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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In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science-fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example of this tendency.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now aged 71.

The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. Their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop in Sussex.

You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing would have been turned into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall –

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver.

Willie determines to track the couple down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk), tracking them to the coast, and then to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands – Lawrence’s home turf – and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes. It reads like it. Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beer house with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out!

You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – a transformative impact.

The first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily) and, as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says that he later learned that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful and calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In a rather moving passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit, that she was bewitched. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents’ fine hopes that he’d become a politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… still wants to remain with Verrall. The two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall, leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

Back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse – stocky young Annie – to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing. Oops.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. They become a ménage à quatre.

For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the incompetence of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to the odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book.

Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, the young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the glaring social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land – had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells paid lip service to all this but couldn’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them.

Wells’s fundamental worldview is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as the protagonist Redwood argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half. And then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways.

There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph – albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

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

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

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

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

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

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

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

1961 A Fall of Moondust a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous with Rama a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

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

The Hole in The Wall by Arthur Morrison (1902)

Morrison’s oeuvre

Morrison is remembered for his bleak novel about a squalid East End slum, A Child of the Jago, and the related collection of short stories about slum life, Mean Streets, but he was nothing if not versatile. At the same time as he was producing his dark stories of slum life, he turned out no fewer than 25 short stories about a respectable middle-class detective, Martin Hewitt, and another series of stories, about a corrupt detective, Horace Dorrington.

The third in the loose trilogy of books about London low-life, To London Town (1899) was surprisingly upbeat, and he then wrote a collection of stories about a legendary folk magician of Essex, Cunning Murrell, published in 1900. Morrison also wrote several one-act plays, and a stream of articles about Japanese art about which he made himself an expert. An impressively diverse output.

The Hole in The Wall

Morrison published The Hole In The Wall in 1902, and it marks a return to a working class milieu of his first stories – but with the twist that it’s set very firmly amid the sight and sounds of London’s old docklands, amid sailors, dockers, lightermen and the river police.

The novel is formally interesting because it alternates between the first-person narrative of an eight-year-old boy, little Stephen Kemp, and chapters told by a third-person narrator about characters and events beyond Stevie’s ken.

It is a crime thriller. Almost all the characters are corrupt, greedy and guilty of at least one crime. It features two brutal murders, a drowning, a grotesque blinding scene and climaxes in one of the characters being burned to death. So it is frequently very dark and grim, way painting a much more lurid picture of lower class life than A Child of the Jago had done. And yet not only the presence, but the narrative voice of little Stevie, who doesn’t understand most of what he sees and cleaves to his grandfather as a figure of hope and trust, lend a curious wistful sweetness to the story.

I found the combination really powerful and read the book in one sitting, compared with Jago which I struggled to finish. Partly, I think, because Hole is like a modern thriller, made up of short chapters with melodramatic scenes, and conveys a really effective atmosphere of dread and tension – whereas Jago, or at least the OUP edition of Jago which I read, is so festooned with historical notes and references, that it often feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.

Moods and settings

When little Stevie’s mother dies in childbirth, Stevie is taken in by his kindly if gruff grandfather, Old Nat, Cap’en Nat as he’s generally referred to, landlord of The Hole in the Wall pub on the river’s edge in Wapping, ‘the bilge of all London’, as he calls it.

Cap’en Nat is big and strong, inspires fear in all his customers, even the hardened crooks, but is sweet and gentle with young Stevie. He is an ideal grandad.

This is overwhelmingly a tale of the London docks. Little Stevie’s mum’s house was hard by the docks in Blackwall, and Stevie has grown up amid the sight and sounds of ships and sailors and cargos. He’s hardly ever seen his dad because he’s a sailor on a merchant vessel owned by the small Wapping trading firm of Marr and Viner, spending most of his life at sea. He is currently on a voyage to Barbados.

The world as seen through eight-year-old Stevie’s eyes is strange and wonderful and often very funny. Early on Morrison gives us a comic portrait of the dead mother’s sisters – Stevie’s aunts – at the wake, all smug sanctimoniousness, sharp elbows and hard-heartedness, and the way one of them bullies her feeble husband.

Later on we meet one of the regulars at the pub, Mr Cripps, an ironically depicted, high-minded ‘artist’ who pays for his drinks in kind by furnishing the small bar at The Hole In The Wall with scores of paintings of ships under sail. Cripps is notorious for the endless delays he’s made about getting round to paint a sign for the pub. ‘A picture of a hole in a wall, what could be more simple?’ asks Old Nat. ‘Well,’ the shabby alcoholic artist replies:

‘It may seem simple enough; that’s because you’re thinkin’ o’ subjick, instead o’ treatment. A common jobber, if you’ll excuse my sayin’ it, ‘ud look at it just in that light—a wall with a ‘ole in it, an’ ‘e’d give it you, an’ p’rhaps you’d be satisfied with it. But I soar ‘igher, sir, ‘igher. What I shall give you’ll be a ‘ole in the wall to charm the heye and delight the intelleck, sir. A dramatic ‘ole in the wall, sir, a hepic ‘ole in the wall; a ‘ole in the wall as will elevate the mind and stimilate the noblest instinks of the be’older. Cap’en Kemp, I don’t ‘esitate to say that my ‘ole in the wall, when you get it, will be—ah! it’ll be the moral palladium of Wapping!’

This deserves to be said out loud and acted with plenty of ham. It’s funny, and Cripps is a regular character, providing a comic chorus to all the events of the novel, just as Stevie is a wide-eyed innocent witness to them all.

Contrasted with the friendly, humorous atmosphere of the pub, is the outside world and the slum-dwellers, whores, thieves and muggers who infest the dark streets of Wapping, especially of one particular alley of ill fame which Morrison names the Blue Gate.

There are quite a few night-time scenes describing the really pitiful slums of the area – the drunken dancing and fights and robberies – and, early on, a grim description of the murder of Marr, partner in the shipping firm which owns the ship Stevie’s dad’s sailing on. Marr had absconded with the firm’s money, got drunk and is easily lured into a literal den of thieves. Here one of the thief’s harridan mistress realises with mounting horror that the gang are not just going to mug him, but to murder him.

Between the comic warmth of the pub and the grim and lurid descriptions of docklands at night, there is the daylight world of the docks, where grandad Nat takes Stevie and which is described through Stevie’s young eyes as an Arabian Nights scene of wonder and marvels. This is his first sight of Ratcliffe Highway.

I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of… From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers. (Chapter 7)

He goes on to describe all the different nationalities of sailors that you see strolling up and down the Highway. On a different expedition grandfather takes him to the sugar dock where he sees piles of sugar bigger than any boy could imagine, and discovers plenty of it lying around crystallised in the street or warehouses and docks, which you can just snap off and suck for free.

The plot

The plot centres round an early version of a MacGuffin. According to Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations.

The dying stranger

In The Hole In The Wall, Cap’en Nat, Stevie and a few regulars are in the pub one evening when there’s a sudden bang and grunt against the parlour door. They open it and an unconscious body slumps onto the floor while another figure – which had been stooping over it – leaps up and runs off, with Cap’en Nat in hot pursuit.

It is an inky night so Cap’en Nat can’t see the identity of the figure he pursues down the quayside steps and who jumps into the captain’s own dinghy, casts off and within seconds is lost amid the maze of barges, coalers and lighters moored to the river bank.

Stevie had also given little-boy chase but almost immediately trodden on something soft which he assumed was grandad’s tobacco pouch – the Cap’en had been filling his pipe when the bang on the door happens. So Stevie scoops it up and follows the fleeing figures.

The fugitive gets away, the characters all crowd round the man on the floor who has been stabbed in the chest, puncturing the lung, and he quickly drowns in his own blood. One of the many macabre images which imprints itself on the young boy’s memory.

The fortune in notes

More importantly, when Stevie shows his grandad what he picked up, it turns out to be a notebook containing a huge amount of cash – £800 in white banknotes! This is the MacGuffin or target or goal or treasure, which triggers the complicated action of the second half of the novel.

In scenes which are shocking or upsetting or lurid or conspiratorial, the reader then slowly learns that:

  • The brig Stevie’s dad (and Cap’en Nat’s son) was aboard as first mate, the Juno has gone down and he was drowned. But not before they receive a letter from him claiming that the owners want it to sink in order to claim the insurance and that the corrupt captain has tried to run it aground several times, with only Stevie’s dad preventing him. Now (he writes, in his last letter) he is worried that they’ll murder or drug him in his sleep, and do it so he goes down with the ship. Which is what then appeared to happen, according to newspaper reports…
  • The Juno was owned by the firm of Viney and Marr. They were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Their plan was to sink the Juno and quickly claim the insurance money in order to pay off their creditors. But due to the delays caused by Stevie’s dad, and the rumours that spread about the ship (at each port it docked some of the crew jumped ship with stories about its owners’ plans) the insurance money might now be difficult to claim. So the partners had liquidated all their assets and gathered the cash into the pocket book – the one Stevie found.
  • But no sooner had they done this than Marr did a runner, betraying his partner Viney and taking all the money. But he didn’t get far. He’d begun drinking in pubs along the Highway and we meet him, very drunk, in a squalid furniture-less thieves den, accompanied by the prostitute known as Musky Mag, serenaded by the sinister blind fiddler, Blind George, and loomed over by the book’s bully-boy murderer, Dan Ogle. Mag picks Marr’s pocket but Dan indicates he wants more than that. Later, three sailors are seen staggering down to the docks, singing and weaving. In fact only two of them are actually walking, supporting the middle figure who appears comatose. It is Marr. They have killed him. (In later scenes, we see Mag alone in the room where the murder took place as night falls and, with Poe-like or Dickensian luridness, she watches the shadows recreate the shape of the black thing which lay there i.e. Marr’s body).
  • Having murdered Marr for the pocket book full of notes, Ogle gives the pocket book to an associate to hide somewhere safe but, following him, sees him make for Grandfather Nat’s. Now we have already seen enough through Stevie’s eyes to begin to realise that Cap’en Nat is in fact a ‘fence’, a handler of stolen goods. He is careful about it – dodgy-looking blokes come to the snug bar, show him silvery objects which Stevie only partly sees, and he sends them out again. But tips a wink to a pale quiet man who sits in the corner of the pub all day, who then goes out to negotiate with the bringers of stolen goods. The reader realises that what’s going on is that Nat assesses the loot, then the pale man actually pays for it. Thus, if ever caught or questioned by the police, Cap’en Nat can honestly say that he never pays for stolen goods.
  • We learn more about Cap’en Nat’s illicit activities when, in one tense midnight scene, Stevie hears noises and creeps down the stairs from his bedroom in the attic, squeaks open the door into the lumber room – and discovers Cap’en Nat receiving smuggled tobacco, handed up to him through a secret opening in the floorboards of the bit of the pub which overhangs the river, by the lighterman Bill Stagg (chapter 14).
  • Back to Ogle following his associate. Ogle realises that his associate was clearly making for Cap’en Nat’s in order to get rid of the hot money (the bank notes had numbers which would be recorded and noticed if handed in to a proper bank). Infuriated, Ogle catches up with him right at the door of the pub, stabs him and is in the middle of getting the pocket book out of his pockets when the door opens and Cap’en Nat gives chase.

All of that is the background to the scene we witnessed, of everyone quietly drinking when there’s a thump at the pub door, the figures slumps into the bar and Cap’en Nat gives chase of the person we now know was Ogle.

So, number one, Marr and Viney are responsible for the death of Cap’en Nat’s son and Stevie’s father. Stevie notices a change come over his granddad, a new bitterness and determination.

  • However, it turns out that the crooked ship-owner Viney has something over the Cap’en. Years ago, when Nat was still a sailor, a man was lost overboard on a ship on which he was first mate. The Cap’en insists the drowned sailor was drunk, but Viney says he can bring witnesses to prove that the Cap’en murdered him, by throwing him overboard. The fact that he can be blackmailed and silenced by the man who more or less killed his own son hardens the Cap’en’s heart, but it is very effective that we see this process mostly through the eyes of little Stevie who notices a change come over his revered granddad.
  • There’s an added complication in the form of the gaunt harridan of a cleaning lady who the Cap’en employs, Mrs Grimes. Always sneaking around the place, she spies the pocket book being opened and assessed and, in a broadly comic scene, later steals it and tries to smuggle it out of the house in the rubbish scuttle. Unfortunately for her, the drunk artist Mr Cripps is hanging round (as usual) and offers to help the little lady – in order to suck up to the Cap’en – but when he grabs one end of the scuttle and Mrs Grimes refuses to let go of the other, the scuttle tips over and spills out the loot, hidden under the rubbish. Nat sacks her on the spot, with typical graciousness refusing to report her to the police, and giving her a week’s pay. Mrs Grime is a convincing portrait of an embittered harridan and this kindness only drives her to even greater heights of vindictiveness. From now to the end of the book she bends all her energies to ruining the Cap’en anyway she can think of.

A congeries of conspiracies

So the scene is set for the final third of the book to boil down into a very complicated series of manoeuvres between five crooked characters who are all conspiring to regain the pocket book and its £800 and/or ruin the Cap’en – namely Dan Ogle the murderer, his girlfriend Mag, Viney seeking to get his money back, Blind George who knows what is going on and sees the opportunity to squeeze a percentage of the loot for himself, and vindictive Mrs Grimes.

After murdering the unnamed associate on Cap’en Nat’s door, Ogle flees Wapping and is hiding out in the lime works out on the remote marshes towards the River Lea, owned by the brother of Ogle’s brother-in-law. This brother makes his first appearance as a stranger wandering around Wapping, his clothes stained with white lime, and so he is henceforth referred to as ‘the limy man’. The remote setting is a pretext for Morrison to give vivid descriptions of what was then waste land on the edge of London – with one particularly good description of the sun setting over the smog of London in the west.

Out to these remote wastes comes Ogle’s mistress, Mag, with beer and sustenance, though Ogle treats her with all the casual brutality which Bill Sykes shows towards Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Then out to this remote location comes Viney the crooked shipowner, who has learned through the grapevine that Ogle somehow has gotten hold of his money. The pair of crooks have a long interview in which they consider every variation of theft, burglary and mugging of the Cap’en to get the money back, before Ogle settles on a simple plan. Viney will knock on the pub door late one night, after closing time, and when the Cap’en opens, Ogle will step up behind the Cap’en and crack him on the head. Then it will be easy to clean out the pub, not only of the £800 but all the other goods hidden there.

The blinding of Ogle

So far so wicked and corrupt. But there is a big twist in the story. Blind George, the wheedling, whining, calculating blind musician and crook, tipped off as to Ogle’s location, rather improbably taps his way all the way out across the waste marshes and finds Ogle in some half-derelict sheds at the bottom of his brother-in-law’s limeworks. Here he has a lengthy interview with Ogle wherein he, George, tries to bargain for a share of the loot.

Ogle rudely and brutally denies him any involvement and their argument quickly gets out of hand, with Ogle pushing George and George retaliating with his stick which cracks Ogle hard on the wrist and makes him see red. Ogle knocks George to the ground, kicking and punching him till his face is red and bloody. All the while George is yelling out, ‘Attack a blind man, would ye? Wouldn’t be so easy if you was blind, too, then, would it? If we woz both blind I’d give yer a licking’ and so on.

What I hadn’t anticipated is that, after a scene or two back at the pub in order to vary the scene and pace, the narrative returns us to follow a shadowy figure tapping its way across the wasteland the next evening, carrying a sort of sock full of something. Progressing down the muddy banks of the River Lea. Soaking the sock. Then everso quietly going to the door of the ramshackle shed where Ogle is sleeping. Silently lifting the latch. Tiptoeing inside…

And then there is a truly blood-curdling scene – because the figure is Blind George and he is carrying lime which he was soaked in the water in order to turn it into the highly acidic quicklime and, before Ogle can waken, he has thrust two handfuls of quicklime into Ogle’s eyes and holds them there despite the man’s kicking and punching and fighting, holds them there long enough to sear the flesh of his face and to blind Ogle.

Then he lets go and sneaks away from the screaming figure. ‘Now we’re equal, Dan Ogle,’ he mocks. ‘Now you know what it’s like to fight in the dark,’ and he slips away as the limy man comes running from his nearby cottage.

Ogle is taken to the Accident Hospital. Cut to Viney arriving at the hospital after he’s heard the news, to discover Mag in floods of tears. Nonetheless, despite his permanent injury, Viney discovers that Ogle is more determined than ever to get ‘his’ money.

Fiery climax

And so – partly seen through Stevie’s eyes, partly through the third-person narrator – the story builds to its climax. Viney and Ogle go through with their plan. Viney takes Ogle to the alley beside The Hole In The Wall and positions him by a post just a step or two from the back door. Then knocks. The Cap’en answers.

Viney is nervous. The Cap’en has all sorts of reasons to hate him, it is late at night in a dark alley. But to Viney’s astonishment, when he demands the money, instead of arguing a bit, something in Cap’en Nat snaps. Up till now, for the entire time that they’ve had the pocket book, Grandfather Nat has sworn to Stevie that the money is theirs, finders-keepers, there’s no other claimant and that they will use it to pay Stevie through a good public school, kitted out in all the right togs, and make a ‘gentleman’ of him.

But news of the death of his son, and the his last letter which revealed that the shipwreck was all a wicked scheme by Viney and Marr, made the Cap’en, at first, flare up with anger and then… and then… realise he is sick of crime and a life of crime.

Now, to Viney’s amazement he turns, goes up to Stevie’s room and, to Stevie’s dismay, gets the pocket book out from its hiding place and insists that he ‘has to do right’; he has to give it back to its rightful owner.

Back in the alley he hands the pocket book over to Viney but then – seizes him and insists that they’re going to the police with the whole story. The Cap’en will admit he held onto the pocket book and money which wasn’t his, he’ll even come clean about the drowning incident on the boat all those years ago – but he’ll also tell them all about how Viney and Marr conspired to sink the Juno for the insurance money. It’s time for him to come completely clean and make a new start.

Viney whines, complains, argues and then wriggles himself free and sets off down the alleyways towards the Highway, with the Cap’en in hot pursuit. Stevie has watched all this from his bedroom window, pulls on some clothes and also goes haring off after his granddad.

‘Police, police, stop thief’ the Cap’en yells as he runs. When Viney sees a couple of constables approaching over the bridge of the lock which separates the spit of land the Hole In The Wall sits on from the mainland, Viney instead heads for the actual lock gates, which are narrower, much more precarious, and only secured with a low chain (as anyone who’s crossed an English lock knows).

In his panic and in the dark Viney misses the sharp angle where the two lock gates meet, trips over the low chain which always lines locks gates, and plunges into the bubbling water at the foot of the gates, instantly disappearing in the strong undertow.

The Cap’en and Stevie arrive along with the police who’d been crossing the bridge and a crowd of neighbours woken by the hue and cry. But they are still staring down into the bubbles and swirl of water, when others raise a cry. The Hole In The Wall is on fire!

Remember that Ogle had been left by a post deep in the darkness of the alleyway, waiting to strike the Cap’en and equally surprised when Nat simply handed over the money? Well, once everyone ran off, he saw his opportunity and had blundered into the pub in search of goods and money. But, in doing so, he had knocked over the paraffin lantern and the dry old house had gone up like a torch.

Now a huge crowd gathers round the flame-ridden building and watch horrified as a human figure appears shrieking in agony at a window, a human torch. It is Ogle. First blinded, then burned to death. When the fire brigade arrives its sole concern is to protect the neighbouring buildings. The Hole In The Wall is a lost cause. As Stevie laconically records:

And that was the end of the Hole in the Wall: the end of its landlord’s doubts and embarrassments and dangers, and the beginning of another chapter in his history – his history and mine.

A swift half page coda ties up the loose ends. Viney’s body was never found. Ogle’s body was found, burned to a crisp. Humorous Mr Cripps tried to claim insurance for the loss of his priceless works of art. Mrs Grimes continued her vendetta against the Cap’en and was eventually locked up for assaulting a police officer in her frustration. The Hole In The Wall was rebuilt in brick and renamed. The Cap’en, or Captain Nat Kemp to give him his proper name, turns to honest work, enlarging the nearby wharf which he owned and setting up a company of lighters or flat-bottomed barges.

And little Stevie? In a plain sentence which, after so much storm and stress, moved me to tears:

As for me, I went to school at last.

Characters

This feels the most Dickensian of Morrison’s novels. In the Jago life is too brutal for people to be afforded much description. They just fight and steal and sometimes seem a bit interchangeable, in activity and appearance.

What is Dickensian is the way the brutality of this novel is leavened by the innocence and charm of eight-year-old Stevie, which allows Morrison to approach his characters with a bit more genuine humour than in the Jago.

Also the point of the Jago is that its inhabitants are trapped in it, stuck in a very limited space with only occasional outings to Shoreditch High Street or a little further afield as relief, creating a horrible sense of claustrophobia.

By contrast, the characters of the Hole range widely, and the presence of the mighty Thames, the bustling Ratcliffe Highway, the other pubs and alleys, and the wide wasteland towards the River Lea, all this variety of scene somehow allows for more variety and colour among the characters. Grim they may mostly be, but they are more variegated and vivid and lively than the Jagos.

There was one quiet little man in their midst, who, when not eating cake or drinking wine, was sucking the bone handle of a woman’s umbrella, which he carried with him everywhere, indoors and out. He was in the custody of the largest and grimmest of ladies, whom the others called Aunt Martha.

On the victim’s opposite side sat a large-framed bony fellow, with a thin, unhealthy face that seemed to belong to some other body, and dress that proclaimed him long-shore ruffian. The woman called him Dan, and nods and winks passed between the two, over the drooping head between them. Next to Dan was an ugly rascal with a broken nose; singular in that place, as bearing in his dress none of the marks of waterside habits, crimpery and the Highway, but seeming rather the commonplace town rat of Shoreditch or Whitechapel. And, last, a blind fiddler sat in a corner, fiddling a flourish from time to time, roaring with foul jest, and roiling his single white eye upward.

The man’s right eye was closed, but the left was horribly wide and white and rolling, and it quite unpleasantly reminded me of a large china marble that lay at that moment at the bottom of my breeches pocket, under some uniform buttons, a key you could whistle on, a brass knob from a fender, and a tangle of string. So much indeed was I possessed with this uncomfortable resemblance in later weeks, when I had seen Blind George often, and knew more of him, that at last I had no choice but to fling the marble into the river; though indeed it was something of a rarity in marbles

It was anything but a clean face on the head, and it was overshadowed by a very greasy wideawake hat. Grubbiness and unhealthy redness contended for mastery in the features, of which the nose was the most surprising, wide and bulbous and knobbed all over; so that ever afterward, in any attempt to look Mr. Cripps in the face, I found myself wholly disregarding his eyes, and fixing a fascinated gaze on his nose; and I could never recall his face to memory as I recalled another, but always as a Nose, garnished with a fringe of inferior features.

She was scarce an attractive woman, I thought, being rusty and bony, slack-faced and very red-nosed. She swept the carpet and dusted the shelves with an air of angry contempt for everything she touched… ‘Ho!’ interjected Mrs. Grimes, who could fill a misplaced aspirate with subtle offence… It was not long ere I learned that Mrs. Grimes was one of those persons who grumble and clamour and bully at everything and everybody on principle, finding that, with a concession here and another there, it pays very well on the whole; and so nag along very comfortably through life. As for herself, as I had seen, Mrs. Grimes did not lack the cunning to carry away any fit of virtuous indignation that seemed like to push her employer out of his patience.

There was a knock at the back door, which opened, and disclosed one of the purlmen, who had left his boat in sight at the stairs, and wanted a quart of gin in the large tin can he brought with him. He was a short, red-faced, tough-looking fellow, and he needed the gin, as I soon learned, to mix with his hot beer to make the purl. (Bill Stagg)

I was not prepossessed by Mr. Viney. His face – a face no doubt originally pale and pasty, but too long sun-burned to revert to anything but yellow in these later years of shore-life – his yellow face was ever stretched in an uneasy grin, a grin that might mean either propitiation or malice, and remained the same for both. He had the watery eyes and the goatee beard that were not uncommon among seamen, and in total I thought he much resembled one of those same hang-dog fellows that stood at corners and leaned on posts in the neighbourhood, making a mysterious living out of sailors; one of them, that is to say, in a superior suit of clothes that seemed too good for him. I suppose he may have been an inch taller than Grandfather Nat; but in the contrast between them he seemed very small and mean.

Dickens’ influence broods over the whole story. The Hole In The Wall pub reminds me of the The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend. The scenes out on the marshes towards the River Lea remind me of the opening and the ending of Great Expectations. The bully boy Dan Ogle reminds me of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist and the pathetic devotion of Musky Mag reminds me of the equally ill-rewarded loyalty of Nancy.

The way so much adult brutality is seen and only partially understood by an innocent boy reminds me of Oliver Twist, and also David Copperfield, and Pip. Little Stevie is a very effective creation. We know that little Arthur Morrison grew up near the docks in Poplar on the Isle of Dogs where his dad was an engine-fitter. A lot of Stevie’s impressions and feelings have the force of real experiences and memories.

And the way the narrative is split between Stevie’s innocent point of view and the unadulterated view of the omniscient narrator, reminds me of the similar split between the first-person Esther Summerson chapters and the third-person narrator chapters of Bleak House.

This is a gripping novel – not, maybe, a work of art like Henry James or Joseph Conrad, but with far more psychological penetration and artfulness than Morrison’s detective stories. If you read A Child of the Jago you should read this too.

Sea songs

This is one of the songs performed on the fiddle by Blind George.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

E.W. Hornung

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells’s novella, A Story of The Days To Come, is set in the futuristic London of 2100, and feature a hero and heroine who start out life as comfortably middle class. But bad luck – and a scheming rival – results in our hero losing his job, the girl losing her inheritance, forcing the couple to move into a smaller flat, sell their belongings and, eventually, pushing them down into the underclass of the city of the future, which is governed by the iron hand of the Labour Company.

In their new degradation they are forced to wear the blue serge uniform of the Labour Corps, given free housing and food but in return have to do degrading manual labour down in the bowels of the city. Wells describes their fall thus:

In spite of their inclination towards the ancient fashion of living, neither Elizabeth nor Denton had been sufficiently original to escape the suggestion of their surroundings. In matters of common behaviour they had followed the ways of their class, and so when they fell at last to be Labour Serfs it seemed to them almost as though they were falling among offensive inferior animals; they felt as a nineteenth-century duke and duchess might have felt who were forced to take rooms in the Jago. (Chapter 4 – Underneath)

‘Take rooms in the Jago?’ What is this Jago which Wells refers to?

The Jago

‘The Jago’ was a fictional name which the social realist novelist Arthur Morrison had given to a grid of slum streets which were the focus of his best-selling novel of East End slum life, A Child of the Jago. This searing account of poverty and brutality was published in 1896, just three years before Wells’s story, so Well’s reference was still very topical.

This is how Morrison describes his blighted slum.

From where, off Shoreditch High Street, a narrow passage, set across with posts, gave menacing entrance on one end of Old Jago Street, to where the other end lost itself in the black beyond Jago Row; from where Jago Row began south at Meakin Street, to where it ended north at Honey Lane – there the Jago, for one hundred years the blackest pit in London, lay and festered; and half-way along Old Jago Street a narrow archway gave upon Jago Court, the blackest hole in all that pit.

 The novel includes this hand-made sketch of the district.

Morrison’s Old Jago was in fact a lightly fictionalised version of the real-life network of slums around Old Nichol Street, east of Shoreditch High Street, which Morrison had been introduced to by a vicar working in the area, the Reverend Osborne Jay of Holy Trinity Church.

Jay suggested to Morrison, who had already written short stories about life in the East End slums, that it would be the perfect setting for a longer work of fiction-cum-reportage.

Even as the book was being published and reviewed, the Old Nichol Rookery, as it was known, was being demolished and replaced by a tidy Victorian housing estate – buildings which look a lot like army barracks, much like the Peabody estates scattered all over London. The process is referred to in chapter 29. Eventually, the old street pattern was demolished, leaving only Old Nichol Street remaining. This is what it looks like nowadays.

In 2018, when I went to have a look, the tall forbidding Victorian barracks were still there, but the streets around them have become highly gentrified – there was a very expensive designed trainer shop, several cafes and an art gallery. Difficult to imagine that back in 1896 it was one of the ‘darkest holes’ in the East End .

Photo of Boundary Street, London, taken in 1890, part of the Old Nichol slum.

Boundary Street, London, part of the Old Nichol slum, in 1890

Arthur Morrison

Morrison had a fascinating career. Born in Poplar in 1863, the son of an engine-fitter in the docks, his parents were responsible enough to send him to school, where he learned to read and write and which led on to him getting a job, aged 17, as an office boy at the London School Board.

He worked his way up to third-class clerk at the so-called People’s Palace, an educational establishment set up to serve the East End slums, and which eventually became part of the modern Queen Mary, University of London.

By his early 20s Morrison was trying his hand at writing sketches of life in East London and by the late 1880s he was placing these sketches in local magazines. He worked these up into short stories about the area, and was able to sell these to prestigious literary magazines including the National Observer, whose influential editor, W. E. Henley, encouraged and supported him. The best ones were brought together in the collection Tales of Mean Streets, published in 1894.

At the same time Morrison cashed in on the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and invented a detective of his own, Martin Hewitt, who uses his uncanny deductive abilities to solve crimes, all witnessed and recorded by his faithful and rather bumbling amanuensis, the journalist Brett. You can read the stories online.

Morrison wrote an impressive 25 Hewitt stories, but also tried his hand with a different type of criminal investigator, Horace Dorrington, a deeply corrupt detective about whom he wrote seven stories. Morrison was by now writing for a living and turned out whatever seemed likely to sell.

In the middle of all this activity, encouraged and supplied with anecdotes and information by the Reverend Jay, Morrison wrote his first full-length novel, A Child of the Jago, which became an immediate best-seller, caused a storm of protest, and prompted Morrison to reply to the many attacks made on him in the press and via letters.

In 1899 he published To London Town, which he claimed concluded a loose trilogy of books about London begun by Mean Streets and Jago. In 1900 he published Cunning Murrell, a novel describing the exploits of a mid-Victorian magician and healer and in 1902 another story of the East End, The Hole in the Wall.

But the most fascinating thing about Morrison is the way he escaped his background. As soon as he had money, he began collecting Japanese woodcuts and became an expert on Japanese art, writing a number of monographs and books on the subject. (It is striking that the preface to A Child of the Jago, which he wrote to defend it from critical attacks, almost immediately goes off-subject to invoke the evolution of ‘realism’ in Japanese art – a subject few of even his best-educated readers can have been familiar with).

As his writing took off, Morrison moved out of the slums to rural Chingford, then to Epping Forest, then completely out of London to Chalfont St Peter, retired from journalism and wrote only occasional short stories. When he died, in 1945, he bequeathed his important collection of Japanese paintings, woodcuts, and ceremonial tea porcelain to the British Museum.

Poverty writing of the 1890s

In the 1880s and ’90s there was an explosion of interest in life in the slums of British cities. Articles and books were also written about Glasgow and Birmingham but, as by far the largest city in Britain, and the capital of the Largest Empire The World Had Ever Seen, most of this writing concentrated on the appalling conditions of life in parts of East London.

George Gissing wrote a stream of novels about the hard life in the slums, Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes venture out East for tales of shocking brutality. The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 and 1889 solidified the area’s reputation among respectable Londoners as a sewer of vice, drunkenness, prostitution, and horrifying violence.

A trickle of books about the area in the 1880s turned into a flood by concerned observers, politicians, social commentators, bishops and radicals, all keen to propose their own solutions to the poverty, squalor, vice and violence.

  • In Darkest England and the Way Out by William Booth (1890)
  • Life in Darkest London by A.O. Jay (1891)
  • Life and Labour of the People of London in Nine Volumes (1892-7)
  • The Social Problem and its Possible Solution (1893)
  • Neighbours of Ours: Slum Stories of London by Henry W Nevinson (1895)
  • A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)
  • A Story of Shoreditch by A.O. Jay (1896)
  • Liza of Lambeth by William Somerset Maugham (1897)
  • East London by Walter Besant (1899)
  • To London Town by Arthur Morrison (1899)

A Child of the Jago

It’s a relatively short novel, just 153 pages in the Oxford World Classic edition I have. In fact the lengthy introduction, chronology, bibliography, several prefaces, the extensive notes, a handy selection of contemporary reviews of the novel plus a glossary of lowlife vocabulary, all assembled by editor Peter Miles, themselves make up 89 pages, over half as much again as the text.

So what is A Child of the Jago about? Well, in the middle of this forest of annotations and historical explanations lies the story of young Dicky Perrott, living in an unheated, unwatered slum bedroom with his violent dad, Josh, and a mum, Hannah, so demoralised she can barely nurse the ten-month-old baby, Looey.

The doors have long ago been removed from the doorways. Many of the doorframes have been chopped up and used as firewood. There’s one cold tap in the backyard for the whole house, but it rarely works and periodically the tap itself is stolen. There’s no basin, soap or towel in the house. Everyone stinks.

The rotting slums are never quiet, because somewhere someone is always fighting or taunting, crying or wailing. The Jago as a whole is dominated by civil war between the Rann and Leary families and their respective auxiliaries. Low level fighting never ceases, and sometimes builds up to impressive crescendos.

Fighting began early, fast and furious. The Ranns got together soon, and hunted the Learys up and down, and attacked them in their houses: the Learys’ chances only coming when straggling Ranns were cut off from the main body. The weapons in use, as was customary, rose in effectiveness by a swiftly ascending scale. The Learys, assailed with sticks, replied with sticks torn from old packing-cases, with protruding nails. The two sides bethought them of coshes simultaneously, and such as had no coshes – very few – had pokers and iron railings. Ginger Stagg, at bay in his passage, laid open Pud Palmer’s cheek with a chisel; and, knives thus happily legitimised with the least possible preliminary form, everybody was free to lay hold of whatever came handy.

Bob the Bender was reported to have a smashed nose, and Sam Cash had his head bandaged at the hospital. At the Bag of Nails in Edge Lane, Snob Spicer was knocked out of knowledge with a quart pot, and Cocko Harnwell’s missis had a piece bitten off of one ear.

It is a world of relentless violence. Trying to escape across a yard, Dicky’s mum is cornered by the notorious Sally Green, who knocks her and the baby she’s holding, to the floor, pins her down and starts biting and ripping her neck. Sally’s enemy, Norah Walsh sees this happening and runs at Sally with a bottle. She smashes the bottom off against a kerb, pulls Sally off Dicky’s mum, and stabs Sally again and again with the shards of broken glass, in the face. Yes. It is really brutal.

In between all this mayhem, Dicky nips along to the opening of a philanthropical institute, the satirically named East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute. While worthy middle-class folk congratulate themselves on their philanthropy, Dicky pinches the bishop’s pocket watch and runs home to give it to his dad. But instead of being please, his dad beats him with his belt till he bleeds in several places on his back and legs.

Morrison is satirical about the well-intentioned middle-class’s efforts to help the slum dwellers, channelling Dickens.

The good Bishop, amid clapping of hands and fluttering of handkerchiefs, piped cherubically of everything. He rejoiced to see that day, whereon the helping hand of the West was so unmistakably made apparent in the East. He rejoiced also to find himself in the midst of so admirably typical an assemblage – so representative, if he might say so, of that great East End of London, thirsting and crying out for – for Elevation: for that – ah – Elevation which the more fortunately circumstanced denizens of – of other places, had so munificently – laid on. The people of the East End had been sadly misrepresented – in popular periodicals and in – in other ways. The East End, he was convinced, was not so black as it was painted. (Applause.)

Morrison’s attitude towards the slum dwellers is harder to gauge. His basic approach is to tell it like it is, to simply record the fights, casual violence, poverty and filthiness, all dipped in a layer of biting irony. One reasonably attractive woman makes a profession of luring sailors back to her rooms, where her husband hits them on the head with a foot long iron bar with a knob at the end, then they rob the victim of all valuables and throw him out in the street, where the lesser vultures pick over the leavings, removing shoes and belts.

The cosh was a foot length of iron rod, with a knob at one end, and a hook (or a ring) at the other. The craftsman, carrying it in his coat sleeve, waited about dark staircase corners till his wife (married or not) brought in a well drunken stranger: when, with a sudden blow behind the head, the stranger was happily coshed, and whatever was found on him as he lay insensible was the profit on the transaction. In the hands of capable practitioners this industry yielded a comfortable subsistence for no great exertion.

Morrison deploys an ironic or sardonic tone throughout. The victim is ‘happily’ coshed, the event is referred to as a ‘transaction’, the muggers are ‘capable practitioners’. For the most part this knowing irony works well. I suppose it reflects the position of the author who had one leg in the area and its violent underclass, and the other on the ladder up into gainful employment and ‘respectability’. Irony helps him to manage the detachment of both him, and the presumed middle-class reader, from the appalling scenes he describes.

But it is an often angry irony, a kind of exasperated humour which resents both the violent chavs he’s describing, and the ignorance of the middle-class audience he’s writing for. He is as dismissive of middle-class do-gooders as he is of his violent proles.

Here he is sarcastically describing the reason the half-respectable Roper family are disliked i.e. for not behaving like the rest of the Jago.

The Ropers were disliked as strangers: because they furnished their own room, and in an obnoxiously complete style; because Roper did not drink, nor brawl, nor beat his wife, nor do anything all day but look for work; because all these things were a matter of scandalous arrogance, impudently subversive of Jago custom and precedent. Mrs Perrott was bad enough, but such people as these!

This facetiousness extends to the technique I pointed out in my review of Tales of Mean Streets, which is for Morrison to describe the outrageous behaviour and values of the Jagos – their amorality, thieving, violent, ignorant and careless behaviour – as if it was quite natural and universally accepted. It’s a technique which combines anger, bitterness and humour in a compelling way. For example, after Josh Perrott is arrested, Dicky gets home to find his mum distraught.

Hannah Perrott sat in her room, inert and lamenting. Dicky could not rouse her, and at last he went off by himself to reconnoitre about Commercial Street Police Station, and pick up what information he might; while a gossip or two came and took Mrs Perrott for consolation to Mother Gapp’s. Little Em, unwashed, tangled and weeping, could well take care of herself and the room, being more than two years old.

So the two-year-old is left completely by itself – and this is what I mean by Morrison ventriloquising the values of the Jago – everyone in the story considering that being more than two-years-old means she is well able to take care of herself ‘and the room’. Later, in an even more throwaway moment, when Hannah and Dicky go to visit Josh in gaol, they leave two-year-old Little Em ‘sprawling in the Jago gutters.’ As a middle-class reader I am duly horrified. And that is Morrison’s intention.

Archaic phraseology

A slightly irritating thing about the style is the use of archaic turns of phrase, medievalisms, Biblical terms. This is found in the prose of William Morris, who I’ve just reread, and who has the excuse that he was consciously trying to revive medieval crafts and mentality.

It’s much weirder to find it in the prose of the father of science fiction, H.G. Wells. Wells and Morrison both combine a permanent low-level facetiousness with odd medievalisms lifted from Sir Walter Scott or the Bible.

I wonder if describing the brutal modern world in turns of phrase lifted from medieval romance is intended to be satirical? Or is he mocking the heavy-handed prose of Times editorials and church sermons? Or was it just was the prose style of the day?

Dicky saw a new world of dazzling delights. Cake – limitless cake, coffee, and the like whenever he might feel moved thereunto.

A man pulled Norah off. On him she turned, and he was fain to run…

Without, the fight rallied once more.

He was near as eminent a fighter among the men as his sister among the women…

But he was ever indulgent…

Dicky, with his hands in his broken pockets, and thought in his small face, whereon still stood the muddy streaks of yesterday’s tears.

He had ventured into the Jago because the police were in possession, Dicky thought; and wondered in what plight he would leave, had he come at another time.

The hunchback weak, but infuriate, buffeting, biting and whimpering; Dicky infuriate too…

But Dicky and his bulge he saw ere they were well over the threshold.

Leaning back in his seat, swinging his feet, and looking about at the walls with the grocers’ almanacks hanging thereto.

Old Fisher came down from the top-floor back, wherein he dwelt with his son Bob, Bob’s wife and two sisters, and five children.

Scarce were they vanished above, however, when the little hunchback heard his father and mother on the lower stairs.

But a well-dressed stranger was so new a thing in the Jago, this one had dropped among them so suddenly, and he had withal so bold a confidence, that the Jagos stood irresolute.

‘Scarce’, ‘near’ – why don’t they have -ly on the end and so function as normal adjectives? Is dropping the ‘-ly’ meant to give them a more resonant Biblical flavour, and thereby somehow ennoble the style? Maybe it’s a tone or register we just don’t ‘get’ any more. Whatever the motive, I think it mars his style.

That said, I did notice that the incidence of these ironic archaisms did lessen as the book progresses, Maybe Morrison got fed up of them himself.

By contrast, Morrison’s handling of dialogue feels to me much more confident and accurate. It’s often much more enjoyable, more authentic, to read the novel’s dialogue than the prose narrative.

‘I don’t s’pose father’s ‘avin’ a sleep outside, eh?’
The woman sat up with some show of energy. ‘Wot?’ she said sharply. ‘Sleep out in the street like them low Ranns an’ Learys? I should ‘ope not. It’s bad enough livin’ ‘ere at all, an’ me being used to different things once, an’ all. You ain’t seen ‘im outside, ‘ave ye?’
‘No, I ain’t seen ‘im: I jist looked in the court.’ Then, after a pause: ‘I ‘ope ‘e’s done a click,’ the boy said.
His mother winced. ‘I dunno wot you mean, Dicky,’ she said, but falteringly. ‘You—you’re gittin’ that low an’ an’—’
‘Wy, copped somethink, o’ course. Nicked somethink. You know.’

Many writers have tried to depict working class or dialect speech. Off-hand I think Morrison is the most successful at it I’ve ever read.

The plot

Basically it breaks down into three parts.

Part one 

In the first half Dicky is nine-years-old and two types of thing happen. 1. We witness the casual violence, complete amorality, the thieving, mugging, pickpocketing, deceit and small-mindedness which characterise the Jagos, including his own mother and father. 2. Buried amid all the violent incidents, we witness certain strands of the plot which will go on to become important.

Chief among these strands is the way the inhabitants of the persecute the Roper family because they are a tiny bit more respectable than the surrounding crooks. Their son is the same age as Dicky, a hunchback, and sees Dicky sneaking into their rooms to steal a clock.

Later, Dicky feels guilty and slips a music box he’s nicked from a shop on Shoreditch High Street into the Roper family belongings which are all piled on a cart as they pack up and move out of the slum. But when it is discovered it is interpreted as being a trick, obviously stolen and planted there so the police can be tipped off and get the Ropers into trouble. The Ropers don’t move very far away, and the hunchback boy and Dicky grow up to be enemies, engaged in a permanent violent feud. Whenever he sees the hunchback, Dicky attacks him. But the cripple always gets his own back with the simple trick of telling bigger, harder boys that Dicky is boasting he could best them in a fight. With the result that Dicky is continually being attacked by surprise and apparently at random by bigger boys who thrash him.

Although everything is seen through Dicky’s eyes, the disruptive figure who sets bits of plot rolling is the new vicar, a savvy tough exponent of Muscular Christianity – the Reverend Henry Sturt – who sets up a church in a disused barn and takes no nonsense from the Jagos. The Jagos will happily beat up individual policemen, who will only venture into Jago Court, at the centre of the slum, in large numbers. But Father Sturt, as the Jagos come to call him, from the start won’t be intimidated, stands up to even the toughest hard men, and wins a grudging sort of respect. He is ‘the one man who could swim in a howling sea of human wreckage’ (Chapter 26)

(This Father Sturt figure is based on the Reverend Osborne Jay who had approached Morrison and given him a tour of the Jago, and then supplied him with eye-witness descriptions of specific characters and incidents. Since Jay had already set some of these incidents down in his own book, Life in Darkest London, published in 1891, this led to Morrison being accused of plagiarism, a criticism which stung him into writing a preface to the book, which he expanded into a detailed essay discussing ‘realism’ in contemporary literature. From our perspective, it means we can be confident that many of the characters and events described in A Child of the Jago actually took place.)

The plot, in the sense of a linked series of events, is fairly slight. Dicky grows up witnessing a whole series of, mostly violent incidents: in part one by far the most impressive is the prolonged fist fight between his father and Billy Leary, triggered by the attack on Dicky’s mum by a (female) member of the Leary clan.

Part two

In the second part we leap four years and Dicky is now 13 and expected to earn his keep by thieving. In part one we had seen how he was inveigled into nicking things and giving them to a slimy cunning Jewish fence, Mr Aaron Weech. Now, in part two, Father Sturt gets Dicky a job in a shop. The hunchback slopes past, then doubles back several times to check what he’s seeing is correct. Dicky affects to ignore him.

But Weech, upset at the loss of goods Dicky gives him and also nervous that if Dicky turns honest, he might peach on him, manages to get Dicky sacked. Completely innocent, aggrieved, mortified, Dicky goes home in tears where his Dad belts him as punishment for losing the income. At which, giving up on the straight life, Dicky returns to thieving and pick-pocketing with renewed energy.

The biggest scene in part two is when the Jagos invite their rivals from the nearby rookery Love Lane round to Mother Gapp’s pub, the Feathers, for a truce and reconciliation party. Unfortunately Mother Gapp’s pub wasn’t built to be packed to the rafters with shouting stomping toughs and, in an amazing moment, the entire floor gives way and a crowd of Jagos and Dove-Laners all fall five or six feet into the basement, landing amid breaking barrels, broken pint pots and shattered rafters. Immediately thinking the whole thing is a trap, the Dove-Laners turn on the Jagos and there is an almighty scrap.

Amid the fighting Dicky sees the Roper hunchback silhouetted and pushes him into the hole. He hits a barrel, then falls between two barrels and lies still. Is he dead? Dicky legs it.

Dicky’s dad, Josh, has a bit of heroic bad luck. He breaks into an up-market house and has already pocketed a handsome watch when a fat old lummox labours up the stairs and Josh punches him, sending him reeling back down the stairs. Unfortunately for Josh, this fat man is a member of the High Mob, the bejewelled, swanking crooks who have made such a success of a life of crime that they have risen out of the slums and dwell in handsome abodes, though they still sometimes return to the Jago, to flaunt their wealth and especially to view an organised fight, like the fist fight between Josh and Billy Leary which drew an enormous crowd and elaborate betting.

The High Mobsman puts the word out to be alert for his watch, which has his initials on the back. Josh tries a few fences who turn it down with a shudder but the egregious Aaron Weech spies an opportunity to win favour with the Mobsman, tells Josh to return in the morning, at which point there are two constables tipped off to arrest him.

Without Josh to support them, Hannah, Dicky and Little Em sink into real poverty and starve. Hannah has another baby, delivering it herself in their hovel. Kiddo Cook has taken to dropping round spare morsels form his job in the market. One day he pushes the door open to witness the sight of Hannah having just given birth. He hurries to fetch Father Sturt who fetches the surgeon.

Having cleaned Hannah and the baby up, they walk away and the surgeon gives vent to his despair.

Father Sturt met the surgeon as he came away in the later evening, and asked if all were well. The surgeon shrugged his shoulders. ‘People would call it so,’ he said. ‘The boy’s alive, and so is the mother. But you and I may say the truth. You know the Jago far better than I. Is there a child in all this place that wouldn’t be better dead – still better unborn? But does a day pass without bringing you just such a parishioner? Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands. Sometimes we catch a rat. And we keep it a little while, nourish it carefully, and put it back into the nest to propagate its kind.’

Father Sturt walked a little way in silence. Then he said: – ‘You are right, of course. But who’ll listen, if you shout it from the housetops? I might try to proclaim it myself, if I had time and energy to waste. But I have none – I must work, and so must you. The burden grows day by day, as you say. The thing’s hopeless, perhaps, but that is not for me to discuss. I have my duty.’

The surgeon was a young man, but Shoreditch had helped him over most of his enthusiasms. ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘quite right. People are so very genteel, aren’t they?’ He laughed, as at a droll remembrance. ‘But, hang it all, men like ourselves needn’t talk as though the world was built of hardbake. It’s a mighty relief to speak truth with a man who knows – a man not rotted through with sentiment. Think how few men we trust with the power to give a fellow creature a year in gaol, and how carefully we pick them! Even damnation is out of fashion, I believe, among theologians. But any noxious wretch may damn human souls to the Jago, one after another, year in year out, and we respect his right: his sacred right.’ (Chapter 29)

If anyone is allowed to have children, then the problem of children brought into the world by drunk, addicted or irresponsible adults is eternal. This appears to be Morrison’s own view because it is repeated in several of the letters which Miles includes in the OUP edition. The infection can never be completely cured. Morrison followed his patron, the Reverend Jay, in thinking that only moving the population lock, stock and barrel to penal colonies in completely different environments might break the cycle of illiteracy, drunkenness, violence and crime. Almost nothing could be done if you just left them to breed in London.

Part three

Another four years pass. The County Council starts to demolish the Jago and replace the tenements with tall, yellow-brick barracks-like apartments. Dicky is a hardened crook, coming up to seventeen. Josh is released from prison. He drinks his way across London to a surly reunion with his long-suffering wife and his unseen child who howls and wails at the sight of him, to the amusement of all the Jagos crammed into the pub.

Bill Rann persuades Josh to take part in a job – ‘cut and dried as a topper’ – to rob Aaron Weech. This is a red rag to a bull since Josh has spent four years in prison mulling over how Weech turned him in and also how he never lifted a finger to help his starving wife and children.

Things go wrong from the start, with the window proving hard to open, and the downstairs rooms proving empty of loot. Climbing the stairs Josh becomes thick-minded with hate, ceasing to make any effort at furtive creeping, clumping, awaking Weech who comes to his door with a lamp in his hand.

In a grim, late-Victorian scene, Josh grips Weech by the neck and slashes at his face, roaring out his list of accusations and blame, until he hacks at Weech’s throat, then lets the bloody lump fall at his feet. But the commotion has drawn the police and when Josh, foolishly looks out the window, by lantern-light several coppers recognise him.

Rann had long since scarpered. Now Josh takes to the rooftops and flees the baying crowd in a scene which is identical to Bill Sykes’s rooftop flight in Oliver Twist, written 60 years earlier. He makes it to a strong iron downpipe, shimmies down it plans to make it to the maze of slums in Honey Lane but hasn’t reckoned on the way the north-east of the slum has been cleared to make room for the new council housing. In the dark he falls into a hole dug for foundations, twisting his ankle, unable to move.

In the next chapter, Morrison again borrows from Dickens in portraying Josh Perrott’s feverish frame of mind, seeing the entire rigmarole of his trial for murder from the perspective of a mind overwhelmed by feverish, fast-moving, inconsequential worries and perceptions, morbidly obsessed with the smell of the old fence’s squalid den, the pervasive smell of rotting pickles, and

when he turned to face the judge again he had forgotten the time, and crowded trivialities were racing through the narrow gates of his brain once more.

We see the lengthy, wordy, repetitive rigmarole of the trial through Josh’s fevered mind, then the guilty verdict, Hannah fainting. Then a few days later he is hustled out of his cell, meekly thanks his gaolers, through the exercise yard and into the execution shed, up the steps to the gallows and then…

Father Sturt tries to give Hannah some charring work, but she’s useless at it. Dicky swears vengeance on the world. He half thinks of suicide but that’s soft talk. He’s got his mum and the kids to look after. He’s walking back to the Jago, with a plan for a job tonight, with Tommy Rann, a builder’s yard in Kingsland, when he runs into a fight. A mob of Jago youth is roused and storming towards Dove Lane. A fight, a fight will clear his head, anything to take his mind off his dad and… So Dicky joins in, storms Dove Lane with the others, throws himself into the centre of the melee, laying about him with a big stick when he feels a sharp punch under the arm and stumbles forward.

There’s blood, the boys nearest cry out that he’s been stabbed. It was his old enemy, the hunchback. The fight breaks up and everyone flees, apart from a few lads who lay Dicky on his back while the blood gurgles into his lungs. The lads come with a loose wooden door, lay him on it and take him to the surgeon. Father Sturt arrives and takes Dicky’s hand. They ask him who did it and to the end Dicky keeps up Jago morality, refusing to snitch.


Life before sex and drugs and rock’n’roll

I’ve been watching the American TV series, The Wire, set in Baltimore and following a team of detectives as they bug and gather evidence on a powerful drug-dealing operation. Series three follows the rivalry and warfare between two leading drug gangs, complicated by the involvement of a wild card drug thief and assassin, Omar.

The point is that a modern depiction of really rough slums (as of 2003, when the TV series is set) features:

Drugs The underworld is dominated by a network of drug dealers – small-timers on the street, distributing for higher-up gang leaders, some of whom have made enough money to begin investing in property and even entering the city’s corrupt politics.

Gun crime Rival gang members freely shoot each other dead, either individually or in mass firefights.

Sex And their lifestyle overlaps with prostitution. The series doesn’t hold back on scenes of dealers getting blow jobs up dark alleyways or shagging hookers doggy-fashion in cars or enjoying the services of high class escorts.

Music All this is set against a semi-permanent backdrop of hard core rap music, music which seems to both describe the violent amoral world of its origins, and encourage and propagate its values.

Looking back at A Child of the Jago requires a big effort to block all this – the contemporary world of music, drugs and violent crime – out of your imagination. In 1896 there were no mass-produced drugs. Some of the characters – including Dicky’s dad – drink heavily but there are no alcoholics, as such, no people completely incapacitated by booze. They all need to stay sharp in order to thieve.

There were no cars, so people were much more limited, psychologically, to their home turf, in this case the grid of Jago streets which provide all kinds of back exits and short cuts which characters can use to escape from the police (on the rare occasions they show up) or, more probably, from other characters after their blood.

There are no guns so, although there is a continual threat of violence, all of which is serious – being bottled in the face, hit on the head with a cosh, whacked on the arm with bits of metal fence or, occasionally, stabbed – in the end the actual homicide rate is relatively low.

There is no music. The baleful events of The Wire play out to a backdrop of music appropriate to the characters, mostly hard-core rap, the indiscriminate consumption of which somehow confirms the shallow amorality of the characters sub-human lifestyle.

But there was no recorded music in Victorian times and so music in the book is rare. Occasionally you might come across a drunk singing on a street corner. More often there’ll be a sing-song in the pub, especially if it has an old joanna which someone can play. Then there are the stern, four-square hymns which emanate from churches or are sung by the Sally Army. But otherwise, the only sounds are of horses and carts and people.

Lastly, there appears to be no sex. The Victorians must have had sex otherwise we wouldn’t be here, but you wouldn’t think so from most of their art or fiction. Right at the start it’s explained that wives are sent out onto the busier streets to lure unwary men back into the Jago, so waiting husbands can cosh and mug them. But if there is any actual sex or prostitution in A Child of the Jago I couldn’t detect it.

Peter Miles, the editor of the Oxford University Press edition which I read, includes a dozen or more contemporary reviews of the novel in  his notes. By far the most interesting is a piece by Robert Blatchford, socialist and editor, who points out this glaring absence of sex from the story.

According to Blatchford, both critics and defenders of A Child of the Jago waste their breath debating its realism, since it omits:

  • the actual swearwords all working men use but are forbidden in print
  • the prevalence of illness
  • the ubiquity of prostitution whereby most of the Jago children are prostitutes before they reach their teens

The social impact of disease and prostitution (and the combination of both in venereal disease) are not discussed because they are not allowed to be discussed under the cultural self-censorship and the actual legal censorship, of the times. Therefore, according to Blatchford, Morrison’s depiction may revel in violence and crime – but massively fails to give a full and accurate picture of life in the slums.

This censorship helps to explain the feeling that, upon reading a book like this, you enter a world of different concerns and issues from our present day.

In the absence of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, what would have concerned a late-Victorian middle-class reader of the book? Well:

  1. The non-stop violence.
  2. The squalor and uncleanliness – this would have been linked to middle-class anxiety about cholera and other contagious diseases spreading to middle-class areas from sinks of filth like the Jago.
  3. The continual low-level thieving – everybody pinches any valuable they see. Though mainly carried out within the slum itself, the crooks do sometimes venture further afield to nick things from shops or pick pockets.
  4. The lack of Christian faith. None of the slum-dwellers knows or cares anything about religion, except as a way of wangling free food and drink out of naive missionaries. In his copious notes, Peter Miles quotes the 1886 census of the East End which declared that 92% of the population did not attend a service of any religious denomination.
  5. The immorality of living in sin. Even if they consider themselves ‘married’, very few of the couples in the book have actually been through a church service. Thus, in the eyes of any theologian, every time they have sex they are committing a cardinal sin which will send their souls to hell. They really did need to be saved, and soon. Hence the expense of money and effort opening Missions and building new churches.
  6. The lack of education. There is a free Board School close to the slum but none of the parents let their children go there because a) it’s a waste of time, they should be home helping their mum or, as soon as they’re able, going out to earn money thieving; b) if they attended school, their names would be taken down, and so the authorities would be able to identify them and their parents. No, no, the Jago parents prefer to stay off the grid, any grid.

Although the underlying principles – extremely poor, uneducated people living in filthy conditions, amid ceaseless violence and crime – are similar, it’s the difference between slum life of 1896 and slum life today which strike the modern reader.

Colourful names

Morrison has a sure way with names. Compare and contrast with his vastly more famous contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (Morrison born 1863, Kipling born 1865) all of whose names, in his hundreds of short stories, are arch and contrived, for example the names of the three soldiers in the British army who feature in some seventeen stories – Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris.

By contrast, Morrison’s characters’ names – like his depiction of late Victorian street speech – feel entirely authentic and colourful:

Mother Gapp, Cocko Harnwell, Kiddo Cook, Josh Perrott, Aaron Weech, Snuffy, Little Em, Jerry Gullen, Jerry Gullen’s canary (actually a knackered old cart horse), Bill Leary, old Beveridge, Pigeony Poll, Tommy Rann, Pip Walsh, Sally Green, Old Fisher, Mr Grinder, Snob Spicer, Bob the Bender, Pud Palmer, Ginger Stagg.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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