A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby (2011)

This is a superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book. It’s one of a series of slender volumes (this one is 93 pages long) in the National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

Techniques of Painting aims to help readers develop a painterly eye by learning to recognize different materials and methods of application and to appreciate how these features contribute to how a painting looks.’

It ranges far and wide to find examples from the National Gallery’s vast collection of over 2,300 paintings. Almost all the 94 illustrations are in good quality colour, with well-chosen close-ups from works both familiar and strange to illustrate precise aspects of the craft of painting. Although there are examples from the gods of later centuries – van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Gogh and Monet – the book tends to focus interest on, and encourage a better understanding of, earlier painters, especially of the early Italian Renaissance.

Thus the book’s detailed explanation makes you appreciate the extraordinary skill and craft which went into creating, for example, both the floor carpet and the individual halos – made from gilt which is then elaborately stippled and decorated – in Nardo Di Cione’s Three Saints (1365).

Nardo Di Cione's Three Saints (1365)

Three Saints (1365) by Nardo Di Cione

I learned that:

  • Paint is made of two ingredients, the pigment which gives colour and the binding medium which allows it to be applied with brushes (of various size, shape and density). These latter include egg tempera, oil, flue and gum.
  • Egg tempera was a medium made from eggs or just egg yolk, mixed with pigment. It dries rapidly. It tends to be applied in fine parallel strokes. Most Renaissance painters up till about 1480 used egg tempera.
  • The use of oil as a binding medium was pioneered by painters in northern Europe. It is more versatile. Oil can be built up by repeated layers, creating areas of solid thickly applied colour, or thinned to create sketchy dry strokes.
  • The thing a painting is painted onto is called the support. Until the early sixteenth century, most paintings were painted onto wood panels. For larger panels, multiple planks of wood would be battened together. Canvas began to be used in north Italy, around Venice and Verona, in the early 1500s, and only slowly spread to north Europe. The most popular wood in Italy was poplar, in northern Europe it was oak.
  • Supports are primed for painting. Wood supports were sanded smooth. Sometimes fine canvas or parchment was glued onto it. Then a ‘ground’ for painting was created. A layer of white calcium sulphate, known as gypsum, mixed with animal glue was applied, dried and sanded flat. The Italian for gypsum is ‘gesso’ and this became the generic name for all white grounds. For expensive paintings a coarse gesso was applied and dried before a much finer one, gesso sottile, was applied. A handbook of the time recommends no fewer than eight coats be applied. Part of the reason for this care was that, when gold leaf was applied to earlier Renaissance paintings, any flaw in the surface immediately showed up – hence the need for absolute flatness. As the use of gilt declined, gessos became less perfect. In northern Europe natural chalk was used, in glue solution. On top of the ground a priming layer was applied, to prevent the oil pigment from being absorbed. It was generally oil mixed with light pigments.
  • Canvas, no matter how tightly stretched, is a more coarse surface than prepared board, and also it is springy. These factors encourage a looser handling of the paint. Linen, hemp, silk and wool cloth were all used as supports, as well as canvas. Cotton became available in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted a series onto part of a roll of jute cloth which Gauguin bought. To be usable canvas had to be stretched onto a wooden framework called a strainer. Canvas on its own would absorb some of the binding medium, giving the painting a more matt appearance than painting on a wood support. To prevent, this canvas also was primed or prepared, a process called sizing.
  • For both canvas and wood panels, the primer or ground could be any colour – over time, between the Renaissance and the 18th century, the general tendency was for darker grounds to be used. The pre-Raphaelites returned to using bright white grounds and this is one factor in the astonishingly brilliant colouring of their paintings.
  • Copper plate was a fairly popular support for paintings in the 17th century.
  • Paper has always been used for pencil and pen sketches; in the 19th century it became used as the support for watercolours.
  • Fresco is the Italian word for ‘fresh’ and also the name for the technique whereby pigments are mixed with water and applied to lime plaster which has been freshly laid over walls or ceilings. As the plaster dries the pigment binds into it. Some colours reacted badly with lime, namely the blue pigment azurite, which explains why frescos are generally light and creamy in colour. These alkali-resistant pigments could be applied later, after the original fresco work had dried, mixed with egg, in a process called a secco. But they were less bound into the actual plaster and so have tended to flake off and disappear over the centuries. Fresco was popular in hot, dry Italy and not very popular in the damp north of Europe.
The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

Taking the painting above as an example, the book shows a close-up of the hem of the Virgin’s cloak to show the extraordinary care and subtlety with which the realistic patchiness of the sheen on the gold lining was achieved, and then highlights the detail of each individual pearl, complete with its own spot of light and shadow cast on the cloth. The closer you look, the more you marvel at the time, patience and skill involved.

Other terms

  • Maestà (Italian for ‘majesty’) – a type of religious subject for a painting, namely a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. An example is the Maestà painted by Duccio in the cathedral at Siena (1308-1311).
  • Predella – a separate frame of smaller paintings running along the bottom of an altarpiece. In medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, the predella along the bottom usually contains a set of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically, three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. An example is this Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli. The predella is the name given to the row of four scenes along the bottom, showing episodes from the Passion of Christ.

Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (1982)

People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. (p.26)

Generations of English-speaking children were brought up on Jansson’s illustrated Moomin books which are immensely charming to look at and, in their narratives, full of consolations and comforts (generally tea and sandwiches provided by the ever-reliable Moominmamma).

Only in the noughties did Jannson’s ten books for adults start to be published into English and to reveal a completely different aspect of Jansson’s character, an unnerving, adult quality.

Some of Jansson’s short stories were still about children’s lives seen from a child’s perspective (The Summer BookThe Sculptor’s Daughter) but even these combine sweet childish perceptions with other, more disturbing, adult themes, with a dis-enchanted view of the difficulty of human relations, even between people who ‘love’ one another. The characters are quite harsh with each other and on themselves.

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver is her second real novel (The Summer Book really being a collection of themed stories).

We are in the Finnish fishing port of Västerby. It is the coldest winter anyone can remember, with an immense snowfall blanketing everything in white. Katri Kling is 25. She is the unpopular older sister of Mats, 15, who she has looked after since he was a child. Their father left. Then their mother died. She is Mats’s sole carer. She had a job in the village store until she quit abruptly a few months earlier. It is strongly hinted that the shop keeper tried it on with her and she ridiculed him. He was livid. Life became unbearable. She quit. Since Mats and Katri live in the one-room apartment above this same shop, it is a ticklish situation.

Katri walks their dog, which they have given no name, through the village, and the adults mutter about her and the children shout abuse. She needs to do something for her and Mats’s future.

Up on the hill, in the grand house, lives old Anna Aemelin. Long ago her parents died and left her the big house with the thick pine woods behind it, which – with its two chimneys for ears, two bow windows for eyes, and vertical frames of the central doorway – locals have nicknamed the ‘rabbit house’.

A name which is also relevant because of Anna Aemelin’s profession – she draws cartoon rabbits. Miss Anna is a very successful and world-famous cartoonist and book illustrator (as, of course, was Jansson, and several other characters in her short stories). Miss Anna has the success of monomania, she is extraordinarily brilliant at depicting the traditional Finnish forest floor in immense and scintillating detail, at conveying its ‘deep-forest mystique’ (p.33).

But from an artistic point of view she spoils the effect by then drawing on top a family of bunny rabbits which – for some reason – have flowers growing out of their fur. Every year a new bunny rabbit story comes out (her publishers supply the actual text, Anna does the illustrations) and sells around the world to excited small children, who then write her countless letters wanting to come and visit, to meet the flowery rabbits, to live with her etc.

The novel describes how the extremely blunt and practical Katri inveigles her way into the household of Miss Aemelin. It’s actually pretty simple, this isn’t a hi-tech espionage thriller. Katri offers to deliver groceries up to the old house. Then the post. Then begins to sort out her fridge, throws away the food she doesn’t like, order food which Miss Anna actually likes… and so on.

Slowly she makes herself invaluable. But again, it isn’t a psycho chiller where the protagonist has wicked plans. She just wants a safe place to live and a future for her and her simple-minded brother. The central ‘event’ which tends to get picked up in the blurb and in reviews is that the villagers hear of a burglary in the next village and Katri has the idea to ‘stage’ a burglary at the rabbit house. This consists of her going up one night in a snowstorm, opening the kitchen door (which isn’t locked; none of the doors are locked), walking around in her snowy shoes on the rug, emptying the silver tea service into a sack and walking out again. Out in the woods she throws the sack away, then goes home. The snow covers her tracks.

Next morning Katri arrives to find a dozy policeman at the house and Miss Anna’s friends gossip that she shouldn’t be alone up in the big house etc. With hardly any nudging she wonders whether Katri and her brother would like to move in. And so they do.

The real heart of the story is the emotional or psychological impact the three characters have on each other once they start living together. Katri, in her harsh, tactless, unrestrained way, had almost immediately started telling Miss Anna that the local shopkeepers were swindling her, just a little, but slowly and routinely. Miss Anna is shocked. Once she’s moved in, Katri takes over all aspects of Miss Anna’s household, tidying from top to bottom. She discovers a vast trove of correspondence with publishers, merchandisers and hundreds of children, which Miss Anna has been too timid or too intimidated to answer.

Katri, in her brisk no-nonsense way, goes through these with a fine tooth comb and discovers that Miss Anna has been ripped off by her publishers and anyone else she’s done business with for decades. Katri forces Miss Anna to face facts and make much tougher deals with all her business partners, which leads to a noticeable chilling of tone in the new letters from them. Without any prompting from Katri, Miss Anna decides that Katri ought to share some of the new, improved profits from her writings. Katri very coldly calculates how much she will acquire and how soon. At night she dreams of money.

By the same token she tells Miss Anna she has to be more blunt and honest with the children some of whom, it turns out, she’s been making all sorts of reckless promises, for example that they can come and live in bunny rabbit country with her. No they can’t. Katri suggests sending them all the identical photostated letter, the only unique bit being Miss Anna’s signature. They bicker about this. Miss Anna slowly comes to distrust absolutely everyone, all the tradesmen in the village, everyone who writes her letters.

Meanwhile there is an important relationship between Miss Anna and Mats. Mats is simple. He is allowed to help out at the boat-builders yard belonging to the four Liljeberg brothers. (God, it is all so Scandinavian – everything feels so folkish and elemental and pure.) In fact, Mats is obsessed with boats, and has been making beautiful sketches of the boats the brothers build, in his own time.

When she sees how much money she is going to make from Miss Anna’s new deals, Katri conceives a grand plan: she will commission a boat for Mats, the boat he’s been dreaming of. It will be the focus of all her effort, it will justify a lot of what she is perfectly well aware could be seen as inveigling her way into an old lady’s confidences and money: the purity of her motives will be seen by everyone once it is known that she did it all for her brother.

Meanwhile, Mats forms a typically Janssonesque relationship with Miss Anna. She is (in case it hasn’t come over already) quite a simple soul, brought up in a protected and sheltered environment by well-off parents, and she transmits a lot of that innocence in her wonderful children’s illustrations. So early on we discover that she loves reading children’s adventure stories and – do does Mats! Thus Katri will be slaving away in the kitchen or come back from a snowy shopping trip and find Miss Anna and Mats sitting in complete silence in the drawing room, both utterly absorbed by some teen adventure book. Miss Anna shows Mats round her vast library of children’s books and then she starts ordering new ones, and every time the same pattern: Mats reads them, Miss Anna reads them, they intently discuss the plots and characters. Otherwise they hardly talk at all.

They rarely talked to each other. They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward. (p.45)

Very Janssonesque.

Oh and there’s the dog, the nameless dog. And the dog becomes a symbol of what goes wrong in all these relationships. Because things don’t turn out as any of them intend.

Miss Anna can’t deny that Katri has been scrupulously honest and has gotten her vastly improved deals with publishers and merchandisers and organised things so that she is replying to children’s letters on time and appropriately. But she is also getting harder, more suspicious. Living in close proximity to Katri’s unsentimental harshness brutalises her.

After one particularly bitter row she takes it out on the dumb dog (a German shepherd). She pushes it out of the house into the snow and chucks a stick, shouting at it to fetch. The dog’s never done this before and it takes quite a few sticks, on that occasion and on others, to make it fetch and carry. Slowly, it becomes more like a traditional dog. The eerie complicity that all the villagers noted between tall gaunt Katri and her nameless dog, begins to disintegrate. The dog leaves the house and roams the woods. They – and the villagers – hear it howling at night. It captures rabbits from the postman’s chicken run. It goes wild. In a strange moment it reappears one day, trailing Katri as she walks out to the (locked) lighthouse on the point and, suddenly, savagely, attacks her, before running off.

It is a symbol of how Katri has upset old relationships. For now, as the spring arrives, Miss Anna discovers a disaster – to her horror, when she goes out to look for the first signs of forest floor appearing through the melting winter snow – she no longer feels any magic; the thrill in her soul and the special spectral way she saw all the luminous details of the pine and moss woodland floor has… gone. She is neutered. Katri has made her practical and hard-headed and… it has destroyed her one great talent.

Something a bit more convoluted happens with Mats. Katri has sworn the boat-builders to secrecy about the new boat they’re making being for Mats, although he obviously notices, in fact watches intently, as it takes shape at the boatyard. But Miss Anna, overhearing the builders talking about it, announces to Mats that she has commissioned it as a present for him. He is confused, but Katri is distraught. The one thing justifying all her behaviour was the thought that she would spring this great surprise on him. Later on she does tell Mats the boat is from him, and Miss Anna realises her mistake and backs down. But poor old Mats (and the reader) are left pretty confused.

At a ceremony at the boat-builders all three are present when the brothers reveal the final finished boat and Mats, called on to name it, christens it Katri. It’s certainly the right decision but it’s been a tortuous route getting here. Katri tries to apologise to Miss Anna, telling her it was all lies, everything she said about the shopkeepers diddling her and the publishers giving her bad deals and so on. Miss Anna listens patiently but knows that, now, Katri is lying to try and fix everything. Mats gives Katri an exquisite model of the boat of his dreams which he has been working on all of this time. Miss Anna takes a newly dominant, commanding tone, and tells Katri to be quiet and go and lie down for a rest.

And then, on the final page, Miss Anna goes out to the forest, now clear of snow, elaborately sets up her drawing equipment, and begins one of her inspired and luminous portrayals of the forest undergrowth.

Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow. Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable. (p.201)

So I think what happens, is that Miss Anna has been through a kind of growing experience. At first she was shocked by Katri’s revelation of the brutality and two-facedness of the world around her – the cheating shop-keepers, the gossiping the villagers, the upsetting burglary – into artistic impotence. She had become hard like Katri, too hard to still be open and receptive to the childish vision which allowed her to paint.

But now, here at the very end of the story, after watching Katri abase herself in apology, after watching Mats get his dream boat come true, now… now her gift has returned – but in adult form. I think it means she can draw the forest floor as before, but this time untainted by silly commercial cartoons.

So I think this part, at least, of the novel has turned out to be about artistic growth and rebirth. It’s a happy ending. Sort of…

Simplicity

Paragraph after paragraph opens with clear, simple declarative sentences, building up a sense of tremendous clarity and simplicity.

  • It had been snowing along the coast for a month.
  • The boat builders in Västerby were proud men.
  • Mats came home from the boatyard as dusk came on.
  • A white wrought-ironflower table ran beneath the window in Anna’s bedroom.
  • Katri walked out towards the point.
  • Anna always thought of herself as a painter of the ground.
  • They had come home.

Credit is due to the translator Thomas Teal, since it is his words that we are actually reading. It would be fascinating to get his opinion: did he find Jansson easy or hard to translate. I bet he’d say her vocabulary in the original Swedish is simple, but full of nuances and delicacy which is hard to translate – but that’s a guess.

Jansson’s Nordic appeal

1. Foreign books escape the clutches of the British, or specifically, English class system. English books sooner or later have to categorise, slot, define and contain their characters by their class and location – Northerners are rough, southerners are public school toffs, yummy mummies, London chavs and so, tediously, on.

Foreign books know nothing of all this and so often appear more primal and basic, treating people as people. It has to be pointed out to us that someone is a peasant or poor; the characters come without the infestation of social signifiers we are used to in our own language.

2. Also, Jansson’s books deliberately ignore the modern world. There are hardly any machines, no planes or cars, coaches, buses, noise, air or light pollution in them. The village postman skis into the nearby town to collect the mail and groceries. Instead, her characters live on remote islands close to nature. It’s a shock when they even use the telephone.

3. These qualities of being outside the English class system and the complete absence of 20th century technology, combine with Jansson’s carefully simple style to give her stories the tremendous force of folk or fairy tales. On page two Katri’s father goes off north to buy a load of timber and never comes back. That doesn’t happen in English fiction. That happens in Viking sagas or fantasy fiction.

4. And there’s the snow, the white primal backdrop to all the events in this novel, snow in depth and abundance and permanence unknown to an English audience.

Thus all the characters and situations have this simple, white, primary quality. In the Moomin books she draws cute forest animals onto this backdrop. In the stories about children (The Summer Book) the children’s nightmares, obsessions, fears and safe spaces are all the more vivid for standing out against the (deceptively simple) natural backdrops.

In this book for the first time we encounter a number of adults, each with that terrible adult habit of having their own lives, characters, motivations and feelings. And the primitiveness of their motivations and responses are as starkly drawn as in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman film.

Instability of narrator and time

Several of the short stories in Art in Nature switched narrator in mid-story, or cut between a third-person narrator and the first-person point of view of the main character (The LocomotiveA Sense of Time).

The same happens here (though more in the first half, when we are watching Katri hatch her plan to be taken into Miss Anna’s household). The conventional third person narration will suddenly jump, in the next paragraph, to Katri sharing her thoughts and plans with us. The tense changes too, the third person being in the past tense, the first person in the fraught present tense.

It’s enjoyable. It makes the text modern and dynamic. But it’s also natural. It doesn’t feel forced or show-offy. One moment we’re watching the villagers or Miss Anna from outside, next we’re in Katri’s head, reading her thoughts. Fair enough.

But at my back I always here…

Since noticing it in the final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, I now see everywhere in Jansson’s fiction the same cluster or ideas and words, namely tiredness and the wish for rest & sleep. The characters are always tired:

  • Somehow the sister was always around, and her brother was behind her. It was unendurable, and it made Edvard Liljeberg very tired. (p.54)
  • ‘You look tired, Lijeberg said, ‘You shouldn’t take life so seriously,’ (p.176)

They long for somewhere calm and peaceful, away from people, away from bother and vexation, somewhere ordered and tranquil: both Miss Anna’s often empty house and the boatyard after work are examples of this divine tranquility.

The wind was making a racket against the metal roof but, but the vast [boatshed] seemed hugely calm and peaceful. The hull of a boat under construction was visible in the half-light, its giant ribcage in silhouette against the far wall of the windows. Broad boards that would soon be planking hung in bundles from the ceiling, and there was a smell of shavings and tar and turpentine. Katri understood why her brother always wanted to come back here to this protected world where everything was correct and clean. (p.145)

The best rest, though, the most perfect peace, is found in sleep, to which the characters resort with great frequency. They are always sleeping or waking. After this or that excitement, the natural reaction is to take a nap, go to bed, curl up in a snug bed and drift off.

Down on the road, Katri tossed the potato sack into a snowdrift and went home. For the first time in ages, she slept in a cradle of gentle dreams free of desolation and anxiety. (p.81)

When Anna lived alone, she had not noticed how often she let the daylight hours vanish in sleep. Letting sleep come closer, soft as mist, as snow; reading the same sentence again and again until it disappeared in the mist and no longer had any meaning… (p.99)

This cluster of ideas – ‘tiredness-sleep’ – is at one end of the spectrum, so to speak, the polar opposite of the other main cluster of ideas circling round states of psychological unease, disquiet and anxiety. Katri is anxious about money and Mats and the future and the narrative can be read as recording the way she infects Miss Anna with her anxieties. But many of the minor characters – the shopkeeper, the postman, the boatbuilder – at various points are described as anxious.

So, stepping back, it’s possible to see that although the individual narratives and the numerous characters in Tove Jansson’s adult stories may come and go – this polarity between anxiety and rest underlies nearly all the texts.

Of course, most readers and critics react to the characters, the plot and the settings, which are varied, clever and acutely described.

But I think the enduring sense readers of Tove Jansson have of her books’ calm beauty is due to the way, at a subconscious level, each text repeats this transition, moving the reader from scenes of anxiety to repeated and wonderfully evocative scenes of complete rest, calm and comfort. And it is these wonderfully reassuring spaces which are the abiding emotional memory left by her stories.

I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases into twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. (p.28)

They went into the parlour. The same soft lighting, the same sense of emptiness and changelessness and dreamlike, compulsory slow motion. (p.58)

Jansson’s recurrent images of a wonderfully safe space have a kind of cleansing effect on the imagination. I’m tempted to say that they have a similarly cleansing, purifying effect as a Finnish sauna.


Credit

Den ärliga bedragaren by Tove Jansson was published in 1982. It was translated as The True Deceiver by Thomas Teal and first published by Sort of Books in 2009.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

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

Short story collections

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

The Fall by Albert Camus (1956)

The plot

A Parisian is on a visit to Amsterdam. One evening he is approached by a stranger in a bar, a fellow Parisian who lives in the Dutch capital. This stranger is a regular in the bar, knows the landlord (who he refers to as ‘the ape’ or ‘the gorilla’) and all the other clientele who, he says, are petty criminals, pimps and thieves. He shares a gin with the visitor and his chat about the locals slowly turns into a bit of background about himself. He used to be a successful lawyer in Paris, quite well known in his field and… Time to go? OK, well, I’ll see you here tomorrow night, maybe…

And so begin a sequence of six (unnumbered) chapters in which the one-time successful Paris lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells, in unbroken monologue, his story to the unnamed, unspeaking auditor. It is an extremely effective technique. The reader is buttonholed right from the start and slowly, mesmerically, drawn into the lawyer’s story.

Physically strong, tall, handsome, charming, Jean-Baptiste went out of his way to open doors for ladies and help the elderly across the road. He did pro bono work for the poor. He discoursed eloquently at dinner parties and attended plays and the opera. He had a string of mistresses, relishing the challenge of seduction then swiftly forgetting them.

But slowly, as the monologue continues, the initial impression we have of his moral perfection and flawless charm is undermined as we come to realise he was really a monster of egotism. By the middle chapter, where he describes his love affairs, he goes so far as to admit that he wanted all his lovers, but ultimately everyone, to dangle on a string, to be dependent on him, to jump when he requires.

I could live happily only on condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned toward me, eternally in suspense, devoid of independent life and ready to answer my call at any moment, doomed in short to sterility until the day I should deign to favor them. (p.51)

And yet… at the height of his fame, his success and his preening self-congratulations… events happened which began to undermine his confidence. One day he is caught at a red light behind a motor cyclist whose bike stalls as the lights go green. He gets out to remonstrate but is unexpectedly thumped by a passer-by who tells him to stop picking on the poor biker. Dazed, Jean-Baptiste stumbles back into his car and drives off but his amour propre is dented.

On another occasion, one night crossing a bridge in Paris, he hears laughter. Healthy, non-sinister laughter, coming from somewhere, a boat passing, he can’t figure out where but… it unnerves him. Years earlier he had passed, on another Paris bridge, a slender female shape in the lowering rain, had reached the end of the bridge and turned onto the quay when he heard a loud splash and then muffled cries and then… silence.

Eventually (although there is no definite moment; I reread the passage several times and can’t identify any actual incident which causes it) eventually, Jean-Baptiste realises that he has many enemies, many people resent his success; many women hate him, many men are jealous, and they are all sitting on judgement on him.

With typical French hysteria, he thinks ‘the whole universe then began to laugh at me.’ (p.60). And he begins to feel for the first time that he is living a double life, playing a game which he just doesn’t care about any more. He is undermined. He begins to hate his appearance of saintly benevolence. He longs to smack children, let down wheelchairs of the disabled. He shouts abuse at beggars and (this is a comic touch) contemplates writing an Ode to the Police and another in praise of the guillotine. He starts calling on ‘the Lord’ in the court room and insulting people at dinner parties.

In other words, he starts guying the bien-pensant liberals he had previously dazzled with his humanity. He can’t bear their adulation of him. He starts to feel impossibly hypocritical, being a lawyer prosecuting people for crimes much more minor than the ones he knows he wants to commit. He wants to be punished.

Jean-Baptiste decides to abandon the world of men and… throws himself into an orgy of sensualism among women, waking between two prostitutes, having an affair with a singer in a bar, drinking himself senseless on unmade beds in brothels etc.

Despairing of love and of chastity, I at last bethought myself of debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality. At a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see; the mind dominates the whole past, and the pain of living is over forever. (p.76)

After numerous adventures of the flesh, Jean-Baptiste is on a cruise with his latest mistress when he sees a dark shape on the horizon and turns in fear, his heart palpitating. He thought it was the drowned woman, the suicide, come back to haunt him. (This makes it sound more rational, more comprehensible, than the scene actually is. Truth to tell I couldn’t work out amid the verbiage of aphorisms, what actually happened at any point of this narrative. Something made him realise the falseness of his position in society. And then this further epiphany made him understand he couldn’t run (away from what, isn’t comprehensibly explained).)

The penultimate section transitions rather suddenly to six pages meditating on the purpose of God and the real meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion. I understand this is literature not theology or philosophy and I understand it is a fictional character speaking, so he is entitled to ramble on about whatever he wants to, but at around this point I began to run out of patience. It’s a short enough book, at 108 pages in the Penguin paperback, but even so, by this stage it began to feel padded out with an over-familiar type of pseudo-Christian fustian.

This Christian imagery continues into the sixth and final section where Jean-Baptiste confides in the listener his adventures during the German invasion of France. Since this took place in 1940 we suddenly realise that all the preceding narrative, Jean-Baptiste’s successful career and then flight into debauchery, all this is set in the 1930s. Even though this book wasn’t published till 1956. Wow.

He took part in the retreat from the advancing German army, fled to the southern sector of France and toyed with joining the Resistance but thought it would be pointless. Crossed the sea to Tunisia where he found a job for a while before he and his boss were arrested and he was sent to a prison camp. Here, as a joke, he was elected ‘Pope’ among his little group of prisoners. (There is such a fatal inevitability about these French writers’ addiction to Catholic teaching, ideology, metaphor and culture; they just can’t break free.)

This final section takes place in Jean-Baptiste’s spartan flat in Amsterdam where he’s invited his listener. He isn’t feeling well. He’s stopped reading. In a revelation he opens a cupboard and shows the listener the lost panel of the Van Eyck altarpiece The Adoration of the Lamb. One of the customers at the bar where we first encountered him, had stolen it and given it to the landlord (the ‘gorilla’) in lieu of payment. When Jean-Baptiste saw it he told the landlord just how valuable it was and persuaded him to hand it over for safe-keeping. And so here it is.

The Just Judges by van Eyck (1432)

The Just Judges by van Eyck (1432)

Jean-Baptiste explains the bitter irony. Tourists who go to the cathedral to see the Van Eyck altarpiece file past a copy of this panel. In other words, he knows they are worshiping false judges and that tickles him, being a lawyer with an obsession with judgement, guilt, penitence and all the rest of the Christian fol-de-rol.

In the last ten pages, weak and feverish, from his sick bed, Jean-Baptiste explains to the listener what it means to be a ‘judge-penitent’, the odd title he’s used to refer to himself throughout.

I found it hard to follow this final section. He seems to say we all need God or a master of some kind, and since God has gone out of fashion, it will have to a cruel master. Thus he is in favour of slavery for everyone, as the only form of democracy and the only way we will all get our just deserts.

On the bridges of Paris I, too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master, whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law. ‘Our Father who art provisionally here … Our guides, our delightfully severe masters, O cruel and beloved leaders …’ In short, you see, the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself. When we are all guilty, that will be democracy… Death is solitary, whereas slavery is collective. The others get theirs, too, and at the same time as we – that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and heads bowed. (p.100)

This seems a bit demented to me. Is this meant to be an exploration of the mentality of a fascist? Or of a decrepit old debaucher? Jean-Baptiste goes on to explain that this is why he now spends his time in a low dive in the Amsterdam docks, preaching his beliefs to anyone who will listen and excoriating his life and loves just as he has been to us.

And, he explains, as he describes his own ‘fall’, slowly, during this explanation, the ‘I’ passes to ‘we’, gradually implicating the listener in his crimes, gradually making the auditor realise that he, too, is a hypocrite…

Jean-Baptiste has not, in fact, repented at all. He continues his wicked ways, serving himself and loving others – only now with a lightened heart, lightened by his confession and lightened by implicating, by dragging down, by sitting in judgment on his hearers.

Whenever one of them cracks, after a lot of gin and berating bursts into tears and beats his breast – then Jean-Baptiste feels again that sublime sensation of being above them, on the mountain, breathing freely. Revels in his superiority.

It is night. It is starting to snow over Amsterdam. Jean-Baptiste works himself up into quite a state, raving about being taken up into heaven in a flaming chariot. He is a neglected prophet, he is Elijah in the desert. Then, a little more rationally, he hopes his listener is a policeman who will arrest him for hiding the stolen Van Eyck painting so that he will be prosecuted, sent to prison, maybe executed, his blood sodden head held up in front of the crowd!

I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate – an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to
come forth. (p.107)

And only now, here on the last page, does his listener reveal that he too is a Paris lawyer. Aha, says Jean-Baptiste, that explains their secret sympathy. Did some woman once throw herself off a bridge as he passed by, did he hear her, did he do nothing and has he been haunted ever since?

And so – is this what the book has been about? Does it all boil down to Jean-Baptiste’s bad conscience about passing that woman who drowned herself? Was his entire psychological collapse, his inability to do his job any more, his sense of being judged by everyone, his flight into debauchery, then to the south, then to Tunisia and then to foggy Amsterdam and into this rather demented persona, into this role of the cackling judge-penitent, and even his mad death wish to be decapitated – is it all caused by his failure to act, to save the young woman? Is all this talk about God and repentance and salvation and Jesus and the rest of it all due to his unbearable guilt for that one failure of nerve?

Maybe to its original readers this came off as a bold and dramatic coup de théâtre, but I felt distinctly underwhelmed.


Commentary

Catholicism and Communism

Camus grew up in a French society where education, culture and society were dominated by the logical precision of Roman Catholicism. During the 1930s there was the steady rise of the French Commuinist Party espousing the supposedly ‘scientific laws’ of Marxist communism. And in the territory between camped out the fashionable existentialist philosophers, led by young Jean-Paul Sartre, the whizz-kid novelist, playwright and critic.

This dichotomy between Catholicism and Communism, both abundant in sweeping generalisations, mythic stories and zany paradoxes (as the works of Graham Greene amply demonstrate) – God, hell, heaven, the revolution, the working class, and so on – provided French writers of his time with a limitless supply of material with which to produce dazzling paradoxes and metaphorical pirouettes.

Whereas in our time, in England, neither the Catholic church nor communism are living presences. Communism has evaporated and there are more practicing Muslims in England than Roman Catholics. We live in different times. And this deadly duo were certainly never as important in English culture as on the Continent.

Thus to read Camus or Sartre is to witness, from the outside, an artist from an essentially alien culture performing tricks with material we don’t really understand or care about. When Jean-Baptiste Clamence makes yet another reference to hell or heaven or God or being damned, I feel as if someone has put great weights on my feet. I find it harder and harder to read on amid these dazzling conjuring tricks played with dead tokens form a defunct religion.

On pages 82 to 87 Jean-Baptiste confides in us what the real purpose of God is and why Jesus really died – hushed confidences breathed by nutcases all over Europe, and the material for hundreds of 20th century authors to concoct text out of.

But you can only write witty and subversive and ‘shocking’ interpretations of God or Jesus if anyone cares about God or Jesus. If no one these days cares about God or Jesus enough to be ‘shocked’ by your subversive interpretations, it is like dead air.

Do you know why he was crucified – the one you are perhaps thinking of at this moment?…  The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others – even though he didn’t know which ones. Did he really not know them? He was at the source, after all; he must have heard of a certain Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place – why did they die if not because of him? Those blood-spattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror… Knowing what he knew, familiar with everything about man – ah, who would have believed that crime consists less in making others die than in not dying oneself! – brought face to face day and night with his innocent crime, he found it too hard for him to hold on and continue. It was better to have done with it, not to defend himself, to die, in order not to be the only one to live… (p.83)

It positively irritates me that both Camus and Sartre are avowed, loud atheists and yet both continue to invoke, at length, the metaphors and language of something they claim doesn’t exist. Their works are full of calls for men to be more consistent and logical but they themselves are howlingly inconsistent with regard to the Christian religion. If there is no God, heaven or hell then stop calling places heaven or hell or referring to God or writing scores of pages about sin and damnation and judgement and redemption and Jesus!

Just listing some of the references to hell in The Fall indicates how central religious metaphors are to this atheist author:

  • Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.
  • If everyone told all, displayed his true profession and identity, we shouldn’t know which way to turn! Imagine the visiting cards: Dupont, jittery philosopher, or Christian landowner, or adulterous humanist – indeed, there’s a wide choice. But it would be hell! Yes, hell must be like that: streets filled with shop signs and no way of explaining oneself.
  • Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.

It’s a kind of cheating. It’s having your cake and eating it. It’s denouncing an entire value system and then using it lock stock and two smoking barrels as key elements of your own value system. But if there is no God, hell, heaven, sin, angels and all the rest of it – then by incorporating these dusty tokens so deeply into his own discourse, Camus condemns his own thought to irrelevance.

How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits. I sit enthroned among my bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven and I watch ascending toward me, as they issue from the fogs and the water, the multitude of the Last Judgment.

None of this exists. It is poetic fantasy.

Dubious aphorisms

Jean-Baptiste Clamence has kept the pompous self-importance which characterised his Parisian success, only now he is self-importantly ‘damned’ rather than one of the self-confessed élite. Either way, he is a handy mouthpiece for Camus’s enduring technique of building up his texts out of tiresome and often dubious aphorisms. Camus and his characters just love telling us pithy truths.

  • Each of us tries to show up to advantage, even in solitude.
  • The act of love is a confession. Selfishness screams aloud, vanity shows off, or else true generosity reveals itself.
  • Every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. (p.42)
  • Martyrs, cher ami, must choose between being forgotten, mocked, or made use of. As for being understood – never! (p.56)
  • People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. (p.60)
  • We rarely confide in those who are better than ourselves. (p.61)
  • We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. (p.62)
  • What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others. (p.62)

The aphorisms are like attractive flowers which grow out of some pretty murky roots. A lot of the text is persiflage which often don’t really make sense. The best roses grow out of ripe manure. In some places the text consists of a battery of dubious generalisations, one after the other.

But the question is not to remain logical. The question is to slip through and, above all – yes, above all, the question is to elude judgment. I’m not saying to avoid punishment, for punishment without judgment is bearable. It has a name, besides, that guarantees our innocence: it is called misfortune. No, on the contrary, it’s a matter of dodging judgment, of avoiding being forever judged without ever having a sentence pronounced. (p.57)

Like many passages in Camus, I read this and don’t understand it.

Punishment without judgement is bearable.

Really? Is it? Being beaten to death for no reason is bearable? But by ‘punishment without judgement’ he appears to mean ‘misfortune’, bad luck. Is that a workable definition of misfortune – ‘punishment without judgement’? I reread this passage carefully and suspect I am beginning to understand it, but it has been a lot of effort to decode something which seems, well, plain wrong. Is any of what he’s saying in the slightest bit applicable to my life, or even very illuminating?

Entire paragraphs are built up like this from shaky generalisations towards even shakier conclusions. Great swathes of text have the appearance and the sound of fine, rigorous logic – but crumple to dust when you pay real attention or think them through.

Is there any way out? Your successes and happiness are forgiven you only if you generously consent to share them. But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others. Consequently, there is no escape. Happy and judged, or absolved and wretched. (p.59)

I know plenty of people, from mums to social workers to carers to nurses, who are awe-inspiringly ‘concerned with others’ – and this brings them immense happiness. A moment’s reflection shows this generalisation, like so many of Camus’s stylish abstractions, to be false.

Women

So after a process of feeling more and more judged and got-at in the society he formerly dominated, Jean-Baptiste decides to run away. To a desert island? No, there are no more desert islands.

I simply took refuge among women. As you know, they don’t really condemn any weakness; they would be more inclined to try to humiliate or disarm our strength. This is why woman is the reward, not of the warrior, but of the criminal. She is his harbor, his haven; it is in a woman’s bed that he is generally arrested. Is she not all that remains to us of earthly paradise? (p.73)

I imagine feminists would not be too thrilled by this sort of generalisation. But I, a non-feminist, am also offended or just unimpressed.

I suppose it’s worth remembering that Jean-Baptiste is a fictional character and that his thoughts and generalisations are not Camus’s. And that if these aphorisms and apothegms are dubious, that is more a reflection on Jean-Baptiste’s preening character than Camus’s.

Except that Camus’s other books are, just like this one, made out of tessalations of pithy aphorisms. And that many of the quotes you come across from Camus are precisely this kind of wild generalisation, albeit taken out of all character and raised to the level of a general truth.

So much Camus sounds like wisdom, but a strangely redundant, irrelevant and often tiresome wisdom.


Credit

The Fall by Albert Camus was published in France in 1956. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1957, and as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Commentary

Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.

Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


Credit

L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

The room was filled with stale heat which had spent its force outside, and left its radiance in the folds of the curtain, and was stagnating there, inert and ominous like a human destiny. (p.66)

Sartre was one of great cultural icons of the mid-twentieth century, the popular face of French existentialist philosophy which he wrote about in countless essays, articles, books and plays, and summarised in his epic and impenetrable treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Most people prefer to sip their Sartre-lite via his half dozen plays (including Huis Close with its famous line ‘Hell is other people’), his début novel Nausea, or the Roads To Freedom trilogy, three novels about France just before World War Two – The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron In The Soul.

The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason is the first of the trilogy, a third-person narrative set in Paris in 1938 which focuses on two days in the life of Mathieu Delarue (French for ‘of the street’). Mathieu is a 34-year-old, tall, gangly philosophy teacher who spends a lot of time mooching round the streets of Paris feeling sorry for himself. He has a sickly lover, Marcelle, who has just announced she’s pregnant and so Mathieu immediately decides she must have an abortion. He visits his fat placid friend Sarah to ask her help, watched by the aloof Brunet, a committed communist and old friend. Slowly Mathieu realises the cheap abortionists he had been considering (400 Francs) risk seriously injuring Marcelle; Sarah knows a high class abortionist, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, but he charges 4,000 Frances – where on earth can Mathieu get that kind of money?

Mathieu asks his sleek gay friend Daniel for the money. Daniel has it but maliciously refuses. He visits his older brother, Jacques, a successful lawyer, who reads him a lecture about his bohemian lifestyle and says he’ll give him 10,000 Francs if he’ll marry Marcelle. Mathieu refuses. He wants to stay free. He is obsessed with his freedom to do and be. Jacque says he is being childish, he is refusing to grow up – he has now reached the age of reason and he must choose to be an adult, to settle down, to marry, to accept that he has a nice government job (as a tenured professor at the Lycée Buffon) a nice government pension and a nice obliging mistress: in what way is he any kind of rebel or non-conformist?

While he ponders these ‘moral’ quandaries Mathieu hangs out with Ivich, kid sister of Boris Serguine, one of his pupils. Ivich is plain and prickly but Mathieu finds himself making a pass at her in a taxi on the way to an art exhibition. Bad mistake. She is prickly and resentful for the rest of the book.

Boris, meanwhile, is having an affair with Lola Montero, the ageing (well, 40 makes her ageing in this book) nightclub singer. He likes the way her face and body are wrinkled, he likes her ‘experience’, whereas she rather more straightforwardly likes having a young lover – it makes her feel young; she tells Mathieu that Boris is her ‘last chance’. If Boris left she would throw herself in the river (p.37). All the characters are like that – hysterical.

Boris like all the other characters doesn’t appear to have a job and is oppressed by his own ‘freedom’ – which some among us might relabel his lack of a job, a career or any responsibilities. So he’s invented a pastime of shoplifting, to give himself a heady sense of ‘being in the moment’.

Meanwhile, we have several long sections devoted to the sleek, plausible homosexual Daniel Sereno. First of all he elaborately packs up his three cats into a basket, takes a succession of trams across town to the Seine and gets as far as tying a paving stone to a string and to the basket, preparing to drown them – for no particular reason, out of motiveless malice – when he realises he can’t go through with it, cuts the string and retraces his step to his apartment.

Later there’s a description of Daniel going to a covered amusement arcade to watch young toughs hanging around waiting to be picked up by gay cruisers. He is filled with contempt and longing for both types. He eyes a sleek 50-year-old man picking up one of the toughs and is boiling over with hatred and self-loathing, when he is himself unexpectedly accosted by a young catamite he got a job at a chemist’s shop. The lad has lost the job and now wants some money. The 50-year-old observes all this and gives Daniel a wink of complicity as he walks by. Daniel is revolted with himself, with the world.

The most frequent word in the text (apart from ‘the’ and ‘and’) is ‘disgust’. All the characters are disgusted with their lovers, with sex, with Paris, with life, but most of all with themselves. The whole novel is an orgy of self-conscious self-loathing.

Mathieu handed her [Lola] the bag: she took a powder-box out of it, and eyed her face with disgust. (p.210)

In a long sequence towards the end of the book Mathieu drops in on a nightclub to meet Boris and Ivich and watch Lola sing. All four characters go through flashes of loathing and hating each other, but also need each other. Boris tries to touch Lola for the money he knows Mathieu needs but makes up a clumsy cover story and causes a big argument with the singer. He loathes her. She hates him. Etc.

Meanwhile, left at the table together, Ivich and Mathieu spend some time loathing each other – why on earth did he kiss such a plain pasty prickly young woman, thinks Mathieu. Ivich is on edge because she’s certain she’ll fail her exams and be forced to return to her parents’ smotheringly bourgeois home in provincial Laon. Boris had bought a large clasp knife and on a whim Ivich uses it to cut a deep slash right across her palm. Not to be outdone Mathieu lets the knife drop point-downwards into his own palm. It pins his hand to the table beneath. When Lola and Borins come back from their argumentative dance it is to find Ivich and Mathieu bleeding badly and linked by a new complicity. The waiter takes them to the cloakroom attendant who patches them up.

Next morning Mathieu meets Ivich at the Dome cafe and they start drinking to get rid of their hangovers, when Boris appears completely dazed. Lola is dead. They went back to her apartment, she took some more drugs (she snorts heroin) and in the morning was cold, still, with her eyes open. Boris begs Mathieu to go to Lola’s apartment and retrieve his bundle of love letters from her suitcase. Mathieu does so partly to impress Ivich and when he is there, in the darkness of the death room, comes across the bundles of thousands of Francs which Lola has been saving for years. All he need do is take 4,000 and he will have the fee for the high class abortion and ensure Marcelle’s well-being. But stupid scruples prevent him – he drops the notes back in the case and is half way across the room when Lola calls out.

She is not dead at all! This was a genuinely dramatic moment, a Grand Guignol moment, and I was as surprised as Mathieu. Turns out Lola was in a drug-induced fugue and now she slowly stirs and recovers.  Recovering from his surprise, Mathieu makes sure she is alright and returns to Boris and Ivich at the café. Here, Boris refuses to believe that Lola is still alive; and, when Mathieu finally persuades him, Boris refuses to accept it. To him Lola is dead; he has got used to it, he had moved on. He doesn’t want to go back to her, to the woman he thought was a corpse.

Meanwhile, in another strand of the plot, it turns out that the sleek homosexual Daniel has been visiting Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, for some time, unbeknown to Mathieu. Daniel is revolted by her (‘He despised Marcelle profoundly’, p.89) but also fascinated by her as a specimen. When Mathieu comes to him to ask for a loan of 4,000 Francs, Daniel wickedly conceives a plan to persuade Marcelle to admit to herself that she wants to keep the baby – and to make her say this to Mathieu – and thus to force Mathieu into having to marry her. The thought of manipulating his ‘friend’ amuses the cynical Daniel (‘When Mathieu adopted a Quakerish attitude, Daniel hated him’, p.94).

Towards the end of the story, Mathieu sneaks back into Lola’s apartment with the key Boris gave him and this time does steal 4,000 of her Francs. He goes to Marcelle’s flat and now finds her strangely attractive and solicitous. (What he doesn’t realise is that Marcelle has been led on by Daniel to believe that Mathieu would propose to her.) When he does nothing of the sort but instead proudly brandishes the money for the abortion, Marcelle’s face falls, she is ashen, she says, ‘So that’s what you think of me’. Mathieu tries to make the situation better, but then, finally, admits – he doesn’t love her any more.

They part. Mathieu goes back to his apartment, where in fact he’d left Ivich sobering up after getting paralytic at lunch time after she’d learned she’d failed her exams and would be sent back to her wretched bourgeois home in the country. The two of them are struggling with whether they love or hate each other, when Lola storms in clutching a bag which probably contains a gun.

On the verge of hysterics, Lola accuses Boris of stealing the 4,000 Francs from her. Mathieu persuades Lola to let the terrified Ivich depart and then confesses that he, Mathieu, stole the money. Around about here it struck me that all these characters are French; maybe that’s why they all hysterically over-react to everything.

He felt ridiculous and detestable… He felt absolutely alone… He felt as though he were plunged in a sinister and preposterous nightmare… Her eyes were glittering with impotent hatred… He saw the back of that tall black figure moving with the blind momentum of catastrophe… ‘I’m even more disgusted with myself…’ Daniel filled him with horror… He was alone… ‘You hate me’ …

Lola is still shrieking her accusations when Daniel dramatically enters stage right, and proffers her an envelope containing the very same amount of bank notes she’s shrieking that Mathieu stole from her. It seems that he visited Marcelle soon after Mathieu left, she gave them the money to give back to Mathieu, and he has stumbled upon this ridiculous scene. Daniel hands the money to Lola. Voilà!

(Some of the writing feels like it’s from a pulp novel. The hysterical over-reacting to everything feels like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Stripped of the relentless nihilism, it is, in fact, a bedroom farce. Mathieu should be played by Brian Rix.)

Lola is eventually pacified and stumbles off wailingly asking why Boris won’t come back to her.

Once alone with Mathieu, Daniel announces with a flourish that he is going to marry Marcelle. They are going to keep the baby. Mathieu feels like fainting. Daniel goes one step further and reveals to Mathieu that he is gay. What? They both need a drink and broach Mathieu’s bottle of rum. Gay? And going to marry Marcelle? Eh bien – Mathieu, the author and the reader all give a deep Gallic shrug – pourquois pas?


Disgust and loathing

As you can see there’s a fair bit of toing and froing among this cast of deadbeats and losers, but the ‘plot’ is mostly beside the point. The purpose of the novel is to show the Sartrean worldview through six or seven glutinously imagined characters – and that worldview is one of gloomy despair, morbid fear of getting old, of disgust at other people’s decaying, wrinkled, smelly bodies, revulsion at your own physical existence, and a pervasive, sickly hyper-sensitive self-awareness.

The characters ‘suddenly feeling old’, like they do in so many middle-class novels, is trite enough:

  • Good Lord she’s getting old (p.14)
  • ‘I’m getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair and believing in nothing…’ (p.48)
  • She had suddenly aged. (p.275)

And white bourgeois fictional characters feeling ashamed of their bodies is fairly commonplace. Mathieu is continually oppressed by his sense of his own body, ugly and lank:

  • … a tall and naked figure, moulded out of dough (p.43).
  • Mathieu felt uneasily obtrusive: a heap of refuse against a wall. (p.72)
  • Mathieu made a gesture of disgust. (p.100)

It’s a little unusual that all the characters are consumed with disgust.

  • She disliked her body. (p.68)
  • Daniel envisaged himself with disgust. (p.85)
  • Daniel eyed him with disgust. (p.132)
  • ‘She revolts me.’ (Boris on Lola, p.213)

But the universal revulsion at the physical, at being human, is an incessant chorus of dismay and revulsion which envelops the whole book, gushing forth on every single one of the 300 pages. One strand is Mathieu’s dislike (and fear) of children:

  • Mathieu felt uneasy, without quite knowing why. He had the sense of being engulfed by the child’s eyes. ‘Children are greedy little devils,’ he thought, ‘all their senses are mouths.’ (p.43)
  • He looked at the child and he looked at the fly. A child. A bit of thinking flesh that screams and bleeds when it is killed. (p.44)
  • A child: another consciousness, a little centre-point of light that would flutter round and round, dashing against the walls, and never be able to escape. (p.46)

But this fear of the physical reaches orgasms of revulsion in Mathieu’s revolting imagining of a) sex b) of the little blister of flesh, the foetus growing inside his mistress’s heavy, smelly pink body, and c) how it will be pricked, slashed and sucked out in the abortion.

  • And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies – do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on – three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. (p.21)
  • In a pink room within a female body, there was a blister, growing larger… There was no time to lose, for the blister was expanding at that very moment: it was making obscure efforts to emerge, to extricate itself from the darkness, and growing into something like that, a little pallid, flabby object that clung to the world and sucked its sap. (p.44)
  • And she thought: ‘It’s there’. In that belly a little strawberry of blood was making haste to live, with a sort of guileless urgency, a besotted little strawberry, not even yet an animal, soon to be scarped out of existence by a knife. (p.69)

Unpleasant enough, but the text goes way beyond a universal physical revulsion into metaphysical disgust. Consciousness itself is seen as an impossible heavy, wearing, and disgusting phenomenon. It starts with his dislike of children, progresses through his disgust at the growing foetus, and spreads like a stain into a helpless horror at the sheer disgustingness of being alive, at being conscious, at having:

An absurd, superfluous life… (p.70)

Walking down the street is a trial for several of the characters: the heat, the sunlight, the other people, the noise threatens to overwhelm and drown them, to flood and erase their sense of self.

His solitude was so complete, beneath a lovely sky as mellow and serene as a good conscience, amid that busy throng, that he was amazed at his own existence: he must be somebody else’s nightmare, and whoever it was would certainly awaken soon. (p.150)

And this morbid self-consciousness reaches new heights in a disgust at being seen. It is bad enough to be a consciousness trapped inside a revolting body: but in some sense other people trap you in their gaze. You become an object for others, with no escape from their controlling gaze. Thus, when Mathieu leaves the pink prison of Marcelle’s bedroom he is so oppressed by the sense that she is still imagining him, that he feels he is still there – he has to go out of his way into a bar and chat to the staff and customers solely in order to exist for someone else.

He felt the need of being seen. Just of being seen. (p.19)

Boris is similarly self-conscious. In the nightclub he feels Lola’s scrutiny as a physical sensation.

He had a pain in his right side as a consequence of being looked at. (p.24)

This is one aspect of Sartre’s existential philosophy: the aspect he called being-for-others, the external objective side of ourselves which is permanently on display, unfree, trapped. On the other hand it can sometimes restore us to a sense of ourselves when we are lost. Daniel, after having sex with a rent boy, is so disgusted he contemplates suicide and, holding the razor in his hand, becomes almost completely empty of thought and feeling, just a pinprick of consciousness, an arm, a slice of sharpened metal. Eventually, he tears himself free and runs hysterically down into the street.

He must run, he must get away as far as possible, immerse himself in noise and light, in a throng of people, he must become a man among his fellows, and feel the eyes of other men upon him. (p.268)

Freedom

This brings us to the issue of ‘freedom’. Critics I’ve read say the novel is a meditation on freedom, in particular Sartre’s convoluted idea of freedom which is not a positive, but a kind of terrifying nothingness into which we’re hurled and from which we have to create our own lives from scratch, with no help or guidance from outworn creeds or dead religions. And hence the over-arching title of the series, Roads To Freedom as it indeed dramatises different characters’ journeys towards different definitions of freedom.

But this gives an inaccurately optimistic sense of the novel; in reality it is Mathieu’s gloomy meditations on his directionless life which have the most power. The bus he’s riding in brakes suddenly and Mathieu suddenly realises:

‘No, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.’ Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation: he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate: to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight around with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.’ (p.243)

Maybe. Maybe that is the ‘human condition’ but why give it such a negative spin? Why ‘condemned’, why not ‘liberated in the sunshine’ to walk and run and skateboard and surf and buy a Harley Davidson and travel the world? The freedom part may be right (I disagree) but the immensely negative emotional interpretation Sartre gives it is entirely his own (and his own problem).

Anyway, I am with Mathieu’s brother, Jacques, when he says that Mathieu is a self-centred good-for-nothing who has no direction or purpose, who’s kept his mistress dangling for seven long years, and makes a fetish of his own inability to make decisions.

The most schematic part of the book is the character of Brunet, who is an almost comical stereotype of the Strong, Conscientious Communist. He invites Mathieu to join the Party. He explains that being a member has given him a sense of purpose and brotherhood with other members all round the world.

‘You are the son of a bourgeois, you couldn’t come to us straightaway, you had to free yourself first. And now it’s done, you are free. But what’s the use of that same freedom, if not to join us…You live in a void, you have cut your bourgeois connections, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there… You renounced everything in order to be free… Take one step further, renounce your freedom: and everything shall be rendered unto you.’ (p.118)

By sinking his individuality into a strong disciplined political movement he has gained his individuality. Mathieu listens sympathetically – Brunet is an old friend, and also an imposing presence, tall, physically superb, muscular hands, a man of the people – but as with his mistress or his friends or his job, Mathieu can’t quite bring himself to make a decision. One day he will, he tells Brunet, he tells himself, one day he will make the Great Decision which demonstrates his freedom… just not yet, not yet…

Reading the Brunet sections makes you wonder whether the aim of the book is Communist propaganda (after the war, when this book was being written, Sartre came out as a self-proclaimed Marxist). Maybe the entire novel is designed to show up the pettiness and negativity of the petit bourgeoisie, to show the pointless, aimless lives of modern people who have not accepted The Cause, who have not given their lives a Purpose by committing to the Communist Party. Maybe.

Alternatively, the young student Bruno – who hates being described as Mathieu’s ‘disciple’ – has his own, rather immature definition of freedom.

The individual’s duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenge every idea and every person. (p.138)

Put like that, maybe Sartre and his philosophy have disappeared because they have been so thoroughly subsumed into our modern attitude. Boris’s credo pretty much sums up the attitude of my daughter, aged 16. Maybe these ‘freedom’ sections which caused so much debate in 1945, now seem thin and lifeless because we all think like that, talk like that, and have the t-shirt. Maybe.

Either way, the dozen or so ‘freedom’ sections feel like plasters strapped onto the groaning seething mass of disgust, appalled descriptions of physical functions and an apparently never-ending series of ways for the characters to feel disgusted and revolted by each other. The pregnant Marcelle has morning sickness:

A long filament hung from her lips, she had to cough it away… She watched the dabs of mucus sliding slowly towards the drainpipe leaving glossy, viscous tracks behind them, like snails. (p.68)

This is just one of hundreds and hundreds of vividly described moments of revulsion, nausea, disgust and loathing which saturate the text.

Back in the day, educated people agonised about how to find meaning in a world stripped bare of religion and the old certainties, and threatened by Nazism and totalitarianism. Sartre’s novels and plays, on one level, set out to dramatise that predicament and are of fascinating historical interest. But that predicament, that sense of a personal crisis inextricably linked to the crisis of an entire continent (at a central moment Mathieu buys a newspaper and reads about the latest nationalist atrocity in the Spanish Civil War and is possessed by nausea and fear), and the burning necessity to Make a Choice, to throw in your lot with one political party or the other… all that is long gone.

What has really endured of this book is the relentlessness of everyone’s misery and of their super disgust at being human, at having bodies, at ageing, at living.

  • am my own taste, I exist. That’s what existence means: draining one’s own self dry without the sense of thirst. Thirty-five years. For thirty-five years I’ve been sipping at myself and I’m getting old.’ (p.48)
  • ‘I am utterly immured in my own self.’ (p.186)
  • He spoke with disgust and in short spasms. ‘I’ll try to change,’ he said. ‘I’m contemptible,’ he thought… They walked in silence, side by side, immersed in sunlight, and in mutual detestation. But, at the same time, Mathieu saw himself with Ivich’s eyes, and was filled with self-contempt. (p.80)
  • That ghastly self-contempt, that utterly weak, futile, weak, moribund self-contempt, which seemed at every moment on the point of self-annihilation, but always survived. (p.270)

Fat unhappy Marcelle – trapped by illness in her pink bedroom, stifled by the mother she shares her apartment with – is the central symbol of the squalid reality of the physical body, of nausea at its revolting fecundity, a claustrophobic image of unhappiness.

She sometimes had the feeling that her life had come to a stop one day at noon, and she herself was an embodied, eternal noontide brooding upon her little world, a dank and rainy world, without hope or purpose…. She felt sick…then a sense of uttermost disgust gathered upon her tongue… She disliked her body… the sight of women suckling their babies in the Luxemberg: a feeling beyond fear and disgust…she dreaded having to despise him… (p.67)

But she is only the most extreme example of the quality all the characters share, Sartre’s own disgust and revulsion at life, of being alive, of being human.

In a few days she would be nothing but a lump of misery… A slime of pity had engulfed him. He had no sympathy for Marcelle, and he felt profoundly disgusted… (p.160)

‘The slime of pity’ – Sartre likes slime, viscous trails, vomit, mucus, semen, blood.

I read this book on a lovely sunny day and couldn’t help thinking that all the characters in it needed to get out more, to get a hobby, get some exercise, and generally get a life. None of them have jobs (Mathieu has stopped work for the vacation) or children – they are completely free of timetables and responsibilities, utterly free to be as unhappy and negative as they please.

‘Oh,’ Ivich said vehemently, ‘how I hate the summer.’ (p.73)

The absolute determination of all the characters to be as miserable as possible eventually becomes quite funny. Sometimes it felt like ‘Monty Python and the French Philosopher’, with John Cleese saying in a heavy French accent, ‘Oh no, I feeel ze anguish of freedom oppressing my consciousness and feeelling me with despair at ze ‘uman condeetion’. Some bits made me laugh out loud, they were so over the top.

Love was not something to be felt, not a particular emotion, nor yet a particular shade of feeling, it was much more like a lowering curse on the horizon, a precursor of disaster.’ (p. 250)

Yes, Jean-Paul – love is a curse and a disaster.

If you hate summer, loathe being touched, are so morbidly self-conscious that other people looking at you hurts you, if you are revolted by your bodily functions and oppressed by a feeling of futility and pointlessness, ‘burdened by events to come’ and prey to ‘an intolerable anguish’ (p.83) – then this is the book for you!

Scandal

A footnote in The Last Chance explains that the right-wing Vichy regime which ran unoccupied France till 1944, executed a woman for providing an abortion. The subject of abortion appeared squalid to me, in 1977, but we all miss a lot if we don’t realise that the subject matter was so scandalous that Sartre couldn’t think of publishing the novel till after the Liberation, and even then it called down on his head a ton of criticism from all the respectable, right-thinking critics of his day.

Translation

L’Age de Raison was translated into English by Eric Sutton in 1947. Or at least into a form of English.

‘Glad I am to see you, Ivich.’
‘Good morning,’ said she. (p.52)

As with Darkness at Noon, which I’ve just read, the text’s source in another language is obvious on every page in an English which often clings to French word order and phraseology. The continual alien cadence of the sentences helps to ease the entrance, facilitates acceptance, of what is at the end of the day, a very very alien worldview.


Credit

L’Age de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. The translation by Eric Sutton was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. This was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint which I bought 40 years ago for 75p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell (1935)

She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. (p.295)

Orwell’s second novel, published in March 1935, is an oddity. A decade later he wrote it off as a potboiler and it, he even prevented it being republished when the original print run sold out. Along with its fellows Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up For Air (1939), ACD is generally overlooked because readers in a hurry prioritise his world-class classics, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the reportage of Down and OutWigan Pier, and Catalonia, and then brisk no-nonsense of his numerous political and literary essays.

Are these neglected novels worth reading?

A Clergyman’s Daughter

A Clergyman’s Daughter is divided into five distinct parts and, once you’ve finished the book, you realise they don’t fully hang together, both stylistically and in terms of plot.

Part one

introduces us to Dorothy Hare, the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church, Knype Hill, a large village in Suffolk. Dorothy is pushing 28, plain and honest, wakes up every morning around 6am to light the kitchen fire and heat the water for her father to shave in, and makes breakfast for him. They have a lacklustre live-in servant, Ellen, but the atmosphere is of extremely run-down, shabby-genteel poverty. Dorothy is continually berating herself for failing her own religious ideals – exemplified by her habit of sticking her hat pin into her forearm every time her mind wanders off during Holy Communion or she has a wicked thought. Consequently, her arm is a rash of little red marks.

In among a detailed account of her daily routine (visiting the rural poor, shopping with her meagre allowance and trying to manage the rector’s debts with the numerous town merchants) we learn she is sort of friends with the shamelessly immoral local ‘artist’ (who never paints anything), Warburton, who has a mistress and three illegitimate children. Warburton invites Dorothy to dinner to meet a novelist friend and his wife.

The novelist couple never turn up. In fact, they don’t even exist: fat (always the worst crime for tall, skinny Orwell), bald (another no-no) middle-aged Warburton invented them solely to lure Dorothy to his house under a false sense of security so he can seduce her. This consists of standing behind the after-dinner chair she’s sitting in, placing his hands on her shoulders and then running them up and down her bare arms. Dorothy leaps to her feet and tells him to stop, insists on putting on her coat and leaving. At the gate to his garden he tries to kiss her but she averts her mouth, wriggles free of his grasp and walks home to the rectory. Here, as chastisement to herself for getting into such a ridiculous situation, Dorothy carries on preparing costumes for the children’s village play, though it’s midnight and she keeps dozing off…

Part two 

opens with a surprising piece of experimental prose describing a human being slowly waking to consciousness of themselves, as a mind, as a series of sensations, as a body and then of a unified person. It is the nearest Orwell gets to acknowledging the influence of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf among the many other modernist novelists who were experimenting with stream of consciousness prose and other attempts to describe non-normal states of mind.

Dorothy has lost her memory. She slowly comes to awareness, standing on a street in London dressed in shabby black outfit, with no idea who she is or how she got there. If a sympathetic helper had taken her to a police station she might have quickly regained her past, but instead she is almost immediately taken up by three street people, two young lads and a girl, who are off to Kent to pick hops.

Confused and dazzled by their patter (specially when they discover she is the proud owner of half a crown), she finds herself inveigled into the shattering process of walking the thirty or more miles into Kent, which takes three days of hunger and begging. This ordeal is followed by even more penurious traipsing round Kent farms looking for work. Finally they get ‘lucky’ and Dorothy spends a month or so in the extremely demanding and badly-paid work of picking hops by hand, alongside a community of other hop pickers, beggars from London, and bands of gypsies.

The introduction to the modern Penguin edition I’m reading refers to the fact that in Orwell’s original conception of the novel, at the end of part one Warburton successfully seduces or rapes Dorothy, before bundling her into a car and driving her to London, there – presumably – to dump her and abandon her on the street, as we find her in part two. This is in fact the account given to everybody, including the press, by the village gossip, Mrs Semprill, who claims to have seen Warburton driving off at speed in his car, with a scantily-clad woman in the passenger seat. However, apparently due to the risk of prosecution, the whole rape scene had to be dropped and replaced with the weird non-sequitur we now have – in the text as we have it Dorothy resists the seduction and goes safely home to the rectory where she dozes off and then… mysteriously appears in London.

Eventually, right at the end of the hop-picking sequence she comes across a newspaper giving salacious account of ‘Scandal of Rector’s Daughter’, complete with photo, which repeats Mrs Semprill’s salacious account – and Dorothy undergoes the physical shock of realising it is her in the newspaper – this is her name and identity and story!

But even with her memory back, she can’t make sense of the account the newspaper gives of her being seen sitting in a car being driven by Warburton. Did he get her drunk and persuade her to elope with him? That’s certainly not what happens at the end of part one as we have it. Of course, Dorothy’s version – resisting seduction, cycling home, falling asleep – could be explained away as a kind of ‘fake memory’ she concocts to repress the brutal truth, as sometimes happens to trauma victims. But then the third-person narrator who described her cycling home would have been deliberately misleading us, which seems unlikely because part one is narrated in Orwell’s sensible, matter-of-fact voice.

If in doubt, I simply go with what is in the text – so many novels, plays, and especially movies and TV series, have mucked about with time and consecutive narrative, with shock reversals, ‘it was all a dream’ scenarios, that we 21st century readers are very used to all kinds of tricks and sleights of hand. She fell asleep in her rectory. She wakes up in London nine days later having lost her memory. OK. I’ll buy that.

Meanwhile, the detailed description of going ‘on the tramp’ down to Kent, of begging and scrounging on the road, and then of the hard outdoors life of the hop picker, are quite obviously straight from Orwell’s personal experience. It has the scrupulous attention to detail of his other works of reportage, right down to the appearance of individual pickers, details of conditions on the farm, the disadvantages of sleeping in straw as opposed to hay, the slang of the various tramps and beggars, the songs sung by the pickers and the gypsies, and much much more. If you skip part two’s ‘experimental’ woman-with-amnesia opening section, this long passage of reportage could easily have been added into Down and Out in Paris and London.

So: by the end of part two Dorothy has remembered her identity and quit the hop-picking (which was drawing to its end anyway). She makes her way back to London where she pawns her last belongings and spends the money rooming for a week in a filthy, damp room in a run-down lodging house for prostitutes off the Cut, behind Waterloo Bridge. She had written to her father from the hop camp hoping he’d reply, forgive her and take her back. But no reply comes. She writes again from London, but no reply.

Dorothy spends her one week with a roof over her head in public libraries copying out adverts for servants and then traipsing all over London to apply for them. But she finds that a single woman, with an educated accent and no luggage, is instantly perceived as what she in fact is (is she?) – a woman who’s been seduced and dumped. An immoral woman. Her predicament is an opportunity for a characteristic outburst of Orwell’s love of social ‘types’ (and studied dislike of health cranks).

She trudged enormous distances all through the southern suburbs: Clapham, Brixton, Dulwich, Penge, Sydenham, Beckenham, Norwood – even as far as Croydon on one occasion. She was was haled into neat suburban drawing-rooms and interviewed by women of every conceivable type – large, chubby, bullying women, thin, acid, catty women, alert, frigid women in gold pince-nez, vague rambling women who looked as though they practised vegetarianism or attended spiritualist seances. (p.147)

Dorothy can find no work. At the end of the week she is forced out of the lodging house and onto the street.

Part three

continues the vein of stylistic experimentation – confirming the sense from the opening of part two that Orwell is dipping his toe into contemporary modernist techniques. For part three is written entirely in script format, giving brief location settings and then extended passages of the dialogue of various characters. He uses the format to convey the incessant and inane chatter of the down-and-outs, hobos and tramps among whom Dorothy has fallen, congregated one bitter night in Trafalgar Square – namely Charlie, Snouter, Mr Tallboys, Deafie, Mrs Wayne, Mrs Bendigo, Ginger and The Kike.

I find scripts difficult and boring to read and Orwell seems to agree. This is by far the shortest section, making up only 30 pages of this 300-page novel, with a few passages of prose scattered in it to explain the few bits of action, and it soon gets tiresome. I can, however, see that the script format emphasises the way that:

a) Nothing happens; the tramps mostly just lie or sit around near benches in Trafalgar Square in a kind of Samuel Beckett-like stasis.
b) Also, they are each stuck within their own stories and so don’t converse, don’t talk to each other: each one is like a robot or the proverbial cracked gramophone record – the old lady cursing her husband for kicking her out, mad Deafie singing an obscene song over and over, Ginger complaining about how he was set up to organise a robbery where he was caught and sent to prison. Each one is a prisoner of their own consciousness and life story.

Around midnight, Charlie starts stamps up and down giving a rousing performance of the bawdy ballad, ‘Rollicking Bill The Sailor’, evidently a song Orwell has heard, and which I tracked down on YouTube. It certainly is as bawdy as Orwell claims (again, due to publishing law, Orwell doesn’t include any of the lyrics):

Thus we are to imagine the chaste and devout rector’s daughter among this company of obscene automatons, a picture of human misery.

DOROTHY [starting up]: Oh, this cold, this cold! I don’t know whether it’s worse when you’re sitting down or when you’re standing up. Oh, how can you all stand it? Surely you don’t have to do this every night of your lives?
MRS WAYNE: You mustn’t think, dearie, as there isn’t SOME of us wasn’t brought up respectable.
CHARLIE [singing]: Cheer up, cully, you’ll soon be dead! Brrh! Perishing Jesus! Ain’t my fish-hooks blue! [Double marks time and beats his arms against his sides.]
DOROTHY: Oh, but how can you stand it? How can you go on like this, night after night, year after year? It’s not possible that people can live so! It’s so absurd that one wouldn’t believe it if one didn’t know it was true. It’s impossible!

In the end, she is arrested for vagrancy by the – it must be said – not unfriendly policeman who patrols the Square.

Part four

After these experimental episodes the narrative reverts to a traditional third-person voice for a refreshingly humorous passage going back to Knype Hill and describing how the rector was awoken by Ellen the servant, on the morning of Dorothy’s disappearance, and was more shocked by the fact that he had to prepare his own breakfast than by the news that his daughter had eloped.

Being completely hopeless, the rector hands the task of tracking Dorothy down over to his cousin, Sir Thomas Hare, from the moneyed part of the family, who lives in London and so is assumed to have ‘contacts’.

The Sir Thomas sections are done in broad humour for he is a caricature of a Sir Bufton-Tufton type, all ‘what what’ and tugging on his moustachios, while continually forgetting what he is saying.

Sir Thomas Hare was a widower, a good-hearted, chuckle-headed man of about sixty-five, with an obtuse rosy face and curling moustaches. He dressed by preference in checked overcoats and curly brimmed bowler hats that were at once dashingly smart and four decades out of date. At a first glance he gave the impression of having carefully disguised himself as a cavalry major of the ‘nineties, so that you could hardly look at him without thinking of devilled bones with a b and s, and the tinkle of hansom bells, and the Pink ‘Un in its great ‘Pitcher’ days, and Lottie Collins and ‘Tarara-BOOM-deay’. But his chief characteristic was an abysmal mental vagueness. He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences. When he was puzzled or in difficulties, his moustaches seemed to bristle forward, giving him the appearance of a well-meaning but exceptionally brainless prawn. (Chapter 4.1)

He has a manservant, Blyth, who speaks so softly you have to watch his lips carefully to make out what he is saying. This character feels directly descended from Dickens, as Sir Thomas descends from a long line of titled buffoons sprinkled throughout English fiction. The rector sends Sir Thomas some money and asks him to find out Dorothy’s whereabouts. Sir Thomas passes this request onto the silkily efficient Blyth (reminiscent, maybe, of the legendary Jeeves and a thousand other silently capable butlers of popular fiction) who commences his task the day after Dorothy had been arrested and bailed for vagrancy. Blyth swiftly locates Dorothy, approaches her in the street and invites her back to Sir Thomas’s Mayfair house. Astonished at this turn of events, Dorothy goes with him, washes, buys a new outfit of clothes and is transformed.

Kindly Sir Thomas is flabbergasted by how impressive she looks and speaks. What to do next? Somehow it is assumed by everyone that she can’t go back to Knype Hill – ‘the shame my dear’ – and so Sir Thomas’s solicitor suggests she gets a job as teacher in a suburban prep school. Within days it is arranged and she departs for Ringwood House Academy for Girls in Southbridge, ‘a repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London’.

There follows a long chapter satirising the shortcomings of minor private schools in the 1930s, reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s debut, Decline and Fall (1930). Most of the public school authors of this generation (Auden, Waugh, Greene, Orwell himself) did a spot of private school teaching, Orwell in 1932 and 1932 at a private school in Hayes, West London – an experience this chapter is very much indebted to.

Ringwood House turns out to be a scandalous scam, run by the scheming, bitter, joyless Mrs Creevy who’s made a living dunning money from the uneducated local shopkeeper parents of fifteen or so girls from age 8 or so to 15, who have remained scandalously uneducated. The previous teacher had been sacked for getting paralytically drunk in class. Initially daunted at the responsibility of being ‘a teacher’, Dorothy finds out on the first morning that the children know nothing, have been taught nothing. Their lessons consisted solely of hours practicing their hand-writing – forced to write out over and over a trite ‘essay’ about the joys of spring – of learning a handful of French phrases, and the bare minimum of ‘sums’ i.e. some adding and subtracting.

We remember from part one the love and attention Dorothy lavished on the school play back at Knype Hill and so are not surprised that, first chance she gets, she goes into London to buy a decent atlas, some mathematical tools, some plasticine and a bunch of copies of Macbeth. She sets the girls to building a map of the world out of the plasticine, pins up a frieze of paper round the wall to create a timeline of British history onto which they pin pictures cut out from magazines of historical characters, and so on. The children love her.

But, ‘of course’, it can’t last. The children love their daily joint reading of Macbeth but in the last scene, when MacDuff explains that he was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, many of the children end up going back home that night and ask their puritanical non-conformist parents what a ‘womb’ is. This causes a rebellion of outraged parents who the next day storm into Ringwood House and subject Dorothy to a humiliating inquisition which brings her close to tears.

That isn’t all. Even when they’ve left, Mrs Creevy starts on Dorothy in her own right, carefully and cynically explaining the situation: the children are not to be educated; they are to be rote taught to perform the basic tricks which their parents expect of them – fancy handwriting, a handful of French phrases, enough maths to be able to help out in the shop. Mrs Creevy throws away the plasticine map of the world, burns the timeline of British history and sells the copies of Macbeth.

Dorothy, in complete misery, has to abandon any hope of genuinely teaching her children: she needs this job; the memory of the nights in Trafalgar Square rises up before her; she has no choice but to obey wretched Mrs Creevy. When the new Dorothy appears before them, the children’s attitude turns from disbelief to devastation to sullen bitter resentment. They taunt her, play up, act rebellious. She has abandoned them; they take every opportunity to rub it in. In the climax of her humiliation, Dorothy finds herself taunted one step too far by the most vicious child and hits her. She has become her own worst nightmare.

She submits to Mrs Creevy’s every whim. She completely abases herself up to and including faking the children’s end-of-year school reports. They have all made ‘outstanding progress’. Dorothy receives small indicators from frosty old Mrs Creevy that she is warming to her. It is a recurrent joke that Mrs Creevy half starves Dorothy but in the last weeks before the end of term she allows her slightly more food and – in a solemnly comic moment – even (reluctantly) allows her access to the marmalade jar at breakfast.

However, it is only the more effectively to trick her. On the very last day of term, when Dorothy expects to have her contract renewed, Mrs Creevy summarily sacks her. A wizened old crone from another wretched private school has agreed to decamp to Mrs Creevy’s establishment, bringing with her half a dozen paying pupils. This is a financial boost Mrs Creevy cannot ignore and so – despite having humiliated herself and stomped all over her better nature and principles in order to please her – Dorothy finds herself out on her ear again. Mrs Creevy turns the screw by promising to forward her luggage once Dorothy is established somewhere – but for a fee of five shillings!

Part five

BUT there is to be a fairy-tale ending, worthy of the the great Charles Dickens who hovers over so much of Orwell’s writing. Just as Oliver Twist spends 400 pages enduring life among thieves and beggars on the streets of London, only to be magically revealed as the heir to a fortune in the final pages – so Dorothy is walking down the street when who should draw up in a taxi but – a beaming chuckling Warburton.

Immediately we are swept out of the world of powerless poverty and into the calm confidence of the amiable man-of-the-world. When he hears that Mrs Creevy has gouged the five shillings out of Dorothy, he turns the cab round and he and the cabman go and retrieve the money – just like that. ‘What a hole’, Warburton comments of the school, calmly and confidently, and away he whisks her.

For the reader, who has accompanied Dorothy on her knees through so many valleys of humiliation, it is an astonishing psychological transformation to be lifted into the bright sunlight. It is also striking that it is effected by a man. There is a sense of re-entering a kind of virile world of power and activity. Warburton, in his way, is every bit as nonchalantly confident and effective as the equally caddish Verrall, in the previous novel, Burmese Days. Maybe this is:

  1. an unconscious prejudice on Orwell’s part – that the feminine is helpless victim and the masculine bold and decisive
  2. or is a deliberate piece of feminist satire, highlighting how helpless and downtrodden a woman can be by patriarchal society
  3. or is simply the structural requirement that there had to be some kind of ‘salvation’ from Dorothy’s apparently endless plight, and ‘poetic justice’ makes it come from the very man who apparently caused it all in the first place
  4. or a combination of all the above

In short order Warburton tells Dorothy that Mrs Semprill’s salacious account of their elopement has been disproved, she is redeemed not only with the good gossips of Knype Hill but with her father, who wants her to return home immediately. He takes her for a slap-up meal and then they catch a train to Suffolk. The topic of conversation turns to Dorothy’s ‘loss of faith’, Warburton disputes that she was ever a Christian, but could never actually face it. Hence her loss of memory  -it was a psychological route out of an impossible situation:

He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner. Dorothy had never heard of anything of this kind before, and she could not at first accept his explanation.

Neither can we. Why did this tight corner suddenly occur on that night rather than any other? And how did she get to London?

Meanwhile, the train journey turns into a long discussion of faith and its absence i.e. living in a meaningless universe. This is no problem for Warburton, who is an amused hedonist: everything boils down to pleasure. But Dorothy tries to express the strangeness of the feeling she’s experiencing, living in a world newly devoid of faith. Imperceptibly, by steps, Warburton manoeuvres Dorothy into a mood wherein he suddenly takes off his hat (revealing his pink bald head) and proposes marriage to her. The reader is as startled as Dorothy. He follows up by spending two pages painting an extremely biting portrait of what the rest of her life will be like as a skivvy to her increasingly impoverished and gaga father, and then how she’ll be left penniless at his death and have to take a job as a governess or return to school-teaching. This is the fate of the spinster woman in the 1930s.

It is a hypnotically awful prospect and allows Warburton to take Dorothy’s hand, lift her to her feet, and then he’s begun to embrace her and is moving to kiss her before the spell is broken. Dorothy realises it was all yet another attempt of the revolting bald fat old man to seduce her.

a) It’s a strikingly slow-building scene b) It tends, yet again, to completely refute the rape notion.

Dorothy leaps back, revolted. Warburton subsides into his seat, amused and cynical: oh well, it was worth a try. The rest of the journey continues in trivial chat.

Dorothy is delivered back to her father who is delighted that his breakfasts will now be served on time. He accepts her explanation that she ‘lost her memory’ though she sees that he doesn’t really believe her. The final section of the book is a fairly long meditation on Dorothy’s loss of faith. What does it mean to live in a world without God? How can she continue to go through the motions of helping out at communion and other services, of officiating over semi-religious works with the Girl Guides and so on? She is back in the scullery making fancy dress costumes, this time for the big pageant she is organising, on her knees cutting and pasting just as she did when she ‘fell asleep’ in part one. She prays for help, for guidance in her Unbelief – and is suddenly brought back to the present by the smell of the glue heating on a pot on the stove. The glue brings her back to the world of projects and tasks. She really must get on with the costumes. Then there are the village bills to be paid. Dinner tonight to organise. And so on.

She has discovered one of the great truths – that happiness or contentment, ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ aren’t things in themselves – they are the by-products of absorption in a task.

She did not know this. She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them. Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them. (p.295)

And this makes sense of the epigraph to the book, a quote from Hymns Ancient and Modern:

The trivial round, the common task

from the hymn New every morning is the love written by John Keble in 1827. Read as autobiography, the opening and especially the close of the book suggest Orwell’s strong, unbreakable roots within the Anglican tradition.


Conclusion

Rape or memory loss?

There’s a lot to consider and mull over in this book: the biting portraits of poverty among the down-and-outs and the back-breaking work of the hop-pickers; the long section exposing the scandal of fourth-rate private schools; the decision to use ‘experimental’ techniques; the final meditation on the meaning of life. But the central question is, How effective or believable is the character of the clergyman’s daughter – Dorothy – herself?

Certainly Orwell’s aim is to be sympathetic to women. The book is a sort of rake’s progress through 1930s England except the central character is deliberately a woman in order to show the hundred small humiliations as well as a couple of huge central injustices, to which women of the day were liable to be victim.

Nonetheless, there are scores of problems. The whole novel is predicated on the notion that Dorothy is hopelessly shamed by being seduced and dumped – exactly as in the cheesiest Victorian melodrama. But in this bowdlerised/confused narrative, she isn’t raped or seduced, she went home to work on the school play costumes and then… then what? We never really find out why she ends up a week later in London in strange clothes with no memory. In chapter 5 Dorothy herself appears to give the reason to Warburton:

‘And do you think that’s really the end of it? Do you think they honestly believe that it was all an accident — that I only lost my memory and didn’t elope with anybody?’

As to why she lost her memory, there’s Warburton’s explanation that it was something to do with mental conflict, with her realising she was not a Christian — but there had been absolutely no indication of that in the previous text. And anyway, none of this explains how she came to be standing in a London street in someone else’s clothes eight days later.

Lacking this central motor for the plot, all the ancillary circumstances seem forced and gratuitous. Why can’t she go back to her father? Why doesn’t she contact the police and ask them to intervene? Or any other family members? Why doesn’t she go to the nearest church and explain the situation?

It’s hard to work out, but she fails to take any of these steps due to her sense of shame. Isn’t this all a very Victorian motivation for an entire novel? Isn’t it a bit out of place in a woman of the 1930s? It’s difficult to judge.

It is traditional to expect some kind of psychological ‘development’ in a literary novel. It’s not really clear that Dorothy changes at all. For example, if she had been raped or even seduced, lost her virginity and dumped, you’d have expected this to have left quite a psychological mark, but it doesn’t. Maybe Orwell dropped the rape idea not only because it might have led to prosecution, but because he knew he wasn’t up to imagining or describing the psychological consequences.

2. Loss of faith

Similarly, Dorothy is described as ‘having lost her faith’ during her trials and tribulations. A reasonable enough development and Orwell describes it in persuasive terms which probably apply to lots of people throughout the long decline of the Church of England:

There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith – as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind. But however little the church services might mean to her, she did not regret the hours she spent in church. On the contrary, she looked forward to her Sunday mornings as blessed interludes of peace; and that not only because Sunday morning meant a respite from Mrs Creevy’s prying eye and nagging voice. In another and deeper sense the atmosphere of the church was soothing and reassuring to her. For she perceived that in all that happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposed purpose may be, there is something — it is hard to define, but something of decency, of spiritual comeliness — that is not easily found in the world outside. It seemed to her that even though you no longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better to follow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom. She knew very well that she would never again be able to utter a prayer and mean it; but she knew also that for the rest of her life she must continue with the observances to which she had been bred. Just this much remained to her of the faith that had once, like the bones in a living frame, held all her life together.

Good, eh? Insightful into the feel of losing religious faith – but he doesn’t really show its impact on her personality. There’s no real change in perception or thought between the woman who pricked herself with pins for having the slightest unreligious thought and the woman who doesn’t think about God for weeks on end and has completely stopped praying. She’s just a bit sadder, that’s all (as described on page 273).

Something had happened in her heart, and the world was a little emptier, a little poorer from that minute. On such a day as this, last spring or any earlier spring, how joyfully, and how unthinkingly, she would have thanked God for the first blue skies and the first flowers of the reviving year! And now, seemingly, there was no God to thank, and nothing — not a flower or a stone or a blade of grass — nothing in the universe would ever be the same again.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe this is what ‘loss of faith’ amounts to. Warburton and Dorothy discuss what ‘loss of faith’ means to her on the train to Suffolk but it’s an oddly inconsequential conversation with no real outcome. There’s plenty more at the end of the book, but the whole theme seems very dated, very Victorian.

The meaningless of life in a world without God was exercising many continental writers, of whom Albert Camus (whose first work Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism was published the same year as Orwell’s book) and Jean-Paul Sartre (whose first novel Nausea, was published in 1938) spring to mind as the most obvious.

But they were starting from emptiness and then trying to build meaning. Orwell starts from deep within the comforting bosom of the Church of England and, although his heroine goes far beyond its bounds in her physical adventures, the novel shows that she never really leaves its imaginative realm in her mind.

This may or may not present a persuasive imaginative journey, depending on your temperament. I was certainly glad that she didn’t marry Warburton, but chose a life of integrity to herself and of service to religious customs, even if her faith had died. More interesting.

3. Sexual coldness

Another ‘issue’ is the way Dorothy is described early on as being averse to men. After Warburton has met her in the street and managed to kiss her cheek, Dorothy finds a quiet corner and wipes it off so fiercely she draws blood. She hates being mauled and pawed. She is repulsed by the touch of men, ‘like some large furry beast that rubs itself against you’ (p.81), and nauseated at the thought of sex (the word sex appears nowhere in the book, Dorothy refers to it as ‘all that’).

Orwell goes out of  his way to explain that her revulsion was due to witnessing, at age eight, certain scenes between her mother and father. Later, still a child, she was horrified by prints of nymphs and hairy goatish satyrs. For months afterwards she was terrified of going through the woods in case a satyr leaped out on her. Now, on the one hand this seems to me a sympathetic imagining into the mind of a child and then into the mind of the woman the scared child has become. Where Orwell crosses a line which we nowadays would consider reprehensible is where he judges her ‘sexual coldness’ to be ‘abnormal’.

It was her especial secret, the especial, incurable disability that she carried through life. (p.80)

This may or may not have been the way women of the 1930s thought about their aversion to sex, as some kind of ‘abnormality’. It is plausible in the context of the book and the general setting. It echoes how my mother, born in 1932, talked about the attitude to sex of her mother, aunts and other relations.

Then Orwell takes the matter further and makes one of the many generalisations-cum-jibes which litter the book. He concludes of Dorothy’s sexual coldness that the psychological impact of her childhood experiences is too deep to be changed:

It was a thing not to be altered, not to be argued away. It is, moreover, a thing too common nowadays, among educated women, to occasion any sort of surprise. (p.83)

Is Orwell saying that many of the educated women of his day are ‘frigid’? Controversial. (And see my point about Orwell’s sweeping generalisations, below.)

At the end of the book, when Warburton proposes marriage, Dorothy recoils.

She took it for granted that he ‘knew why she couldn’t’, though she had never explained to him, or to anyone else, why it was impossible for her to marry. Very probably, even if she had explained, he would not have understood her.

I don’t understand her. Is this is a continuation of her sexual coldness or – as hovers over the whole subject – is Orwell hinting that she’s a lesbian? Or is that too crude and too modern an interpretation? Discuss…

Recap

To recap: I think the lack of Dorothy’s psychological development – or the way it is described but not really dramatised – is tied up with the massive hole at the centre of the plot i.e. the motivation for her flight and descent into the netherworld. Both undermine the book’s claim to literature or even coherence. However, neither problem prevented me in the slightest from really enjoying reading it.

The hop-picking section is a brilliant piece of reportage which will record for all time in fascinating detail the exact nature of this type of work. My next-door-neighbour in London is an old man, just turned 80, who several times has talked about going hop-picking in Kent as a boy. He loved it. Obviously, if you were a penniless adult and it was your only source of income it was different, and this long section deserves to go into any collection of sociological reporting from the era.

Same for the script-format account of One Night In Trafalgar Square, which really conveys the cold, lack of sleep and insistent presence of other smelly, half-mad humans, the sense of abasement and humiliation, horribly well.

Sitting down, with one’s hands under one’s armpits, it is possible to get into a kind of sleep, or doze, for two or three minutes on end. In this state, enormous ages seem to pass. One sinks into a complex, troubling dreams which leave one conscious of one’s surroundings and of the bitter cold. The night is growing clearer and colder every minute. There is a chorus of varying sound–groans, curses, bursts of laughter, and singing, and through them all the uncontrollable chattering of teeth. (Chapter 3)

And also, although looking at the big picture, the character of Dorothy doesn’t quite add up, there are literally hundreds of details which Orwell describes very persuasively about Dorothy’s thoughts and hopes and feelings and experiences, which do make for very compelling reading. Her daily round in the Suffolk village is extremely believable and so is her sense of daily misery and failure in the school.

So, despite its ‘failure’ as a coherent work of literature (if you like to judge novels in those terms) it is still a brilliant and compelling read. As usual with Orwell, the vividness and immediacy of his prose makes you want to reread entire sections for the pure pleasure of their accuracy and incisiveness.


Some stylistic features

Of course and etc

Orwell often gives the impression of being too impatient to be a novelist. By the 1930s he had very settled opinions and these involved very much seeing people as types, who all conform to type and speak according to type. An Anglican vicar will of course say X, a non-conformist will say Y, a Socialist will reply with Z. Mrs Creevey is the type of head mistress, the philistine parent who criticises Dorothy is the type of half-educated blustering bully, Ellen is the type of the feeble live-in servant. Orwell’s text is full of descriptions of ‘one of those sort of people or schools or days…’

  • Like every Anglo-Catholic, Victor had an abysmal contempt for bishops. (p.66)
  • He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences.
  • She was one of those people who experience a kind of spiritual orgasm when they manage to do somebody else a bad turn. (p.218)
  • It was one of those schools that are aimed at the type of parent who blathers about ‘up-to-date business training’, and its watch-word was Efficiency; meaning a tremendous parade of hustling, and the banishment of all humane studies.
  • It was one of those bright cold days which are spring or winter according as you are indoors or out. (p.271)

This reduction of people (and situations) to types who always say the same kind of thing explains Orwell’s frequent usage of the phrase ‘of course’ and ‘etc etc’.

‘Of course’ indicates that, yes, of course and predictably enough, this is the same old situation and the same old thing happens and the same old person does the same old kind of thing.

And Orwell’s use of ‘etc etc’ at the end of people’s dialogue indicates that he is bored, and he expects the reader to be bored, by listening to the same old predictable rigmarole.

It is an odd attitude for a novelist to take towards his own creations.

Etc

The constant singing round the bins was pierced by shrill cries from the costerwoman of, ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat! Pick them ‘ops up! I’ll warm your a– for you!’ etc., etc.

Some mornings he had orders to ‘take them heavy’, and would shovel them in so that he got a couple
of bushels at each scoop, whereat there were angry yells of, ‘Look how the b–‘s ramming them down! Why don’t you bloody well stamp on them?’ etc.

THE POLICEMAN [shaking the sleepers on the next bench]: Now then, wake up, wake up! Rouse up, you! Got to go home if you want to sleep. This isn’t a common lodging house. Get up, there! [etc.,
etc.]

YOUTHS VOICES FROM THE REAR: Why can’t he —- open before five? We’re starving for our —- tea! Ram the —- door in! [etc., etc.]
MR WILKINS: Get out! Get out, the lot of you! Or by God not one of you comes in this morning!
GIRLS’ VOICES FROM THE REAR: Mis-ter Wil-kins! Mis-ter Wil-kins! BE a sport and let us in! I’ll give y’a kiss all free for nothing. BE a sport now! [etc., etc.]

There was an essay entitled ‘Spring’ which recurred in all the older girls’ books, and which began, ‘Now, when girlish April is tripping through the land, when the birds are chanting gaily on the boughs
and the dainty flowerets bursting from their buds’, etc., etc.

Various of the coffee-ladies, of course, had stopped Dorothy in the street with ‘My dear, how VERY
nice to see you back again! You HAVE been away a long time! And you know, dear, we all thought it such a SHAME when that horrible woman was going round telling those stories about you. But I do hope you’ll understand, dear, that whatever anyone else may have thought, I never believed a word of them’, etc., etc., etc.

Of course

The tell-tale phrase ‘of course’ is liberally scattered throughout the text, indicating the author’s rather tired sense of the inevitability of his own story and the predictability of his own characters.

  • After that, of course, his heart was hardened against Dorothy for ever.
  • Of course, the Rector denied it violently, but in his heart he had a sneaking suspicion that it might be true.
  • But several more days passed before this letter was posted, because the Rector had qualms about addressing a letter to ‘Ellen Millborough’ – he dimly imagined that it was against the law to use false names – and, of course, he had delayed far too long. Dorothy was already in the streets when the letter reached ‘Mary’s’.
  • It was very little use, of course, telling him that she had NOT eloped. She had given him her version of the story, and he had accepted it.
  • Mrs Creevy watched Dorothy’s innovations with a jealous eye, but she did not interfere actively at first. She was not going to show it, of course, but she was secretly amazed and delighted to find that she had got hold of an assistant who was actually willing to work.

But the instance which made me stop and really notice this mannerism comes in the middle of the private school section. After describing at length the steps Dorothy takes to genuinely educate her charges, the text reads:

But of course, it could not last.

Why ‘of course’? Why write ‘of course’? Only if you assume you are sharing with your readers a fatalistic sense that things always turn out for the worse. ‘Of course’ used like this assumes a kind of matey familiarity with stories of this type. I can’t quite put it into words but it is more the approach of a journalist in a newspaper who assumes that everyone shares his or her prejudices. ‘Of course the sexists did this or the racists did that or the wicked imperialists did the other’, if you’re reading the Guardian. Or ‘Of course health and safety did this, or red tape stifled the other, or EU bureaucrats imposed the other’, if you’re reading The Daily Mail. It evinces a long-suffering exasperation at the sheer bloody predictability of most people.

Orwell describes the scene where Dorothy reluctantly explains to the girls who’ve asked her, what a ‘womb’ is, and then editorialises:

And after that, of course, the fun began.

You feel the author coercing your responses. He assumes the odds are stacked against his heroine and expects you simply to fall in with his prejudices about people and life in general. Sometimes the reader bridles at being pushed.

Generalisations

Orwell’s prose is dotted with sweeping generalisations, which I thoroughly enjoy for their air of man-of-the-world confidence, even if I don’t in the slightest agree with them or sometimes even understand them.

  • It is a curious fact that the lure of a ‘good investment’ seems to haunt clergymen more persistently than any other class of man. Perhaps it is the modern equivalent of the demons in female shape who used to haunt the anchorites of the Dark Ages. (Chapter 1.2)
  • It is a fact – you only have to look about you to verify it – that the pious and the immoral drift naturally together. The best brothel-scenes in literature have been written, without exception, by pious believers or impious unbelievers…
  • It is fatal to flatter the wicked by letting them see that they have shocked you. (Chapter 1.3)
  • Like all abnormal people, she was not fully aware that she was abnormal. (p.82)
  • No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it.
  • It was the fourth of April, a bright blowy day, too cold to stand about in, with a sky as blue as a hedgesparrow’s egg, and one of those spiteful spring winds that come tearing along the pavement in sudden gusts and blow dry, stinging dust into your face.
  • Nothing in the world is quite so irritating as dealing with mutinous children.

The generalisations are linked to the ‘of courses’ and ‘etcs’. They all indicate how much the novelist understands and comprehends human nature: he is familiar with all human types and the boring predictability with which they come out with the same old kind of speeches and arguments, and from this lofty vantage point he is able to dispense weighty-sounding generalisations about human nature and the world at large.

  • There are two kinds of avaricious person – the bold, grasping type who will ruin you if he can, but who never looks twice at twopence, and the petty miser who has not the enterprise actually to make money, but who will always, as the saying goes, take a farthing from a dunghill with his teeth. (Chapter 4)
  • Like most ‘educated’ people , she knew virtually no history. (p.207)
  • In these country places there’s always a certain amount of suspicion knocking about. Not suspicion of anything in particular, you know; just generalized suspicion. A sort of instinctive rustic dirty-mindedness.
  • Do you know that type of bright — too bright — spinster who says “topping” and “ripping” and “right-ho”, and prides herself on being such a good sport, and she’s such a good sport that she makes everyone feel a little unwell? And she’s so splendidly hearty at tennis and so handy at amateur theatricals, and she throws herself with a kind of desperation into her Girl Guide work and her parish visiting, and she’s the life and soul of Church socials, and always, year after year, she thinks of herself as a young girl still and never realizes that behind her back everyone laughs at her for a poor, disappointed old maid? (p.281)
  • The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. (p.288)

Although Orwell overtly and explicitly in his writings describes himself as a Socialist and takes every opportunity to ridicule the rich, the exploiters etc, although in other words the content of all his writing is left-wing – its manner and tone are the result of intensive training at Britain’s premier school for its managerial elite, Eton, and then of five years as an officer in the British Empire’s Military Police.

The sweeping generalisations, the bored descriptions of every social type and their oh-so-predictable speeches, all indicate the supreme confidence of the classic public school product. And it is this essentially patrician manner which, ironically, partly accounts for his popularity among his many left-wing fans.

Comedy

Orwell can be very funny, specially when in broad, humorous Dickensian mode. Take the description of Sir Thomas as an ‘exceptionally brainless prawn’. The long section about Dorothy’s humiliations in the school is essentially downbeat and grim but contains comic touches which prevent it being really despairing.

The district pullulated with small private schools; there were four of them in Brough Road alone. Mrs Creevy, the Principal of Ringwood House, and Mr Boulger, the Principal of Rushington Grange, were in a state of warfare, though their interests in no way clashed with one another. Nobody knew what the feud was about, not even Mrs Creevy or Mr Boulger themselves; it was a feud that they had inherited from earlier proprietors of the two schools. In the mornings after breakfast they would stalk up and down their respective back gardens, beside the very low wall that separated them, pretending not to see one another and grinning with hatred. (Chapter 4)

Comedy is itself often rooted in the predictability of social ‘types’. This bitter feud is funny because it is in fact a familiar trope – the embittered neighbours feuding over long-forgotten trivialities. Similarly, Sir Thomas waffling on for so long that he constantly forgets what he set out to say. Or the sly, almost silent man-servant, Blyth. Or Dorothy’s own father’s immense selfishness, more concerned about his late breakfasts than his missing daughter. These are all stock types with expected attributes, which could almost come from a Restoration comedy, certainly from an 18th century comic novel. What lifts them above the level of stereotype is Orwell’s genuinely imaginative turns of phrase.

Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist. (page 204)

Even in small details Orwell reveals his debt to Dickens’s genius for anthropomorphising objects and giving them a character which slyly contributes to the scene or story. At Mrs Creevy’s penny-pinching school:

In honour of the parents’ visit, a fire composed of three large coals was sulking in the grate.

Pinching

An oddity in Orwell’s novels is the ubiquity of pinching. Apparently men signalled their sexual overtures to a woman by pinching her, particularly her arms and elbow. Thus Elizabeth, in Burmese Days, has to fight off the unwanted attentions of her employer.

  • The bank manager whose children Elizabeth taught was a man of fifty, with a fat, worn face and a bald, dark yellow crown resembling an ostrich’s egg. The second day after her arrival he came into the room where the children were at their lessons, sat down beside Elizabeth and immediately pinched her elbow. The third day he pinched her on the calf, the fourth day behind the knee, the fifth day above the knee. Thereafter, every evening, it was a silent battle between the two of them, her hand under the table, struggling and struggling to keep that ferret-like hand away from her. (Chapter 7)
  • She had come out of her bath and was half-way through dressing for dinner when her uncle had suddenly appeared in her room – pretext, to hear some more about the day’s shooting – and begun pinching her leg in a way that simply could not be misunderstood. Elizabeth was horrified. This was her first introduction to the fact that some men are capable of making love to their nieces. (Chapter 15)
  • Mr Lackersteen was now pestering Elizabeth unceasingly. He had become quite reckless. Almost under the eyes of the servants he would waylay her, catch hold of her and begin pinching and fondling her in the most revolting way. (Chapter 23)
  • Her aunt would be furious when she heard that she had refused Flory. And there was her uncle and his leg-pinching – between the two of them, life here would become impossible. (Chapter 24)

Pinching bums I heard of in the 1960s and 70s, and still gets reported today by scandalised feminists: but pinching a woman’s legs or arms or elbow? Anyway, the practice crops up here again, when the cad Warburton, supposed artist and bohemian, bumps into Dorothy in the village High Street.

  • He pinched Dorothy’s bare elbow – she had changed, after breakfast, into a sleeveless gingham frock. Dorothy stepped hurriedly backwards to get out of his reach – she hated being pinched or otherwise ‘mauled about’. (Chapter 1.3)
  • Dorothy was all too used to it – all too used to the fattish middle-aged men, with their fishily hopeful eyes, who slowed down their cars when you passed them on the road, or who manoeuvred an introduction and then began pinching your elbow about ten minutes later. (Chapter 3.6)

Pinching your elbow?

Social history

So this is the kind of shabby genteel squalor in which a 1930s vicar lived – big cold empty church, a dwindling congregation, a sprawling vicarage he can’t afford to heat or run, gloomy rooms lined with mouldering wallpaper and rickety furniture. So this is what a flophouse in the Cut looked and smelt like – peeling wallpaper, damp sheets, unspeakable toilets. So this is what rural poverty looked like, 70-year-old men and women still having to labour for money, living in small filthy cottages whose windows and doors don’t close, drawing water by hand from a deep well.

Lots of the detail reminds us how very long ago 1935 was. The rectory has no hot water, no electricity, no radio or TV, no shower, no fridge or freezer, washing machine, tumble dryer or dishwasher. All household chores are hard, bloody work which have to be done by hand. Early in the morning and after dark the house is lit only by candlelight. What a life! In many, many ways Orwell’s world is closer to Dickens’s than to ours, and this helps explain the lingering influence of Dickens in his writing, not least in the juxtaposition of brutal social realism with broad humour.

Beauty

And yet, in the midst of all the squalor and poverty, the down-trodden humiliation of shabby-genteel life or plain beggary, Orwell is also capable of noticing and describing beauty.

Dorothy caught sight of a wild rose, flowerless of course, growing beyond the hedge, and climbed over the gate with the intention of discovering whether it were not sweetbriar. She knelt down among the tall weeds beneath the hedge. It was very hot down there, close to the ground. The humming of many unseen insects sounded in her ears, and the hot summery fume from the tangled swathes of vegetation flowed up and enveloped her. Near by, tall stalks of fennel were growing, with trailing fronds of foliage like the tails of sea-green horses. Dorothy pulled a frond of the fennel against her face and breathed in the strong sweet scent. Its richness overwhelmed her, almost dizzied her for a moment. She drank it in, filling her lungs with it. Lovely, lovely scent — scent of summer days, scent of childhood joys, scent of spice-drenched islands in the warm foam of Oriental seas!

Her heart swelled with sudden joy. It was that mystical joy in the beauty of the earth and the very nature of things that she recognized, perhaps mistakenly, as the love of God. As she knelt there in the heat, the sweet odour and the drowsy hum of insects, it seemed to her that she could momentarily hear the mighty anthem of praise that the earth and all created things send up everlastingly to their maker. All vegetation, leaves, flowers, grass, shining, vibrating, crying out in their joy. Larks also chanting, choirs of larks invisible, dripping music from the sky. All the riches of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song of birds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, mingling and ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Therefore with Angels and Archangels! She began to pray, and for a moment she prayed ardently, blissfully, forgetting herself in the joy of her worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered that she was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against her face. (Chapter 1)

This celebration of the natural world is not what most people associate with Orwell, but it is there, along with lots of other unexpected qualities in this strange, uneven, unfinished, wildly uneven but compellingly readable book.

To answer the question I asked myself at the start, Yes, I think it is definitely worth reading, for all sorts of reasons.


Credit

A Clergyman’s Daughter was published by Victor Gollancz in 1935. All quotes are from the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2000.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1940s – Inside the Whale and other essays
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


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