Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett (1982)

Catastrophe is a very short play by Samuel Beckett, written in French in 1982 at the invitation of the Association Internationale de Défense des Artistes and first produced in the Avignon Festival on 21 July 1982.

Unlike most of Beckett’s plays or works, which are notably apolitical and even asocial in their studiedly abstract, experimental and often very solipsistic focus, Catastrophe is something like a political play, an impression Beckett fostered by dedicating it to the Czech playwright and political reformer, Václav Havel who was, at the time, imprisoned by the Czech communist regime.

That said, the play is still very late-Beckettian in at least three respects:

  1. It is really very short – the Beckett Project production clocks in at just five and a half minutes
  2. It is very claustrophobic, small and confined and, as so often, only has two speaking parts, in this instance a bossy theatre director and his assistant
  3. As mention of the characters suggests, it isn’t set in a prison or concentration camp or dictator’s courtroom or party meeting or hideout of rebels and freedom fighters or any other overtly political setting that the word ‘political’ implies –instead it is set in a theatre

Mise-en-scène

As so often, Beckett’s stage directions convey half the information or impact of the piece. As so often there are only 2 speaking roles. As so often they and the two non-speaking roles don’t even have names but are assigned only initials.

Director (D).
His female assistant (A).
Protagonist (P).
Luke, in charge of the lighting, offstage (L).

Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.
D in an armchair downstairs audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.
A standing beside him. White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.
P midstage standing on a black block 18 inches high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing-gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.
D and A contemplate P.
Long pause.

It is, in its telegraphese, prosey way, a kind of poem.

The plot

We are in a theatre. A haughty director snaps and bosses around a female assistant as they put the finishing touches to some kind of ‘last scene’ of some kind of dramatic presentation. This appears to consist entirely of one man, called The Protagonist, standing stock still on a plinth on the stage while the director and assistant circle him considering his dress, posture and so on.

In this respect – two characters animatedly discussing a third who does not move or speak – it is identical to Rough For Theatre II where two characters, A and B, discuss the character and case of a third figure, C, who stands in the open window, unmoving and unspeaking.

The Assistant has arranged the Protagonist atop the 18-inch-high black block and draped him in a ‘black dressing gown’ down to his ankles and wearing a ‘black wide-brimmed hat’. The action of the play consists of the irritable, domineering Director over-riding her presentation and fussing about innumerable details of the Protagonist’s posture, his hands, the hat, his face, telling the assistant to take off the Protagonist’s coat and roll up the trousers of his old grey pyjamas.

His irritability is symbolised by the way his big Director’s cigar keeps going out and he keeps snapping at the Assistant to provide him a light.

When he has got the Assistant to largely strip the Protagonist, she points out that he is now shivering. The Director doesn’t care. Or worse, he pretends (to himself) to care, saying ‘Bless his heart,’ but not changing his behaviour at all. He’s only interested in achieving his great creative effect, and also mentions that he’s late for a meeting (which he refers to by the unusual term of a ‘caucus’).

Throughout, whenever the Director makes a more general suggestion, the Assistant replies with the unusual phrase ‘I make a note’, rather than ‘I will make a note’ or ‘I’ll take a note’ or make sure it’s done’ or any of a  number of possible phrases. No. ‘I make a note’ has a surprisingly large impact in making the dialogue, and consequently the entire setup, appear strangely brittle and unnatural.

When the Director withdraws to the stalls to get a proper view of his handiwork, the Assistant flops down in an empty theatre seat, but only for a moment. She springs right back up and wipes the seat vigorously, as if to avoid contamination, before reseating herself.

In the last minute they call on Luke, the lighting technician, who has two lines, though he doesn’t appear, and who obeys the Director’s imperious instructions about changing the light on the Protagonist in order to create the most dramatic possible tableau. It is at this point that the title of the piece appears. When Luke adjusts the lighting so it falls solely on the Protagonist’s face, the Director goes into raptures.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off… Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here…

‘In the bag’. Good. And with that the Director is ready to whisk off to his ‘caucus’. But it’s in the last 30 seconds that the piece acquires its bite. For in these last seconds, the Protagonist, who has been standing stock still, with his head down, submitting to all these indignities, finally raises his head and looks the audience directly in the eye, and the audience, which has been acquiescing in this bullying and humiliation, is slowly shamed into silence.

P raises his bead, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies. Long pause

Beckett, whose every utterance was, by this late stage of his life, taken down and recorded for the use of future scholars, apparently told American theatre critic Mel Gussow that:

‘it was not his intention to have the character make an appeal… He is a triumphant martyr rather than a sacrificial victim… and it is meant to cow onlookers into submission through the intensity of his gaze and stoicism.’

Interpretations

Aristotle

In Aristotle’s seminal work of literary criticism, the Poetics, the Greek philosopher defines the catastrophe of a play as the moment when the tragic hero pulls down ruin and pain on himself and his society, when Oedipus blinds himself, when Pentheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads. More broadly, it is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

Catastrophe is obviously nothing like Aeschylus or Sophocles. It is muted and boring, the only real interest being the character of the thuggish, bullying male director, a character who could have walked directly from the accusations of the #metoo movement.

And yet the word ‘catastrophe’ is deliberately uttered by the key character, and he appears to be using it in its correct technical sense.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.

The Director is satisfied that this tableau, of the protagonist stripped down to his undergarments and lit just so will provide just the right climax to whatever drama has preceded it.

There is, then, a tremendous irony in the way the play then proceeds, in the final 30 seconds, to enact Beckett’s ‘catastrophe’, the one whereby the Protagonist lifts his face to confront the audience and cow them into silence and shame.

This catastrophe doesn’t bring tragic recognition and ruin in the classic sense, but it does transform the figure from utterly passive object, rudely talked about, to a man who is fighting back, defying his owners and manipulators.

Thus the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ is correctly used twice at the end of the play, but to highlight the fact that it contains two narratives – the play-within-a-play whereby the Director achieves his effect – and the wider play, the Beckett play which the audience is watching, which achieves its catastrophe in an entirely different way. Or is working to a completely different aesthetic. Or to a completely different set of moral values.

For such a short piece, it’s quite a dense and complex effect.

Politics

If it hadn’t been dedicated to Havel, a world-famous dissident and political reformer, it might not have been easy to see Catastrophe as a ‘political’ play at all. But in the event, Beckett was involved in several of the productions around the West and left some pretty explicit comments about his intentions in this regard. Most notably, in answer to a reviewer who claimed that the ending was ambiguous, Beckett replied angrily:

‘There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.’

So quite obviously Catastrophe is about a figure who is poked and prodded and reified or objectified and reduced to a wordless mannequin to suit the whims of the Director. But who at the last minute asserts his freedom and agency.

Whether you think this rather slender ‘plot’, and the fairly tame and super-familiar setting (a rehearsal for a play, or part thereof) is sturdy enough to bear the heavy freight of political symbolism which the play has been loaded with, is a judgement call. In the febrile world of the theatre and the glib world of literary criticism it can easily be made to pass for one.

The Beckett on Film production

The Beckett on Film project set out, at the turn of the century, to produce high quality, filmed productions of all 19 of Beckett’s plays. The producers approached leading directors and actors, but not always with happy results.

To direct Catastrophe they chose acclaimed American playwright and director David Mamet, cast playwright and Beckett enthusiast Harold Pinter to play the Director and, in a great coup, secured acclaimed Shakespearian actor Sir John Gielgud as the Protagonist. It was Gielgud’s last role and he died only a few weeks after filming it.

Which makes it all the more of a shame that Mamet seems to have made quite a balls-up of the piece. Mamet made his name as the author of a series of plays about hairy, testosterone-fuelled toxic American men such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988).

If you’re familiar with Mamet’s attraction to strong, unpleasant male characters, often depicted in exploitative relationships with younger women, it comes as no surprise that his production devotes all its attention to the domineering figure of the Director, played by a characteristically offensive, barkingly pukka, alpha male Harold Pinter, and his bullying relationship with the (very attractive) Assistant.

Re, this Assistant, it is notable that, whereas, in the stage directions the Assistant wears shapeless ‘White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.’ in Mamet’s production, she is a) very attractive b) wearing the smart and shapely outfit of a briskly willing secretary, as per the Hollywood BDSM movie, The Secretary.

All subtlety whatsoever is scorched away from the piece. It has been turned into Sexual Perversity in Theatreland.

It doesn’t help your sense that Beckett’s original intentions have been left far behind when you learn that the actress playing A, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a) American – which helps to explain what is subtly wrong about her posh English accent – and b) is, um, married to David Mamet. Aha. People talk, these days, about crony capitalism. Maybe there’s such a thing as crony thespianism.

All of which is getting on for tragic because of the criminal under-use of one of the greatest English actors of all time, Sir John Gielgud, who stands out of vision for almost the entire piece.

Now, you can understand why they keep his figure peripheral for the scripted part of the play – it is in order to raise the tension and expectation so that when the Big Reveal comes it will be all the more dramatic. Reasonable idea.

And yet, when the Big Reveal does come, the moment which the entire interpretation of the piece as a political play hangs on, the notion that his final facial expression conveys the Protagonist’s revolt and defiance and cows and shames the audience which has acquiesced in his humiliation into embarrassed silence – well, Mamet muffs it big time and makes Gielgud look exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Instead of a look of defiance designed to shame the audience which has tamely acquiesced in his torment, Gielgud is made to look like a grinning goblin. It’s a travesty. A travesty of a mockery of a sham.

Mamet’s mangling of this subtle play is a good piece of evidence for the broader argument that Americans simply can’t understand European culture because they have never been invaded, overrun, defeated, cowed and crushing into submission, as almost the entire continent of Europe was from 1939 to 1945.

And then that, while half of Europe groaned under communist tyranny for decades after the Second World War, and their intellectuals agonised about communism and decolonisation, Americans were enjoying a bubblegum postwar boom, driving bigger and bigger cars, building bigger and bigger houses equipped with swimming pools and ever-more convenient domestic appliances, and ogling pneumatic pinup girls. Brainless consumerism.

So, in my opinion, Mamet completely misses what so many critics take to be the play’s central importance, namely the way the dominating Director functions as a symbol of the thoughtless, bullying authority which forms the basis of most repressive regimes.

But not only this, Mamet also completely omits the artistic subtlety of the piece – the Beckettian overtones, the weird, abstracted, formalised armature to be found in so many of Beckett’s plays, the oddities of language and phrasing (the way the Assistant says ‘I take a note’ and the Director keeps saying, ‘Come on. Say it’) the language oddly off kilter, which alert the viewer or reader that we are in a strange and unusual place, in Beckettland.

No, Mamet and Pinter conspire to make this piece all about cocky, swaggering masculinity, about a big swinging theatrical dick, so that the subtlety of language, the oddity of the action, and the ghosts of Europe’s history of oppression and struggle, are all utterly erased.

In the theatre

In several other reviews I’ve pointed out a basic fact of much of Beckett’s prose, which is that it can be seen as consisting of narrators who pose, position and direct other characters.

Take Ill Seen Ill Said which I’ve just reviewed. There is very little plot in the ordinary sense; what there is, is a narrator who is trying to arrange the disparate elements of the situation into some kind of order and, in doing so, he frequently stops to comment on his own efforts, wonders whether he should pose the old lady protagonist in this, that or the other position even, at one point, stops arranging the action altogether in order to wonder whether his approach is correct or valid.

In other words, in a lot of Beckett prose pieces the narrator behaves like a theatrical director, getting his characters to do things or say things over and over again, with multiple variations, as he struggles to achieve the desired effect (the desired effect often explicitly being described as ‘finishing’, completing the task, achieving the closure which, however, the texts forever hold out of reach of all concerned, both characters and author).

In this respect Catastrophe brings this situation up out of the shadows of the (often hard to read) prose pieces and makes it explicit.

1. It is one thing to read the play as a political allegory, with the Director as a heartless and ruthless brute treating people like objects to achieve a satisfying result, whether fascist, communist or any other way tyrannical…

2. But Catastrophe is obviously also a simple and straightforward account of what bastards theatrical directors can be, treating people like meat, forcing them to undergo humiliating actions, costumes and poses in order to achieve the desired effect.

3. And not very far behind that, is the even simpler interpretation, of what utter bastards writers can be – on the one hand, playing havoc with people in real life, exploiting their names and characters and lives and stories and mannerisms regardless of the consequences, in order to create the all-important ‘work of art’; and then subjecting their fictional characters to a vast array of humiliations, fiascos, tortures and death, in order to entertain and amuse their readers.

Writers of fiction like to tell themselves they are educating the nation and firing the imagination and liberating people’s minds and striking blows for freedom and justice and all the rest of the standard boilerplate. But when you compare this rhetoric with most of the works of fiction that are actually published in a year – the slushy romances, the thrillers and cop novels, and the vast number of fantasy, sword and sorcery novels in which endless legions are hacked, stabbed, burned and eviscerated to death, you realise what a weak and self-serving argument that is.

Being a writer of fiction is a profoundly morally compromised activity, and it is the way this realisation is one of the three or four layers of meaning packed into Catastrophe – much more than the supposed ‘political’ interpretation – which is what I take away from this incredibly short but amazingly dense and multi-levelled piece of drama.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ill Seen Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981)

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

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

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

Late Beckett prose style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Beckett makes his prose sparser and barer by:

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

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

Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagery

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author struggling

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

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

On.

The eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Close-up of a dial. Nothing else.

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

The intrusive author gives up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The title

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

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


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Fizzles by Samuel Beckett (1973 to 1975)

The ‘fizzles’ are eight short prose pieces by Samuel Beckett. He wrote seven of them in French in the early 1960s and translated them into English a decade later, apart from Still, which he wrote straight into English in 1972.

Order and names

Some of the fizzles are unnamed and are identified by their numbers or first few words ‘in speech marks’. There’s no particular logical order and different publications have varied the order and not necessarily included all 8, but they tend to be arranged as per an edition published by Grove Press which Beckett reportedly approved:

  • Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’
  • Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’
  • Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird
  • Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’
  • Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’
  • Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’
  • Fizzle 7 Still
  • Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

Foirades

In French their title is Foirades and a ‘foirade’ translates as ‘squitters’ or ‘jitters’, a flop or failure. According to the Faber Companion to Beckett he himself referred to the Fizzles as ‘wet farts’ or attempts to break wind quietly (you should never underestimate the element of sheer, bucket, gutter, potty-mouthed crudity in lots of Beckett, his obsession with bodily functions and the crudest Anglo-Saxon terminology e.g. the prominence of the c word in How It Is or casual remarks such as ‘I considered kicking her in the cunt’, in First Love).

Going beyond closure

Regarding the content, the Companion spends a lot of time on their publishing history and gives just a one-sentence interpretation, namely that the Fizzles were – when written in the early 60s – attempts to go beyond the closure or ending implied in a work like The Unnamable.

This is certainly a way to think about how the fizzles all concern different personages, are in different voices, appear to be exploring different scenarios. Obviously they are unified by a) being about derelict characters with dysfunctional minds b) conveyed in prose which experiments with various strategies, most notably Beckett’s familiar tactics of i) Repetition of key phrases, and ii) Oblique syntax i.e. missing out verbs or adding multiple phrases without indicating their relationships with punctuation or prepositions.

But within this overall approach, each fizzle is like an experiment with a different approach to his themes. It helps that most of them are relatively short, barely half a page, which adds to the sense that they are offcuts of a larger work, fragments at a tangent from a bigger vision.

Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’

An unnamed male protagonist, ‘destitute of history’ and ‘near to death’, wearing uncomfortable clothes, possibly ‘prison garb’, barefoot, is walking endlessly uphill so his head is bowed, but through a narrow place where he’s constantly banging his shoulders and arms, sometimes it narrows so much that squeezing through hurts his arms and shoulders even draws a little blood, there’s no chance of seeing through the gloom so more and more he closes his eyes, he reviews his body – the legs, the head, the heart – no complaints, he zigs to the left, he zags to the right, sometimes he stops to lick the walls, behind it he hears the sound of an enormous fall or drop, but mostly there is silence; he makes a distinction between the air here which is ‘foul’, and ‘the other, the true life-giving’, suggesting he is underground and heading always upwards towards the surface, towards ‘the open’ (which explains the gloom, the silence, the foul air, the uphill gradient) and his memory endlessly pores over the maxima and minima of his experiences, the loudest fall, the quietest fall, the sweetest wall lick, and so on, indefinitely.

Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’

First person narrator describing how a character named Horn always came in the dark, the narrator would send him away after 5 or 6 minutes, 5 or 6 years since anyone had seen the narrator, it’s some time before s/he has gotten out of bed, it (the body’s injuries) are sure to show, but no-one at any price is to see her face, hence making Horn come at night, Horn’s visits don’t seem to be for sex, the narrator asks Horn questions e.g. ‘And her gown that day?’ Horn gets out his notebook, checks, and answers, once she asked him to turn on the flashlight so she could see his face, as the torchlight faded she was certain it was him, definitely him, but she has only to pass her hand over her eyes or take off her eyeglasses for the image to fade, that’s why she prefers looking at the ceiling, although she did get out of bed the other day and she thought she had long ago ‘made my last journey’, she’s started making little journeys hanging onto the bars of her bed; in a bizarre, surreal and presumably humorous last few sentences she blames her decrepitude on ‘athletics’:

What ruined me at bottom was athletics. With all that jumping and running when I was young, and even long after in the case of certain events, I wore out the machine before its time. My fortieth year had come and gone and I still throwing the javelin.

Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird

A third-person narrator describes the progress of an unnamed character walking, as so often in Beckett, across a ‘ruin-strewn land’, taking little wary steps, resting after every ten steps:

that image, the little heap of hands and head, the trunk horizontal, the jutting elbows, the eyes closed and the face rigid listening, the eyes hidden and the whole face hidden,

Strange phrasing suggests the narrator was ‘inside’ this figure, somehow and somehow was given birth to:

but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside… I’m inside, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light…

More strange phrasing suggests the observer and the actor are one and the same, and when he comes to describe his death it sounds as if the soul is describing the death of the body, boasting that he will survive, certainly it sounds like a psyche or persona split in two:

he is fled, I’m inside, he’ll do himself to death, because of me, I’ll live it with him, I’ll live his death, the end of his life and then his death, step by step, in the present, how he’ll go about it, it’s impossible I should know, I’ll know, step by step, it’s he will die, I won’t die, there will be nothing of him left but bones, I’ll be inside, nothing but a little grit, I’ll be inside

Wow, this obviously echoes the title of Not I but also the duality in one mind or one narrative of The Unnamable, but is genuinely spooky, like a ghost story where the ghost is inside the head of the lead character.

Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’

This appears to be a close variation in number 3. It’s interesting to compare 4 and 3 because the topic is identical, the notion of a narrator being inside a man who he confidently predicts will die by he, the narrator will survive, and a score of other notions stemming from this idea – but version 4 is much more pure, it is much clearer about the plight and its consequences and so, maybe surprisingly, is less effective than 3. 3 is more obscure and contains ambiguous or impenetrable phrases, but for that reason, comes over as the more genuinely deranged of the pair, and therefore more likely what an unhinged soul or body-occupier would actually sound like i.e. deeply worrying.

Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’

Opens with a typically incoherent sentence:

All needed to be known for say is known.

Which indicates it is the speech of yet another character whose mind is collapsing, and at the same time hints at profound meanings which are not immediately translatable into standard prose. In fact, the very next two sentences are considerably clearer:

There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.

This sounds like a Zen Buddhist saying, not that meaningful in itself, but designed to prompt meditation and pondering.  From this abstract opening, the text goes on to become the description of a place rather than a person – a vast ‘arena’ big enough to hold ‘millions’ who spend their time;

wandering and still. Never seeing never hearing one another. Never touching’

This vast space is divided up into millions of equal lots:

Just room for the average sized body. Stretched out diagonally. Bigger it has to curl up.

In other words this ‘arena’ has distinct similarities with the claustrophobic ‘hell’ described in The Lost Ones. It’s also one more example of Beckett’s obsession with conceiving the precise space and geometry of human bodies and the claustrophobically closed spaces they inhabit. The arena is also a ‘ditch’ a few feet deeper than the surrounding surface.

Some of these ‘lots’ are bright, some are dark, making a patchwork quilt. Above the arena, light is shed down onto the bright squares. ‘In the black air towers of pale light. So many bright lots so many towers.’ There is a track all around the ditch, a step up from it and just wide enough for one to walk. That’s it.

The precision of the imagining makes it very close to Dante’s imagining of the afterlife, except without any of Dante’s personality, humanity, characters, dialogue, interactions, and religious, legal and moral symbolism.

Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’

Flavour is conveyed by quoting:

Old earth, no more lies, I’ve seen you, it was me, with my other’s ravening eyes, too late. You’ll be on me, it will be you, it will be me, it will be us, it was never us.

With a kind of surreal or delirious inconsequentiality the narrator abruptly declares:

It’s a cockchafer year, next year there won’t be any, nor the year after, gaze your fill.

The narrator appears to turn on the light to watch them flying towards the river. And this morphs into surprisingly obvious and sentimental memories:

For an instant I see the sky, the different skies, then they turn to faces, agonies, loves, the different loves, happiness too, yes, there was that too, unhappily. Moments of life, of mine too, among others, no denying, all said and done.

Fizzle 7 Still

Another surprisingly naturalistic description of someone sitting quite still at a window watching the sun set in the south west. The phrase ‘quite still’ is repeated to create that intensity.

As so often what comes over is Beckett’s intense imagining of the precise position of the human figure and of its movements. We don’t get a name or spoken words or thoughts or emotions. None of that interests him.

Sitting quite still at valley window normally turn head now… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… at open window facing south in small upright wicker chair with armrests. Eyes stare out unseeing till first movement some time past… Normally turn head now ninety degrees to watch sun… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… Eyes then open again while still light and close again in what if not quite a single movement almost…

Except the figure is not still. On closer examination he, she or it is trembling all over. This sets up a dynamic opposition which then rings through the rest of the short text which goes on to describe the position or positions of this human in the usual excruciating detail:

Legs side by side broken right angles at the knees… Trunk likewise dead plumb right up to top of skull seen from behind including nape clear of chairback. Arms likewise broken right angles at the elbows forearms along armrests just right length fore arms and rests for hands clenched lightly to rest on ends…

It makes you realise that these descriptions of precise bodily movements and the super-precise stage directions he gave for his later plays, are all cut from the same cloth:

The right hand slowly opening leaves the armrest taking with it the whole forearm complete with elbow and slowly rises opening further as it goes and turning a little deasil till midway to the head it hesitates and hangs half open trembling in mid air. Hangs there as if half inclined to return that is sink back slowly closing as it goes and turning the other way tillas and where it began clenched lightly on end of rest.

These could almost be stage directions for one of his hyper-minimalist late dramaticules. The poetry or the drama is in these very limited, small-scale but super-precisely described physical gestures.

Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

It is quite ironic that one his post-war short stories was titled The End because, of course, Beckett never finished ending, he was endlessly ending. Or was compelled to end endlessly, over and over again, the sentences trying to assemble meaning from broken fragments at odds with each other, incomplete, trying to reach an end:

For to end yet again skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin.

Like so much of Beckett’s prose it works by the incantatory repetition of certain key words phrases which build up a strange, not a romantic power, something more modern and metallic and baleful.

  • skull
  • alone in the dark, alone in a dark place
  • grey sand as far as eye can see
  • leaden dawn

To our surprise the narrator mentions that here in this waste of sand as dawn arrives over a leaden grey sky, ‘amidst his ruins the expelled‘! The Expelled is of course the title of one of the four long short stories wrote right at the end of the war, and all the stories rotate around the same figure who has been ‘expelled’ from his home by ‘them’. Is this ‘expelled’ the same guy? Or is everyone expelled in Beckettworld? Is everyone condemned to the same eternal trudging across grey dusty landscapes or circling round rubber cylinders (The Lost Ones), bent double climbing endless hills (Enough), haunting the ruined refuge of Lessness?

As usual there is no name, no character, no personality, no psychology, no dialogue, no thoughts, no humanity; it’s all about the bodies:

Same grey all that little body from head to feet sunk ankle deep were it not for the eyes last bright of all. The arms still cleave to the trunk and to each other the legs made for flight.

It’s odd that he specifically uses the word ‘hell’ and then goes on to mention the ‘refuge’. Is this meant to be a kind of summary, pulling together themes scattered through the fizzles (and other texts, the ‘refuge’ which appears throughout Lessness – this and Lessness seem very closely linked)?

Astonishingly two white dwarfs appear. They are trudging through the dust, inevitably, with the just as inevitable bowed backs. No-one walks with a spring in their step and a song in their heart in Beckettworld. The dwarfs are so alike the eye cannot tell them apart and they are carrying, between them, a litter, such as the rich rode in in Roman times. They are not pretty dwarfs:

Monstrous extremities including skulls stunted legs and trunks monstrous arms stunted faces… Atop the cyclopean dome rising sheer from jut of brow yearns white to the grey sky the bump of habitativity or love of home

Can he see it, this scene, ‘the expelled [person] amid his ruins’? Is it him regarding the two dwarfs carrying their litter. This scenario gives the text more key words and phrases to repeat and circle:

  • litter
  • dwarfs
  • ruins
  • little body

‘The expelled’ falls amid his ruins in the white dust, the dwarfs let drop their litter once again. Is this hell:

hell air not a breath? And dream of a way in a space with neither here nor there where all the footsteps ever fell can never fare nearer to anywhere nor from anywhere further away?

No.

No for in the end for to end yet again by degrees or as though switched on dark falls there again that certain dark that alone certain ashes can

It can’t be the end because the end is endless. It can never end.

One thing leads to another

Apart from the obvious aspects of these pieces – they are very unlike anyone else’s ‘stories’ or prose pieces, the lack of character or dialogue or plot – one thing that comes over strongly in most of them is the sense of free association. What I mean is one thing leads to another, one idea throws up a phrase or notion which the text then moves onto with no real, external logic, no logic of events, certainly, but the logic of association.

As Tristram Shandy had shown 200 years earlier (1759) the idea of building a fictional text by letting one idea suggest another which suggests another was hardly new, and prose which tried to capture the so-called stream-of-consciousness had been developed in their different ways by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce during and just after the Great War.

Hard-hearted prose

What makes these pieces’ use of a sort of stream-of-conscious approach so different is their hard quality. There is a hard, stiff quality about Beckett’s prose. And there is a hard quality about the descriptions. They are more often than not descriptions of people in some kind of mental or physical extremis, and yet there is never any softening of the style or of the attitude. There is no compassion. Everything is described in a kind of forced, compelled way which sometimes verges on the mechanical or robotic.

This is most obvious, maybe, in Beckett’s obsessive concern with the body of his characters, not just with the tortured contortions or trials he often puts it through, but the mechanical way he lists body parts and enumerates actions, with the detachment of an anthropologist.

Some day he’ll see himself, his whole front, from the chest down, and the arms, and finally the hands, first rigid at arm’s length, then close up, trembling, to his eyes. He halts, for the first time since he knows he’s under way, one foot before the other, the higher flat, the lower on its toes…

You can read into the pieces a certain compassion for these figures, but it isn’t actually there in the pieces themselves. They are hard to the verge of being feeling brittle.

Unfree association

Back to the free association idea, take Fizzle 2, ‘Horn came at night’, it’s tempting to think that Beckett simply free associated it. The progress of ideas is: ‘Horn always came at night’. So straightaway you suspect that is a rude pun, ‘horn’ being slang for erect penis, ‘came’ being the common verb describing orgasm, all helped along by the night-time setting. Then you can see Beckett thinking this is far too obvious and immediately intruding a bit of Beckett business, a kind of spurious precision, by saying that the narrator only hosts Horn for 5 or 6 minutes, and going one step further to remove it from the world of porn or even faintly sensual writing by stating that Horn always switches on his torch to consult his notes. What torch? What notes? Why is he taking notes?

And the thought that she only lets him visit for 5 or 6 minutes leads to the question why the short intervals – which prompts Beckett to concoct the idea that it’s because the narrator is ashamed of how she looks. ‘It was five or six years since anyone had seen me’. Which leads onto the thought that she is changing her mind, emerging from her self-imposed exile, and determined to let herself be seen again.

That all happens in the first paragraph, but the point I’m making isn’t about the subject matter, it’s about Beckett’s process of moving quickly from one idea to another. And I’m trying to bring out the way the ideas don’t exactly flow. It isn’t stream of consciousness in the way Woolf or Joyce were trying to capture what thinking actually feels like, were trying to give a realistic description of the way our thoughts endlessly link together.

Beckett’s version is much more contrived and hard-hearted than that. It’s more like a deliberate attempt to avoid realistic stream of consciousness, and replace it with a sequence of arbitrary and unexpected developments. The same sense of arbitrary develops characterises the end of fizzle 2 when the character suddenly starts blaming their physical decrepitude on athletics, all that running or jumping when they were young.

Or take the equally incongruous and ‘random’ appearance of two dwarfs carrying a litter across a bone dry plain in fizzle 8. This and other odd and arbitrary developments, like the sudden appearance of the cockchafers in fizzle 6, arise from no known logic, no realistic depiction of the world or of the mind, but reflect a kind of contorted, unfree association.

What appears to be a random arbitrary thought occurs, and then directs the text down along a new course.

And no sooner has he thought of them, these random features, than they are subjected to the usual tough-minded treatment of Beckett’s prose strategies:

  • obsession with the body and its precise posture and movements
  • obsessive enumeration or listing of activities or attributes
  • above all the obsessive, meaning-draining incantation of a handful of key words or phrases which either deepen and intensify the reading experience, or drive you nuts with frustration, depending on your mood and inclinations

Luxury literature

Beckett is usually promoted as the purveyor of world-class pessimism, bleakness and nihilism, a poet laureate of impoverishment, decay and collapse.

But by the time I began reading serious literature in the mid-1970s, he was already a world-famous figure, with a Nobel Prize to his name. Any play he wrote was immediately put on at the Royal Court Theatre with a massive press fanfare, and any prose he wrote was liable to be printed in full in the most prestigious journals or newspapers. It was impossible, in other words, for anyone to be more famous or successful in the field of literature than Samuel Beckett was.

Not only that, but by the mid-70s Beckett was also becoming known for collaborating in high-end, elite de luxe editions of his works and Fizzles is a good case in point. In 1973, soon after the Froisades were published in French, Beckett was introduced to American artist Jasper Johns and they agreed to work together on an illustrated version of the English translation, Fizzles.

Johns chose just five fizzles and to create a little ‘artist’s book’ containing both French and English versions (he chose fizzles 2, 5, 1, 6, and 4). Johns created 33 images plus the book’s end papers. The resulting book was published with the title Foirades/Fizzles in an edition of 250 copies, signed by both creators. I saw some of the illustrations at the big 2017 Jasper Johns retrospective at the Royal Academy.

What the exhibition showed is that although Johns is famous for painting the American flag and other everyday artifacts, he went through a big black and white phase and that’s when the fizzles project took place. The rather grim, rough-hewn, black and white abstract shapes, or shapes made of black and white letters of the alphabet, are appropriate for the semi-abstract texts, with their lack of colour and repetition of black (fizzles 1, 5, 8) and in particular grey, which dominates fizzle 8 (‘Grey cloudless sky grey sand as far as eye can see’).

Many of these limited editions found their way into the collections of the V&A or Museum of Modern Art and so on, or into the hands of the usual art market investors. Nowadays they change hands for $30,000 or more.

I know I’m being naive, but for me aged 17, there was something very off-putting about knowing that this supposed prophet of immiseration and the extremity of human consciousness, was in reality fawned on by cultural elites around the world who fought like ferrets for the privilege of staging his latest 10-minute play or publishing his latest 3-page prose masterpiece, and that the the supposed poet laureate of impoverishment and collapse in reality collaborated in creating luxury collectors’ items designed to find their way into the hands of the super rich and the art elite.

It’s taken me all this time to overcome my antipathy to Beckett because of his association with the Art and Theatrical and Financial Elite, and to try and read his works objectively, for what they are.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ping by Samuel Beckett (1966)

Ping is a very short text, just 908 words long. Beckett wrote it in French with the title Bing then translated it into English.

It is in one continuous block of prose, like The Unnamable. It uses a fanatical amount of verbal repetition like How It Is does, taking a handful of key phrases and repeating them in almost every sentence to build up a sense of hysteria.

As so often the vocabulary is plain and simple except for a handful of distractingly unusual words, in this case ‘haught’ (7 instances), ‘unover’ (6 instances) and, of course, the title word, ‘ping’ (37 instances).

The word ‘white’ is particularly repeated and the work’s original title in French was, apparently, Blanc, reminding us of various attempts to create pure white poetry unstained by meaning by the likes of the French poet Stephane Mallarmé. The word ‘white’ is repeated 93 times, making up over 10% of the words used. Ping occurs 37 times, 4%.

The text

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head haught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Legs joined like sewn heels together right angle. Traces alone unover given black light grey almost white on white. Light heat white walls shining white one yard by two. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle invisible. Eyes alone unover given blue light blue almost white. Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard white on white invisible. All white all known murmurs only just almost never always the same all known. Light heat hands hanging palms front white on white invisible. Bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white fixed front. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out. Head haught eyes light blue almost white fixed front ping murmur ping silence. Eyes holes light blue almost white mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmur perhaps a nature one second almost never that much memory almost never. Whitewalls each its trace grey blur signs no meaning light grey almost white. Light heat all known all white planes meeting invisible. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a meaning that much memory almost never. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle ping elsewhere no sound. Hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Eyes holes light blue alone unover given blue light blue almost white only colour fixed front. All white all known white planes shining white ping murmur only just almost never one second light time that much memory almost never. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere white on white invisible heart breath no sound.Only the eyes given blue light blue almost white fixed front only colour alone unover. Planes meeting invisible one only shining white infinite but that known not. Nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmurs only just almost never one second always the same all known. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard invisible all known without within. Ping perhaps a nature one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. White ceiling shining white one square yard never seen ping perhaps way out there one second ping silence. Traces alone unover given black grey blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white always the same. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image always the same same time a little less that much memory almost never ping silence.Given rose only just nails fallen white over. Long hair fallen white invisible over. White scars invisible same white as flesh torn of old given rose only just. Ping image only just almost never one second light time blue and white in the wind. Head haught nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over. Only the eyes given blue fixed front light blue almost white only colour alone unover. Light heat white planes shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Ping a nature only just almost never one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. Traces blurs light grey eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front ping a meaning only just almost never ping silence. Bare white one yard fixed ping fixed elsewhere no sound legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image same time a little less dim eye black and white half closed long lashes imploring that much memory almost never. Afar flash of time all white all over all of old ping flash white walls shining white no trace eyes holes light blue almost white last colour ping white over. Ping fixed last elsewhere legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front over. Given rose only just one yard invisible bare white all known without within over. White ceiling never seen ping of old only just almost never one second light time white floor never seen ping of old perhaps there. Ping of old only just perhaps a meaning a nature one second almost never blue and white in the wind that much memory henceforth never. White planes no trace shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Light heat all known all white heart breath no sound. Head haught eyes white fixed front old ping last murmur one second perhaps not alone eye unlustrous black and white half closed long lashes imploring ping silence ping over.

Obsession with posture

There is, as usual with Beckett, obsessive and obsessively repeated concern for the precise configuration of the human body. What happens if you extract the phrases solely describing the body?

white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn…
bare white body fixed only the eyes only just…
hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
hands hanging palms front…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
mouth white seam like sewn…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn…
head haught…
bare white body fixed one yard…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white body fixed one yard invisible…
long hair fallen white invisible…
head haught…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white one yard fixed…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front…
head haught…

Well if you do this the quality of repetition becomes more obvious, as does the importance of the precise physical posture of the figure.

Physical posture as the seed of the pieces

It’s never really clear that these postures relate to anything else at all, no known symbolism, whether astrology or yoga or the kama sutra. Beckett just seems to have conceived of (generally old and decrepit) human bodies in different contorted and uncomfortable postures, and then built texts around them (All Strange Away, Imagination Dead ImagineHow It Is, Enough).

For example, once he had conceived of a decrepit old human body crawling through mud and imagined the right leg moving up along with the right arm in a kind of crab-like movement to shunt itself forward through the mud, then virtually the whole of How It Is follows fairly logically.

Or once he had conceived of a decrepit old man so spavined that he walks literally bent double and can only see the little patch of grass and flowers at his feet, then the text of Enough flows fairly logically.

In each case the positions need to be described in as concentrated and abstract way as possible to achieve the writing degree zero minimalism he was aiming at and this creates a kind of basic mantra or chant which will be repeated ad nauseam, with tiny variations, and will form the scaffold of the piece.

Then, like a christmas tree, the various baubles and bangles can be added – the blue eyes, the white hair, the confined space (as is so frequent in these so-called ‘closed space’ works) and then just the bare minimum possible of sputtering mind or consciousness, in this case the half dozen references to the almost obliterated faculty of memory to suggest the last gasping ghostly operation of something which was once ‘mind’.

Other strands

A shorter extract could be made focusing on the colours because, despite the emphasis on white, there are other colours, namely black, grey, blue, rose. A slightly longer one focusing on the references to eyes. Or the half dozen references to memory. The references to Ping, whatever he, she or it is. So the text can be parsed out into blocks around each of this handful of themes. Or into strands of spaghetti, a whole plateful of text woven out of what, when you single them out, are only ten or so separate strands.

David Lodge tries to salvage the piece for the tradition

Novelist and critic David Lodge, in a 1968 review of Ping, suggests that the ‘consciousness’ depicted in the piece makes repeated efforts to assert the possibility of colour, movement, sound, memory and another person’s presence, only to collapse each time into the acceptance of colourlessness, paralysis, silence, amnesia and solitude. He suggests Ping is:

the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life.

Maybe. It’s one approach. It’s an attempt to situate Beckett or a Beckett text within the tradition of realistic or psychologically coherent fiction, as if it was in any way about anything like a human being depicted in anything like the way one is usually depicted in realist fiction.

Ping seen as incantation

Personally, I wouldn’t bother. I think Ping and the other short prose works of the period are more like incantations, spells or chants. Certainly they all benefit from being read out loud. Words can never escape having meanings (well, words in a language you understand). But they are also susceptible to rhythm and pattern, the pattern of sounds (vowel, consonant, long or short sounds, plosives and sibilants) and the rhythm of the way the same words place in different orders or interactions, take different weight or rhythm.

The ostensible meaning may well be the depiction of yet another Beckett protagonist, speaker or ‘voice’ on the verge of conking out. But the text is also, quite obviously, an assemblage of sounds, arranged with obsessive repetition with variations and the continual addition of small new details, to give the thing a dynamic, a sense of a continually changing, rather shimmering surface.

The crucifixion

Lastly, I won’t make a big deal out of it, because I don’t think the text fully intends it, but when I read:

bare white body fixed… hands hanging palms front white feet heels together

I had a vision of the crucifixion and thereafter couldn’t get it out of my mind, despite the repeated references to some kind of container ‘one yard by two’, the characteristic ‘closed space’ of these mid-1960s prose pieces.

And having highlighted the importance of the central physical posture to all of these mid-60s prose pieces, and the obsessive way Beckett repeats descriptions of the contorted, painful position at the centre of each text, it dawned on me that the great Positioned Body in our tradition, the archetypal image of a human body bent into an agonising posture in Western civilisation is, of course, the body of Christ nailed to the cross.

I’m not familiar with Beckett’s biography, I’ve no idea whether he was ever a Christian believer, but he was born and bred in Ireland which is a land dominated by churches and Catholic imagery. So I’ll leave it at just the simple thought: maybe all the contorted, painfully positioned and obsessively described bodies which haunt Beckett’s prose are aftershocks, knackered variations in a different mode, in a modernist style, in a post-nuclear lens, of the original contorted, painfully positioned body which underpins our civilisation.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Imagination Dead Imagine by Samuel Beckett (1965)

Although only published in 1965, Imagination mort imaginez (originally written in French) is obviously intimately linked with All Strange Away from the previous year, not least because All Strange Away opens with precisely these three words Imagination dead imagine. Beckett called it ‘a residual precipitate’ of the other work.

Imagination dead imagine is yet another exploration of the theme of the imagination which is dying but aware that it is dying, symbolised by a tiny structure apparently hanging in space, in which lie curled two barely animate humans. The text is wildly fantastical and abstract in its strange cosmic vision, yet down on the ground floor of the text, each sentence contains fragments which fight among themselves between affirmation and negation.

Beckett’s ‘closed space’ fictions

According to The Beckett Companion, in the mid-1960s Beckett’s imagination turned away from the journeys which had featured so much in his earlier prose pieces, and instead turned to the more minimal notion of fixed, enclosed spaces. His characters are not now crawling through mud, grasping handholds of grass to propel themselves forward – they are now confined in cubes or rotunda (as described in All Strange Away). These pieces imagine the collapse of imagination in an almost completely abstract way, rejecting language and imagery – and yet are hopelessly shackled to language, compelled to repeat fixated imagery and gestures, albeit in shreds and patches, phrases and handfuls of key words.

Geometry

It’s surprising the concept of closed spaces didn’t occur earlier to a man obsessed with precise geometrical shapes (evidenced in the detailed diagrams he drew for the production of his plays) and detailing the movements of people as if they were brainless automata (evidence in passages which obsessively catalogue every possible permutation of the smallest physical gesture, which can be found in all his novels).

Thus in this narrative we are invited into the rotunda which the cuboid cell of All Strange Away had morphed into by the end of that text, to discover it is shrunken but still mathematically true:

all white in the whiteness the rotunda. No way in, go in, measure. Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault. Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA.

There are beings within this space but, as in all mid- and late-Beckett, unnamed, unexpressed beings, not really recognisable as human, they have no names, never speak, more the material for a mime or strange choreography, or just images for paintings.

Lying on the ground two white bodies, each in its semicircle. White too the vault and the round wall eighteen inches high from which it springs

The narrating voice instructs itself to go outside the rotunda, view it from a distance, from a height, then re-enter and measure its dimensions again. To register the head. Note the two bodies, each in its semicircle. Play with it, as a space. Carry out thought experiments. Make the lights dim as in a theatre. What would happen if you could make the temperature dim, too?

Go back in. Emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness, wait, the light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes. At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point, at the same instant that the black is reached,

The pattern repeats. Light and temperature up… pause… then down again.

More or less long, for there may intervene, experience shows, between end of fall and beginning of rise, pauses of varying length, from the fraction of the second to what would have seemed, in other times, other places, an eternity.

This is abstract enough to, like abstract art, be susceptible to more or less any interpretation you choose. It could be breathing.

But even before it reached the word ‘eternity’ the sentence reminded me of the modern theories about the cyclical origin and destinies of universes, that they may begin in a Big Bang, expand at tremendous speed, slowly slowly slowing down, until they reach the furthest extension of their reach and then… slowly, slowly collapse back in on themselves, contracting and heating up until they reach absolute minimum size and maximum heat, arriving at a hyperdense singularity before – exploding out again in another vast Big Bang. Repeating the cycle forever.

In fact Beckett decides to describe this pulsation from light and hot to dark and cold in some detail, a sequence which takes up the middle part of the text, casting itself as a scientific description of some kind of chemical or physical process in a sort of parody of scientific prose.

The extremes alone are stable as is stressed by the vibration to be observed when a pause occurs at some intermediate stage, no matter what its level and duration. Then all vibrates, ground, wall, vault, bodies, ashen or leaden or between the two, as may be. But on the whole, experience shows, such uncertain passage is not common. And most often, when the light begins to fail, and along with it the heat,the movement continues unbroken until, in the space of some twenty seconds, pitch black is reached and at the same instant say freezing-point.

And indeed this passage has a mildly science fiction feel, these considerations of some kind of universal pulse, which really does invoke the idea of space, planets and worlds:

whatever its uncertainties the return sooner or later to a temporary calm seems assured, for the moment, in the black dark or the great whiteness, with attendant temperature, world still proof against enduring tumult. Rediscovered miraculously after what absence in perfect voids it is no longer quite the same, from this point of view, but there is no other.

‘World still proof against enduring tumult’ – that’s quite a resonant phrase, isn’t it, lifting us for a moment up out of the endless solipsism of the Beckett voice and into a vaster, more complete, more coherent world.

Then we go back inside the small white rotunda and the positioning of the persons inside is described in very much the same way as in All Strange Away, namely in a distinctive combination of abstract geometric positioning and potty-mouthed swearwords:

Still on the ground, bent in three, the head against the wall at B, the arse against the wall at A, the knees against the wall between B and C, the feet against the wall between C and A, that is to say inscribed in the semicircle ACB, merging in the white ground were it not for the long hair of strangely imperfect whiteness, the white body of a woman finally. Similarly inscribed in the other semicircle, against the wall his head at A, his arse at B, his knees between A and D, his feet between D and B, the partner.

So there are two beings, a woman and her partner, bent in three, each inscribed in their own semicircle within the small, tight, white rotunda. Hold a mirror to their lips, and it mists. They are alive, in their cramped positions. All that moves is their eyes, and their directions of sight only overlap for a few seconds, in another idea which is conceived as a diagram:

They might well pass for inanimate but for the left eyes which at incalculable intervals suddenly open wide and gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible. Piercing pale blue the effect is striking, in the beginning. Never the two gazes together except once, when the beginning of one overlapped the end of the other, for about ten seconds.

The precision of the ten second overlap matches the precision of the other stage directions given in this text and even more so in its partner, All Strange Away, which gives precise durations for lights to go up, maintain for a given duration, and then fade over a given duration. Everything taking place just so. To the author’s precise instructions.

It is a kind of stage production going on inside his head, or someone’s. And the metaphor of a skull has been hinted at earlier, the notion that, in some way, the hard white rotunda is the human skull, now light and hot, now dark and cold, subject to eternal flux.

Go back out, a plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness, go back in, rap, solid throughout, a ring as in the imagination the ring of bone.

‘The ring of bone’. On this reading, it is another of Beckett’s many ‘skullscapes’, a mindscape which can only exist within the poky confines of the bleached white bony skull, the misadventures of the human mind, the human imagination, as it collapses, revives, collapses again, that again, always.

The text ends when the narrating voice, really a kind of narrative instructor, tells himself to leave them lying there, the two folded-up, silent, blue-eyed forms, for there are ‘better elsewhere’. Better what? But before there’s any explanation of that phrase, he immediately contradicts himself, as is his way:

No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

Although Beckett has this reputation, among scholars if no-one else, for his pitiless gaze and the post-human bleakness of his vision etc, in reality both All Strange Away and this piece end with what could be interpreted as moving or even sentimental images, surprisingly conventional expressions of loss and regret:

no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark… or the great whiteness unchanging

‘The great whiteness unchanging’. These are only short pieces but their strange combination of the bleak and the post-human, the geometrically precise with these occasional flickerings of feeling, makes them very powerful and haunting works.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

I had no idea the French were behaving so tyrannically’ (Winston Churchill, when informed how the French were planning to rig the supposedly ‘free’ elections to be held in Syria in 1943, quoted page 249)

One should kill the British wherever one finds them. They are pathological liars and that is how they have ruled the whole world. (French policeman chatting with a released Jewish terrorist, quoted on page 342)

This is a really shocking book about the long-running rivalry between the British and French in the Middle East from the outbreak of the First World War through to Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947. It makes you really despise, and even hate, the French for their corruption, cowardice, brutality and pomposity.

The book’s last part is a detailed account of Jewish terrorist campaigns against the British, not only in Palestine but in London, where clubs, government buildings and even cabinet members were targeted. I hadn’t realised how extensive it was – Churchill and young Princess Elizabeth were among targets considered for assassination. The terrorist plans of the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gangs put al-Qaeda to shame.

And the murder of hundreds of soldiers and officials in Palestine (not to mention hundreds of innocent Arabs) and the bomb attacks and letter bomb campaign in mainland Britain were aided and supported by France. Barr has the documentary evidence to prove it.

Imagine if the British secret service had given money and guns to the Islamic terrorists who carried out the Bataclan nightclub massacre. Same thing. The Jewish gangs convinced themselves that terrorism was a valid method of freeing their people from imperialist rule, just like Islamic terrorists want to overthrow the West, liberate the Holy Places and re-establish the Caliphate etc. And you do that by machine-gunning kids in nightclubs. Genius.

It’s not often a book leaves me feeling physically sick and revolted by the moral bankruptcy of the people described, but this one did. The pompous prick de Gaulle, the French diplomatic corp and security services, or the murdering Jewish terrorists – it’s hard to decide which are the more disgusting.

French failure

The French education system tells its citizens that France is home to a unique civilisation and a tradition of unparalleled military gloire. When you look closely, however, you realise it’s a lie. The French were soundly beaten by the British throughout the 18th century, when we seized both Canada and India from useless French forces in the 1750s.

After causing 25 years of mayhem across Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, the French were finally crushed at Waterloo in 1815, and went on to suffer a series of political revolutions in 1830 and 1848.

The failed 1848 revolution in France evolved, through three years of tortuous  political shenanigans, into the rule of the characteristically jumped-up, pompous ‘Emperor’ Napoleon III.

The rule of this ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (in Marx’s words) came to an inglorious end when the French were crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Paris collapsed into a blood-thirsty civil war.

The French came off second best in the Scramble for Africa and were constantly irritated by the feeling that somehow the British had beaten them unfairly, had seized India, Canada and their African colonies using ‘underhand’ tactics.

Running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. (My notes on The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham)

France’s most notable social achievement at the turn of the century was the Dreyfus Affair which revealed the vast extent of French anti-semitism and just how culturally polarised a nation it was.

Battle lines were drawn between secular liberals and Catholic reactionaries, deep hatreds revised, Frenchmen murdered each other on the issue, the far-right proto-Fascist Action française movement was founded.

Although nationalist politics were confined to the margins in France, the ideas at their heart – a nation defined by the exclusion of those deemed not fit to belong to it, Jews quite specifically – remained undiluted as one part of a divided French culture. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 18)

At the outbreak of the First World War the French only managed to stem the German attack in 1914 with the help of a British Army. While the British Army (amazingly) held its morale throughout the war, the French army experienced widespread mutinies in 1917.

As this quick review of the history indicates, educated French people suffer from cultural schizophrenia: everything in their tradition tells them that France is unique, a beacon of civilised values, a nation of unparalleled military genius – and yet their actual historical record is one of defeat, division and civil war. The French Revolution developed into a civil war, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 split the nation, the Commune of 1870 left enduring scars, the Dreyfus Affair revealed how divided the country was.

This schizophrenia continued after the First World War. The French people were told they had won the war and yet France experienced a profound economic slump, mass unemployment and a succession of short-lived governments. Something was wrong. Something was undermining French gloire. Someone was conspiring against them. Who could it be? Of course! The British! The old enemy.

Even before the First World War there were tensions between Britain and France. We managed to sign an Entente Cordiale in 1904 but this was less a sign of friendship than a way to try and limit and control their ongoing imperial rivalry, which had led to clashes in Sudan (which the British claimed) and Morocco (which the French claimed).

Britain and France worked reasonably well together in managing the Western front during the First World War, despite recriminations and blame about the various catastrophic military initiatives. But away from the fields of Flanders, the two nations continued their fierce competition. One of the flashpoints was in what we now call the Middle East but which was still, right through the Great War and up until 1923, called the Ottoman Empire.

The sick man of Europe

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was thought to be on its last legs, staggering from one crisis to another in each of which it tended to lose another bit of territory, from the 1878 Russo-Turkish War when the Russians yet again tried to advance as far as Constantinople, through the British annexation of the theoretically Ottoman territory of Egypt in 1882, to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw bits of the formerly Ottoman Balkans handed over to Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Turco-Italian War of 1912-13 in which Italy seized the Ottoman provinces to the west of Egypt which were eventually consolidated into Italian Libya.

The Ottoman Empire attacks Russia; Russia vows revenge

After some reluctance, and only on the basis of the promise of arms, ammunition, lots of money and German military aid, the ‘Young Turk’ rulers of the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (in October 1914).

They signaled their entry by a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet. From that point onwards, an angry Russia was determined to grab big chunks of Ottoman territory, namely Constantinople and its environs in the West, and an extended bite into Anatolia from the Russian-controlled territory of the Caucasus, in the East.

Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Russians all had their eyes on seizing more Ottoman territory.

The Sykes-Picot plan

This was the context in which two civil servants, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, one British, one French, drew up a map of how the Ottoman Middle East would be divided by the two countries (assuming the Allies won the war). The plan allotted a French sphere of influence in the north and a British sphere of influence in the south, with the dividing line running from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, near the border with Persia.

This map has four colours because the diplomats made a distinction between areas of ‘direct control’ and areas merely of ‘influence’. The yellow area roughly corresponding to modern Israel, was left open subject to further discussion.

The Sykes-Picot plan for the Ottoman Middle East (Source: The Institute for Curriculum Services)

A Line In the Sand

This is the starting point of James Barr’s history, A Line In The Sand, which is notable not so much for its coverage of the wartime context of the plan (which is thin) as for his very detailed survey of what came afterwards i.e. the consequences of the plan over the next 30 years.

This is where the book feels like it adds new and fascinating information.  It’s divided into four parts which give you a good feel of the content:

  1. The Carve-Up, 1915-1919
  2. Interwar Tensions, 1920-1939
  3. The Secret War, 1940-45
  4. Exit, 1945-49

The Sykes-Picot agreement is portrayed in conventional liberal historiography as a wicked imperialist ‘land grab’ which took no account of the wishes of the native peoples of these areas. But like all such agreements, it can also be seen as an attempt to prevent conflict between rival powers.

In fact, to gain even a basic understanding you need to realise it was just one among many post-war agreements between numerous states, all of which had to do with drawing lines on maps in an attempt to be fair to people’s nationalist aspirations while also reconciling the conflicting wishes of rival governments. Thus the treaties of:

  • Brest-Litovsk, March 1918
  • Versailles, June 1919
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, September 1919
  • Neuilly, November 1919
  • Trianon, June 1920
  • Sevres, August 1920
  • Rapallo, November 1920
  • Riga, March 1921
  • Lausanne, July 1923

All of these consisted of drawing lines on maps and trying to get warring parties to agree to them, and all of them ignored the interests of numerous national and ethnic groups on the ground: for example, the Poles and Ruthenians left on the wrong side of the new Polish border with Ukraine, or the three million Germans who found themselves stuck inside the newly invented nation of Czechoslovakia, the Germans isolated in the newly ‘free’ city of Danzig, the Romanians caught inside Bulgaria, the Bulgarians caught inside the new Hungary. And so on and so on.

It was an era of bad maps, of diplomats trying their best to create viable states out of the enormous chaos left by the collapse of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

To single out Sykes-Picot for special opprobrium seems silly to me. Bad maps pregnant with all kinds of future problems were being created all over Europe.

Post-war rivals

The 1920s in Syria

Barr doesn’t mention any of these other treaties or situate Syke-Picot in the broader post-war settlement (which is, admittedly, huge and horribly complex). For a really sophisticated account of the agreement (and of the key role played in it by Russia, who Barr doesn’t mention at all) I strongly recommend Sean McMeekin’s brilliant account of the period:

Instead Barr focuses very narrowly on the rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East which followed the Great War and it’s here that his detailed account of the politicking between the two supposed allies is genuinely eye-opening.

Broadly speaking the French, acting on the Sykes-Picot deal, moved into Syria and Lebanon, where they had long-standing cultural links, with French schools and institutions etc, although it is a mark of French arrogance, insensitivity and stupidity that they also based their claim on the legacy of the crusaders (!), the majority of whom had been French and had only been kicked out of the region as recently as 1291. French premier Clemenceau claimed that France had:

a centuries-old Protectorate, the origins of which date back to the Crusades.’ (quoted page 75)

In fact it was British forces who had first entered Damascus at war’s end (General Edmund Allenby captured Damascus on September 30, 1918) and allowed a political body set up by Syrian intellectuals and politicians, the Syrian Congress, to elect Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, first King of Syria in 1919 and to set up an independent Syrian parliament. The French were furious and insisted that the British bring pressure to bear on Faisal to allow the French to take over Syria in the form of a ‘mandate’.

As so often the French liked to think of themselves as ‘a great power’ and yet somehow, yet again, found themselves beholden to the damn British.

The sequence of events is complex, but basically the Syrians proclaimed an independent state under King Faisal and this triggered the French to a) assert their rights at the international San Remo conference of April 1920, armed with which they b) issued an ultimatum to Faisal to stand down as king and disband his forces. Reluctantly, Faisal did so and fled south into British-controlled Palestine (p.103). King Faisal’s defense minister Yusuf al-‘Azma, ignored the king and led the poorly armed Syrian army to Maysalun where it was crushed by superior French forces, who went on to enter Damascus and assert full French political control.

The first thing the French general who crushed the Syrian army, General Gouraud, did when he entered devastated Damascus was go straight to the tomb of the the great warrior Saladin who fought the Christian crusaders, to tell him: ‘Saladin! We’re back!’ (quoted page 103). The French mandate over Syria ran from 1920 to 1946.

All through this tortuous series of events the French felt the British hadn’t adequately supported them, a feeling which was crystallised by the next event. British forces occupying ‘Iraq’ had been troubled with their own violent uprisings but took a different strategy; rather than impose military rule, the British cast around for someone to make a nominal Arab figurehead of an Iraqi government and settled on… Faisal, the very same Faisal who the French had just run out of Syria. Thus in August 1921, Faisal was crowned Faisal I, king of Iraq (at what was, by all accounts, a sad and miserly ceremony: p.126).

The story of Faisal’s changing fortunes is colourful enough, as is Barr’s account of the initial French and British losses to well-armed and motivated Arab rebels against both their ‘mandates’. But for Barr’s purposes the point of the story is that the French felt that the British choice of Faisal was, yet again, a deliberate snub and insult to them. Touchy bastards.

French rule in Syria proved to be distinctly different from Britain’s rule in Iraq and Palestine, and quickly acquired a reputation for corruption and brutality. This sparked successive Arab risings and armed insurrections. It didn’t help that France herself was undergoing a severe economic crisis in the early 1920s, reflected in political instability as one short-lived administration followed another, creating a national sense of paranoia and bewilderment (p.142). They had supposedly won the war but seemed to be badly losing the peace.

Barr gives a detailed account of the Great Druze Revolt of 1925 to 1927 by the obstinately independent Druze Muslims who lived in the region south of Damascus, sparked by ‘French mistreatment of the Druze population’ (pp.128-152). At its climax the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered the shelling of the capital city Damascus to flush out rebels, which led to the destruction of much of the Old City. A good example of French civilisation and gloire.

(In fact the French were to shell and bomb Damascus again, in May 1945, after refusing the Syrian government’s request to hand over the French troupes speciales. Instead de Gaulle sent French army reinforcements and then used them to mount a major attack on all the offices of the Syrian government, bombing the parliament building, shooting up Syrian and British offices. The shooting went on for days. One Russian holed up in Damascus’s main hotel said it was worse than Stalingrad. It was described as a ‘reign of terror’, in line with the Terror of the French Revolution, and the Terror unleashed during the 1870 Commune. Some 800 Syrians were killed. Syrian gendarmes were found buried in a mass grave, some of them having been mutilated by the French troops. The Parliament building was left a smoking shell. Eventually, the British government announced they would intervene militarily unless the French desisted. The Syrian authorities were livid and wanted the French officers in command to be tried for war crimes. And de Gaulle? De Gaulle blamed the British and their secret agents for everything. The man was a colossal turd. pp.303-310)

But why were the Arab population of Syria rebelling against them, the French, with their wonderful civilisation and poetry and art? Just because they hanged the natives and used them for forced labour and taxed them to the hilt to run their corrupt administration and displayed the corpses of dead Arabs in the town square? No. Natives love that kind of treatment. There must be something else behind it. Yes! It must be the British aiding the Syrian rebels! (p.152)

French soldiers, administrators and diplomats at all levels came to believe that the Arab insurgents were being funded by the British. Some of the Druze warriors confirmed these suspicions – but they were only repeating propaganda put around by their own leaders to hearten them (p.150).

This wasn’t true – it was not British policy to support Arab insurgents against the French. But, on the other hand, the British had to consider Arab opinion in their area – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula, across the bare desert north of Arabia and then down into the region then known as Mesopotamia, making up the inhabited centres of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, modern Iraq. The British wanted to distinguish liberal British rule from what quickly became known as the corrupt and very brutal French rule in their zone.

To take a small but symbolic example, the British refused to hand over the terrorist leader Muhammed al-Ashmar who the French thought was behind atrocities in Syria, when he crossed over into British territory. This understandably infuriated the French. A host of little issues like this crystallised the French sense that the British were doing everything in their power to undermine their rule.

The Mosul oil pipeline

Another issue which caused bad feeling between the so-called allies was oil. At the very end of the war Britain campaigned hard to seize Mosul in the far north of Iraq, in fact British troops only took possession of the city the day after the armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire took force, and it remained contested territory until the League of Nations confirmed its inclusion in the British mandate in 1926 (p.145).

But that was a trivial detail compared to the long, drawn-out wrangling about who should share the proceeds of the vast oil reserves which were finally discovered around Mosul in 1927 (p.153). A joint venture was set up with American and French companies under the aegis of the Turkish Petroleum Company, around which a great deal of haggling, arguing and threatening took place, gleefully recorded by Barr.

All sides agreed that the pipeline carrying the oil should run west to the Mediterranean coast. It was much cheaper than running the shorter distance south to the Persian Gulf because then it would have to be shipped around Arabia and through the Suez Canal. But should the pipeline run directly west from Mosul, in which case it would pass through French-controlled Syria to a French-controlled port – or take a more southerly route through the empty deserts of north Arabia and hit the coast at Haifa, in British-controlled Palestine. Obviously the Brits preferred this option, but it cost a lot more and was an obvious snub to the French. Barr details the convoluted political, strategic and financial arguments which dogged the project until it finally opened in a bifurcated route, with spurs heading off to British Haifa and French Tripoli, in 1934. The French resented the fact that, yet again, they’d been ganged up on (p.163).

The 1930s in Palestine

Rancour between the two countries came back to bite the British as the crisis in Palestine bubbled up during the 1930s. Small-scale Jewish immigration had been allowed throughout the 1920s not least as a consequence of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which a hard-pressed British government tried to rally Jewish support for the Allies by promising the world’s Jews – especially the rich and influential Jews in the United States – a homeland in Palestine. But it was relatively small, in fact it’s surprising to learn that there was net emigration of Jews out of Palestine in 1927.

Still, there was a steady low-level hum of Arab-Jew antagonism, which occasionally flared into serious incidents such as the riots in 1929 which left 271 dead and 580 wounded (p.160).

What changed everything was the rise of the Nazis. The number of Jewish immigrants began to grow as the Nazis seized power of Germany (1933). Although they were often desperate, the Jews nonetheless tended to have more resources than the dirt-poor peasants of Palestine, were much better educated and organised, and so began to buy up extensive tracts of land (p.167). This soon led to resentment, petty disagreements escalated into shooting, then both Arabs and Jews took to carrying out terrorist atrocities, chucking hand grenades into marketplaces, and so on.

Initially a lot of this violence was committed by Arabs, under the supervision of the Arab Higher Committee led by Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When assassins shot the British assistant district commissioner for north Palestine, the British authorities moved to arrest members of the Higher Committee but it’s military leadership fled to nearby Damascus in French territory, where they were received… like heroes. And when the British turned to the French for help the latter, with a characteristic Gallic shrug, refused (p.175). This period of well organised Arab attacks on British soldiers and locations is known as The Great Arab Revolt, 1936-39.

The British authorities recruited Jews as special constables to go on increasingly illicit ‘night raids’ against suspected Arab terrorist strongholds. One such was Moshe Dayan, future leader of the Israeli Army. But in 1938 a Jew who had shot at an Arab bus, Schlomo Yusef, was hanged by the British – the first Jew to be hanged by the British in Palestine – and this crystallised the opposition of hard-line Jews, specifically the Hagana, to abandon their sympathetic attitude to the Brits and to mount full-blown attacks. On 6 July 1938 two bombs were thrown into a Haifa marketplace killing 21 Arabs (and 6 Jews). On 15 July a bomb in Jerusalem killed ten Arabs. And we’re off on a rollercoaster ride of non-stop killings and atrocities by both Jews and Arabs, with the British authorities haplessly trying to keep order.

Vichy France

The final part of the book turns away from Syria and Iraq to focus on the long, tortured story of the conflict in Palestine. I found the accounts of Jewish terrorism upsetting and the revelation that the French security services aided and abetted Jewish terrorists targeting British soldiers in Palestine and British civilians in London absolutely disgusting.

De Gaulle comes over as an arrogant, lying prick. The British gave him home, shelter, broadcast facilities in London and helped the French Resistance, often at the cost of British lives, so it was disgusting beyond words to read again and again and again and again, the recorded statements of De Gaulle’s haughty contempt for Britain, his disdain of Britain, and the rampant anglophobia which ran right through the French political and military establishment.

In his memoirs de Gaulle recalled with relish how Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, once asked him whether he realised that he had caused “more trouble than all our other European allies put together.” “I don’t doubt it,” de Gaulle replied. “France is a great power.” (p.206)

It is worth remembering that, once Hitler attacked, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the ones who were defeated in 1870 and then only survived in 1914 because of British help) capitulated in just five weeks (the Battle of France lasted from 10 May to 25 June 1940).

This was due not least to the profound divisions among the French themselves.

France [in 1936] remained a completely divided country. The hatred of the nationalist Right for the Popular Front went far beyond conventional political opposition. Special vitriol was directed at its leader, Léon Blum, a Jewish intellectual who had been an early supporter of Dreyfus. Blum had been physically assaulted by a nationalist mob in February 1936. And the previous spring, the leader of the far-right Action Française, Charles Maurras, had appallingly denounced Blum as ‘a man to be shot – in the back.’ (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 298)

A popular right-wing slogan was ‘Hitler rather than Blum’. Many – many – French people preferred to be ruled by Hitler than by a Jew. Ponder that fact.

The French political scene [in the 1930s] was notoriously venal and corrupt. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-49 by Ian Kershaw, page 237)

The opening part of this episode of The World At War gives a summary of just how chaotic and divided France and its governments were during the build-up to the Second World War.

After their defeat, the French set up the Vichy regime, a right-wing semi-fascist government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them off to concentration camps (75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps). Blum was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where, luckily, he survived.

Yes, proud France! That is how to treat your Jewish politicians! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity indeed. La gloire. La mission civilisatrice.

Somehow de Gaulle blamed all this on the British. Why? Because whenever anything bad happens in France, it isn’t France’s fault – it must be Britain’s fault.

The Vichy government inherited control of Syria and Lebanon. The British led a campaign to oust the Vichy forces – the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of July 1941 – because Vichy had signed an agreement with the Nazis to let them use Syria and Lebanon’s airfields, for possible attacks on Greece or Crete.

The British (and Australian) forces were accompanied by Free French forces supplied by de Gaulle, who assured us that the Vichy army would quickly collapse. He was confident they would rally to him, the Greatest Frenchman in the Word. But they didn’t. They fought back very fiercely. When shown the evidence that he was completely wrong in his military estimate, de Gaulle characteristically said it showed how valiantly Frenchmen fought for any cause and went on to blame Britain’s lack of resources and commitment for the setbacks. It’s always the British fault (p.221).

When the Free French (backed by the British) eventually did succeed in overthrowing the Vichy regime in Syria, they discovered they didn’t have enough personnel to administer it, so a lot of French personnel swapped sides (as they do so easily) and discovered a new-found love of de Gaulle. ‘Ah, mon brave, mon cher, mon ami‘ is the sound of self-serving hypocrisy (p.225).

The British had publicised their campaign to the Arab world by saying they were going to overthrow the brutal Vichy administration. Then de Gaulle kept almost all the Vichy administration in place, thus placing the British in the position of appearing to have lied.

De Gaulle’s unbearable ingratitude and arrogance make reading anything about him difficult. He cultivated a strategy of ‘bad manners and a foul temper’. He gave interviews to American newspapers blaming all setbacks on the British (the same British who were fighting and dying to establish a Free French regime in Syria) (p.228).

When the British tried to make good on the promises they’d made to the Syrian Arabs during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, to hold free and fair elections, de Gaulle, characteristically, refused. He said it was out of the question for Glorious France to diminish her Glory. He and Churchill had a bitter shouting match about his refusal, after which the British simply cut off de Gaulle’s telegraph links with the outside world for a week to show him that he wasn’t a Great Power, he was just a man in an office with a phone which didn’t work (p.242).

Re. de Gaulle, it’s worth recalling from Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, that American President Roosevelt really, really, really despised de Gaulle, as did most of the American administration. They saw him for the jumped-up boaster he was, refused to allow him to attend meetings of the Big Three, and tried to manoeuvre a rival candidate, General Giraud, to replace de Gaulle as leader of the French Committee for National Liberation (p.257).

In November 1943 the French army staged a coup against the democratically elected Arab government of Syria, rounding up the President, the Prime Minister, Faris al-Khoury, and most of the cabinet, throwing them in prison, and letting their Senegalese troops run riot through the streets of Damascus.

It was incidents like this which convinced Roosevelt that de Gaulle had authoritarian, if not actual fascist tendencies, and didn’t deserve to be present at meetings of the Big Three (p.261). Syrian rebels began assembling forces in the hills. The situation threatened to descend into anarchy. And to solve it all…. de Gaulle blamed the whole situation on the British for interfering in French affairs, and threatened to resign (p.261).

Eventually Churchill threatened to use superior British forces to declare martial law in Syria and so de Gaulle, his man on the spot, The General Delegate to the Levant, the alcoholic Jean Helleu, was recalled to Paris along with all of his team responsible for the coup, the Syrian President, Prime Minister and his cabinet were restored to power and France’s name, very gratifyingly, was mud (p.263).

Jewish terrorism and Israel

What makes the last part of the story – from 1943 to 1948 – really weird – was the way these formerly very right-wing Vichy French allied with the Jewish resistance against the common enemy, the British. After reading over 100 pages documenting the virulent anglophobia and Brit-hatred of all the senior French politicians, from de Gaulle downwards, the sensible assumption just becomes, If they’re French, they hate the British and, if they’re in a position of power, almost certainly funding anti-British terrorism.

Thus we arrive at the devastating final section in which we learn that, Anglo-French rivalry became so venomous that, in the last days of World War Two, even as British soldiers were fighting and dying to liberate France, the French government was financing and arming Jewish terrorists who were attacking and killing British soldiers in Palestine. What a bunch of bastards.

With the war years and the growth of the Jewish resistance forces, you enter a surreal world of unlikely alliances.

Lehi [often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang] initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. (Wikipedia)

Jewish freedom fighters seeking an alliance with the Nazis? (p.268) You can see how real history, the real record of human affairs, like human beings themselves, is faaar more complex, contradictory and irrational than the baby morality of political correctness and identity politics allows.

The British had been forced to make a strategic decision. They were at war with Hitler who controlled the entire continent of Europe. Meanwhile, along with a host of other responsibilities around the world, they were theoretically in charge of Palestine. If more Jews immigrated into Palestine it would inflame the low-level conflict between Arabs and Jews which was already burning there. Arabs or Jews, which side do you want to alienate? Well, the Arab world stretches from the Atlantic to Persia, so the answer is simple: keep the Arabs onside, specially as they populated the lands around the Suez Canal, which was the carotid artery of the British Empire.

Thus, in order to try and keep the Arabs onside, the British government issued a White Paper in 1939 which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. This one step turned the Jews into fierce enemies, and as the war went on and the Holocaust began to be enacted, Jewish anger at the perceived anti-Jewish bias of the British soured into military operations carried out by gangs of terrorists. Helped by the French.

  • The Haganah put its intelligence network in Syria at the disposal of the Free French (p.267)
  • When the Allied attack on the Levant took place the Haganah provided members of its elite units to serve as guides
  • British police trailing suspected members of the Stern Gang saw them get a taxi to the Syrian border, cross the border, and be welcome by a French officer (p.269)
  • In his memoirs a member of the Stern Gang confirmed that the gang was supplied with arms and ammunition by the French regime in Syria, knowing they would be used to kill British soldiers and officials (p.271)
  • A Stern Gang member on trial stated that if Palestine was under a French mandate he was sure the British (who were trying him) would instead be giving him arms (the implication being… like the French were doing) (p.272)
  • A Hebrew-language publication of the gang admitted they were getting arms from the French (p.272)
  • In November 1944 MI6 uncovered proof that the French secret service was supplying money and guns to the Haganah and the Stern Gang – who had, that month, assassinated Britain’s Minister-Resident for the Middle East, Lord Moyne (p.289)
  • The French secret service was sharing with the Zionists information sourced from a French spy inside the British legation (p.290)
  • ‘The French are in collusion with right-wing Jews and known terrorists have lunched with Alessandri [top French security service official]’, (Jewish Agency liaison officer and future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, quoted page 292)
  • ‘The British government, beset by French-sponsored Jewish terrorism in the Levant…’ (p.298)
  • ‘Now, deeply alarmed at the prospect that France going to be thrown out of the Levant, both the Jewish Agency and the terrorist organisations made contact with the French government to offer their services, (p.309)

France helps the Jewish terrorist campaign in Britain

‘The British government had known for some time that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to use Paris as a base for assassinations of key British politicians including Churchill and Bevin… (p.337)

Barr describes the extensive contacts and meetings between members of the Irgun and Stern Gang with French officials in Paris who supported them in their plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. Lawyer and advisor to Léon Blum, André Blumel, hoped the LEHI would get all the assistance it needed to launch attacks on Britain. (p.338). Senior French lawyer helps terrorists attack Britain.

The first attack was carried out by a student of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Robert Misrahi, who left a bomb in a raincoat at the Officers Club off Trafalgar Square (p.339).

When a Zionist shipment of arms was impounded by French police in south-west France, the minister of the Interior intervened to ensure that they were sent on to the Zionists in Palestine. When five members of the Stern Gang broke out of a British prison in Eritrea and managed to reach the French colony of Djibouti, the French offered them asylum in France (p.340).

A young woman terrorist, Betty Knout, left a bomb in the toilets of the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which failed to go off and fingerprints and equipment indicated its manufacture by Stern Gang members. When British Special Branch tried to track her down in Paris, the French security services did what they could to block the hunt (p.340).

They launched a letter bomb campaign, sending letter bombs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Anthony Eden among others.

When a new Zionist point man arrived in Paris, he discovered his predecessor had reached an understanding with the French government: the Irgun and Stern Gang could use Paris as their base providing they didn’t carry out any attacks on British targets on French soil. When Princess Elizabeth paid a visit to France, the French police met the Irgun face to face to make sure they didn’t have a plan to assassinate her. Nice of them, don’t you think (p.343).

Semi-fascist views of the Zionist terrorists

It’s important not to be under the illusion that these were ‘nice’ or sympathetic people:

According to Yaacov Shavit, professor at the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, articles Lehi publications wrote about Jewish ‘master race’, contrasting them with Arabs who were seen as a ‘nation of slaves’. Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes: ‘Lehi was also unabashedly racist towards Arabs. Their publications described Jews as a master race and Arabs as a slave race.’ Lehi advocated mass expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine and Transjordan or even their physical annihilation. (Wikipedia)

Timeline of violence in Palestine

Jewish terrorism, and British attempts to stop it, only intensified once the Germans were defeated and peace was declared in Europe on May 1945. Wikipedia has a timeline:

Note how Jewish attacks on British forces are interspersed with British Army attacks on terrorists, the handling of prison breakouts, issues with immigrant ships trying to dock.

Reading this sorry story, the puzzle is why the British government persisted as long as it did. Remember, this was the government of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan which is routinely remembered in folklore as founding the National Health Service (as memorialised at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games).

It’s easy to say they screwed this up, but what choice did they have? A government’s first responsibility is to try and maintain peace and security by enforcing law and order. This becomes difficult to do in any insurgency situation, and the British authorities made the same mistakes as they had during the Black and Tan period in Ireland 1920 to 1922 and with the same generally negative effects, i.e they often targeted innocent civilians, missing the real culprits but managing to alienate the wider population. Which is what your insurgents want (p.185).

The British just give up

The British unilaterally terminated their Palestine ‘mandate’ on 15 May 1948. The Zionist leadership announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Arab armies attacked from north and south.

The role of the Americans

In the later stages of the war and the post-war years America plays a bigger and bigger role. The American administration and American public strongly supported the Jews and raised millions of dollars for them. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen lobbied President Truman very hard. Barr gives a fascinating account of the very effective work of the American league for a Free Palestine run by Hillel Kook, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers, got celebrity endorsement, organised all kinds of publicity campaigns – with texts written by Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht – and significantly influenced American public opinion in favour of the Jewish cause.

All those dollars and all that moral support made a big difference to the Zionists, gave them confidence that they wouldn’t be abandoned or left in the lurch, and the moral encouragement to fight on.

No solution

And finally, the obvious observation that – nobody could come up with a solution. It wasn’t like there was an easy solution to hand and the British stupidly ignored it. All the best diplomats and politicians on the planet had plenty of time and motivation to think up a solution. The Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, the United Nations Commission On Palestine, all tried to find a solution.

But nobody could. They still can’t, to this day, because there is no solution.


My view of the book

I knew nothing about this era (Middle East in the 1920, 30s and 40s) and so was fascinated by everything Barr had to tell.

His book is notable for the immense attention he pays to specific meetings and conversations between key figures on both sides. We are introduced to a large cast of diplomats, soldiers and politicians, with quick pen-portraits of each of them, before Barr, typically, gives us precise exchanges and conversations.

Much of this must be sourced from the minutes of all these meetings, because they often describe the exact words used by, for example, French premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, to give one example from hundreds. Barr is strong on the exact words used in crucial meetings, diplomatic notes, letters and diaries and also recently declassified documents, both in the UK and in France.

The book’s weakness is that sometimes this deep immersion in the precise sequence of meetings and notes and memos and speeches and diaries obscures the real significance of key issues or turning points. Big things get buried. Sometimes I had to reread sections to understand what just happened.

The other obvious shortcoming is Barr’s neglect of the wider geopolitical context. I felt this most acutely in the first section about Sykes-Picot which completely ignores the role played by Tsarist Russia, by Germany and, of course, by the Ottoman rulers themselves because I just happened to have read Sean McMeekin’s excellently thorough and insightful account of the same period.

For example, Barr doesn’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because, in addition to the carve up of Syria/Palestine/Iraq, the deal allotted Tsarist Russia a big chunk of Eastern Anatolia, and also gave her her long-cherished dream of Constantinople and the territory around it. Because of the Russians’ heavy involvement, McMeekin thinks the agreement should be known as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement.

And nowhere does Barr mention the extraordinary fact that one of the baits the Allies dangled in front of Italy while she dithered whether to join the war or not (Italy didn’t enter the war, on the Allies side, until May 1915) was a big slice out of southern Anatolia.

Therefore, a full picture of the Sasonov-Sykes-Picot map looks like this. Note the flesh-coloured patch on the right which was to be given to Russia, along with the city of Constantinople and the territory north and south of it (at the top left), and the extraordinary amount of territory which was going to be handed over to Italy.

Sykes-Picot map showing the territory promised to Russia and Italy

None of this is in Barr’s account, which therefore comes close to being seriously misleading about this period.

It is symptomatic of Barr’s Anglocentrism that instead of all this vital context involving other major powers, he devotes entire chapters (chapters 2 and 3, Enter TE Lawrence and Allenby’s Man, pp.37-64) to Lawrence of Arabia, the pukka English hero, who in fact comes to dominate the whole of the first part of the book. We get a blow-by-blow account of Lawrence’s (rather feeble) military exploits as well as quotes from his letters, diaries, newspaper articles and quotes from his friends.

By ‘Anglocentric’ I mean we get 100-pages about Lawrence and his influence, but nowhere does Barr mention the names of the last two Ottoman sultans who ruled during and after the war (Mehmed V 1909-1918, Mehmed VI 1918-1922) nor does he name the three Turkish politicians who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Talaat, and Cerman. The great military and political leader who dominated the final 1923 settlement of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal, later to be given the title Ataturk, is mentioned just once.

It’s as if the Ottoman Empire, whose territory the entire book is about, barely exists or matters.

The book’s strength is its weakness. It isn’t interested in the broader geopolitical implications. It is a narrow and very deep dive into the diplomatic minutiae of the troubled relations between Britain and France in the Middle East 1916 to 1946. Barr goes into extreme detail – apparently writing from the minutes and notes taken at specific meetings of various French and British civil servants, ambassadors and leaders – to give you a memo-by-memo account of the behind the scenes conversations and decisions.

But sometimes so detailed, you lose the thread of what’s actually happening. And always, so focused on just Britain and France, that you get no sense at all of the wider geopolitical situation, of events in Turkey, the Caucasus or neighbouring Russia or Persia. Silence.


My view of the two key issues

I think received liberal opinion about Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration is too simple-minded.

1. Sykes-Picot

I’m no expert but it seems to me simplistic to attribute all the conflicts in the Middle East to just one agreement out of scores and scores of similar treaties and a whole sequence of very complex events, which flowed before and after it.

If you read Barr, with his exclusive focus on the British and French governments, you get the impression they were responsible for everything bad that ever happened. But if you read McMeekin’s much more comprehensive account, you are immediately plunged into the maze of ethnic tensions and rivalries which plagued the region, from the poisonous enmities all across the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Greeks, they all hated each other) to the huge divides which split the Middle East, from the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to that between ethnic Turks and all their subject peoples – the squabbling tribes of desert bedouin, the Christian Armenians in the East, the Kurds in south-east Anatolia, and so on and on.

Barr doesn’t, for example, even mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, a prime example of the extreme ethnic violence which had roots far back in the 19th century way before the British and French started planning their ‘carve-up’ – or the horrifying ethnic cleansing surrounding the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-23.

When you read McMeekin on the other hand, you reach a really good understanding of why the entire region was a powder keg which had, in fact, already exploded several times before the Great War broke out. The Ottomans had repressed Armenian and Bulgarian uprisings with great brutality and bloodshed throughout the later 19th century.

That’s why the ante-penultimate sultan, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876 to 1909) was nicknamed ‘the bloody sultan’ or ‘the red sultan’. It was the historical track record of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres which gave liberals like David Lloyd George such a deeply engrained antipathy to the Ottoman Empire (and, as it turned out, an inclination to give the Greeks deeply misplaced encouragement in their ambitions to invade Anatolia).

Whoever ended up ruling over these regions was going to inherit a very poisoned chalice of ethnic rivalries and enmities. Indeed it’s one of the many strengths of McMeekin’s book that he makes you realise how very astute Mustafa Kemal was, the man who rose to become Turkey’s post-war ruler, when he allowed most of the former empire to be hived off to the British and French by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All these bickering minorities were their problem now, the fools.

Attributing all the problems of the entire region to one agreement just strikes me as foolish. The Sykes-Picot agreement was merely the formal recognition of at least four nations’ claims on Ottoman territory, was provisional and was soon superseded by a whole raft of other agreements such as:

  • the Anglo-French Declaration promising to establish independent states in the Middle East with freely chosen governments (November 1918)
  • the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920) which defined three ‘class-A’ mandates, ‘Palestine’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Mesopotamia’
  • the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) which was a first attempt to ‘carve up’ the Ottoman Empire including Anatolia and its European territory
  • the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which marked the official end of the Allies war against the Ottoman Empire and established the borders of modern Turkey

Why not blame those treaties too? They all contributed to what was, in fact, a continuous flux of conflict, resolution, treaties and agreements which continued throughout the Mandate period and afterwards, right up to the present day.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Similarly, a lot of people blame the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. But Zionism existed well before the declaration. Wikipedia defines Zionism as:

the nationalist movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Canaan, the Holy Land, or the region of Palestine)

And points out that it originated ‘in the late 19th century’ and in Austria and Germany not Britain.

Jews were already emigrating from Europe, and especially anti-semitic Russia, into Palestine well before the Balfour Declaration. To ponder a counter-factual, do people think that, if there had been no Balfour Declaration, Jews would not have emigrated to Palestine? Of course not. A Jewish homeland in Palestine was a central plank of Zionism for decades before Balfour, whether the British government supported it or not, in fact whether any Western government supported or tried to block it.

We shall migrate to Palestine in order to constitute a majority here. If there be need we shall take by force; if the country be too small – we shall expand the boundaries. (speech by David ben-Gurion, quoted page 274)

The fact that net Jewish migration to Palestine was negative in 1927 – ten years after the declaration – shows that the declaration in itself had a negligible effect, it certainly didn’t open any ‘floodgates’.

The most important cause of modern Arab-Israeli conflict was Hitler. The Nazis not only caused the trickle of migration to Palestine to turn into a flood, they – and the experience of the Holocaust – made an entire generation of Jews absolutely determined to establish a Jewish state come what may, no matter who they had to assassinate, murder, letter bomb, massacre and hang to achieve it.

That wasn’t Balfour’s doing. That was Hitler. Hitler made the creation of the state of Israel inevitable.

France’s great 20th century diplomatic achievements

  • Syria
  • Indochina
  • Algeria

La gloire!


Credit

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2011. All references are to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition of 2012.

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