History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


Related reviews

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

Brenda and Tony

Five or six years ago Brenda Rex married Tony Last. She is Lord St Cloud’s daughter, ‘very fair, [with an] underwater look’. They lived in a flat in London till Tony’s father died two years later, and left him an impressive Victorian country house, Hetton, loving described in a page of purple prose. But what with the upkeep of the big draughty place and wages for the fifteen or so servants (including the butler, Ambrose), they don’t have much disposable income and can’t afford to go up to London very often.

They have a simply adorable little boy, John Andrew, who has a tut-tutting nanny. One of the other servants is a riding master, Ben Hacket, who’s teaching the boy how ride and jump fences on his pony, Thunderclap (and in a comic recurring theme, also exposing the boy to rather fruity phrases which nanny considers wholly inappropriate).

Enter John Beaver

One weekend, John Beaver, a non-descript young man comes to stay. He has no money and no title and no relatives. One night when Tony was up in town he found himself in the bar of his club, Bratts, almost alone except for this Beaver fellah, and they had a few drinks and then dinner and Tony, out of politeness, asked him to come down to stay at the country place. Never dreamed he would. But here he was, having caught the train down.

There are no other guests so he and Brenda put a brave face on entertaining the young man, carefully assigning him the coldest spare bedroom (Sir Galahad; with Victorian heaviness, all the bedrooms are named after characters from the King Arthur stories) with the most uncomfortable bed, in a bid to get rid of him asap.

During the day Tony makes excuses to go out on estate business, see to his tenants, pop into the local town, go to church on Sunday morning and generally avoid young Beaver. So it falls to Brenda to engage him in conversation and try to keep him entertained.

At first, when Beaver has gone to dress for dinner or whatever, when she is alone with Tony, she complains about how tiresome he is. But Beaver is used to staying at country places, he’s the non-descript, unimportant chaps who makes up the numbers at countless society parties and weekends, and so he puts on a good display of conversation and pretends to be interested in the house and ends up staying an extra night. By the time he leaves on Monday morning Brenda is describing him as quite tolerable, you know.

Their affair begins

Thus begins the slow slide by which Brenda Last commences an adulterous affair with bland John Beaver, to her own surprise, the amazement of her sister, Marjorie, and the delight of gossip-starved wider society.

(Brenda’s sister, Marjorie is married to Allan, ‘the prospective Conservative candidate for a South London constituency of strong Labour sympathies’. They are hard up, too hard up to afford a baby, but popular. They live in a little house in the neighbourhood of Portman Square, very convenient for Paddington Station and they own a Pekingese dog named Djinn, who various other characters find objectionable.)

John’s backstory

John’s backstory is that his father is dead and he was laid off from the one job he’s ever had, in an advertising company, during the Slump. Now he lives with his mother, Mrs Beaver, in her small house in Sussex Gardens. He calls her ‘mumsy’. She runs a small business providing furnishings for the London homes of the rich. He has the dark little sitting-room (on the ground floor, behind the dining-room) and his own telephone. His clothes are looked after by an elderly parlourmaid.

Beaver has one distinction – he is a universal backstop guest for posh parties. If a society hostess is arranging a smart dinner party and a male guest lets her down at the last minute, John is the man she calls. Thus John spends the early part of every evening sitting beside his phone, waiting for a call, and is rarely disappointed. Someone, somewhere, needs a presentable man at short notice and, from his base in Sussex Gardens, he can walk or catch a cab to be with his hostess in as little as fifteen minutes, sometimes arriving just as the guests are going in to dine, sometimes after they’ve completed their first course.

Tony the model squire

Tony Last’s distinguishing feature is his immense love for his rambling old house, Hetton, and the plans continually revolving round his head of how to renovate and improve it. He attends church every Sunday (sitting in the family box pew his father had specially built, which is big enough to hold an armchair!), chats with the rather gaga vicar (‘the Reverend Tendril’) after the service, makes friendly conversation with the villagers, many of whom are his tenants. He is a sentimentalised vision of the modern squire, hard up in the modern way, forced to scrimp and save, but benevolently patriarchal and well meaning. His quiet, rural integrity stands in time-honoured opposition to the shallow, immoral infidelities represented by the big bad city.

Familiar plot

In fact the outline of the plot is time-honoured and traditional. Young society girl marries nice chap with house in country, moves to country, produces son and heir, becomes bored, then very bored, then has fling with first halfway eligible man who crosses her path.

Obviously there’s lots of precisely imagined and described detail, both of the affair and the London high society it takes place amongst. One of the striking things for a modern reader is how Brenda and Beaver make no attempt to hide their affair. They attend the usual round of high society parties so that within days their names are being bandied about over dinner party tables and morning phone calls. Very quickly everyone knows they’re having an affair, everyone except poor Tony.

Waugh indulges in a little editorialising, repeating the idea floated in Vile Bodies that people read gossip columns, and gossip generally, in order live fuller lives via other people. The key word is ‘vicariously’, which occurs here and in the similar passage in Bodies:

The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. (p.57)

Gossip is a key part of Waugh’s fiction. Waugh is the poet laureate of gossip.

A love nest in London

The affair takes a step up when Brenda persuades Tony that she needs a little flat in town, a pied a terre, an idea suggested by Mrs Beaver who is converting a Victorian house into stylish bedsits containing a bedroom and ensuite bathroom. Tony reluctantly lets Brenda rent one and then accedes to her sudden desire to spend rather a lot of time at it. For a front she claims to want to take an adult degree in economics, it will help her manage accounts at Hetton. Tony innocently believes this obvious lie.

For his part, John is chuffed to be treated with new respect by the polite society which he has previously only been on the fringes of.

And Beaver, for the first time in his life, found himself a person of interest and, almost, of consequence. Women studied him with a new scrutiny, wondering what they had missed in him; men treated him as an equal, even as a successful fellow competitor. ‘How on earth has he got away with it?’ they may have asked themselves, but now, when he came into Bratt’s, they made room for him at the bar and said, ‘Well, old boy, how about one?’ (p.58)

So the plot – bored married woman has affair – may be pretty run of the mill, the pleasure comes from: Waugh’s beautiful style; a thousand and one acute observations about the people and posh lifestyles he’s describing; and, more subtly, the precise way Waugh conceives and records the slow change in Brenda’s attitude and in the climate of her marriage. If you want to drag ‘morality’ into literature, then it is a moral decline, but recorded, annotated, measured, in psychological details.

‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar

Brenda stays away from Hetton more and more. When she comes back to Hetton Tony is pitifully glad to see her. Our sympathies harden against Brenda when she conspires to palm off a free single woman on Tony. With atrocious misunderstanding of her husband, she thinks if she can push him into having an affair, then they’ll be morally equal.

So Brenda comes down to Hetton with two posh society friends and Mrs Beaver, who is now offering to do up the main rooms in the house (to Tony’s dismay). But the point of the visit is an extended comic passage about a ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar (real name Jenny), a heavily made-up and over-scented vamp who Brenda and the other women take every opportunity to leave alone with Tony, as she flirts with him, gives him a silly nickname, hints at her tragic past, declares she simply loves the house and in every way tries to tempt him into an affair which will then justify Brenda’s brazen, heartless adultery. But it is a comic fail. They’ve all underestimated Tony’s good, true, faithful heart.

The Shameless Blonde

Tony’s best friend, Jock Grant-Menzies, comes for the weekend bringing his latest girlfriend, a thoroughly modern divorcée who the two men have nicknamed ‘the shameless blonde’. Her actual name is Mrs Rattery and she was American by origin but is now thoroughly internationalised, having lived for years in the best hotels in capital cities around the world. She turns out to be supremely capable and flies in her own plane to Hetton, which she lands in the park, climbing out, tall and limber in her flying outfit, the model of a 1930s, Art Deco, über-woman.

Next day is the big fox hunt which young John Andrew has been excitedly looking forward to for months. Waugh describes the buildup and hunt with the same thoroughness and accuracy that he brings to any subject if he sets his mind to it (compare the numerous factual descriptions in his travel books). For me, fox hunting doesn’t become any the less ludicrous the more the traditions and rituals surrounding it, are described. Most Londoners get more foxes in their gardens than the Pigstanton Hunt gets in this novel. But it is an important symbol of the life of the country squire, that sense of deep English heritage which also informs, say, the novels of Saki or Siegfried Sassoon.

Death of John Andrew

Half way through the book comes its devastating shock. Little John Andrew is really enjoying the hunt but his father made Ben promise to bring him back before 1pm and as 1 approaches, despite John’s whines to be allowed to ride some more, Ben tells him they must return.

All morning there have, of course, been numerous other riders and horses. The most notable was Miss Ripon riding a very difficult, temperamental bay horse her father has been trying to get rid of for years. She’s packed in following the hunt and joins them on the ride along the road back to the stables, with John to her right and Ben on the outside. At a bend in the lane one of the country buses unexpectedly appears coming the other way but slows right down and pulls over. Bit nerve-making but OK. But, alas, Miss Tendril, the vicar’s niece, has come up behind the horses on her fashionable motor bike and at that precise moment it backfires with a terrific, loud report.

Miss Ripon’s horse starts and panics, rearing sideways and knocking John Andrew off his mount and onto the tarmac road. Ben yells at Miss Ripon to whip her horse, which she does and it regains focus and shoots off down the road. But not before it lashes out with a powerful rear hoof which connects with John Andrew’s head and sends him flying into the ditch where he lies perfectly still. He is killed instantly.

The impact of John’s death

In his previous novels Waugh had deliberately underplayed the deaths of various characters, they happened peripherally, that was a deliberate tactic in creating the sense of the brittle, heartless high society he wanted to portray.

Here, it is the opposite. We arrive back at Hetton to find Tony has been informed of his son’s abrupt, tragic and quite meaningless death. Like the stiff upper lip English gent he is (or fancies he is, or Waugh fancies he is) he is dealing capably with all the social obligations and arrangements which a death in the family entails. The workmen redecorating the drawing room have been sent home. Mr Tendril the vicar pays a sombre visit. With typical empath and selflessness, Tony is most concerned about Miss Ripon who was in a terribly emotional state and kept blaming herself. Ben arrives and gives his side of the story. Jock arrives and is with Tony alone.

Everybody agrees it was nobody’s fault, no one is to blame. This phrase is echoed again and again by various characters and with each iteration becomes more meaningless. It is a cruel, shocking insight into a universe with absolutely no purpose or concern for anybody.

Tony is most worried who will tell Brenda. He’s phoned her at her London flat umpteen times but no reply. Jock, who, like everyone else, knows about Brenda’s affair with Beaver, volunteers to go to London and tell her. Initially Mrs Rattan, the  brisk, effective American divorcée, offers to fly them both up to London but something in Tony’s tone makes her change her mind. It is notable that, out of all the characters, it is the only non-English person, the American divorcée, who grasps just how deeply Tony is in shock, that he is on the verge of going completely to pieces. So she says she will stay with him, overriding all his objections, meaning Jock will take the train up to London. And stay she does during the long empty afternoon of his newly desolate life, trying to distract him with numerous different card games. The understated power of this passage brought tears to my eyes.

Brenda’s reaction

Meanwhile, there is another scene designed to shock. Jock makes it to London, knocks on the door of Brenda’s flat, only for her neighbour to open, none other than the vampish, self-dramatising ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar’. She knows where Brenda is, at Polly Cockpurse’s place where a gaggle of posh ladies are having their fortunes read by the latest fashionable fortune reader. When Brenda emerges from her session she sees from her friends’ faces that something bad has happened and she rushes downstairs to see Jock. He tells her to prepare herself and then tells her that John is dead.

Brenda goes white and has to sit down. But as Jock begins to tell the details of the death, about the hunt and the horse, Brenda becomes confused, perplexed – and then realises Jock isn’t talking about John Beaver, he is referring to her son, John Andrew. At which point the novel screeches off its hinges into a terrible moment of moral indictment. In that split second of realisation, Brenda is relieved that it was only her son who was killed, not her adulterous lover.

[Jock] ‘I’ve been down at Hetton since the week-end.’
[Brenda] ‘Hetton?’
‘Don’t you remember? John was going hunting to-day.’
She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying. ‘John… John Andrew… I… oh, thank God…’ Then she burst into tears.
She wept helplessly, turning round in the chair and pressing her forehead against its gilt back. (p.118)

God. Has any fictional character ever been so totally skewered? She is relieved to learn that it’s only her son who’s died. And realises it in the same moment, realises what a terrible terrible thing that is to have thought and felt.

Jock drives Brenda back to her flat, sits while she packs her things in shock, drives her to the station to catch the train down to Hetton. She makes a feeble attempt to excuse herself, saying she didn’t know what she was saying. Jock says bluntly: ‘You know what you said.’ He drives to his club. He stands at the bar saying nothing to anyone.

A few days later, when Jock goes down to Hetton to keep Tony company, he listens as Tony explains why Brenda told him she had to get away from the house, how deeply upset she must be, how he wishes he could help her. Jock says nothing. He doesn’t tell anyone what she said. God, the buttoned-up, repressed, tight-lippedness of these people.

Brenda and Tony attend the inquest. Afterwards she moves slowly, mechanically. Sits in a daze. Stares out the window. This is really beautifully conveyed, her sleep-walking dazedness. She tells Tony it’s all over, she must get away. He doesn’t understand. Not till she writes him a letter from back in London saying she is in love with John Beaver and wants a divorce. Tony is incredulous. He… he trusted her.

The divorce

An entire chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the absurd lengths one had to go to in the 1930s to gain a divorce. Because Tony is a gentleman he ‘does the right thing’ which is arrange to be the guilty party. He contacts a divorce solicitors who organise the usual procedure, which is that he goes to a hotel somewhere (he chooses Brighton) with a woman of his choice (Jock and Tony give this a lot of thought and then go visit a dingy ‘nightclub’ they’d visited one very drunk night earlier in the story, and alight on the blowsy prostitute, Milly). They explain the deal to Milly, explaining it will be purely a business transaction, no sex required. When Milly asks if she can bring her 8-year-old daughter, Winnie, Tony briskly refuses. Nonetheless, when Milly arrives at the station to meet Tony for the train to Brighton a few days later, she has brought Winnie who proves to be a world class pain in the butt during the following tortuous weekend.

So they catch a train together to Brighton, accompanied at a distance by the two private detectives hired by the divorce solicitors who will testify to Tony’s adultery in court and so win the divorce. Winnie keeps whining, wanting ‘ices’ and insists on being taken to see the sea despite there being a howling rainstorm. Tony outrages his detectives’ sense of professional propriety by socialising with them, buying them drinks and then cocking up the all-important ‘morning after’ scene by having such an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant with whining Winnie that it is an effort to then put a dressing gown on (over his other clothes) and clamber into a big double bed with Milly (who’s tired and grumpy) so they can be served by hotel staff who will later testify to finding them in bed together etc.

An unpleasant obligation, required by his impeccable good manners and sense of responsibility, is finally completed.

Payback

Back in London Tony is visited by Brenda’s elder brother, Reggie, an obese archaeologist. At this point it gets nasty.

It should probably be pointed out that Waugh himself was betrayed by his first wife and went through a very painful divorce. They were married for precisely one year before she revealed she was having an affair with a good friend of both of theirs. It is not difficult to see the passage that follows, this scene with Brenda’s adipose brother Reggie, as cold-blooded revenge. Waugh shows very clearly how Tony’s honesty and fidelity and good manners are systematically traduced by every member of her family and all her friends.

The humiliating ordeal he put himself through in Brighton and his offer of £500 a year settlement are thrown back in his face as bullyingly insufficient. The brother, Reggie, tells Tony that Brenda wants at least £2,000 a year. Lots of relatives think Tony is behaving badly by refusing to take Brenda back. Give it a year, suggests Marjorie, and she’ll get over Beaver and be ready to come back. Tony should wait. He should be forgiving.

In a cold fury at Reggie’s demands Tony phones Brenda and asks if this is really what she wants. £2,000 a year. She admits that John Beaver put her up to it. Beaver’s pointed out they’ll both be quite hard up so will need Tony’s money to live on. Tony asks her if she understands that this will mean he’ll have to sell Hetton. She stumbles and hesitates and starts crying and tells him to stop bullying her, but then admits, yes, she knew.

That’s all he needed to know. He puts the phone down and strides back into the restaurant where Reggie is waiting. And tells him he can fuck off. He’s cancelling the divorce, the whole trip to Brighton was a sham and he has witnesses to prove it. He’s not going to divorce Brenda or give her a penny. Tough. He gets up and walks out. The reader is meant to be on their feet, cheering. The worm has finally turned. After a long narrative of being betrayed, lied to and laughed at behind his back, Tony rejects the whole stinking lot of them.

On a journey

The final quarter of the novel presents another surprise. The scene has moved utterly from England. We find Tony aboard a ship heading for South America (!). Why? How?

Avoiding his former clubs, Bratts and Brown’s, for fear of running into Beaver or indeed anyone he knows, Tony had taken to frequenting the third club he’s a member of, the Greville Club. This is a more highbrow, donnish place, and it is here that he meets the short, brown figure of Dr Messinger. Tony had been leafing through travel brochures toying with going on a long journey with no particular idea where. Over lunch Dr Messinger tells him about his ongoing quest for a lost Shining City in the Amazon, which he has various maps and native accounts of. By the end of lunch Tony has agreed to accompany him. Why not?

And so there follows a long beautifully described sea voyage from the cold grey English Channel through the big waves of the Atlantic and on to the azure seas of the Caribbean. Descriptions of fellow passengers and a brief flirtation with the 18-year-old daughter of an eminent Trinidadian family.

Then he arrives at a port on the coast of South America, rendezvous with Messinger and they set off upriver into Amazonia with a team of eight blacks, chugging upstream in a shallow boat for ten days. At this point they leave the boat and make a stash of supplies – base camp – before walking to a nearby Indian village. Here they recruit a dozen or so men and women to carry their supplies for a week or more further into the interior. These people are from the Macushi tribe. They go so far but , after a week’s tramping, refuse to go further because it means crossing into Pie-Wie territory. Dr Messinger hopes these remote Pie-Wie people will be able to guide them to the Lost City.

Waugh himself went on a three-month long expedition into Amazonia which he described in Ninety-Two Days. Much of the detail of Tony and Messinger’s trip is based on that, not least a) descriptions of the umpteen different type of fly, mosquito, jiggers and even vampire bats which assail them during the day and are a serious menace by night and b) precise descriptions of the black crew on the boat and then the indigenous Indian porters, silent, self-contained movements, their  unconquerable fear of the other tribe.

Vivid descriptions of each stage of the Amazon journey are juxtaposed with developments back in London, namely the rather inevitable falling out of the adulterous lovers Brenda and John. Beaver tires of Brenda’s clinginess, Brenda, with no support from Tony, becomes desperate for money, lowers herself to ask for a job at Mrs Beaver’s shop and is mortified at being turned down.

Final developments

To summarise, beneath the impressively authentic details of Amazonian natives and fauna, key things happen:

1. Tony comes down with fever – Messinger nurses him for days.

2. Their food runs low and Messinger is forced to leave feverish, hallucinating Tony and set off for help, in the canoe, down the river. Unfortunately, he is swept over a waterfall and drowned.

3. Tony’s pitiful weakness is powerfully described. The way he tries to fill the empty lantern with paraffin but is so weak he knocks the can over and listens helplessly as the precious liquid gouts out into the soil, weeping helplessly, was very affecting.

4. The scene cuts to some days later when an exhausted, fever-ridden, delirious Tony stumbles out of the jungle. Indians spot him and take him, shambling, covered in bites and rashes and cuts, to the only educated man in the area, a Mr Todd.

The bleak ending

Mr Todd nurses Tony slowly back to health, but when Tony mentions it is time for him to leave, Mr Todd makes excuses. Things take a sinister turn. Mr Todd has a collection of mouldy, ant-eaten old books, including a complete set of Charles Dickens. He asks Tony to read to him for a few hours every afternoon. He used to have another man staying with him who did this. He shows Tony the poor wretch’s grave. Slowly Tony realises the other man was stuck there, trapped, a slave, forced to read Dickens in exchange for food. He realises Todd intends to keep him there in the same way, nursing him, feeding him, but never letting him go.

Tony is stuck because Mr Todd’s shack is so isolated. He lives off food provided to him by the native Indians and a few items of livestock. For scores of miles in every direction there is only barren savannah where Tony would starve and parch to death, or the impenetrable rainforest he stumbled out of. If he tried to escape in either direction it would be without food or water and so, as Tony realises, he would die within days. And so he is forced to stay

One day a European explorer stumbles into the clearing. Todd makes sure he is never alone with Tony but before the explorer continues on his way, Tony slips him a note saying he is alive and well. The explorer disappears back into the forest and Tony spends months and months in hope his message will percolate down to the coast and someone will come looking for him.

One afternoon Mr Todd tells Tony the villagers are having a feast, it might interest him to observe and take part. So they spend the evening at the little local village eating cooked meat and drinking generously from the home brewed alcohol. Tony wakes with a terrible hangover to discover his watch has gone from his wrist. Mr Todd comes into his room in the shack and informs him that a search party of Europeans had come looking for him. The native feast was a ruse to drug Tony and hide him out of the way so that when the search party arrived, Mr Todd was able to tell them that Tony had, alas, perished, to show them the grave of Tony’s predecessor saying it contained Tony, and to give them Tony’s watch as proof. Thus they were sent away with bearing a conclusive account of Tony’s sad death in a faraway country back to all his friends and family in England.

Mr Todd calmly explains all this to Tony and it is a sign of Waugh’s tremendous technique that he doesn’t give us Tony’s reaction at all. We don’t see him, hear him utter a word, share his thoughts, there is no description of his response to the fact that he is now doomed to spend the rest of his life, stuck in a crappy clearing in the middle of nowhere, eating the same awful subsistence food day after day, and forced, in order to survive, to read the complete works of Charles Dickens to a madman.

Coda

With new of Tony’s death Hetton passes to his nearest relatives, the ‘poor Lasts’, a cadet branch of the family we had heard about a few times earlier in the narrative. They are decent people but have to downsize the domestic staff and energetically set about expanding the farming operation, specially of lucrative silver foxes, bred for their fur.

Brenda, as a widow, is free to marry. John Beaver had, some time earlier, heartlessly abandoned her in order to accompany his mother on a business trip to America. From this nadir of her fortunes, she manages to recover herself and brings off the coup of marrying Tony’s old friend Jock Grant-Menzies. It speaks volumes about both of them that Jock notoriously heard her first reaction when told that ‘John’ had died, and so fully knows what a heartless , selfish bitch she is – and yet goes ahead with the marriage.

Author’s message

The world is cruel and pointless. Human life, by itself, is meaningless.

For a month now [Tony] had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new, mad thing brought to his notice, could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Religion is rarely mentioned in the book, none of the characters take it seriously, it only features in the form of the slightly gaga comedy vicar, with his comic name, Mr Tendril. And yet anyone who knows that Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, can sense that the more he emphasises the cruel, amoral heartlessness of the world, the more this vision of despair cries out for a countervailing force, for a force which will restore meaning and purpose and morality to the shabby lives of these broken puppets. Without mentioning Catholicism once, it can be interpreted as a deeply religious book.

Waugh’s way with words

London:

Dawn broke in London, clear and sweet, dove grey and honey, with promise of good weather; the lamps in the streets paled and disappeared; the empty streets ran with water, and the rising sun caught it as it bubbled round the hydrants; the men in overalls swung the nozzles of their hoses from side to side and the water jetted and cascaded in a sparkle of light. (p.190)

The day of the inquest:

A day of fitful sunshine and blustering wind; white and grey clouds were scarcely moving, high overhead, but the bare trees round the house swayed and shook and there were swift whirlpools of straw in the stable yard. Ben changed from the Sunday suit he had worn at the inquest and went about his duties. Thunderclap, too, had been kicked yesterday and was very slightly lame in the off fore.
Brenda took off her hat and threw it down on a chair in the hall. ‘Nothing to say, is there?’

The way the eloquent description is capped off by the taut, abbreviated dialogue is masterly. The desolate scene in the stable yard echoes, mirrors, symbolises or represents Brenda’s state of mind. So that all is needed by way of dialogue is not a long speech of anguish but the opposite, a short taut sentence saying it all.  It’s not rocket science, it’s not a new technique in the novel; it’s just done very, very well.

Tony aboard a cheap steamer heading in bad weather down the English Channel, which is carrying one other passenger:

The wash of the ship was quickly lost in the high waves. They were steaming westward down the Channel. As it grew to be night, lighthouses appeared flashing from the French coast. Presently a steward walked round the bright, upper deck striking chimes on a gong of brass cylinders, and the genial passenger went below to prepare himself for dinner in hot sea water which splashed from side to side of the bath and dissolved the soap in a thin, sticky scum. He was the only man to dress that evening: Tony sat in the mustering darkness until the second bell. Then he left his greatcoat in the cabin and went down to dinner.

For me it is a physical, imaginative and psychological pleasure greater than anything a movie or TV adaptation could possibly give me, to read words like this. The precision of what they describe, the precision of their vocabulary, the fluency of their expression, the contrasting rhythms between the opening three relatively short sentences and then the long middle one which rolls and rights itself like the ship it describes. The subject matter may be bitter and grim, but it is always an immense pleasure to read Waugh’s beautifully clear and expressive prose.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

It is by crawling on the face of it that one learns a country; by the problems of transport that its geography becomes a reality and its inhabitants real people…[by describing them one offers one’s reader] a share in the experience of travel, for these checks and hesitations constitute the genuine flavour.
(Ninety-Two Days, page 170)

Waugh had a reason for going to Ethiopia, the subject of his previous travel book, Remote People – to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. The journey described in this book, by contrast, had a much more ramshackle provenance. He chose to go to British Guiana, the colony tucked up on the north coast of South America, north of Brazil, more or less because few other people did. Unlike India or Kenya or Egypt he could find no books on the place and nobody else who’d been there.

By sea to South America

So off he went on a cheap steamer down the English Channel, across the rambunctuous Atlantic, to the fragrant West Indies and so on to dock at Georgetown, capital of British Guiana. Here he is looked after by the Governor and introduced to Mr Bain, the Commissioner for the district, who supervises the purchase of a large number of supplies for his trip and accompanies him by train along the coast to New Amsterdam at the mouth of the River Berbice.

But what exactly is the purpose of his trip? Waugh doesn’t know, even after he’s got back to Blighty, which partly explains why the book opens not with him aboard ship or setting off into the jungle, but domiciled in a nice English house in the country, preparing his desk with nice clean foolscap paper and a pen and ink and then himself wondering… what was that all about?

Quick summary

Well, the basic outline is easily conveyed. From New Amsterdam, Waugh headed by boat up the Berbice River, pausing at various settlements, then leaving the river to trek on foot or horseback through the jungle, crossing the border into Brazil and northern Amazonia, before hiking north along the Ireng River, stopping at isolated ranches and remote settlements, then taking to boat again on the River Essequibo, skirting various waterfalls, including the famous Kaieteur Falls, then a short train east across country to the Demarara River, and so by boat back to Georgetown where the river debouches into the Atlantic.

To Kurupukari

First stop was Kurupukari, 100 miles south. Half the journey is by paddle steamer along the Berbice River (p.33). Then they land and go by horse along a cattle track, These are tracks the vaqueiros use to drive cattle from the savannahs of the interior down to market at the coast. The journey takes six days travelling at 15 miles a day, through rain forest he describes with awe, huge columned trees rearing a hundred feet overhead (p.40).

After talking about it every day of their 6-day hike, Waugh is surprised to find it consists of… a flagpole lying in the grass (it isn’t finished yet and they don’t have a flag) and one bungalow built in a clearing. Not even a jetty, not even native mud huts (p.44). This extreme sparseness of population characterises the entire trip.

Kurupukari is on the Essequibo river and they are awaiting a boat laden with supplies to meet them. Waugh describes the staple foods of the interior which are farine, a tasteless and rather disgusting vegetable product made from the cassava root, and tasso, made from salted wind-dried strips of dead cow.

On this first part of the trip he is accompanied by the talkative Mr Bain and a plan of sorts had evolved, that Waugh proceed in stages along the cattle track, visiting various small settlements along the way, until reaching the larger settlement of Bon Success, from which he could head west to Boa Vista, ‘next to Manaos the most important town in the Amazonas’. Mr Bain paints a picture of a city of inexpressible grandeur, complete with boulevards and opera houses. Sounds great. Waugh adopts the plan. The reader knows with certainty that he is going to be bitterly disappointed.

To Kurupukari and beyond

Bain remains at the primitive government station at Kurupukari. Once the boat with its supplies arrive, they’re unloaded then distributed among several horses, then early the next morning Waugh and his group of 4 servants/natives (Yetto, Price, Sinclair, Jagger) cross the river and set off on horseback. The dominant figure of this section is the egregious Yetto, a black man of surpassing ugliness, but a solid support who he becomes deeply attached to.

There follow 6 days riding along a traditional cattle track, occasionally meeting one or two vaqueiros driving a handful of cattle, sometimes coming across the corpses of cattle, which don’t endure the journey to the coast very well, dying of insect-borne diseases or sometimes attack by large animals. He learns more about his travelling companions.

Jagger is an enigma, a civilised man from a notable family on the coast, he was educated in Scotland. According to Yetto he was ruined in lawsuits with his family and has degenerated into one of the ‘race of tramps who wander the cattle country, there and in Brazil, living indefinitely off the open hospitality of the cattle ranches’ (p.53). He attaches himself to Waugh’s party for a while, then is too ill to keep up the pace and stays behind at one of their temporary camps, never to be heard of again.

He meets half a dozen vaqueiros driving 50 cattle. Next day they meet three Englishmen travelling in the other direction, towards the coast.

On the third day they cross a dry creek and come into a little savannah (i.e. open area of sand and scrubby thorn bushes) named Suranna. There is a native settlement. Waugh explains something about size and scale. A dozen or so mud and thatched huts constitutes a ‘large’ settlement. More than 20 mud huts is exceptional. The largest he ever saw apparently contained 22, though he arrived too late at night to see this vast metropolis. Next day they arrive at Annai which consists of precisely one house (p.58).

In other words the entire region, both the settlements in the savannahs, the so-called ranches, the white ‘settlements’ – all are characterised by emptiness and very sparse population.

After a long hot ride across the parched savannah, he arrives at Christie’s ranch (p.62). Christie is an old black guy who has religious visions and agreeably lunatic ideas. He’s been preaching to the local Indians for thirty years and hasn’t made a single conversion.

Next stop is a ranch owned by Georgetown Chinese named Mr Wong and run by Daguar (p.67). The ranch consists of three wattle and mud huts in a wired enclosure. Primitive, isn’t it? The ranch is on the River Ireng and Waugh is surprised to find this forms an international border. Across the muddy river is Brazil. He describe the pestilential effects of the cabouri fly, whose bite you don’t feel till it’s gorged itself and dropped off, and ticks which burrow into the skin, and bêtes rouges, little red creatures which burrow under your skin and cause unbearable itching.

(Later he tells us the rivers contain stingrays, electric eels and carnivorous fish, p.77. Why were these areas never settled or developed? There’s your answer.)

Next morning’s ride brings him to a village marked on the maps as Pirara but which in fact simply doesn’t exist. The name has been transferred to a ranch five miles away, owned by an American named Hart. This actually amounts to more than one building, with facilities such as a shower room, with very decent meals cooked by the wife, a Creole nanny for the children and – mirabile dictu – a truck, which had been manhandled this far up the trail, didn’t have much petrol and no regular roads to travel.

Waugh explains that South American countries are notorious for going to war over remote bits of territory. Britain nearly went to war with Brazil and Venezuela about different bits of remote savannah. He learns maps are largely invented, and based on rumoured natural features (such as rivers) which often don’t exist. He gives a mocking account of a boundary commission which is meant to be working with Brazilian officials on defining the border (p.71).

Next day’s journey brings them to the ranch of Bon Success owned by Mr Teddy Melville, one of Mrs Hart’s brothers. They drive there in the famous motor van. It is very bumpy (p.73). They have breakfast with Teddy and his charming wife, before driving beside the River Takuru to the missionary settlement of St Ignatius, where Waugh is hosted by the lovely Father Mather. Waugh pays off Price (who’s going on to the station at Bon Success, Yetto and Sinclair (who turn and head back down the trail). Part one of the journey is over.

Again, Waugh remarks on its bareness and lack of people. All over Africa he saw missions, schools and churches packed out with native pupils, congregations, teachers and pupils. Here, almost nobody. A tin and thatch church, and a primitive schoolhouse which holds, at most, a dozen Indian children. The mission building has a second story (first one he’s seen) and, amazingly, a reading lamp. Great relief (p.75).

Most of the scattered ranchers and all the Brazilians across the river are Catholics. Father Mather ministers to them all. There is one shop, the only one for 200 miles in any direction, kept by an affable Portuguese named Mr Figuiredo, who dresses comfortably in pyjamas, treats them to a feast, and charges exorbitant prices for everything (p.79). He is taken to visit local Indians including a charming tattooed witch.

After a delightful restful week, on 1 February he sets off with a guide, David, and his Brazilian brother-in-law Francesco, to cross the river and so the invisible border into Brazil and ride the 3 days to Boa Vista (p.81). They stop for the nights at primitive mud and thatch huts, with a few other travellers kipping in a shack full of hammocks, served weak revolting tasso stew by sleepy womenfolk.

Next day is the longest, hardest, hottest of them all. Waugh is struck by the way the locals carry no water at all, presumably because the land is criss-crossed with streams. Except they’re all dried up and the sun is fierce. Twelve hours without a drink and he hallucinates walking into his club and ordering glass after glass of iced orange juice. At dusk they reach an actual stream and drink mug after mug of freezing water.

Next day they enter the inhabited Rio Branco district and come upon a well organised sugar mill, where they are welcomed and well fed. Teams of workers and passers-though eat in series at a long bench. Next day they reach the Rio Branco opposite which stands the legendary Boa Vista he’s heard so much about.

(It might be worth noting that Boa Vista is simply the Portuguese for ‘Good View’, bom and boa being equivalent to the French bon and bonne i.e. ‘good’, depending on whether the noun is male or female. Rio means river and branco means white. So they arrive at Good View on the White River. Pretty basic, isn’t it?)

Boa Vista

Of course Boa Vista turns out to be nothing like the gaudy fantasies he’s concocted on the tiring journey there. It is a shabby collection of ramshackle buildings laid out on an ambitious grid pattern with a broad muddy high street and cross streets which peter out into bare savannah a few hundred yards in either direction. Population maybe a thousand skinny, scrawny, malnourished, sulky, listless people.

The inhabitants of the entire Brazilian region of the Amazonas were, apparently, descended from convicts sent there as punishment. Waugh found a low, sullen, suspicious atmosphere everywhere. There was an atmosphere of homicide, everyone has guns, there have been well publicised murders. He finds it: ‘a squalid camp of ramshackle cut-throats’ (p.92).

And the population insisting on eating the same monotonous, revolting farine and tasso as everywhere else, despite the achievement of the local nuns in having a very diverse vegetable garden.

Waugh stays at the Benedictine Mission, led by Father Alcuin, and is predictably complimentary about the monks and nuns’ level of quiet, constructive civilisation.

Three things

1. Waugh is easily Bored

According to these books, Waugh had a great capacity for getting very, very bored. He describes sauntering round town to the 4 or 5 people he knows and watching them work, staring at the sky. Attending church is by far the most colourful and interesting thing to do, not only for him but for many of the inhabitants, what with its colour, decorations, smells of incense and singing, no matter how ragged. He gets so bored he reads an edition of Bossuet’s sermons and lives of the saints in French (p.98).

At which point I remembered the almost identical descriptions of his crushing boredom which appear in Remote People. There he gives a comic description of being stuck between trains in the dusty town of Dirre-Dowa, resorting to reading a volume of Alexander Pope’s poems and then, even more desperate, a French dictionary. In his later travelogue, Waugh in Abyssinia, Waugh gets so bored in Addis Ababa waiting for war to actually break out that he buys a baboon!

The point is, Waugh is obviously quickly and easily bored. It would help if he had any hobbies but the issue of boredom highlights two others.

2. Music

He has no ear for music. None at all. He doesn’t enjoy hearing music and, at one point, when he is in a particularly good mood riding among beautiful scenery, he says he’d like to sing, but doesn’t know how. Having no sensitivity at all for music means living in a greatly reduced world of experience.

3. Waugh is no naturalist

Waugh is walking, riding or taking boats through exotic and varied country (savannah and rainforest) and yet his observations of the natural world are rudimentary. He notes the way rainforest consists of enormous tree trunks like columns with all the interesting stuff way at the top. He notes the 3 or 4 super-irritating bugs (the carouba fly et al). He gives detailed notes on all the horses he rents, hires, buys, and that he and his various colleagues ride at various times.

Apart from that – nada. Nothing about the birds or rodents. Occasional general references to blossom but no detail about the flowers, flowering bushes and so on. Maybe the savannah is parched and sandy as he describes, but still.

Pondering these absences makes you realise what is present in his writing. Thinking about what isn’t in the travelogues, made me reflect on what is. Which is people. He’s interested in people, characters, what they look like, how they behave, and really interested in how they talk.

Every single person he meets on a trip like this is foreign, non-English. True, many of them speak a form of English, but generally mangled and contorted, creoles or stumbling phrases. Or they don’t speak English at all and he has to struggle by with his schoolboy French. And then he observes other people who don’t speak each others’ languages struggling to communicate by talking pidgen Portuguese or German to each other (p.96).

What emerges from this little ponder is that Waugh is interested in – and devotes his energies to – people and how they speak. Thus he gives a peremptory description of Boa Vista, but his account only comes to life when he is describing people. People such as Mr Figuiredo who keeps the only decent store for hundreds of miles around, the mysterious German, Herr Steingler (p.95), Father Alcuin who is convinced England is run by freemasons (p.97), the little Brazilian Boundary Commissioner (p.99), Martinez the low-spirited manager of the town’s main story (p.100), Eusebio, a plum native of the Macushi tribe who is striking for not having one belonging in the world (p.117), Mr Hart the kindly middle-aged American with a lovely wife and a Creole nanny who looked like Josephine Baker (p.119).

It is a significant moment right at the end of the book when, assessing what he had learned or seen and done on the trip, he says he has added the religious visionary Mr Christie ‘to my treasury of eccentrics’ (p.168). And:

In Georgetown I met an agreeable character named ‘Professor’ Piles who lived by selling stuffed alligators. (p.168)

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘treasury of eccentrics’. Quite.

And where his ears really prick up is with gossip and the way people are inter-connected. There isn’t that much to say about a man who lives by himself or who you encounter on his own. But a man and his wife are immediately more interesting to gossip and speculate about, and a man and wife and various children, hopefully by different wives, gives you a lovely, juicy subject to explore. Thus, in this account, Waugh comes to life when he discovers that so and so is married to Mr Hart’s sister. Or that Teddy Melville is a legendary man of the area with countless children and grand-children. People are his thing: stories, gossip, the quirks of how they behave and talk. This is what makes his famous diaries so wonderful, a lifetime of observing people and giving little anecdotes.

The turning point

After a week he is desperate to get away from Boa Vista and reckons on taking boat with the Brazilian Boundary Commissioner who is steaming down the River Branco and so will be able to take him to the legendary metropolis of Manaos. Except that, after days of waiting, the Boundary Commissioner refuses to take him (p.99). By now Waugh is quite concerned about catching malaria – everyone he meets has malaria and suffers malarial fever for half the week, starting with his host Father Alcuin who is wretchedly ill during his entire stay.

So  he decides to stop trying to penetrate further south into Brazil, but to turn about and retrace his steps back across the river and into British Guiana. Back to St Ignatius Mission, Bon Success, Pirara and Daguar’s ranch BUT, at that point, instead of completely retracing his route i.e. a long trek through the rainforest back to Takama, turning north-north-west and taking a new route, through forest hugging the border with Brazil and then beside the River Potaro with its many waterfalls, to where it joins the mighty Essequibo river, fifty miles or so along this, and then by train east to join the smaller Demarara River which runs down to the sea at Georgetown.

Highlights of the return journey

After crossing back into Guiana, Waugh gets wildly lost and rides his horse north instead of east, stumbling by chance over the shack of an old Indian who very kindly leads him back to the proper trail and so on to St Ignatius’ Mission. Here he stays with kindly Father Mather for ten days, as he assembles the goods which will be needed for the new route home.

Calling the travel bluff, myths of travel (pages 114 to 116)

Here he includes an amusing digression in which he sets out to debunk some of the myths which surround solitary travelling, such as:

You feel free

On the contrary every single item you want to take becomes an encumbrance which slows you down and there are very often only two possible directions along long lonely trails, forward or back. He often feels trapped by limitations of time, energy, money and distance.

You are untrammeled by convention

On the contrary, Waugh feels he knows a wide range of eccentrics, bohemians who dress and behave in all kinds of florid ways back in England. It’s true that you meet a wide range of people on a trip like this, and some of them are very scruffy, and the native Indians may be almost naked, and so on. But you aren’t. Conventions must be maintained, especially in the Tropics where, if you begin to slip, it’s easy to go completely to pieces.

You have a hearty appetite and sleep the sleep of the blessed

Rubbish. The food is inedible, everywhere they go the monotonous inevitability of farine and tasso nearly drives him mad. Often he can barely eat what villagers offer and prefers to go hungry.

And the ‘beds’ are generally hammocks or, if you’re lucky, lumpy tin beds, or a thin sheet on stony savannah. Either way, the Tropics, specially the rainforest, are filled with noise, the endless racket of hooting wild animals. And then there are the mosquitoes, flies and ticks which mean a moment’s lack of attention can lead to any numbers of bites and then the whole night spent itching and tossing and turning. And then, when you’re at the end of your tether, it starts to rain and you get soaked to the skin (p.141).

River baths

If there was one thing he definitely enjoyed and was unique to the trip, it was bathing in cool river waters, ducking under waterfalls, lying in pools near waterfalls. Nothing in England could match the sheer physical bliss of this experience, particularly after a long day’s horse ride or trek.

Karasabai

The primitive little village of Karasabai which prompts an extended meditation on the character of the Amazonian Indians. He ropes in recent books about the existence of primitive matriarchal societies, and throws in some general cultural speculation about the noble savage, the myths of the garden of Eden and so on. Very run-of-the-mill. What came over for me was the Amazon Indian’s listlessness. Their flat, unemotional, morose affect.

He has an interesting passage explaining that the Indians have no hierarchy at all, no words for sir or servant, no words conveying superior or inferior status. They do things when  they want to, and stop when they don’t and nobody can make force them.

The Indian villagers stare at him but never move, never say anything, never display any real curiosity. He unpacks various marvels from his bag and then goes for a wash and when he comes back the things and the Indians are in the same position.

He compares this with the blacks he met in Africa who all showed far more energy and creativity and inventiveness and would have pinched everything in his bag if he turned his back. The Indian women wear shabby little linen dresses and try to hide in them. He contrasts them with what he calls ‘the swagger and provocation of a Negress’ (p.124). When they take a shallow boat down the river, the two blacks with him enjoy strenuously rowing and showing off their strength. The little Indian family with them have a vague got at it, dangle paddles in the water, uninterested, then give up and huddle together.

The Indians are divided into ‘peoples’ and refuse point blank to cross from the territory of their people into another people’s, or to have anything to do with other peoples. Peoples Waugh meets include the Macushi, Kopinang Indians, the Patamonas. (Wikipedia suggests the correct term is ‘indigenous tribes’ and lists nine residing in Guyana: the Wai Wai, Macushi, Patamona, Lokono, Kalina, Wapishana, Pemon, Akawaio and Warao.)

You could choose to interpret the Indians’ listlessness and incuriosity to a special spiritual understanding of the world, lack of interest in material goods or the white man’s worldview. Waugh doesn’t comment much till the very end when he is driven to deep dislike of the selfish Indian family who share the paddled boat down the river. They can’t be bothered to walk a few hundred yards to see the Kaieteur Falls, one of the wonders of the world, and Waugh bluntly ascribes it to ‘mere stupidity and lack of imagination’ (p.158).

Tipuru

At the village of Tipuru they catch up with the Catholic priest Father Keary who is going his rounds of the villages. After his initial surprise at meeting a posh young English Catholic rider, Keary agrees they can travel on together. This makes everything much easier for Waugh, for Keary understands the people, the language, has his own resources and, of course, can speak English so Waugh will have someone to talk to.

So they set off accompanied by a new servant, Antonio, his wive and four native bearers. A sequence of villages, Shimai with five houses, one hut by itself inhabited by an old black woman, an unnamed village of three huts, Karto with three huts, Kurikabaru a metropolis of thirteen huts on a bleak hilltop, and so on. Sparse and empty country. Isolated Indians who are, however, wonderfully hospitable, laying out supplies of cassiri drink, peppers, cassava bread and sometimes milk. (To this day Guyana remains ‘one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.’)

Mikrapuru

And so via a series of tiny settlements over the watershed which divides Amazonia from the Caribbean rivers and so down out of the rainforest to Mikrapuru, 15 or so miles from the river Essequibo and home to the civilised and hospitable Mr Winter. Waugh had met Winter at a social do back in Georgetown on the coast.

Winter has set up a camp here and employs native Indians to wash for alluvial diamonds in the river Potaro. Waugh describes the ingenious series of filters fed by dammed creek water into which Indians employed for the purpose pour, throughout the day, gravel and mud, in the hope the filters will reveal either river gold or diamonds. Winter had kept his camp for three years. It is very isolated, the few white neighbours who once lived within reasonable reach have all left, and the Indians work for him for a while, to earn simple gewgaws and then, with their own mysterious timing, melt back into the forest. Waugh contrasts the Indians’ wispiness, their ghostliness and general lack of interest, with the bullish enthusiasm of the blacks he sees. Winter’s foreman is black. Coming from the coast they have a better sense of work and discipline.

Journey to the river

After ten days or so, Waugh has exhausted his own provisions and Winter was low on them to start with, so it’s time to leave. He will ride with Winter’s foreman down to the River Potaro to board the first of three boats which will take him the stages between the impassible waterfalls which punctuate the river (being the big one, Kaieteur Falls, then Waratuk Falls and Amatuk Falls).

Haunting description of Holmia which had once been an extensive European plantation, built for the balatá trade (balatá is ‘a hard rubber-like material made by drying the milky juice produced principally by the bully tree). Holmia fell into poverty and ruin, has been abandoned for decades and now largely reclaimed by the jungle.

He describes the 700-foot fall of the waterfall at Kaieteur (p.155). Wikipedia tells me it is ‘the world’s largest single drop waterfall by the volume of water flowing over it’. It is ‘about four and a half times the height of Niagara Falls…and about twice the height of Victoria Falls.’ As you might expect, it prompts Waugh to a burst of lyricism:

I lay on the overhanging ledge watching the light slowly fail, the colour deepen and disappear. The surrounding green was of density and intenseness that can neither be described nor reproduced; a quicksand of colour, of shivering surface and unplumbed depth, which absorbed the vision, sucking it down and submerging it. (p.156)

After they’ve scrambled down the side of Kaieteur Falls, it’s a morning’s boat ride to Waratuk, where they unload the goods and Waugh watches the two blacks lower the boat through gaps in the huge boulders which make up the rapids with astonishing skill, and then 3 hours or so on to Amatuk, where the river is impassible and the boat has to be secured, ready for Winter’s foreman to recover it in 4 or 5 days time after he’s completed the journey to Georgetown to buy stores.

There is something approaching a guesthouse at Amatuk, opened by a Mrs McTurk for tourists who never came, and Waugh pays the old black housekeeper a dollar to sleep in something like a real bed and sit in an armchair and read a book. He is nearly back in civilisation.

There follows a complicated sequence of lorry journeys, two more boat journeys from landing point to landing point, and then the journey east along what I now learn was an abandoned railway from the Essequibo to the Demarara river.

This is a peg for the general point makes which is that the area he was visiting was past its boom years. Twenty years earlier there had been boom times for plantations of ballata, and gold and diamond sieving. But the ballata trees were all used, the gold and diamonds never appeared in sufficient quantities, now Waugh’s journey is through a degraded and stagnating landscape, or a beautiful jungle landscape punctuated with wrecks and ruins. The government is building a proud new road to open up the interior but Waugh gives an impressive list of reasons why this is too little, too late (p.163). If the road fails, then maybe the colony will revert to being just a coastal strip and a couple of coastal towns and the interior will revert to its primitive integrity.

And so by slow boat down the ever-widening Essequibo to Rockstone. This is another settlement which has collapsed, with most of the buildings lying empty and rotten (p.166). It’s the terminus of the railway which runs 50 miles east to Wismar on the Demarara River but it no longer functions as a railway. People walk along it and there is an old tractor which pulls an empty carriage, if anyone can be found to drive it.

He uses all his persuasiveness, and five dollars, to persuade of the boat that brought him and the ‘stationmaster’ to beat the tractor into life and, at midnight, he and other passengers are roused from sleeping on the platform, mount into the open carriage and it shunts off slowly and perilously along the rail line. After a few hours it starts to hiss down and everyone is soaked.

At dawn he arrives at the railway’s terminus at Wismar on the Demarara River where the boat is, mirabile dictu, waiting, and he boards it for a pleasant sail down the river and back to civilisation (of a sort) in Georgetown. Where he looks up friends, buys a ticket and waits to catch the next boat back to England.

The Dickens connection

While staying with Father Mather at the Mission he discovers a passion for reading and discovers that good father has a library of all Charles Dickens’s novels. These make good big chunky reading and Waugh borrows some volumes for the journey to the coast. This, obviously, is the germ of the fate of Tony Last at the grim climax of A Handful of Dust.


Credit

Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh was published by Duckworth in 1934. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Other travel books

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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Ill Seen Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981)

For the last time at last for to end yet again…

Ill Seen Ill Said is a short prose text by Samuel Beckett. It’s 33 pages long in the modern Faber paperback edition. It was first published in French as Mal vu mal dit in 1981, and then published in Beckett’s own English translation in 1982.

Its immediate predecessor in Beckett’s prose works, Company, consisted of 59 paragraphs, printed with enough space between them to create the sense that each paragraph is almost a freestanding unit. Ill Seen Ill Said continues this layout, with 61 paragraphs in total. A revealing aspect of this paragraph-ness is that it’s quite difficult to quote individual sentences from the piece. They all read much better when given in the full context of their entire paragraph, testament to the way each paragraph is carefully crafted and assembled.

Late Beckett prose style

The paragraphs sort of describe, or appear to describe, an old woman alone in a cabin, who, at various points, watches the evening and the morning star, and ventures out apparently only to visit a grave. But that gives the completely misleading impression that there is some kind of a plot. There isn’t, not at all. But the point is not the plot or story (which doesn’t exist). The points are, or include:

  • Beckett’s late-in-life, continuing experiments with a prose which is pared to the bone, and yet dominated by the repetition of key words or phrases, images and… strange perceptions
  • a sort of muted fantasia of other elements which infest the ostensible ‘story’, for example, the recurrence of a sort of all-seeing ‘eye’ through which we see much of the changing scene, or the occasional presence of a mysterious set of twelve ‘guardians’
  • above all, a sustained obliqueness of approach to the entire concept of ‘narrative’ which means that, although the words flow by in an apparently orderly fashion, quite regularly and sometimes for long stretches, the reader has no idea what is going on

Late Beckett prose is pared to the bone. The text is not made of long, rangey, descriptive sentences, no sir. Commas and all other punctuation except full stops are conspicuous by their absence. Instead the text is built of generally very short sentences, often with their subject surgically removed.

There was a time when she did not appear in the zone of stones. A long time. Was not therefore to be seen going out or coming in. When she appeared only in the pastures. Was not therefore to be seen leaving them. Save as though by enchantment.

These relatively simple omissions create a version of what used to be called telegraphese (which the internet defines as: ‘the terse, abbreviated style of language used in telegrams’ ) and that’s certainly an obvious and negative effect, the removal of unnecessary words.

But there are positive effects too. Removing pronouns and unnecessary words highlights what remains and contributes to what you could call a kind of cluttering effect created by the deployment of unexpected syntactical patterns. The text enjoys staging little car crashes of nouns and pronouns, often deliberately creating difficulties or ambiguities.

She is drawn to a certain spot. At times. There stands a stone. It it is draws her. Rounded rectangular block three times as high as wide. Four. Her stature now. Her lowly stature. When it draws she must to it.

‘It it is draws her.’ Presumably this means: ‘It is this which draws her to the spot’, and you can imagine traditional authors, from Dickens to Hardy, elaborating further: ‘It is this worn and weathered ancient stone which attracts the lonely old woman to his bleak and isolated location…’ or some such colourful locutions.

But for Beckett, in 1981, this has been worn down to just: ‘It it is draws her’. The language itself has been worn and weathered down to a kind of stump.

And making sense of those five words requires the reader to stop and parse the syntax. The repetition if ‘it’ causes the mind to stumble for a moment, till it gets its bearings, and a lot of the text is like this – like the mind stumbling over very uneven terrain, strewn with rocks, continually having to come to a dead stop and work out the way forward.

I suppose a sentence like ‘It it is draws’ can also be categorised as a sort of word game. Repeating a word or phrase, one after the other, but with a different syntactical weight.

Last example the flagstone before her door that by dint by dint her little weight has grooved.

Saying ‘dint by dint’ would make a sort of sense, albeit an unusual phrase. But ‘by dint by dint’ really forces you to stop and work out the syntax of what is going on in these four short little words.

So Beckett makes his prose sparser and barer by:

  • using short sentences
  • removing verbs
  • removing pronouns
  • removing the definite or indefinite article (‘the’ or ‘a’)
  • unusual repetition of the remaining elements to create numerous syntactical challenges

All of which result in a really strange, super-charged prose.

Mysteries

Then there are moments, many moments when, by combining this fairly familiar set of tricks, he makes the prose suddenly mysterious and unfathomable.

What is it defends her? Even from her own. Averts the intent gaze. Incriminates the dearly won. Forbids divining her. What but life ending. Hers. The other’s. But so otherwise. She needs nothing. Nothing utterable. Whereas the other. How need in the end? But how? How need in the end?

‘The other’s’? What other? What other’s?

This paragraph goes right over the edge into new territory. I don’t understand any of the sentences. I mean I can read them, but I have no idea what they’re referring to. They don’t seem to refer to anything in the preceding text apart from ‘her’, the ostensible female subject.

But language can never be empty, its purpose is to convey meaning, so each word conveys meaning – can be read – it’s just that arrangement of words into these sentences conveys no clear or definable meaning. Therefore you end up in this situation where you can read it – easily read it because there are no hard words involved – but have no idea what it really means.

This is why I sometimes use the word incantation or spell about Beckett’s prose because, although you can understand the individual words, the way they are combined works to evoke or create a kind of uncanny otherspace in your mind. Personally, I find this rather delirious and quite addictive sensation is often almost unrelated to the ostensible subject matter of the prose (although it obviously helps that the subject matter is spare and bare and bleak and simple). The subject matter, in its colourless, passionless minimalism abstractness is merely the vehicle which enables the prose to reach out into their entirely unexplored, strange and hypnotic otherspace.

Imagery

As to the piece’s content and imagery, this interests me quite a bit less than the language, not least because so many of the images are actually repeats. A few reviews ago, I looked at Beckett’s short prose piece One Evening in which an old woman dressed in black has ventured out to pick flowers to adorn the tomb of her husband and comes across the body of a young man, dead in the grass. Well, here in Ill Seen Ill Said we have another old woman dressed in black fussing about the tomb of her husband.

Beckett published One Evening about the same time as another short prose piece, Heard In the dark 1, which describes a narrator going out for a long walk in the snow and mentions the lambs which have just been born, a passage which was incorporated entire into the longer, later work, Company. Well, here in Ill Seen Ill Said we have another solitary figure trudging through snowy fields empty except for a few lambs.

In Fizzle 7 a man sits at a window in a small upright wicker chair with armrests, just like the narrator in As the story was told who also describes himself as sitting in a cane chair with armrests. Well, in Ill Seen Ill Said the old woman spends at least some of the time sitting in a comfy chair looking out of the window, or one of the two windows there seem to be in her room.

Sitting in a chair looking out the window. Trudging through the snow. A gravestone. The young lambs – all these images recur in Ill Seen, Ill Said, reshuffled, tumbled into a slightly new order. It is a reminder that the subject matter in Beckett is often stupefyingly banal, almost bland. A woman sits in a chair in her ‘cabin’ and likes to see the evening star rise. During the cold days she goes walking in the snow. It comes as no surprise to learn that the manuscript was initially titled, very simply, ‘The Evening or the night’.

Bear in mind this was written in 1980, Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, a huge social shift to the right in politics, re-ignition of the Cold War, mass unemployment and social unrest across the Western world, strikes and race riots. But in Beckettworld… he conceives images of this old woman at night in her cabin staring out the window, during the day trudging to the grave of her dead husband, a ring of 12 ‘guardians’ sometimes appearing to maybe menace her… and, stepping up from that level, the text appears to comment on itself, describing some sort of ‘eye’ which is observing the action, or contributing to it, although at other moments it seems to simply be the eye of the old lady herself as she shuts it to go to sleep or doze or opens it to take in the sight of her bare room in the gathering dusk.

In other words, Ill Seen Ill Said is, first and foremost, an imaginary landscape utterly detached from the real world. And what is clear from a bare consideration of just the imagery, the non-existence of any ‘plot’, and the flatness of the original title, is the immense amount of effort Beckett must have put in to transforming a set of very banal images and half a dozen gestures (looking out the window, going for a walk in the snow, eating from a bowl) into the strange, very challenging and delirious experimental prose piece it has become.

The author struggling

As with so many other Beckett texts, this one appears to include the author as a figure struggling to make sense of his own creation. In this paragraph he appears to be saying how much simpler it all would be – thinking and writing about her – if she were just a pure figment, a fictional construct, ‘cooped up’ in ‘the madhouse of the skull’ along with ‘the rest’.

Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently gently. On. Careful.

I take ‘madhouse of the skull’ to be Beckettian hyperbole for the confusion within the creating mind which, at times, borders on mental illness. And I take ‘with the rest’ to refer to all the other creations of his mind, and half expect him to rattle off the list of familiar characters, Murphy, Watt, Malone, Molloy and so on.

But she can’t, she can’t be this simple. The authorial voice shares with us how much he is struggling to manage his material and then… makes what is probably the Beckettian manoeuvre: declares he must go on. He wants it to stop, the living, the breathing, the voices, the questions, God he wants it all to stop:

If there may not be no more questions let there at least be no more answers…

But, as Beckett characters have been declaring ever since he gave the notion its classic formulation at the end of The Unnamable (1953), something in him fights to continue, to go on:

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Only it is 30 years later and that ringing statement has been worn down like her husband’s gravestone, and like Beckett’s prose, to the bare stump:

On.

The eye

One way of going on is to move sideways and stop taking responsibility for the text. Thus the text slowly begins to mention the presence of some kind of ‘eye’, as if there is an organ of visual perception which is observing the action and the creation of the text enacting the action, but which at the same time is detached from the author, as such, and from the narrating voice and, apparently, from any other entity within the text.

The ‘eye’ becomes a kind of freestanding device with which the author can shuffle off his responsibility to own or control or complete the text:

  • Let the eye from its vigil be distracted a moment…
  • The eye rivets the bare window…
  • The eye breathes again but not for long. For slowly it emerges again. Rises from the floor and slowly up to lose itself in the gloom…
  • Here without having to close the eye sees her afar…

At some moments it seems to be the old lady’s eye, looking up at the ceiling in the gloom of the cabin? But then the difference is made clear:

  • Weary of the inanimate the eye in her absence falls back on the twelve…
  • While the eye digests its pittance. In its private dark…

Whose eye? How can it have a private dark of its own?

‘The eye’ is like another character, or another point, another focus. Having read Beckett’s later television plays, and the screenplay for his one and only film, Film, I know how very very precise he was at envisioning the camera’s precise position vis-a-vis the action, and how much effort he clearly out into visualising the events he was creating, first from this point of view, then from that, and so on. Well, that’s what the appearance of this ‘eye’ in the text reminds me of, at some moments, anyway: a kind of TV director’s point of view.

  • The eye closes in the dark and sees her in the end.
  • Seated on the stones she is seen from behind.
  • The hands. Seen from above. They rest on the pubis intertwined. Strident white.

And this feeling is reinforced in a couple of places where Beckett uses explicitly filmic terminology:

  • Close-up of a dial. Nothing else.

But it would be wrong to give the impression this screenplay terminology is consistent or easily comprehensible. The metaphor of the eye only sometimes appears to be televisual or filmic. In the text its precise meaning swims all over the place, from being, at one extreme, the actual eye of the old lady, at the other, the mechanical eye of a camera, while in other places it is sort of the eye of the narrator. Its definition and meaning are, in other words, radically uncertain, and one more factor destabilising the text and the reader’s efforts to situate themselves within it.

The intrusive author gives up

The intrusive author is traditionally associated with comedy, with the comic interventions into their own plots of novelists such as Laurence Sterne or Henry Fielding or early Dickens or William Thackeray.

Beckett reinvents the tradition as the voice of an author within the text, as he struggles to manage his own content, struggling to understand what he is seeing or hearing or experiencing. This explains, for example, the repeated one-word sentence ‘careful’. I take this to be the voice of the author telling himself to proceed carefully, as if the narrative itself is proceeding on a knife-edge, is in peril. As if it is dicing with dangerous material…

  • Was there once a time she did? Careful.
  • Gently gently. On. Careful.
  • What if not her do they ring around? Careful.
  • What forbids? Careful.
  • Dead still on her back evening and night. The bed. Careful.
  • With what one word convey its change? Careful.

The narrator is quite clearly telling himself to be careful about the way he conjures details into existence – but, as these details are by and large very banal, it’s clearly not them, the details, which are at stake.

South gable no problem. But the other. That door. Careful.

Here’s an example where he shares with us his indecision about precisely what posture to place the woman in:

Suddenly in a single gesture she snatches aside the coat and to again on a sky as black as it. And then? Careful. Have her sit? Lie? Kneel? Go?…

Thus the repeated phrase ‘careful’ builds up the sense that the narrator’s mind is in a very fragile state and that any sudden shocks or unexpected… slips in what he is fabricating, in what he is writing, inventing and describing, might tip him over the edge. But what edge? And why?

This sense of authorial jeopardy becomes especially vivid in one paragraph where the author appears to give up altogether, dismissing the whole attempt to write anything, to imagine anything, as a pitiful fiasco, dismissing all the details then the solar system itself, the entire universe he has invented, as a pitiful waste of time.

Such – such fiasco that folly takes a hand. Such bits and scraps. Seen no matter how and said as seen. Dread of black. Of white. Of void. Let her vanish. And the rest. For good. And the sun. Last rays. And the moon. And Venus. Nothing left but black sky. White earth. Or inversely. No more sky or earth. Finished high and low. Nothing but black and white. Everywhere no matter where. But black. Void. Nothing else. Contemplate that. Not another word…

Except that… there is always another word. Beckett’s characters and Beckett the author may repeatedly express the devout wish to cease, to end, to reach the end, to achieve completion. But humans can’t do that, the human condition is endless flux, consciousness won’t let up, the words won’t stop, the voices won’t be silent.

And so, after this moment of authorial collapse, this moment of authorial panic, the narrative picks up the pieces and carries on, doing what Beckett likes to do in moments of crisis, which is move to a systematic description of something trivial, in this instance the appearance of the old woman’s hands in her lap as she sits still:

Panic past pass on. The hands. Seen from above. They rest on the pubis intertwined. Strident white…

‘Panic past’. And so it continues, because it has to, like life.

Ghost stories

In my reviews of works like Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby I’ve developed the notion that Beckett was writing ghost stories. Not deliberately, he is not consciously invoking the tradition of M.R. James et al. But in my opinion, although starting from a very different place, although starting from the rumbustious comic tradition of Rabelais which combines excessive interest in bodily functions with mockery and parodies of high philosophy, nonetheless Beckett has arrived in a place where he is obsessed with the evanescence of existence, with consciousnesses passing in and out of perception, of minds aware of multiple minds within themselves, containing multitudes of voices, voices in the darkness, voices from within the skull and maybe from elsewhere, who knows…

Times when she is gone. Long lapses of time. At crocus time it would be making for the distant tomb. To have that on the imagination! On top of the rest. Bearing by the stem or round her arm the cross or wreath. But she can be gone at any time. From one moment of the year to the next suddenly no longer there. No longer anywhere to be seen. Nor by the eye of flesh nor by the other. Then as suddenly there again. Long after. So on. Any other would renounce. Avow, No one. No one more. Any other than this other. In wait for her to reappear. In order to resume. Resume the – what is the word? What the wrong word?

A lot is going on in this paragraph but for my purposes I want to focus on:

But she can be gone at any time. From one moment of the year to the next suddenly no longer there. No longer anywhere to be seen. Nor by the eye of flesh nor by the other. Then as suddenly there again. Long after.

Someone appears to be watching the cabin where the old lady lives and knows that she disappears, or appears to disappear (this playing with words is contagious!) for periods of time. In my mind’s eye I see this filmically, dissolves with snow falling over an isolated rural cottage, and it appearing empty most of the time, only for the old woman, somehow, spookily, to reappear.

She is there. Again. Let the eye from its vigil be distracted a moment. At break or close of day. Distracted by the sky. By something in the sky. So that when it resumes the curtain may be no longer closed. Opened by her to let her see the sky. But even without that she is there. Without the curtain’s being opened. Suddenly open. A flash. The suddenness of all! She still without stopping. On her way without starting. Gone without going. Back without returning. Suddenly it is evening. Or dawn. The eye rivets the bare window. Nothing in the sky will distract it from it more. While she from within looks her fill. Pfft occulted. Nothing having stirred.

‘Gone without going. Back without returning.’ Creepy! Later on she seems to disappear even as we’re watching her, in the middle of eating from a bowl, she simply fades away.

But before she can proceed she fades and disappears. Nothing now for the staring eye but the chair in its solitude…

Or take the paragraph describing the buttonhook the old lady uses to lace up her boots before going out. The point is that:

It trembles faintly without cease. As if here without cease the earth faintly quaked…

Just this one object, alone in the whole cabin, very faintly, continually trembles. Why? It is like the detail from countless ghost/horror movies, he scene where you see otherwise inconsequential household objects suddenly start to shake…

And then there is the role played by ‘the twelve’. There are twelve, twelve somethings, presumably humans. Who, what why? They appear. They seem to circle the lady. Why?

What if not her do they ring around? Careful. She who looks up no more looks up and sees them. Some among them. Still or receding. Receding. Those too closely seen who move to preserve their distance. While at the same time others advance. Those in the wake of her wandering. She never once saw one come toward her. Or she forgets. She forgets. Now some do. Toward but never nearer. Thus they keep her in the centre. More or less. What then if not her do they ring around? In their ring whence she disappears unhindered.

Being circled, being at the centre of a ring of spooky, ghostly, spectral beings is another classic ghost story trope. Later they are suddenly referred to as ‘the guardians’, an even more obvious, spooky trope:

The guardians – the twelve are there but not at full muster.

The twelve are guardians? Of whom, of what? Why? Mystery. There is a great deal of text about stones, about the stoniness of the environs of the lady’s cabin, about how white bleached stone is encroaching on the pasture. Possibly the twelve are menhirs, dolmen, ancient standing stones and their movement closer and further is something to do with fog or mist. Or maybe with the old lady’s failing eyesight. Eye. Sight.

My suspicions about ghost story were bolstered when another ghost story word makes an unusual appearance, unusually explicit, short-circuiting the often impenetrable vagueness of the text with a bolt of obviousness:

The long white hair stares in a fan. Above and about the impassive face. Stares as if shocked still by some ancient horror…

‘Ancient horror’ eh. Sounds like Bram Stoker or Conan Doyle at their cheesiest.

Time slowing down. A haunted cottage. An old woman at the centre of a ring of twelve silent guardians. Staring as if shocked by some ancient horror…

It’s not by any means all that’s going on in this text, and it may well not have been Beckett’s primary concern or intention at all… But I think Ill Seen Ill Said takes its place in what I’m coming to think of as Beckett’s late-period ghost stories…

The title

The phrases ‘ill seen’ and ‘ill said’ are dropped into the text with increasing frequency as it moves towards its ending, and have complex resonances, not least because ‘ill’ can be both an adverb and a noun, so that ‘ill seen’ can mean both ‘something evil which is observed’ and ‘badly seen’.

But, to take ‘ill’ as an adverb one fairly obvious interpretation, is that ‘things’, ‘it’, ‘the world’, ‘reality’, can never be perfectly seen (or understood) and never perfectly expressed. Any human perception is necessarily very imperfect and incomplete. The world, in other words, can only, at best, be ‘ill seen’. And all human expression is similarly partial, incomplete, doomed to inadequacy. Even the best words can only hope to be ‘ill said’.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

A Piece of Monologue by Samuel Beckett (1980)

Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go

A Piece of Monologue is a short play by Samuel Beckett written between 1977 and 1979 specifically for the American actor David Warrilow. It consists of five pages of text in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays edition and lasts about 20 minutes in performance.

A Piece of Monologue contrasts with the immediately preceding plays (That Time, Footfalls, Ghost Trio, …but the clouds…) in that it is, as the title indicates, a remarkably simple monologue, just a block of continuous, uninterrupted text, as if cut whole from The Beckett Trilogy, very unlike the previous three or four plays which – as I’ve shown – had reached a kind of extreme of hyper-detailed, mathematical, almost computer-algorithm levels of precise and numbered stage directions. Obviously there are some stage directions, but they are kept to an unusual minimum. Here they are:

Curtain.
Faint diffuse light.
Speaker stands well off centre downstage audience left.
White hair, white nightgown, white socks.
Two metres to his left, same level, same height, standard lamp, skull-sized white globe, faintly lit.
just visible extreme right, same level, white foot of pallet bed.
Ten seconds before speech begins.
Thirty seconds before end of speech lamplight begins to fail.
Lamp out. Silence. SPEAKER, globe, foot of pallet, barely visible in diffuse light.
Ten seconds.
Curtain.

Note the repetition of the period of ten seconds, the same interval as occurs in other plays, as if a magic number, a luminous interlude of half-lit silence.

A Piece of Monologue consists of yet another solo figure talking, yet another old man, bereft, talking about loss and loneliness, the usual cheerful subject matter, a man facing a blank wall where the photos of his family used to hang – until he tore them all down, and then prey to increasingly feverish memories of endless funerals he’s attended.

Nothing there either. Nothing stirring there either. Nothing stirring anywhere. Nothing to be seen anywhere. Nothing to be heard anywhere…

To quote the YouTube summary, ‘The play dramatises a successive loss of company: firstly, in an account of the destruction of photographs and secondly, in the memories of a funeral in the rain.’

Repetitions

A Piece of Monologue uses the kind of verbal repetitions to structure and anchor it, and give it a mounting ghostly atmosphere,

which had characterised Beckett’s work ever since the Trilogy. Key repeated phrases include:

  • Birth was the death of him
  • From funeral to funeral
  • Hard to believe so few
  • Gropes to window and stares out. Stands there staring out. Stock still staring out
  • Faint light in room. Whence unknown
  • Dwells thus as if unable to move again. Or no will left to move again. Not enough will left to move again
  • Once white. Hair white to take faint light… Once white to take faint light.
  • Thirty thousand lights…
  • Black vast
  • Fade. Gone. Again and again. Again and again gone.
  • Fade

The Beckett Companion points out the opening sentence is itself a variation on a sentence from the short story First Love, ‘What finished me was the birth’. It is what you could call a stock piece of Beckettian paradox.

And it’s obviously not only the words which repeat, but the narrator himself, who seems stuck in an endless cycle of repetitive actions, triggered by the word ‘birth’. Each time the word ‘birth’ is uttered, the speaker is forced, once again (‘Again and again. Again and again gone’), into the routine of noticing the fading light through the window, lighting the lamp with three matches, stepping to the wall and staring at the blank spaces where the photographs used to hang, again and again and again without surcease.

In particular, the word ‘gone’ starts to recur like the clanging of a church bell in a horror film and in fact the piece was originally titled Gone, in line with Beckett’s long established practice of naming pieces after one, talismanic, much-repeated key word for example ‘ping’ in the piece of that name or ‘that time’, named for the repetition of that phrase in the play of the same name.

Stands there stock still staring out as if unable to move again. Or gone the will to move again. Gone.

The increasing focus on the words ‘go’ and ‘gone’ reminds us of the much-quoted end of The Unnamable:

You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Back then, in the late 1940s, Beckett’s narrator heroically vows to go on despite the odds. Now, thirty years later, that struggle feels like it is over – his family and all the living, are gone. Past. The play’s keyword (‘gone’) is a past participle, denoting an action finished and over.

The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

On one level, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to the adventures of the verb ‘to go’.

Bleakness

Obviously, someone new to Beckett would be most struck by the unremitting negativity of the text, the old man having ripped up the photos of his family, who he dismisses, one by one, as ‘grey voids’ (charming!) and, by the emphasis in the second part on the subject of death and funerals, and throughout by the continual use of nihilistic phrases such as:

  • Dying on. No more no less. No. Less. Less to die. Ever less
  • There alone. He alone. So on. Not now. Forgotten. All gone so long. Gone…
  • Sun long sunk behind the larches. Light dying. Soon none left to die. No…

Readers familiar with Beckett, however, know this is his schtick, like Dickens and comic grotesques, Graham Greene and sin, Somerset Maugham and settlers in Malaya, Franz Kafka and anxiety or T.S. Eliot and Anglicanism. It’s his flavour. It’s his brand.

Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost

It’s part of the pleasure of Beckett, in the same way that anyone who hadn’t tried whiskey before, at their first sip would spit it out for burning their mouth… But a slow, gentle introduction, in moderate sips, with explanations of the different distilleries, with explanation of the flavour given by the local peat and moss, will eventually make anyone into a connoisseur, someone who takes the basic alcoholic ‘hit’ of the thing for granted, but comes to savour and enjoy the subtle differences from malt to malt or – back to Beckett – takes the big central nihilism in their stride, and instead focuses on the differences of construction and emphasis from work to work.

Beckett and counting

And numbers. Numbers are to Beckett what religion or symbolism are to other authors, a permanent, objective system of thought with which to order, structure, calm and console the speaker, the narrator, the text.

  • Two and a half billion seconds. Again. Two and a half billion seconds
  • Thirty thousand nights
  • Thirty seconds. To add to the two and a half billion odd

Beckett’s rule is: If in doubt – count. Putting key aspects of human life into numbers (how many breaths inhaled, how many steps taken) simultaneously highlight the vast futility of human existence and yet is also, somehow, consoling.

You could say that 1) the incantatory repetition of a dozen or so key phrases, and 2) the obsessive counting and enumerating of the most banal activities, are what Beckett has instead of plot.

The Beckett on Film version

Here’s the Beckett on Film version, featuring Stephen Brennan as the Speaker and directed by Robin Lefevre. The obvious thing, as with so many TV adaptations of Beckett, is how much his detailed stage directions are not so much omitted as superseded by the medium of TV or film which can, quite simply, be far more visually and aurally inventive that theatre.

Thus the dominant and dominating image of the filmed version is the rain, introduced from the start drizzling down the outside of the window and so distorting our view of the solitary old man in his room, and sounding very loud, so aurally dominating our perception. Whereas in Beckett’s meticulous stage directions there is no mention of rain or the sound of rain (although there is, obviously, in the text, from which the effect is taken).

It’s also easy to overlook the fact that, like so many of the Beckett on Film productions, it’s in black and white, as Beckett almost always, naturally, feels like it should be.

Thoughts

Performance

I’m afraid I didn’t really like Stephen Brennan’s performance. He’s good but, like Susan Fitzgerald in Footfalls, I just didn’t warm to his voice, his accent or articulation. Compare and contrast with Patrick Magee’s show-stopping performance in Cascando or Niall Buggy in That Time both of which blow me away every time. But the great thing about plays is they live to fight another day. Directors and actors can bend their ingenuity to fail again, fail better, indefinitely, just like Beckett’s characters.

In fact a lot of Beckett’s metaphors about repetition – forcing his protagonists to endlessly perform the same action over and again (and again) – and his scenarios in which a voice is telling someone what to do and how to move – these can both be viewed as extensions of theatrical practice. Many of his prose pieces instantly become more accessible if you reimagine the guiding voice as a director telling his actors just what to say and how to say it, how to move and what to do onstage.

Indeed, half way through A Piece of Monologue, the play makes this subtext explicit and the monologue turns into full-on stage directions, the monologue including the kind of instructions you get in stage directions or a screenplay. The narrating voice turns into a directorial voice, at the moment when, about half way through, the piece starts over again, as if born again, from instance of the much-repeated word, ‘Birth’ which Robin Lefevre chooses to give a big booming echo to, to fade the screen to black, and then restart the film as if it is now being staged by the onscreen protagonist.

… slow fade up of a faint form….

It is a deliberate confusion or mixing of stage directions with content, the latter morphing into the former:

Hand with spill disappears. Second hand disappears. Chimney alone in gloom. Hand reappears with globe. Globe back on. Turns wick low. Disappears. Pale globe alone in gloom. Glimmer of brass bedrail. Fade.

‘Fade’. This is a stage or scrip instruction which, from this point onwards, appears about 20 times, foregrounding the artifice of the piece, making what had previously been monologue now read exactly like the stage directions to the half dozen preceding plays, as do the deliberate inclusions of several other explicit stage directions:

White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left.

The monologue dramatises its own staging.

Beckett’s late prose

I think I don’t like Beckett’s later prose. After a while I’ve realised that the stage directions and the pieces themselves are both written in the same artificially contracted, abbreviated style, deliberately omitting prepositions and pronouns and copulas.

Faint light in room. Whence unknown. None from window.

Morphing the spoken text into stage directions half way through is clever and creates a whole new level of spectral spooky repetition, but has the – for me – negative impact of accentuating its staginess.

Beckett had evolved over 30 years from the Trilogy to this very distinctive style of prose poetry, replacing properly written-out sentences with abbreviated snippet which are compulsively repeated, as a way of conveying meaning – but I think it was more effective in the plays and prose from the mid-1960s through the 70s. Maybe I’ve read too much Beckett, but, to my ear, by this point, in Company and here, it has become a mannerism, and a rather irritating one.

There is no internal logic why sentences such as:

Match goes out. Strikes a second as before. Takes off chimney. Smoke-clouded. Holds it in left hand. Match goes out. Strikes a third as before and sets it to wick. Puts back chimney. Match goes out. Puts back globe. Turns wick low…

Plenty of works of literature foreground their own artifice, but often with style or humour. For me the excitement and verve of the pieces from the 1960s has degenerated into a manner and an irritating one at that. At 4 minutes 50 seconds into the Beckett on Film production, he says:

So stands there facing blank wall.

For me, the omission of ‘a’ – ‘stands there facing a blank wall’ – draws attention to itself. It is not only semantically odd but it is oddly incongruous for any idea of any variety of ‘real’ person speaking. No-one would say ‘So stands there facing blank wall’. That is a stage direction not a piece of speech. As is:

Lamp smoking though wick turned low. Strange. Faint smoke issuing through vent in globe

I don’t mind any kind of experimentalism or stylisation, go for it, try it, see what happens. But in practice, for me, this late style seems pretentious and contrived. There is no rulebook, no right or wrong about these things, the only question is, ‘Does it work?’ and for me, it doesn’t. It doesn’t help build and augment the experience, the elliptical, telegraphese of the prose continually distracts from its aims.

Thinking about it further, I think we can make a distinction between where Beckett uses this style to convey weird, spectral, other-worldly psychological states, for example the final passage:

Treating of other matters. Trying to treat of other matters. Till half hears there are no other matters. Never were
other matters. Never two matters. Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

Here, for me, the style works, because it is creating strange psychological states by its use of clipped sentences which both leap from place to place and also repeat key phrases, as if examining the states from many angles, à la cubism. Applied to psychological states, I still enjoy it and find it weirdly liberating and intoxicating.

It’s when he applies it to physical actions, which you feel ought to be – could be – much more straightforwardly described, that I find it forced, mannered and clumsy. I almost feel embarrassed for Beckett at finding himself constrained to write ‘So stands there facing blank wall’ ‘So he stands there facing a blank wall’.

Ripped from the wall and torn to shreds one by one. Over the years. Years of nights. Nothing on the wall now but the pins. Not all. Some out with the wrench. Some still pinning a shred. So stands there facing blank wall.

For me, the thumping banality of the actual stage directions threatens to destroy much of the spectral, barely perceivable subtlety of the more psychological passages.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Vladimir Nabokov on Franz Kafka (1954)

Vladimir Nabokov

The eminent Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1971) fled the Russian Revolution to Germany in 1919 moving, eventually, on to France. Then, like many others, he was forced to flee France ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, crossing the Atlantic to America. Here he found work as an academic, and taught literature for twenty years, first at Wellesley (a private women’s arts college in Massachusetts, 1941-48) and then at Cornell University (1948-58). In his autobiography he claims to have written some 200 lectures on Russian and European literature as preparation for these jobs.

At his death Nabokov left a mountain of notes and manuscripts, including many of the lectures which were in a very unruly condition: some were entirely hand-written, some mostly typed out by his wife, but then covered in scrawls and corrections. It took nine years to select and then edit into presentable form a selection of just seven of the lectures, which were published in 1980, and concern:

  • Jane Austen – Mansfield House
  • Charles Dickens – Bleak House
  • Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
  • Robert Louis Stevenson – Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde
  • Marcel Proust – The Walk by Swann’s Way
  • Franz Kafka – the Metamorphosis
  • James Joyce – Ulysses

Nabokov’s approach to literature

Nabokov disapproved of thematic, psychoanalytic, symbolic or other types of overarching critical schools, and was strongly against all socio-political interpretations of works of literature. He preferred to concentrate on the physical realities described in classic novels, and on the ‘sensuous details’ which add ‘sparkle’ to fiction.

‘Caress the details, the divine details!’

When I was at school and university I judged a lot of books on their political or social goals and aspects, simply because I knew so little about the world that each new book was a revelation, often of entire new schools of politics or philosophy or psychology.

Years later, I now share Nabokov’s view that the ostensible ‘subjects’ of much fiction (or art) are often trite and obvious, and that the big schools of interpretation – Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction – often prostitute the texts in order to make their polemical points. That, in fact, the real interest lies elsewhere. As he puts it:

Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.

John Updike’s introduction

American novelist, essayist and poet John Updike (1932 – 2009) contributes an introduction to the essays. For the most part this is a pretty factual account of Nabokov’s childhood in St Petersburg, brought up in the bosom of a very wealthy upper-middle-class Russian family, his childhood exposure to English literature (his father read him Dickens in English, he was reading French literature fluently at an early age), then the flight to West Europe in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Updike describes Nabokov’s successive short-term jobs before he took up the one lecturing on literature at Wellesley, where he has special insight because his (Updike’s wife) was one of Nabokov’s students.

We are told various stories about the great man’s lecturing style and rules (sit in the same seat each week, no knitting!) alongside a snippet from the correspondence between him and heavyweight literary journalist, Edmund Wilson, in which Wilson successfully persuades Nabokov to include Jane Austen in his lectures, and recommends Bleak House as the best Dickens novel to teach.

Pleasantly gossipy though all this is, the only really substiantial bit is the last page or so where Updike politely takes issue with Nabokov’s aesthetic views.

Updike first enlists the best-known biographical fact about Nabokov, which is that he was a world-class expert on butterflies; he formally studied them in a university setting and wrote textbooks about them. The idea is obvious: years of looking under a magnifying glass at the tiny but beautifully formed detail of often minuscule insects, bled over or matched or was of a piece with Nabokov’s approach to literature – a fondness for detail and pattern above all else. In Updike’s words:

He asked, then, of his own art and the art of others a something extra – a flourish of mimetic magic or deceptive doubleness… Where there was not this shimmer of the gratuitous, or the superhuman and nonutilitarian, he turned harshly impatient… Where he did find  this shimmer, producing its tingle in the spine, his enthusiasm went far beyond the academic, and he became an inspired, and surely inspiring, teacher.

But Updike goes on to gently question this. He points out that even such an arch-aesthete as Wallace Stevens admitted that art, at some level, touches on reality. Updike says that in Nabokov’s lofty aesthetic ‘small heed is paid to the lowly delight of recognition, and the blunt virtue of verity’. Nabokov gives the impression of thinking that the entire world is an artistic creation, ‘insubstantial and illusionistic’.

But it isn’t. And even in the novels he’s chosen, the realistic core is vital. Both Madame Bovary and Ulysses:

glow with the heat of resistance that the will to manipulate meets in banal, heavily actual subjects.

(Note Updike’s own highly lyrical way with words.)

In his essay on The Metamorphosis Nabokov deprecates Gregor Samsa’s place in his philistine bourgeois family as ‘mediocrity surrounding genius’. But Updike thinks this doesn’t give enough credit to one of the basic elements of the story, which is that Gregor needs and loves these ‘crass’ people. He cannot leave them. He cannot stop thinking about them. In Nabokov’s view they are dispensable furniture cluttering up the aesthetic creation. In Updike’s more forgiving view, they are vital components in the psychology – which is the core – of the story. Who’s view do you agree with?

Vladimir Nabokov on The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Nabokov begins by distinguishing between a fiction like The Metamorphosis and Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. the latter is artificial in the sense that Jeckyll-Hyde dyad come from a Gothic melodrama and they are set against an unreal fantasy London decorated with fog borrowed from Dickens. Ie foreground and background are unreal.

By contrast in The Metamorphosis

the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans. (Lectures on Literature, p.255)

Nabokov gives a potted biography of Kafka in which he baldly states that he was ‘the greatest German writer of our time’.

Nabokov briskly dismisses two popular approaches to Kafka: the line, founded by Max Brod, that Kafka was a saint seeking, through his works, for holiness. And the Freudian, psychological interpretation which focuses on Kafka’s lifelong prostration before his domineering father and the resultant paralysing sense of guilt. He quotes Kafka himself who was dismissive of psychoanalysis, calling it ‘a helpless error’. Nabokov recaps the precise family background of the Samsas i.e. father’s business went bankrupt five years earlier, owing debts, and young Gregor took a job with one of the debtors as a travelling salesman, and arranged for the family to move into this small apartment.

As to the change itself, Nabokov quotes the opening passage at length and highlights how wonderfully dreamy it feels in the original German – all lost in translation. He quotes a critic who points out that the life of a travelling salesman regularly consists of waking up in strange hotels and experiencing moments of bewilderment and disorientation.

Then again, the sensation of being lonely and isolated is a common one for the artist, the pioneer, the discoverer.

Nabokov applies his entomological expertise to deciding what kind of creature Gregor has changed into, dismisses the notion of a cockroach, concludes that the ‘many legs’ referred to are just a confused person’s impression of six legs – that therefore he is an insect – and then on the basis that he has a segmented front but a hard concave back, decides he must be some kind of beetle.

He now takes us through the story dividing it into multiple scenes, and examining, in particular, what themes are addressed or raised in each section. Thus:

In the opening scene the metamorphosis is still not complete and Gregor continues thinking as a man, specifically as an employee and wage earner who is late for work and is going to catch it from the boss. Thus he wastes a lot of effort trying to stand up on his rear legs like a man, and encounters all kinds of problems (crashing to the floor) because his mind hasn’t caught up with the change to his body.

Nabokov makes a simple point I hadn’t thought of which is that although Gregor becomes the insect, it is his family who are the parasites. All three of them sponge off his hard labour, up very early, working long hours, exhausting travelling.

Nabokov highlights the theme of doors, the way the small apartment is claustrophobic, divided into small rooms, whose doorways play a key role. The relatives knock on them and speak through them. Luckily he has locked them, as he locks the doors of the hotel rooms he is used to staying in. The opening and closing of doors will become increasingly symbolic as the story progresses.

Nabokov proceeds with a detailed reading of the text, embedding large chunks of the story in his lecture, and then commenting on them. His main point is to highlight the contract between, on the one hand, Gregor’s philistine family who slowly get used to the situation and go about their normal business, while – in the classic bourgeois way – trying to ignore the catastrophe which has overcome them, and the many instances of Gregor’s sweet nature which endure. For example, when he realises how disgusted his sister is at the sight of him when she delivers his food twice a day, he, at great labour, carries a sheet over to the couch in his room and arranges it so it hangs down over the edge of the couch so that, when Gregor the giant insect is underneath it, he is completely hidden from her sight.

Thus Nabokov emphasises the contrast between the sensitive son, with his ‘sweet and subtle human nature’, and the philistine heedless family, who he bluntly calls ‘morons’.

Nabokov doesn’t have much to say about the central scene of the story, he simply retells the events: how the mother and daughter decide to move the furniture out of Gregor’s room but the mother is not prepared for the sight of him, collapses on the sofa with a shriek, the daughter rushes into the living room to get some smelling salts, Gregor the beetle scuttles up behind her (first time he’s been out of his room) she turns round and is startled by him, dropping a bottle so a shard of glass cuts Gregor, she runs back into Gregor’s room and slams the door so Gregor is locked in the living room and runs round the walls and ceilings in  his agitation, till the father returns home, high and mighty in the uniform of his post as a bank commissionaire and, infuriated by the sight of Gregor, chases him round the living room hurling apples – the only available weapons – at him, one of which somehow ‘sinks into’ Gregor’s back, causing him immense pain, and the sister and mother finally exit Gregor’s room, allowing him to scuttle back inside with the door slammed behind him.

This is the climax at the centre of the story. Thereafter the family sink into passivity. They often leave the door of his room open and, from his darkened lair, he watches them eat their meals, the father doze off in his chair, his mother do the needlework she’s taken in to earn some money. Nabokov speculates that Gregor’s transformation might be catching and that the father might be getting it, refusing to take off his shiny uniform which, as a result, gets increasingly shabby and stained with food. Certainly there is a strong sense of decay over the whole story…

The actual catastrophe or turning point comes in the next act, after the three old men lodgers have moved in, severely inconveniencing the family, the father and mother taking over the sister’s room and the sister having to bunk down in the living room, having to be up and ready before the earliest lodger rises.

They hear her playing violin, they invite her into the living room to entertain them, Gregor’s door is ajar and he finds himself entranced by his sister’s (very bad playing) and unconsciously drawn towards her, slowly scuttling across the floor – until he lodgers spot him. Oddly, they are not terrified, merely angry that Gregor’s father has put them up next to such a monster. They serve notice that they’re quitting the rooms and also that they won’t pay any of the back rent owed.

This is the tipping point because it prompts a family conference which, unfortunately, Gregor overhears. For the first time his strong-willed sister refers to Gregor as ‘it’, and forcefully argues that they must get rid of ‘it’ because ‘it’ is ruining their lives. Sadly, Gregor retreats into his room, exhausted, run down, wounded by the festering rotten apple in his back and, around 3 in the morning, breathes his last.

Nabokov is unforgiving of the philistine family.

Gregor is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people. (p.280)

He observes how the three lodgers are shown the dead body, covered in dust. They themselves appear dusty and shabby in the new warm spring sunlight. Then they pack their things and slowly descend the staircase from the Samsas’ apartment, much – Nabokov points out – as the Chief Clerk had fled down it at his first sight of Gregor. Nabokov is good at bringing out chiming echoes like this. He describes them as ‘themes’, like the themes in a work of classical music which appear, disappear, return amended in new keys or the minor mode.

Then the ironic epilogue, in which we see the three members of the Samsa family writing letters to their respective employers while the robust charwoman explains that she’ll get rid of ‘that thing’ in the other room for them. They take a trolleycar out to the countryside to enjoy the new warm spring weather. And the parents notice along the way that young Greta has blossomed into a plump full-bodied young woman.

Nabokov makes the devastating comment that she has ‘fattened herself’ on Gregor’s body, filling out as he wasted away.

The lecture ends with a brief summary in which Nabokov brings out the importance of threes – three doors to his room, three people in the family, three lodgers and so on. But warns against a superficial interpretation of ‘symbols’.

There are artistic symbols and there are trite, artificial, and even imbecile symbols. You will find a number of such inept symbols in the psychoanalytic and mythological approach to Kafka’s work, in the fashionable mixture of sex and myth that is so appealing to mediocre minds. (p.283)

This kind of trite symbolic interpretation should not get in the way of understanding the work’s ‘beautiful burning life’.

And a final brief reference to the tremendous clarity and formality of Kafka’s prose – the way there isn’t a single metaphor or simile in the entire story, which gives it a sort of black and white feel.

The limpidity of his style stresses the dark richness of his fantasy.

Thoughts

At the end of the day, Nabokov does not add greatly to one’s understanding of the story. A surprising amount of his lecture consists of simply reading out the text, with minimal commentary.

He epitomises a certain kind of teaching which simply consists of making the student pay really, really close attention to the text, and that is considered its own reward.

No greater insights are intended – nothing about society or human nature or the triumph of the proletariat or the Oedipus Complex or the Patriarchy or any of the numerous other critical theories with their clutters of buzzwords.

Simply paying close attention and noting the deployment of certain themes – the importance of doors and doorways, the recurrence of the stairway theme – these are enough in themselves, because they take you deeper into a full, sensual experience of the text and that, for Nabokov, is the point of art.


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The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

‘It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something abstract which I don’t understand, but which I don’t need to understand either.’
(Frau Grubach, The Trial page 27)

About Kafka

The Trial was left unfinished at Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924. In one of the most notorious incidents in literary history, Kafka asked his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his stories, novels, notes and drafts after his death, but Brod ignored this request, carefully edited the surviving texts, and arranged for their publication and promotion throughout the 1920s.

Thus The Trial was published in 1925, The Castle in 1926, America in 1927, and a collection of short stories in 1931. It was Brod’s decision not to burn, and then his dedication to editing and publishing the works, which made Kafka, already known in German literary circles, world famous.

The Trial – style

Not experimental in form As great works of literature go, The Trial is straightforward enough to read. There is no formal experimentalism, no cutting between points of view or stream of consciousness or insertions of bits of diary or newspaper, or any of the other tricks the Modernists used.

Blocks of prose The most notable feature is that, contrary to modern practice, the paragraphs are very long – pages and pages long. And the dialogue is embedded in them. Extended exchanges between two or three characters go on in one long, monolithic block of prose – utterly contrary to the modern practice of starting a new paragraph for each speaker, and each new bit of dialogue, no matter how brief.

These great blocks of solid text make Kafka’s prose rather hard going. You can’t tell at a glance whether a page consists of description or dialogue, and there are hardly any ‘breaks’, places where you can enter the big, solid page of print. The text looks and feels like an imposing monolith of words. If your concentration lapses even for a few seconds, it’s difficult to track back to the last bit you were paying attention to. There are no visual cues, making it hard to find your place again when you pick the book up after a break.

This might sound trivial but, in my opinion, contributes to the sense of struggle, effort and oppressiveness which the book radiates.

German Although Kafka was born and lived most of his life in Prague, he wrote in German. He spent most of his working life in an office at the Workers Insurance Office in Prague, only right at the end of his life quitting this job to go and try and earn a living in Berlin by his writing.

The Trial – the setting

It’s Joseph K’s birthday. He’s 30 years-old. He works in a bank where he holds the ‘comparatively high post’ (p.10) of ‘Assessor’ (at one point he refers to himself as ‘the junior manager of a large Bank’, p.48), and is deferred to by lowly clerks. He has a big office with a waiting room attached, and ‘an enormous plate glass window through which he looks down on ‘the busy life of the city’ (p.70).

Joseph lives in a rented room in a boarding house, and his landlady is Frau Grubach. Other lodgers include Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.16) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Lanz, ‘a tall men in the early forties, with a tanned, fleshy face’ (p.91).

The plot

The plot is in a sense simple, has the simplicity of a fable or dream fantasia.

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Joseph K’s breakfast isn’t brought in by the cook, Anna, as usually happens. Instead two men arrive and announce themselves to be officials who have placed him under arrest. Their names are Franz and Willem. While Franz explains the situation, Willem sits in the living room and calmly eats Joseph’s breakfast (p.11). Neither are wearing official or police uniforms, but are dressed casually. They aren’t violent or threatening, their tone is much more of hard-done-by and misunderstood lowly bureaucrats just doing their jobs. Through the window, an old couple in the apartment opposite watch the goings-on. And the warders seem to have brought three ‘assistants’ who are rummaging around in the apartment, as well, looking at family photos on the piano (p.16).

This opening sets the tone of mystery and uncertainty. In the very first sentence we learn Joseph has been placed ‘under arrest’, but it’s never really clear what this means. Even the officials carrying out the arrest aren’t really certain about it.

‘I can’t even confirm that you are charged with an offence, or rather I don’t know whether you are or not. You are under arrest, certainly, more than that I do not know.’ (The Inspector, page 18)

Indeed, the officials leave Joseph free to go about his life exactly as before. He goes to work, he meets friends and his fiancée after work, everything continues as normal except for his nagging worry about what  being ‘under arrest’ means.

The following Sunday he is invited to a so-called ‘interrogation’. But when he turns up at the appointed location at the appointed time, he finds it is more like a meeting in a crowded church hall. The officials seated up on the stage are trying to make themselves heard, before Joseph tries to make a speech, despite various distractions in the audience.

In the next chapter he goes to the office of ‘the Prosecutor’, which turns out to be a dingy room at the end of a grubby corridor littered with shabby appellants and clients, and this meeting, also, becomes hopelessly confused, as Joseph finds himself distracted by the pretty wife of one of the officials.

In other words, The Trial is emphatically not a case of Joseph being arrested, carted off to prison and subject to harsh interrogations, the kind of thing which became routine in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and all the other totalitarian states which copied them during the 1930s and 40s.

Far from it. There is no police station or cell, no actual interrogation, nothing that well-defined and recognisable. Instead, there follows a series of dreamlike, very long-winded, and claustrophobically frustrating scenes.

Episodic

This air of continual uncertainty about what is going on, and what Joseph should do about it, and where and when and why he should be attending hearings, or whether he should be preparing documents to present to this or that official – he doesn’t know and his adviser, his uncle, having claimed intimate knowledge of the Court only ends up confusing things – all these levels of uncertainty are reinforced by the episodic structure of the novel.

The chapters start with variations on the same phrase – ‘One afternoon’, ‘A few evenings later’, ‘In the next few days’, ‘During the next week’, making each episode only loosely connected to the previous one, if at all.

The reasons for all this are clarified in Max Brod’s afterword to the novel. Here Brod explains that Kafka a) never finished the novel b) left it as a collection of fragments, of finished and unfinished chapters, and other scraps. It was Brod who decided what to include and exclude. Put simply, he included all of what seemed to be the ‘finished’ chapters, and excluded the fragments which were self-evidently incomplete.

As to the ordering of the chapters, again Brod relied on the fact that he had listened to Kafka reading excerpts of the book out aloud to Brod and other friends, and discussing it with them. That gave him a good sense of how things were meant to follow each other. Still, the novel we read is not the author’s final, definitive version: it is the best guess of an assistant.

All this helps to explain the ‘episodic’ feel of the ‘book’, as if the consecutive chapters nearly but don’t quite link up.

But then, this fragmentary and provisional state is entirely in tune with the text itself, which is also structured according to a kind of dreamlike lack of logic or consequence. Everyone talks to Joseph about his arrest and trial but he is at no point detained anywhere, or prevented from doing anything, and there is no actual trial in the entire book.

Indeed, as the book progresses you being to realise that the so-called ‘trial’ simply amounts to Joseph’s knowledge that he has been charged. He doesn’t know what for, and nobody can tell him. The ‘trial’ really amounts to the pervasive sense of guilt and unease which his plight comes to bleed into every area of  his life and every waking thought.

It’s in this sense that the trial is more of an existential condition rather than a procedure or event. The chapters don’t really move on ‘events’ or any kind of narrative, so much as deepen the mystery and confusion surrounding Joseph’s situation.

You begin to realise that there really could, in theory, have been any number of chapters in the book, since there isn’t really a plot as such. As you read on, you can see how Kafka laboured hard over getting down his conception of a man lost and persecuted by a world he doesn’t understand… but also why the approach he’s taken almost militates against it ever really being finished… The encounters with court officials, and the bad advice from relatives, and the bizarre encounters with various female characters, could all be expanded indefinitely. As in a nightmare.

Crowded with characters

I read The Trial when I was at school and over the years had developed the common impression that Joseph K. is one man alone against a vast faceless monolithic bureaucracy. But that is a completely misleading memory. The book is actually crowded with people, and shows Joseph embedded in multiple webs of relationships – personal, social, sexual, familial and professional.

Home and family In his boarding house live Frau Grubach, Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.92) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Linz. Fräulein Bürstner is soon joined by a lodger to share her room, the sickly pale Fräulein Montag. There’s also Anna the cook (who we never meet) and reference is made to the house-porter and his son.

In Chapter Six Joseph’s Uncle Albert K. turns up (his name is only given on page 111). Albert shows Joseph a letter Joseph’s niece, the 17-year-old Erna, has written the uncle, expressing her concern about Joseph, who has promised to go and visit her but never has. That’s why Albert’s come to see him. Uncle Albert takes his nephew off to see the Advocate Huld.

In other words, far from being one man against a faceless world, just considering Joseph’s home already furnishes us with quite an extensive cast. In other words, the novel is surprisingly busy and populated.

The neighbours Joseph’s arrest is watched through the window from the apartment across the way by ‘two old creatures’, and a tall young man with a reddish beard (p.17). ‘A fine crowd of spectators!’ cries Joseph. Who are they? We never find out, they are just silent watchers, adding to the sense of voyeurism and unease.

Work At work Joseph interacts with a number of junior clerks, the Manager of the Bank invites him for a drive or for dinner at his villa (p.24) and the Deputy Director invites him to a party on his yacht, and then crops up in most of the subsequent Bank scenes, poking and prying around in Joseph’s office. At other points Joseph is seen giving orders to any number of junior clerks and, in several scenes, we see him dealing with customers of the bank, including a manufacturer, and then a cohort of three business men.

So, once again, he isn’t a solo agent, but embedded in a network of professional relationships.

Crowd scenes

There are not only far more characters than you might have expected, but plenty of actual crowds.

In Chapter Three Joseph is told to attend an ‘interrogation’ at a set time and place the following Sunday. But first of all he has a hard time finding the building, as it is in a warren of slums, the kind of late-Victorian slum where everyone is out on the street yelling and fighting or selling stuff from cheap stalls, or cleaning doorsteps etc. (This page and a half describing Juliusstrasse, p.42, is an interesting piece of social history and reportage.)

And when he gets to the building itself, Joseph discovers it is a rabbit-warren of corridors and staircases. And when he finally arrives at the room where the so-called ‘interrogation’ is meant to take place, he discovers it is packed out with a crowd, like a meeting in a village hall –

K. felt as if her were entering a meeting-hall. (p.45)

– and that the official meant to be conducting the ‘interrogation’ is ‘a fat little wheezing man’ sitting up on the stage, by a table along with a number of other officials and assistants. In fact there is no procedure at all, there is no actual interrogation, just long dialogues where both sides try to figure out what is happening, all of which is interrupted by a student right at the back of the hall, wrestling a women to the ground in a clinch, it’s not clear whether they’re having sex or not but it’s certainly a love or sexual embrace, which utterly distracts the crowd from the proceedings up at the front.

This is the complete opposite of the icily terrifying interrogation scenes in books like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon. The initial scenes in the slum street reminded me of Dickens, and then the scene amid the crowded meeting is like a very long-winded dream which is going nowhere but in which you feel you’re drowning or asphyxiating, mixed in with surreally jarring details.

The whole book is like that, a series of encounters with grand-sounding officials who turn out to be shabby little men tucked away in grubby attic rooms who, when pressed, know remarkably little about the procedures of the Court, have only heard about the higher officials, point out the many ways Joseph has blotted his copybook and upset the powers-that-be without even realising it, and give ominous but often contradictory advice which, far from helping Joseph, sinks him deeper and deeper into a sense that he’ll never understand what’s going on or be able to do anything about it.

Court officials

Joseph meets umpteen representatives of ‘the authority’ under which he seems to have been arrested, starting with the two warders who make ‘the arrest, Franz and Willem, followed by the Inspector who takes over Fräulein Bürstner’s room to turn it into a makeshift office, and proceeds to explain everything, but in an obscure and puzzling way.

It is also odd and confusing that the three ‘assistants’ who are fussing around in the background of Fräulein Bürstner’s room turn out, on closer inspection, to be three young clerks he knows from his bank – Rabensteiner, Kullich and Kaminer.

It’s also confusing that later, describing it all to Fräulein Bürstner and apologising for the way they moved furniture around in her bedroom, Joseph refers to them collectively as ‘the Interrogation Commission’ (p.33) a phrase none of them had used. In other words, Joseph himself collaborates in making what was in reality two shabby badly-paid warders and a lowly inspector, appear and sound like something much more grand and official.

When, in Chapter Two, Joseph goes to the building in Juliusstrasse as instructed over the phone, he meets the ‘Examining Magistrate’, presiding over an ‘Interrogation Chamber’. But in reality the magistrate is a comical fat little man and the Interrogation Chamber is like a packed village hall.

In fact all the way through, the so-called officials have grand-sounding titles which contrast mockingly with their shabby surroundings (‘the dimness, dust, and reek’, p.47), their cheap suits and lack of authority or knowledge.

When he looks down at the first row of men in the meeting hall which constitutes the Interrogation Room, Joseph expects to see a row of wise and seasoned lawyers, but instead sees a row of senile old men with long white beards. All his expectations are subverted. Everything is old, decayed, ineffectual. This continual subversion of expectations is a form of satire, a kind of dream satire.

He goes on to meet:

  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the grey-haired worn-out litigant
  • a warder smartly dressed in a smart grey waistcoat who represents the Inquiries Department
  • the Clerk of Enquiries
  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the Advocate Huld
  • the Chief Clerk of the Court
  • the businessman
  • the painter Titorelli
  • the chaplain

The higher authorities

The most obvious thing about the ‘authorities’ that everyone tells him about, is that even though Joseph himself believes it to be a grand and mighty organisation…

There can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today’s interrogation, there is a great organisation at work. (p.54)

… in reality, the only people he ever comes into contact with seem to be at the very bottom of the hierarchy, very junior officials who, once he gets to know them, stop being intimidating and, quite the opposite, come over as paltry and whinging, spending their time complaining that they don’t like their jobs, don’t know what this case is all about etc etc.

So if the low-downs are a shabby bunch, surely the higher-ups must be more impressive? But in conversation after conversation, not only with members of ‘the Court’ but with hangers-on and outsiders, like the Law Court Attendant’s wife, they all convey the same sense that the hierarchy of officials extends infinitely upwards, and can never be reached.

‘The higher officials keep themselves well hidden.’ (p.120)

‘For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven’t the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, to everyone.’ (Advocate Huld p.175)

In the real world of 1910s Austro-Hungarian Prague, there was, of course, en entirely public hierarchy of law courts, from local to municipal up to a High Court and then to the Emperor, who could be appealed to by legal petition. Kafka knew all about it since he himself had studied law at university.

In parallel, in the Roman Catholic religion of Kafka’s Prague, there were numerous intermediaries – priests then bishops, archbishops, then saints, the Virgin Mary and then God himself who could be appealed to by prayer.

Both of these hierarchies have an end, a top, an ultimate authority.

But Kafka’s hierarchy has no top, no pinnacle. You can appeal upwards for the rest of your life, and never reach anyone who has the ultimate say. Because there is no ultimate say.

The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even adepts could survey the hierarchy as a whole. (p.132)

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings this home, being the Advocate’s account of his situation, in which – typically – he laments the plight of advocates such as himself (i.e. one of being miserably ignored by ‘the higher authorities’), and the likely fate of any appeals Joseph might make (waste of time). If you don’t have time or patience to read the whole book, you could (arguably) read Chapter Seven to get a vivid understanding of what the ‘Kafkaesque’ really means.

Shabbiness

The novel is full of shabby, half-derelict buildings. All the locations of the great Authority which Joseph is trying to identify are rundown, dirty, and generally located up rickety staircases in the attic rooms of derelict buildings out in the suburbs.

The whole milieu, all the settings, are deliberately opposite to the Grand Palaces and Castles and Institutions of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which Kafka began writing under. Google anything about modern-day Prague and you get images of brightly painted palaces and castles and Baroque churches and olde buildings.

Kafka’s Pargue couldn’t be more different, shabby and dirty and rickety and tumbledown. The ceiling of the court in Chapter Two is so low that people watching proceedings from the gallery are bent nearly in two, and use pillows to prevent their heads banging against the roof.

In Chapter Three Joseph can’t believe that such an important personage as the Examining Magistrate lives in a creaky garret at the top of some narrow stairs (p.69). When he goes up there to investigate, Joseph discovers a long narrow hallway, lined with benches on which sit the shabby, defeated clients of the Court (p.73).

When Joseph starts to feel faint because it’s so hot and stuffy, a young woman attendant (there always seems to be one of these at hand) opens a skylight, and so much soot immediately falls into the corridor that they have to close it and wipe Joseph down (p.78).

It is symptomatic that even the dining room in Frau Grubach’s house is inconveniently long and narrow, into which two cupboards are wedged at angles and the table so long it makes the window at the very end all but inaccessible (p.89). All the buildings and stairs and corridors and rooms are like this – difficult, and inconvenient.

Or that the bedroom of the Attorney Huld is so dark and dingy, illuminated only by one weak candle, that Albert and Joseph are half way through a long explanation of Joseph’s case to the bed-ridden Advocate, before either of them realise that there is another guest in the bedroom, completely hidden in the shadows, namely the Chief Clerk of the Court (p.116).

On a later visit the Advocate tells him the defence attorneys are in fact only barely tolerated by the court and that their room is small and cramped, right up in the attic, lit only by a skylight which is so high up the only way to see out of it is to get a colleague to hoist you up onto his back, and even then the smoke from the nearby chimney would choke you and blacken your face. Plus there’s a hole in the floor through which, if you’re not careful, you might stick your leg (p.129).

When in Chapter Seven Joseph catches a taxi to go and consult with the painter Titorelli, on the advice of ‘the manufacturer’ who he meets at work (at the Bank), Joseph is dismayed to find the painter’s studio in a slum neighbourhood, with a gaping hole in the doorway, some disgusting effluent oozing out of a pipe, inexplicably a baby lying in filth and crying, and the garret up disproportionately high, long, narrow stairs, and the artist’s studio ‘a wretched hole’ (p.160) made of bare wooden planks, in which you can hardly take two paces in any direction. Although there is a window set in the ceiling, as the atmosphere grows more and more stuffy, and Joseph breaks into a sweat, he’s told it can’t be opened, oh no.

There is no relief anywhere.

Sex…

Part of the dreamlike atmosphere is the way Joseph drifts easily from woman to woman: I mean that he has barely encountered a woman before they routinely start flirting with him, and sometimes have sex with him.

Given the generally Victorian tenor of the book, with its insistence on correct dressing and formal manners, it is incongruous how, every time he meets a new woman, Joseph immediately starts thinking about ‘having’ her – and how easy these women then are to be seduced, holding hands, then kissing and, in some instances, having sex.

Elsa Joseph tells us he has a girlfriend of sorts, Elsa, who dances at a cabaret, and receives guests during the day in bed (p.24). I couldn’t work out fro the text whether this just meant she had Bohemian manners, or was a prostitute. (I’ve subsequently read that yes, she is intended to be a prostitute.)

Fräulein Bürstner In the course of a long conversation with Fräulein Bürstner in which he apologises for the impertinence of the men who ‘arrested’ him and took over her room for the purpose, Joseph takes her hand, then kisses her fingers and they begin a flirtation.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife When he visits the ‘court’ where his first ‘interrogation’ takes place, proceedings, such as they are, are interrupted by the bright-eyed woman at the back falling to the ground in the grip of a young man.

When Joseph returns to the ‘court’ the following Sunday, he finds it empty except for the same young woman. She shows him the books lying on the Examining Magistrate’s table – which he imagines will be weighty books of law – but they are in fact cheap pornography (p.61).

The woman shows him round, explaining that she is married to an official of the court, the Law Court Attendant, then starts flirting with him, ‘offering’ herself to him.

She tells him how the Examining Magistrate works late into the night and one night, she discovered him at the end of the bed, holding a lamp, and remarking on how beautiful she looks. He sent her a pair of silk stockings as a wooing present. He, the magistrate, knows that she is married. She is telling him naughty or provocative stories in order to signal her sexual availability, which she then makes overt when she pulls up her skirt to admire her stockings. A page later she tells him:

‘I’ll go with you wherever you like, you can do with me what you please. I’ll be glad if I can only get out of here…’ (p.65)

But she and Joseph have barely got into their flirtation before another young man, Bertold, appears in the meeting room and takes the wife off to an alcove for an intense conversation, which – to Joseph’s astonishment – soon progresses to him kissing her on the neck. When Joseph steps forward to protest, the young man sweeps the woman up in one arm (a gesture which, by itself, is surreal enough) and carries her away upstairs for the ‘use’ of the Examining Magistrate.

if she’s the mistress of the Examining Magistrate why was she flirting so fiercely with Joseph? Why did she let the other man kiss her? What does any of this mean?

Leni Then, in Chapter Six, Joseph’s Uncle Albert arrives and takes him by taxi to the home of the Advocate Huld, another rundown house, mostly in darkness. They’re shown up the stairs to the official’s room by another dark-eyed beauty, who we learn is named Leni (p.113) and is the old man’s nurse (he’s had a heart attack and is bed-ridden).

Half way through the conversation with the official they all hear a plate smash somewhere in the house and Joseph volunteers to go investigate. Down in the darkened hallway, Leni takes his hand and leads him away from the others, sits on his lap, kisses him and then pulls him forward onto the floor on top of her. The text then cuts to him getting up and adjusting his clothing. Presumably they have, in this lacuna, had sex! (p.123).

This seems to be confirmed when, at the end of the chapter, a furious uncle Albert asks Joseph what the devil he thinks he’s playing at, not only walking out on a vital meeting which will decide his future, but then sleeping with the nurse who is, according to Uncle Albert, also the Advocate’s mistress.

Again, a woman who appears to be ‘giving herself’ to Joseph, turns out to ‘belong’ to another man – and a man higher up in the authorities and officials of the Court. Is that the point? That any woman he flirts with turns out to be already co-opted by the Court? That the Court owns not only him, but all his personal relationships?

The pubescent girls In Chapter Seven, when Joseph visits the painter Titorelli in his rickety slum, part of the slum vibe is the way a gaggle of pubescent street girls flock around the visitor, and tease and torment the painter, continually interrupting their conversation through the keyhole and poking object, paper and straw, up through the floorboards. An unnerving note being struck when the ringleader of the girls gives Joseph an unmistakably flirtatious and sexually knowing look, as she shows him up to the painter’s garret.

Even Joseph notices the ubiquity of woman in  his story.

‘I seem to recruit women helpers’, he thought almost in surprise: ‘first Fräulein Bürstner, then the wife of the Law Court Attendant, and now this cherishing little creature…’ (p.121)

(The ‘cherishing little creature’ being sexy Leni who is sitting on Joseph’s lap at that moment.)

So, taken together, you get the strong feeling that these aren’t real ‘women’, so much as counters or markers in the elaborate game which is being played out.

Because it’s not as simple as the male protagonist finding a steady stream of women throwing themselves at him. That would be level one male sexual fantasy. Instead, there’s this added level that all the women who do so are already sexually involved with at least one, sometimes two or more, other men.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife is also snogging Bertold and seems to be the Examining Magistrate’s mistress. Similarly, Leni has sex with Joseph but appears to be the Advocate’s mistress, and, when he visits in Chapter Seven, he finds another client of the Advocate’s, along with Leni, both half undressed.

Like everything else, these sexual partners are themselves ambiguous and unstable, not fixed points. They present another layer of human interactions which turn out to be unreliable and ambiguous, continually putting the meaning of what Joseph thinks he’s doing in doubt.

Just as all the Court officials he meets turn out to be low-ranking and as powerless and confused as him i.e. are not what they seem – so all the women appear to make what, in the ordinary world, would be pretty binding commitments to Joseph (holding hands, kissing, groping and having sex) and yet are continually revealed to belong to someone else, to not be in the kind of relationship with him with Joseph mistakenly imagined.

… and violence

On the whole the novel eschews violence. Almost all of it consists of long-winded dialogue between bemused and puzzled characters, often with a lot of late-Victorian politeness and courtesy.

Which makes the occurrence of the rare moments of actual violence all the more shocking. In Chapter Five, titled ‘The Whipper’, Joseph is at work in the bank, when he hears noises from one of the many storerooms. When he opens it he discovers to his horror the two ‘warders’ who came to ‘arrest’ him, Franz and Willem, stripped half naked while a big rough, sunburned man wearing a leather jerkin like a blacksmith, is whipping them with a hard rod while they scream in pain.

This is so brutal and so unexpected, so completely unlike the dreamlike wanderings round a busy city and peculiarly inconsequential encounters in shabby rooms at the end of long dirty corridors, that it is difficult to know how to react.

Joseph reacts by desperately offering the man money to let Franz and Willem go, but – and here’s a very characteristic Kafka touch – the whippees themselves refuse. They acknowledge their guilt. And what is their crime? Having been too fond and familiar with Joseph. He is partly to blame for their shocking punishment.

But hang on – why is all this taking place in a room in his bank? It is like a Terry Gilliam film, where someone opens a door in a boring bank and there are two half-naked men being whipped. When one of them lets out a particularly piercing scream, Joseph shoots back out of the room and slams the door shut. He notices a couple of the bank’s clerks walking towards him to investigate the scream and so, in a fluster, orders them to go about some other business.

What makes this scene even more bizarre, is that – having gone home and been troubled about what he saw all night – the next day at the Bank, Joseph tentatively goes along the corridor to the same room, opens the door and… discovers the three men in exactly the same postures, and picking up the conversation where it left off! That really is like something out of a film or, a nightmare.

And it is also symptomatic of the highly episodic nature of the book in the way it is a stand-alone episode, self-contained and leading, apparently, nowhere. Did Kafka intend other scenes of extreme violence, of which there is now no trace? Or was it consciously intended to stick out on account of its violence?

We can guess that this is one of the many editorial problems which the author faced, which led to him abandoning the book and then, a decade later, being so embarrassed by it that he asked Brod to burn it all.

The trial of being

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings into focus the way that the trial has nothing to do with anything Joseph K. has actually done: it is a trial of his very existence. It brings into doubt everything about him.

By the time we get to this chapter, the trial has come to obsessing Joseph K. and is forcing him to go back over every single action he’s ever taken, every thought and gesture, to try and discover what it was that he did wrong.

To meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be passed in review, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and  examined from every angle. (p.143)

I think this is the sense of Brod’s remarks about Kafka’s religious concerns. This hypersensitive paranoid self-consciousness reminds me of the 17th century Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans who kept minutely detailed diaries and journals dedicated for just one purpose: to monitor every act and thought which might indicate whether the author was among those pre-determined by Calvinist theology to hell and damnation.

The entire book describes Joseph K.’s efforts not so much to defend himself as to discover what it is he’s been charged with, and in fact he never finds out.

In fact the entire book is a masterpiece of (very verbose) obfuscation and delay.

In the stories which Kafka left us, narrative art regains the significance it had in the mouth of Scheherazade: to postpone the future. In The Trial postponement is the hope of the accused man only if the proceedings do not gradually turn into the judgment. (Walter Benjamin)

Pages and pages and pages are devoted to dialogue between Joseph and the Inspector or Examining Magistrate or the Law Court Attendant or the Advocate Huld or the Chief Clerk of the Court, and each, in turn, tut tuts over Joseph’s behavior and attitude and explains some of the processes, while continually emphasising that they don’t understand most of it, no, a man in his position barely understands the cases that pass through his hands, may spend weeks or months preparing papers which they send off to higher authorities but never see again, or are returned unread, or may have a damaging rather than a meliorating effect, you never can tell.. and so on and so on, endlessly.

The majority of the text is taken up by that testimonies of these ‘lower’ officials which rarely if ever describe any tangible process, but repeat in ever more tormenting detail what a lowly role they hold and how little they understand.

By half-way through the book you can see why Max Brod wrote that Kafka could have gone on adding an indefinite number of extra chapters, making up a never-ending sequence of interviews Joseph has with a never-ending series of minor officials, each with grand-sounding titles who, when he actually meets them, turn out to be ill or old or fat or grubby little men, shacked up in makeshift offices up in the attics of slum buildings in out-of-the-way parts of the city, who proceed to spend entire chapters telling him that his case is going badly, oh very badly, or that he’s missed some golden opportunities to improve his lot, but, ho hum, they must do what they can, although they don’t really have much power and most of their efforts come to nothing or might even be counter-productive, but he will certainly have to come back and talk to them at greater length. Again. Forever.

It is the repetition of this kind of scene which gives the book its dream-like feel and structure, the sense of fighting with a giant blancmange which can never be seized or grasped or properly pinned down or attacked, let alone defeated.

It gives you a really uncomfortable cumulative sense of smothering and asphyxiating in a series of long drawn-out very wordy encounters with petty officials which always leave you even more in the dark than when you started.

And always accompanied by the constant, hyper-anxious sense that, whatever you’re doing, it is wrong – you are offending and alienating people, the people you share a house with, your work colleagues who notice you increasingly neglecting your duties, every single figure of authority you come into contact with who looks at you, shakes their head and says ‘Tut tut, if only you’d come to me sooner’… and all the time, you don’t know what it is you’ve done wrong!

Credit

The Trial by Franz Kafka was published in German in 1925. The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was first published in 1935 by Victor Gollancz, then by Penguin in 1953. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.


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The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


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