service to ask about the tattoo, from a public payphone in the sanatorium’s corridor. Turns out the tattoo is the sign of the Tongs, a secret society based in Macau.

Later the delectable Ms Fearing straps Bond into a complicated spine-stretching apparatus as part of his treatment and leaves the room – only for Lippe to sneak in and turn the machine way up past the danger zone, so that Bond’s body is literally being torn apart. It is only the accidental return of Ms Fearing a bit earlier than scheduled that saves his life. Bond laughs it off as a mishap but plans his revenge and, on the last day of his stay, ambushes Lippe who is sitting in a ‘sweat box’. Bond turns its thermostat up to a scalding 180 degrees.

Bond leaves Shrublands feeling lighter, toned up, fitter and more focused than for years, having bonked a pretty nurse and scored a petty act of revenge.

What he doesn’t realise is that he has impinged on a conspiracy to shake the governments of the world! Chapter five introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the most notorious Bond baddie – giving his full backstory as a gifted Polish engineer who set up a bogus spy ring in pre-war Poland and screwed money out of various buyers, before setting up another ring in Turkey during the war itself, then clearing out to South America. Now he is back and he has invented SPECTRE, SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, as a clearing house for all kinds of criminal activities.

Meeting of SPECTRE

In the next scene we are introduced to a meeting of the top men in SPECTRE at a non-descript house in Paris. They are all allotted numbers, and comprise cells of men recruited from the French and Italian Mafia, SMERSH, American underworld gangs etc. Their undisputed leader is Blofeld. Blofeld reads out the monthly summary of profits from their various criminal activities – then melodramatically moves on to punish one of the members seated round the big table. This man is accused of violating a young girl who had been kidnapped, and SPECTRE had promised to return unharmed. Blofeld announces that SPECTRE returned half the kidnap ransom and now the guilty man is punished by the activation of electric pads in his chair which electrocute and virtually cook him. His smoking body slumps onto the table. The other members take this as due justice. This is SPECTRE. Blofeld’s word is law. They then proceed to discuss ‘the Omega Plan’.

This scene feels every bit as overblown and teenage as the movies.

The letter

Next thing Bond knows he’s called in by M who gives him a letter claiming SPECTRE has hijacked an RAF bomber (the fictional Vindicator) carrying two atomic bombs. The governments of the West have one week to hand over £100,000,000 or they’ll explode one of the bombs at a site worth exactly that amount. Then, a day later, if no money is delivered, they’ll explode the other bomb at a major world city.

Frankly, this threat made me nervous and edgy in light of our current geopolitical situation, and I didn’t enjoy thinking about it. Bond is told that the intelligence forces of the Western world have gone into overdrive, everyone and everything is being thrown at the problem. But M has a hunch: before it disappeared off the radar the hijacked Vindicator descended into the main East-West Atlantic traffic (to conceal itself). A few hours later the American DEW radar system detected a plane making a sharp turn south, just off the US coast. M has a hunch it was the baddy plane, and goes to investigate maps of the region. As a result, M thinks the Bahamas might be a perfect hiding place for the crooks, out of the way but not far from the US mainland, no real military or radar presence – good place to ditch a plane. So he is dispatching Bond to the Bahamas to see what he can see. Bond is disgruntled because he thinks he’s being sent on a wild goose chase.

Capturing the plane

There is then a long sequence which describes, in retrospect, how the Italian ‘observer’ on the hijacked plane, Giuseppe Petacchi a) poisoned the five man crew by opening a cyanide capsule in the cockpit, then b) pulled the bodies out of the way and flew the plane single-handedly down into the busy East-West Atlantic commercial plane traffic, then veered south towards the Caribbean, exactly as M hypothesised. Here, overcoming nerves, he locks onto the radio signal then onto the landing lights put out by SPECTRE and skillfully crash lands the plane on the surface of the sea. Proud and happy he walks along the wing of the slowly settling plane towards the motorboat of SPECTRE men who have come to meet him and the first one aboard casually slips a stiletto up under his jaw and into his brain which kills him immediately. Not very nice people.

We are introduced to Number 1 (SPECTRE numbers rotate on a monthly basis) Emilio Largo, a superbly fit figure of a man, Olympic swimmer, fencer etc (p.126), scion of a noble Roman family, with a hooked nose, the mouth of a satyr and enormous hands. He supervises the concealment of the sunken plane and the retrieval of the two atom bombs – using the facilities of his superb, purpose-built, luxury catamaran, the Disco Volante (Italian for ‘flying saucer’, p.134).

There is a tame nuclear physicist on board the ship and on the payroll, Kotze, who is given a speech explaining how you defuse an atomic bomb, then arm it with a timed fuse so you can drop it somewhere and make your getaway. As he explains all this to Largo (and the reader), Largo is wondering when the moment will be right to ‘eliminate’ him. Not very nice people. The bombs are stashed in a remote coral island, and this phase of the mission is complete.

Bond in the Bahamas

Once again Bond is in the sunny Caribbean – in this, as in many other respects, Thunderball feels like a rehash of themes and settings. Bond has quickly latched onto Largo’s mistress, Dominetta ‘Domino’ Vitali, an independent-spirited, beautiful young woman. (The way she is named after a game is reminiscent of Solitaire.) He accidentally on purpose bumps into her in a general store in Nassau and invites himself for a drive in her sporty MG then a drink and get-to-know-you. (We see Bond through her eyes, six foot, black hair, scar on right jaw, cruel smile, confident, p.145).

There is then another flashback, taking us how through Bond got to this point (exactly as the letter from the terrorists was followed by the account of the hijack of the plane which preceded it).

So we learn that Bond arrived in Nassau and went straight to a High Priority meeting with the Governor, Police Commissioner etc. He said he’s looking for a group of 10 or 20 or 30 men, decent and respectable, engaged on a completely innocent purpose, who probably arrived in the fairly recent past. The Police Commissioner mentions the annual Treasure Hunt crew: every year a yacht goes looking for legendary sunken treasure. This year it’s the Disco Volante owned by Emilio Largo, who has been joined by about twenty shareholders in the venture. Bingo!

—This is a really glaring example of the general rule that there is no detection in James Bond. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, they are all identified very early on as the bad guys – the narrative interest comes not from slowly unveiling the truth, but from the elaborate skirting round each other, which leads to the torture scenes and then the final showdown. a) M had a hunch the hijacked plane flew to the Bahamas and, guess what, he’s dead right b) the police suggest the Largo’s treasure hunters are the only group that fit Bond’s bill and, guess what, they’re dead right.

Bond has identified the baddies by page 180 of this 350-page novel, though admittedly he isn’t absolutely certain they are the ones and, as his snooping makes him more and more certain, he still doesn’t know where the bombs are hidden. 170 pages remain of, well, snooping round, getting caught, getting beaten up, chatting up the girl, escaping, probably a climactic shoot-out of some kind…

Felix Leiter

Bond had asked for help from the CIA and goes to the airport to meet the agent who’s flying in with a state-of-the-art Geiger counter. It is – with heavy inevitability – Felix Leiter, his old bosom buddy with the metal hook instead of a hand (the result of being half-eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die). Leiter allows Fleming to really let his hair down and write loads of American pulp dialogue, with Bond joining in; their buddy conversations are always fun to read. But this is all very familiar territory.

Bond tells Leiter everything and invites him to go with him out to the Disco Volante, Bond posing as a rich Londoner who wants to buy the house Largo is currently renting. Largo is hospitality itself and shows them all over the impressive catamaran and promises to get his ‘niece’ (Domino) to show him the beach-front house. Leiter and Bond depart in their rented motorboat debating whether Mr Largo is really as squeaky clean as he seems – he didn’t show them about half the volume of the boat but then it is on a secret treasure hunt so why should he? And they didn’t see any of the ‘shareholders’ but then it was siesta time, maybe they were all napping…

There may be suspense for Bond, but there is none for the reader.

Confirmations

In quick succession:

1. Bond goes to the Nassau casino that evening where he meets Largo and Domino. First – in a scene which echoes the intense card game scenes in Casino Royale or Moonraker, Bond takes on Largo at baccarat and just about wins. He deliberately spooks Largo by mentioning the word ‘spectre’ several times to see what affect it has. Then Largo encourages him to go have a drink with Domino. She tells him her extended fantasy about the man portrayed on the front of packs of Players cigarettes, an entertaining piece of whimsy which reminds us that Fleming was also the author of the smash hit children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For the purposes of the plot, she lets slip that her real family name is Petacchi and that she has a beloved brother who is something in the air force. Like the Italian observer flying in the Vindicator. What a coincidence.

2. Bond borrows a scuba diving kit and swims underwater out to the Disco Volante. He confirms that there is a great seam in the hull which probably opens to allow ingress and egress of possibly naughty machinery. Barely has he done so than he is clobbered by the butt of a compressed gas harpoon and has a vividly described fight with an underwater guard, presumably from the boat which ends when the guard is attacked by a six foot barracuda. Dazed, Bond just about makes it back to shore and the waiting policeman who has accompanied him.

3. Bond and Leiter rent an amphibious plane and go scouting low over the sea, looking for the sunken plane. The odd circling of three sharks prompts Bond to go back to a particular area, land and again scuba dive to the ocean bed where, sure enough, he finds the plane hidden under a large tarpaulin. Fleming again gives a vivid description of the foulness of the water, polluted with the five corpses, and of their wrecked appearance, half eaten by sea creatures. He is particularly memorable on the interior of the plane which is absolutely stuffed with small octopuses which are eating the dead air crew. For the purposes of the plot he discovers a) the atom bombs are not on board – they have been removed, b) the body of Giuseppe Petacchi, and snaps off his identity tag, along with the rest of the crews, before finally escaping the nightmare scene and resurfacing by the flying boat.

While flying around and scouring maps, Leiter and Bond had discussed possible targets for SPECTRE’s attacks. They speculate that the first one might be against the NATO missile-firing base ‘at a place called North-West Cay at the eastern end of the Grand Bahamas’ (p.199). They fly near it, observing the rocket gantries, missile launchers, radar beacons and the rest of the paraphernalia.

Bond and Leiter had been keeping their respective services informed of developments and now are told that senior military men are flying in and Washington has dispatched a nuclear submarine, no less, to Nassau. Bond and Leiter must obey these orders, but have still not located the exact location of the bombs.

Snogging Domino

Back from the flight, and having assimilated the responses of their services, it is still daytime and Bond phones Domino at the house she and Largo are renting and casually asks if she’d like to go swimming. She gives directions to the beach where she’ll be and Bond races there in a Land Rover borrowed from the Governor’s staff. There follows a strange interlude which is meant to be moving: for Bond is affectionate and kind to her, all the time knowing he is about to break the news to her that her brother is dead, and that he was more than likely involved in a massive conspiracy to blackmail the world’s governments.

She emerges from the sea with some bits of black sea urchin in her foot and Bond very gently, very sensuously, sucks them out for her. Then carries her up to the primitive changing rooms and there they make love. And only then, does he tell her the truth. Tears. Recriminations. I hate you. Slowly she recovers as he presses on her the importance of the situation. Eventually he recruits her: will she agree to go on board the Disco Volante with the Geiger counter-disguised-as-a-camera which he will give her and snoop about: if she finds something come on deck; if nothing, remain in her cabin.

Bond leaves her to be collected by the Disco Volante and motors back to the docks to join the police who are now keeping it under surveillance. There is a message to join Leiter for the arrival of the nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarine

The USS Manta arrives and Leiter and Bond go onboard to be greeted by the cheerful, confident commander P. Pedersen. They brief him on the whole situation including the crux that they don’t know where the bombs are. At this point they are all informed the Disco Volante has weighed anchor and steamed off north-west. The girl didn’t come up on deck, the pre-arranged signal that there were no bombs aboard, if she managed to carry out her search and not get caught, that is…

But Bond is still concerned: a) If the sub intercepts the Volante, they still won’t have the bombs and it’s just possible some other team is gathering and deploying them; b) Captain Pedersen informs Bond and Leiter the catamaran can skate easily over the countless reefs and shallows in the area, whereas the Manta can only follow guaranteed deep water channels, so they can’t give close chase to the baddies.

Aboard the Disco Volante

Cut to the interior of the Disco Volante, where Largo has called an emergency meeting of the ‘shareholders’ ie the other SPECTRE crooks. He announces to the shocked meeting that Domino was found snooping round with a camera which, on closer inspection, turned out to a Geiger counter: looks like someone put her up to it, so someone is on to them.

Domino has been detained and will be tortured to find out who commissioned her snooping. Meanwhile, the Omega plan goes ahead. The meeting is disrupted by one of the Russian delegates who sows seeds of doubt, saying while some of them are being frogmen accompanying the bomb to its destination, who’s to say the boat won’t weight anchor and scarper, leaving them in the lurch. Largo replies by shooting the complainer three times. We get the picture: SPECTRE are ruthless people.

Then Largo goes down to the cabin where Domino is tied spread-eagled to a bed, rips off her clothes and leans over her naked vulnerable body with a lighted cigar and a bucket of ice cubes, and starts to torture her. [This feels like it steps over a line: Fleming torturing Bond is one thing, as happens in the earlier novels – Bond is the hero and at least part of the mind of the male reader is experiencing the physical ordeals vicariously and wondering how he would fare. I think this is the first time we’ve seen a woman be tortured, really sadistically, cold-bloodedly tortured, and it’s not only not entertaining, but it feels wrong for Bond’s persona, for the feel of the books.]

Underwater fight

Bond and Leiter are aboard the American sub. The commander is under orders to take their orders, so Bond gives out a plan of battle to the best ten hand-picked men. They will wear skin-diving outfits, use makeshift spears, and attack Largo’s men wherever they find them.

Hours later the sub makes contact with the Wavekrest anchored off North-West Cay, the missile testing base, just as Bond and Leiter had speculated. Bond, Leiter and the ten best men suit up and exit the submarine with their makeshift weapons. They approach in a flanking movement the SPECTRE crew, but Bond immediately realises the odds are against them, as there are many more of the baddies, who have also got little propeller packs on their backs giving them greater mobility. In the middle of his posse sits Largo, riding an underwater sub which is towing the bomb.

A massive fight breaks out, Bond skewers several bad guys, before himself getting cut, cuffed, then saves Leiter’s life as a bad guy is about to shoot him, then escapes the melee to hunt down Largo. Largo is still riding the mini-sub and Bond throws himself onto it, they have a desperate cat-fight, but Bond manages to slip back onto the rudder and twist it so the machine rears up and breaks the surface, throwing them both off.

Exhausted Bond sinks to the bottom, only for Largo, still fighting fit, to approach him spear-gun at the ready. In a typically Flemingesque ghoulish detail, Largo clamps a baby octopus over Bond’s mask then puts his enormous hands round his throat to strangle him (ah, those enormous hands which have been continually referred to) and Bond is passing out, everything is going black, when….

The pressure has gone, Bond wipes the octopus away, Largo is on the ocean bed flailing with a big spear through his neck, and the girl Domino is behind him, harpoon gun in hand, her body covered in ugly red burn marks from the torture. Together, the wounded hero and heroine struggle to the surface.

Bond has been cut by a harpoon, clubbed in the head, exhausted himself fighting the rudder of the min-sub and then nearly strangled to death, all but blacking out before Domino saved him – but this, like many of the other scenes, felt to me rather like going through the motions: Bond has to be beaten to within an inch of his life because this is what happens in all Bond novels – it doesn’t necessarily follow from the actual action.

Certainly it was a tough fight, but doesn’t compare to being nearly incinerated at the climax of Moonraker, tortured to a bloody pulp in Casino Royale, or subjected to the degrading punishment in Dr No. His suffering, like so much else in the novel, feels willed in order to fit a formula.

Epilogue

Bond in hospital, as at the end of so many other adventures. Leiter visits and tells him what happened: CIA, MI6 et al now know all about SPECTRE, have identified Blofeld (who got away), their plan had been to bomb the missile launching base, then make Miami the second target. 10 men from the yacht including Largo were killed, six of the 10 volunteers from the submarine ditto, both bombs were successfully recovered. And, wow! that girl – she escaped by squeezing through a porthole with a diving suit and a harpoon gun, and saved Bond’s life. Totally believable.

Then Leiter’s gone – but all Bond wants to know about is Domino: Is she alive? How is she? Bond’s doctor comes in next and Bond feverishly asks after the girl. After hesitation, the doc tells Bond she’s next door, still in great pain from having been cruelly burned and tortured. Bond staggers into the next room, holds Domino’s hand as she regains consciousness and weakly murmurs to him, then collapses to the floor and passes out. She moves her pillow so she can lie and watch him.

The book may be manipulative, sentimental slop concocted from preposterous escapades and ridiculous escapes, but something in the desperation of their commitment, the fierceness of their ‘love’, made me burst into tears. Maybe all really fierce, heart-breaking loves are emblems of all others.


Co-authorship

By 1960 Fleming was deeply involved in various schemes for turning his creation into TV series or movies. Thunderball the novel itself originated as the screenplay for a movie which was a collaborative effort between Fleming and four others – Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo. After he published the novel, Fleming was sued by two of the collaborators who claimed part authorship of the plot, and the part ownership of the copyright explains why two movie adaptations were subsequently made, by different production companies (Thunderball 1965 and Never Say Never Again 1983 both, rather confusingly, starring Sean Connery.)

I may be influenced by this knowledge, but I think you can feel this troubled origin in the book: in certain turns of phrase which are unusual for Fleming, and in the way the plot – although just as garish and grandiose as other Bond novels – is somehow also very heavy and lumpy. Nuclear weapon threatens major city was the plot of Moonraker; the Caribbean was the setting of Live and Let Die, Dr No, the opening of For Your Eyes Only and tropical diving was the theme of The Hildebrand Rarity.

By this, the ninth book, it feels like the building blocks of a Bond novel have become so well-defined that they are transforming into clichés in front of the reader’s eyes.


Credit

Thunderball by Ian Fleming was published in 1961 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1961

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The White South by Hammond Innes (1949)

The sky cleared about eleven that night. The sun was almost due south, a flaming yellow ball, its lower edge just above the horizon. A towering iceberg loomed up to starboard, catching the sunlight and flashing fire like an enormous pink diamond. Fragments of ice began to drift past us – tiny ‘growlers’, almost completely submerged. And ahead of us the loose pack ice stretched like an unending, broken plain of pink straight into the sun. It was an incredible sight. (p.112)

Summary

This is a longer, deeper and more successful novel than any of its predecessors.

Slowly and methodically it chronicles the tangled web of personal and business rivalries which lead to a major shipping disaster in the Antarctic. It is the story of the whaling ship Southern Star which, along with its flotilla of chaser and support ships, heads south in search of whales into Antarctic pack ice. Here some of the chaser ships, and then the master ship itself, become trapped, forcing their crews to abandon ship and decant nearly 500 men and a handful of women and boys onto the treacherous ice.

The novel tells in gruelling detail the story of the attempts of one of the chaser ships and its crew and English captain to survive the most inhospitable environment on earth.

Set-up

The story is topped and tailed by an omniscient narrator, briskly telling the facts of the case. After a few pages recalling the media storm surrounding the story ie lending the story an aura of factuality, including brief newspaper cuttings, the texts of telegrams, the original radio messages etc – the text then cuts to a long and detailed first-person narrative by young Duncan Craig. (This use of a narrative framed within an objective editor’s-eye-view recalls loads of late Victorian, Rider Haggard/Conan Doyle-style yarns.)

Like characters in the Innes previous novels, Craig had an exciting and responsible job in the War, in his case as captain of a corvette, which took him all over the world. The return to Civvy Street was a shock and a disappointment, the only post he could find was clerking at a tobacco import company. A friend of a friend mentions work in the mines in South Africa and on this flimsy pretext Craig hitches a lift on an airplane to Cape Town.

In those days it was a long trip with a number of stopovers which give Craig time to get to know the other passengers, who includehated the harassed and sick head of the South Antarctic Whaling Company, Colonel Bland, which owns the Southern Star, and his daughter-in-law, Judie. He learns that the owner’s son, Erik, is a spoilt brat who was put in charge of the Star as an opportunity but has quickly got at loggerheads with the master of the ship and co-owner of the company, Judie’s father, Nordahl. As they arrive in Cape Town the crisis deepens as all three learn that Judie’s father has gone missing from the ship. How? Did he jump or was he pushed?

Later the same night Bland makes Craig an offer: the captain of the towing ship, Tauer III, due to take Bland out to to the Star has been hurt in a car crash. Knowing of his wartime experience, Bland offers him the captaincy and the job of taking them from Cape Town out to the troubled ship. Craig hesitates then accepts. He is now thoroughly embroiled in the fate of the ship and the personalities who are central to the disaster which will follow…

Briefly

The vast Southern Star factory ship is surrounded by a small flotilla of whale catcher boats and fuel and refrigerator ships. The whole whaling operation is described in convincing detail and is clearly something Innes has observed himself.

As to the thriller story: Craig is reluctantly roped into an onboard inquiry which hears the contradictory evidence about whether Erik pushed Nordahl, who he hated and feared, overboard. Lots of murmuring among the crew which old man Bland defuses by demoting his son to captaincy of one of the corvettes, much to Erik’s seething anger. But then whales a-plenty appear and for a while everyone forgets their troubles in the exciting, dangerous work of chasing, catching, killing and gutting whales, which Innes describes with his usual energy and vividness.

A few days later one of the catchers follows whales into the pack ice then suddenly finds itself trapped. The catcher Craig has been given to captain immediately goes to its rescue. So far bad luck, but then, in the mist and fog Craig’s boat is suddenly rammed by the corvette captained by evil Erik, though not before the rather mad Dr Howe fires a whaling harpoon up through the bridge which penetrates the engine room and explodes. In a matter of minutes a problem has been changed into a disaster: Craig abandons ship onto the ice, then watches the corvette go up in flames and be abandoned onto ice further away.

Between them the three stricken boats have radioed the Southern Star but the small receiver Craig’s men rescue has no send facility. They listen with mounting horror to the radio broadcasts from Southern Star as it announces it is coming to rescue them, requests them to burn stuff to create smoke to find them, begins to say the ice is closing in, the pack appears to be being scrunched up by a set of giant icebergs being pushed in by a storm, the clear water by which it entered the pack is being closed behind it, now it is being itself crushed by ice, it is taking on water, they are sending SOS signals, they are abandoning ship. Silence. Horror. Death on the ice.

The men of the corvette rebel against Erik’s characteristic bad leadership, trudge over to Craig’s makeshift camp and he finds himself in charge of both crews. And the last 80 or so pages of the novel describe their nightmare on the ice: the deaths of the injured; the decision to try and mount a natural ledge on one of the approaching icebergs; civil war that breaks out between Bland’s followers and those who stay true to Craig; the slow diminution of rations until they take the desperate decision that a few volunteers should trek across the ice to try and find the camp which the survivors of the Southern Star must have made; and the gruelling trek across the ice in which more people die of exposure and exhaustion and Craig himself is on the edge of extinction when they finally do stumble across the survivors of the whaler complete with ample stocks of food and oil.

Even then it takes a major effort to bring all the survivors together in one place; and even then they have to make the difficult decision to select crew to set out in the little lifeboats to try to sail to South Georgia; and even then they have to persuade the authorities to commission ships to return in search of the iceberg, now floating freely in the south Atlantic, to pick up the last of the survivors. Exhausting.

Innes’ previous novels had been about handfuls of characters, 5 or 6 people. This is on a much larger scale: the awesome setting of the Antarctic seas, the dramatic descriptions of whale hunting which fill the middle of the book, and then the gruelling tale of starvation and survival – it is a much larger imaginative achievement than anything he’d done before.

Anticipation

As usual the first-person narrator is in a privileged position and has the ability of hindsight to drop throughout the text ominous hints of disasters yet to come…

I think it was then that I got the first premonition of trouble ahead. (p.48)

I didn’t know it then, but this was the morning of the fatal decision. (p.76)

Later I was to remember this story and wish she’d never told it to me. (p.114)

The Empire/the Commonwealth

In the later 1940s the British Empire began morphing into the British Commonwealth. The ‘jewel in the crown’, India, became independent in 1947, Palestine/Israel in 1948. The Commonwealth was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, the year The White South was published, and was ready to receive the scores of nations which gained their independence in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Despite these changes one persistent thread of these books is the free and easy way the (white, male) characters seem to have been able to up sticks and live and work in other Empire/Commonwealth countries with wonderful ease.

Bill Ganster in The Blue Ice opened a nickel mine in Canada, having previously worked with the novel’s central character in southern Rhodesia. As the novel opens he and a few other Brits disgruntled by the lack of post-War opportunities in England are about to sail to the Mediterranean in search of new lives. In Killer Mine Jim Pryce has managed to live illegally in Italy for several years and now plans to start a new life in Canada.

In this novel the narrator, Duncan Craig, decides to emigrate to South Africa because someone he met in a bar tells him he can get him a job there. He blags a lift on a plane at London airport because a pilot he met at a party the night before tells him there are a couple of spare seats. And these aren’t especially well-off people.

The air of these books bespeaks a much free-er, more open world in which an enterprising man could travel the world, find work and make his fortune.

Style

Innes wrote these first ten or so novels very fast. You can watch his style being purified, becoming simpler and more effective. The key is not the fancy words, it’s the clarity of perception. It’s using simple language to convey things which are vividly felt and imagined. Maddon has wonderful descriptions of the wild sea and the barren Arctic island. Blue Ice eloquently describes the sea voyage to Norway and then the clear green water and soaring cliffs of the Norwegian fjords. In this book, again, Innes gives powerful descriptions of man-in-nature which are convincing because of their simplicity and precision of feeling.

I went up onto the bridge. The sea was a heaving mass in the dreary half-light. I stood there for a moment, watching the heavy weight of water surging white across the bow every time the little ship plunged. An albatross wheeled over the mast. Its huge wings were still as it planed into the wind. The air was bitterly cold. A thin film of ice was spreading on the windbreaker so that the canvas was stiff and smooth to the touch. I went into the wheelhouse and looked at the barometer. (p.56)

Sentimentality

I’d like to say the book was a masterpiece but it isn’t. Although the situations are described with startling power, the characterisation is weak and sterotypical. Old man Bland is a typical ageing patriarch, part bluster, part genuine authority. His son is a stereotypical spoilt son, sometimes weak and craven, at others surprisingly brave, but never to be trusted. The narrator, Craig, is a typically upright specimen of the Royal Navy who insists on behaving properly and refuses to do what absolutely everyone tells him to do ie either kill Erik or leave him behind with the entirely predictable result that Erik time after time sabotages their efforts to survive.

There is a highly sentimentalised love match between the physically feeble and drunk Dr Howe, who appears almost deranged with anger against Erik from his first appearance, and the ugly fat but immensely strong and likeable Gerda. Gerda accompanies Craig on their trek to find the other survivors and her slow wasting away and final death are meant to be moving, but Craig the narrator overdoes it, lamenting her death and going on about the love she had found with Howe at too much length.

If the practical, resourceful and jolly decent character of Craig sounds exactly like the practical, resourceful and jolly decent narrators of Blue Ice and Maddon’s Rock, so the love interest, Judie, bears a striking resemblance to the Jenny and Jill of those novels. Innes makes a token gesture to differentiate her by pointing out early on thjat she is not conventionally beautiful; but after that she shows herself every bit the practical sailor-type as her predecessors, and the whole process of being-brought-together-in-adversity-and-falling-in-love is basically the same. It’s a formula.

In the last lines we learn that Judie and Craig marry, buy a nice house overlooking Falmouth Harbour, have babies, and hang up a photo of the sainted Gerda in the hall. It is the superficiality of their entire relationship and the tweeness of this sentimental ending which limit the book, which limit it to its genre setting. Where the book triumphs is in its dazzling descriptions of exciting and exotic locations; where it fails is in its attempts at character and psychology.

Still, it’s the most ambitious and rewarding novel Innes had written to date.

Dramatic personae

  • Duncan Craig: narrator. Leads survivors out of the ice. Marries Judie.
  • Colonel Bland: chairman of the South Antarctic Whaling Company.
  • Erik Bland: his useless playboy son, conspiring to take complete control of the company, threatened by his father’s partner Nordahl. Erik orders  his corvette to ram Craig’s chase boat which leads Southern Star to enter the ice pack to rescue them but itself get stuck in ice and sunk. Ie Erik is responsible for the deaths of several hundred men.
  • Judie Bland née Nordahl: daughter of the Norwegian co-owner of the company, unhappy wife of Erik Bland. Falls in love with Craig.
  • Bernt Nordahl: Norwegian. Judie’s father, co-owner of the company, master of the Southern Star who goes mysteriously missing. Did he jump through stress, or was he pushed by Erik Bland because he had done finiancial deals to gain a controlling share in the company and was therefore a threat to the owner’s son?
  • McPhee: standard issue Scottish engineer of the Tauer III.
  • Dr Walter Howe: violently angry drunk marine biologist expert aboard the Tauer III, revealed to be Nordahl’s natural son ie Judie’s half-brother. Obsessed with killing Erik Bland.
  • Captain Eide: captain of the Southern Star.
  • Gerda Petersen: chunky, ugly, immensely competent female whaler. In many ways the best man there (p.179). Craig comes to really like and value her and her wasting away and death on the gruelling trek across the ice is meant to symbolise and sum up the entire tragedy, something – I think – it fails to do.
  • Aldo Bonomi: famous photographer who has the bad luck to be commissioned to take photos of whaling on this trip, merrily keeps on snapping no matter how bad things get, and ends up surviving and selling his photos to the world’s press.

Movie

The novel was made into a movie named Hell Below Zero (1954), starring American heart-throb, Alan Ladd, and rugged Brit, Stanley Baker. Here’s the opening titles, looks like a bad quality transfer from a VHS. I’d imagine it would have to simplify a lot of the plot and certainly tone down the fact the hero and heroine almost starve to death, and people around them actually do. I dare say they manage to retain a cinematically rosy glow.

Related links

Cover of the 1960s American Fontana edition of The White South

Cover of a 1960s American Fontana edition of The White South

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes (1947)

I realised then that I was buried. I was frightened. I fought upwards with my hands, gripped in a frenzy of terror. (p.93)

Neil Blair had a nice little family business before the War, running a local newspaper in Wiltshire. After three years in the Army he returned and set up a printing business in Exeter but that folded. One day, up in London, he bumps into a tough-minded man he knew in the Army, one Engles, who served with him for a while before moving into Army Intelligence, now back in Civvy Street and making films. Engles asks Blair if he wants to make money spending three months in Cortina in the Dolomites as a script editor on a new film production, with maybe some other duties thrown in. The main other duty is to report if he sees a beautiful Italian woman whose photo Engels gives him. Little does he suspect that this innocent invitation will draw him into a web of intrigue and murder etc etc…

Blair travels to Cortina, to the Tre Coci Pass and, here at the main hotel, meets some of the novel’s characters. He then takes the sledge lift with Joe up to the rifugia or guest house atop the Col da Varda where he encounters the other characters (listed below). Slowly he realises that something is afoot but it takes him 120 or so pages to begin to work out what. It all goes back to a German Captain Stelben who owned the rifugia after the War before being betrayed to the British Army and committing suicide in prison. Newspaper reports of the events mention a certain Contessa who is his partner. Blair recognises her as the woman in the photo Engels gave him; then recognises her in real life at the hotel at the foot of the mountain.

Now that Stelben is dead, this disparate group assembles from across Europe for the official auction of the old rifugia – to everyone’s surprise the bidding for this old hut goes exceptionally high. Why? What is its value? What is hidden there?

Murder attempt

All these novels require a chase or pursuit or physically challenging incident to get the reader’s blood racing. Here, Mayne invites Blair for a supposedly innocent morning’s skiing. For a start, skiing in those days seems to have been more strenuous than in our time; it involves taking off the skis at various points to climb or walk across glaciers or up mountain sides to better positions. But it also turns out that Mayne has chosen a particularly treacherous ski run in order to get Blair skiing far faster than is safe and, suddenly leads him into a sheer cliff of snow and ice. Mayne avoids this at the last second but which Blair crashes right into.

The description of the early, innocent, stages of the skiiing expedition is interesting; the account of the dangerous ski itself is riveting; and the account of Blair’s fortuitous survival and of how he slowly, painfully digs himself out of the snow and finds his way back along the route in a howling snow-storm before collapsing just as the rescue party from the rifugia sights him, is involving and exhausting.

When he recovers Blair confronts Mayne with the accusation he tried to murder him, which Mayne blithely ignores, saying the whole thing was an unfortunate accident. Previously Blair’s room has been searched. And the night before he overheard two men out in the snow apparently discussing sabotaging the sledge-lift in order to kill someone, though he didn’t see who they were.

Blair now wonders if one of the people he overheard was Mayne who caught Blair eavesdropping and think that he – Blair – overheard more than he actually did. Was it this which inspired him to try and get rid of him on the treacherous ski journey? And so the suspicious circumstances and narrator’s uncertainty grow…

Nazi gold

But it is only with the arrival of Engels himself, travelling up the sledge lift with the Contessa, that the scene is set for the Final Act in what turns out to have been a long and complicated criminal conspiracy.

It’s about Nazi gold. At the end of the War Captain Stelben was in the Gestapo and put in charge of a transfer of gold from an Italian bank north to Munich. He diverted from his orders and got his men to take the gold in crates up the sledge lift to the Col da Varda and there bury it in the foundations of the anti-aircraft guns which he knew were being built. Then he massacred the men with a machine gun. He then escaped in the confusion at the end of the War, holed up in Greece, before returning to Italy and buying the rifugia. However, he was betrayed and handed over to the British Army for interrogation during which he committed suicide.

He left a number of people with partial knowledge of the theft and hiding: his girlfriend, the ‘Contessa’ – in fact one of a troupe of dancing girls and courtesans; Valdini who at one stage was the Contessa’s lover; Mayne, the Irish-American who the Contessa also was indiscreet with; Keramikos who heard the story from the sole survivor of the massacre, a German corporal hiding in Greece.

A closed circle mystery

The closed circle mystery is a specific genre of detective fiction, in which a limited number of suspects all have the means and motivation to have committed the murder which starts the action. There is no specific murder here; or, rather, there are quite a few murders but all carried out during the War and it is not a murder which needs a solution, but the precise whereabouts of the Treasure.

In this respect, maybe it is more like a buried treasure-pirate story – except that there are so many Nazi gold plots that ‘hidden Nazi treasure’ is probably as large a genre as ‘country house mystery’, eg Desmond Bagley’s debut novel, The Golden Keel also, as it happens, set in Italy.

Skiing

The novel explores in some detail the immediately post-War world of skiing, with its cable cars, sledge lifts, popular resorts and bars, refuges high up in the mountains as well as skiing terms and techniques. Is this the earliest adventure novel to take skiing as its central subject? It’s certainly the earliest one I’ve read which features not one but two thrilling ski rides, chases and murders.

Dramatis personae

  • Neil Blair: innocent first-person narrator.
  • Derek Engles: Neil’s Battery Commander in 1942 before he transferred to Intelligence. A dashing, exacting officer, it was in this capacity that Engles interviewed Captain Stelben and got some of the story of the hidden gold but not all. When he read a newspaper story about Stelben’s suicide it revived his interest and he sends Blair to be his eyes and ears until something definite crops up. When the Contessa and others arrive in Cortina it prompts him to come himself. In many ways Engles is the hero of the story, and Blair is the Nick Carraway to Engles’ dashing Gatsby figure, the rather naive bystander, witness, only survivor of the débâcle on the mountain top and its reluctant chronicler.
  • Joe Wesson: cameraman: a ‘fat sluggish ape’, completely innocent of the various goings-on around him.
  • Edoardo Mancini: biggest hotelier in Cortina, former sportsman run to seed.
  • Aldo: apelike waiter in the rifugio, the ski house atop Col da Varde in the Dolomite mountains.
  • Anna: flirtatious barmaid in the rifugio.
  • Kapitan Heinrich Stelben: Nazi officer who stole bank gold he was entrusted with and buried it atop the Col da Varda; he was captured soon after the War and interrogated by Engles, but escaped, adopting a new identity and buying the Col da Varda, before being captured a second time and committing suicide. Now the property is to be auctioned…
  • Contessa Forelli: previously known as Carla Rometta, a dancer and courtesan who attached herself to Stelben during his post-War life but has thrown in her lot with Valdini, whom she devastatingly revenges.
  • Stefan Valdini: ‘a dirty little Sicilian gangster’, one-time lover of the Contessa. Keramikos murders him, prompting her fiery revenge.
  • Keramikos: a visiting Greek, revealed to have been a Nazi agent; turns out Engles is more interested in him and the crimes he committed against British forces in Greece, than in the gold.
  • Gilbert Mayne: Irish but well-travelled, particularly in the States; revealed to be a British deserter become gangster who stole the deceased captain Mayne’s identity: he holds everyone up in the rifugia shoots Valdini and beats up the Contessa before meeting a horrible death.

Technical terms

You English…

Innes is at pains to distinguish between the fiery passionate Italians and the cold, stiff English.

‘I wonder whether you will understand. You English are so cold.’ (p.63)

‘You are so English, my dear – so delightfully English…’ Her expression as she said this was the equivalent of sticking out her tongue at me and my English ideas. (p.66)

This is similar to Eric Ambler who, in almost every one of his pre-War novels, has one character or another laugh at the English, at their political naïveté, their cold manner, their gaucheness in affairs of the heart. Since these books were written to be popular, one can only assume this was a widespread feeling the English held about themselves.

The movie – Snowbound

The book was almost immediately made into a film, Snowbound, released in 1948, directed by David MacDonald and starring Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Mila Parély, and Herbert Lom. It is, apparently, not so good, which explains why it isn’t even available on DVD nor on YouTube.

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

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Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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