The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892)

NOVEMBER 19,  Sunday. I don’t pretend to be able to express myself in fine language, but I feel I have the power of expressing my thoughts with simplicity and lucidness.
(from the diary of Charles Pooter)

It helps if you know that the diary’s authors, George and Weedon Grossmith, were both entertainers. George, or ‘Gee Gee’ as he liked to be known, was born in 1847, began his career as a singer and entertainer in 1870 and went on to work closely with Gilbert and Sullivan, being the first performer and ‘creator’ of many of their chief parts at the Savoy Theatre, from 1877 onwards. Gee Gee became a prolific writer of comic sketches and songs. Leaving the Savoy in 1889, he toured Britain and America as an entertainer and singer till 1901 and his autobiography was titled Reminiscences of a Clown.

Weedon Grossmith was George’s younger brother, born in 1854. At first he trained as an artist at the Slade, and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy. But art didn’t work out and he, too, succumbed to the lure of the theatre, joining a drama company in 1885 and touring the provinces and America. Weedon wrote a novel and a series of plays, and managed Terry’s theatre in London for over a decade, appearing in numerous roles, until 1917.

The point being, then, that the brothers were extremely well practiced in writing and performing comedy when they were approached by the editor of Punch magazine in 1888 to write a satirical skit about the humdrum life of a pompous, lower-middle-class ‘nobody’.

The whole thing was intended as a satire on the recent flurry of eminent ‘somebodies’ in the worlds of politics and the arts publishing autobiographies and diaries – why not the diary of someone of absolutely no significance whatsoever?

And thus was born the character of Charles Pooter, well-meaning but rather stuffy, priggish, married father of one, clerk in a stuffy, old-fashioned firm in the City, who tries to lead a dignified and respectable life but who fate is constantly twitting and undermining – in the form of a temperamental servant, a layabout son, numerous uppity tradesmen, unreliable friends and the sniggering mockery of the younger clerks at his work.

The first episode of the fictional diary was published in Punch magazine in May 1888 and it then ran for 26 fortnightly instalments until May 1889. At that point the text didn’t have illustrations and the story ended with an entry for 21 May, when Charles’s disrespectful, good-for-nothing son, Lupin, finally secures a job at Charles’s own firm, Perkupps.

However, when the text was prepared for publication in book form in 1892, the authors added a further four months’ entries to the text, and 26 illustrations by Weedon Grossmith. These are amiable pen and ink sketches typical for the time, none of them masterpieces, but they have a significant impact on the text, vividly bringing the characters to life and introducing a form of visual punctuation which makes you dwell a fraction longer on scenes and moments, letting them sink in.

APRIL 30 — I seized her round the waist, and we were silly enough to be executing a wild kind of polka when Sarah entered, grinning, and said: “There is a man, mum, at the door who wants to know if you want any good coals.”

Plot overview

Charles Pooter is a clerk in Perkupps, a firm in the City of London. He is happily married to Caroline or ‘Carrie’, as he affectionately calls her. He has two male friends, Gowing and Cummings, who pop round to see him most evenings, for a chats or a game of dominoes. The diary opens on 3 April, a week after Charles and Carries have moved into a new house:

‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.

This opening paragraph sets the tone. Unlike much Victorian writing, it is concise. With precision it not only describes the kind of suburban house in question, but immediately conveys the tone of fussing over details and concern over money which are such a large part of Charles Pooter’s existence.

The opening also conveys the Pooters’ social situation to a t. Having a house and a servant doubtless makes Charles and Carrie just about lower-middle class, but the detail of the railway roaring along the bottom of the garden every few minutes, so fiercely that it has cracked the garden wall, conveys just how precarious their achievement is. And the fussing and fretting about Sarah the servant which runs through the entire book shows the Pooters completely lack the money or savoir faire of the true middle classes.

Theirs is a world of continual small failures and petty humiliations which they are always trying to look on the bright side of. Charles is continually ripping his trousers or wearing ones which are too short or the wrong kinds of boots. The junior clerks at his work take the mickey out of him and throw scrunched-up paper balls at him or mutter nicknames as he walks past, such as ‘Hornpipe’ when he happens to be wearing trousers tight at the knee though loose over the boots, like a sailor.

Charles is thrilled when he is invited to the Mayor’s annual ball then deflated when he realises everyone else in his office has been invited, too, and further demoralised when he finds that the rude and incompetent ironmonger he’s paid to remove the scraper from outside the front door of The Laurels, is also there and boozily treats Charles – to his chagrin – as a social equal.

Charles is a well-meaning man entirely trapped in the prison of his own personality. He gives us quite a few examples of ripping jokes he makes which no-one else gets or thinks are as funny as he does. He reports his best friends, Gowing and Cummings, as casually putting him down about his sense of humour. In a hundred and one ways the diary cleverly reveals the discrepancy between how we see ourselves, how we experience our own lives and thoughts and ideas – and how other people perceive us, which, we can be confident, is with a lot less sympathy and understanding than we perceive ourselves. In fact, most of the time, it is with complete indifference occasionally interspersed with casual mockery.

Thus although all the book’s many incidents are funny to read about, it’s hard to avoid the underlying sadness of the thing. The comedy is mixed with poignancy at Charles’s entrapment within his own narrow life, values and hopes. The thoughtful reader might reflect that this is true of all of us; we think our hard work is acknowledged, we have a fine reputation, our friends talk about us with respect, and our jokes set the table on a roar. But what if none of these things are true? What if we have a reputation at work for being slow and getting things wrong; if our friends laugh at us behind our back; if our sense of humour is notorious for being laboured and obvious?

Charles thinks he is standing on his dignity when his name is omitted from the comprehensive list of all the guests who attended the Mansion House Ball which is given in the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. But when he writes to complain, he is mortified to have his name included but mispelt in the addendum, as Mrs and Mrs Porter. When he writes for a third time, the journalists begin to take the mickey of this self-important little man.

May 16.—Absolutely disgusted on opening the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News of to-day, to find the following paragraph: ‘We have received two letters from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.’ I tore up the paper and threw it in the waste-paper basket. My time is far too valuable to bother about such trifles.

It is not only his mortification, but his immediate justification to himself that he is ‘above’ such trifles, when it is he himself who has insisted on the importance of such trifles. The text constantly hovers on this borderline, laughing with Charles, then at him, then with him again.

May 25.—Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing. As I happened to be sitting next the driver going to town on the ’bus, I told him my joke about the ‘frayed’ shirts. I thought he would have rolled off his seat. They laughed at the office a good bit too over it.

May 26.—Left the shirts to be repaired at Trillip’s. I said to him: ‘I’m ’fraid they are frayed.’ He said, without a smile: ‘They’re bound to do that, sir.’ Some people seem to be quite destitute of a sense of humour.

It’s a little like the comedy of the TV series The Office. The protagonist is painfully assured of his own point of view, his own wisdom, wit and good sense; while almost everything he says and does, and the responses of pretty much everyone else in the narrative, undermine this perspective. The humour is mixed with sympathy and poignancy and something occasionally like pity.

Charles is the butt of jokes between even his supposed ‘best friends’ Cummings and Gowing, none of the tradesmen he deals with take him seriously or show him any respect, the junior clerks at his workplace mutter nicknames as he walks past, his attempts at dignity are continually being undercut.

Charles and Carrie’s annual holiday goes predictably wrong when the landlady of the boarding house in Broadstairs which they always go to, initially confirms their places but then at the last minute announces she is fully booked. It is funny but also sad when he reveals that the rooms they eventually have to take with another landlady are near the station, which is fine, just fine, perfectly fine, because rooms on the cliffs would have been so much more expensive, anyway. Charles is continually justifying and looking on the bright side of the penny-pinching, scraping by, making do and mend that his limited income forces him to.

August 13.—Hurrah! at Broadstairs. Very nice apartments near the station. On the cliffs they would have been double the price. The landlady had a nice five o’clock dinner and tea ready, which we all enjoyed, though Lupin seemed fastidious because there happened to be a fly in the butter. It was very wet in the evening, for which I was thankful, as it was a good excuse for going to bed early.

The cheap rooms, the fly in the butter, the heavy rain on his holiday: he tries to rise above all the petty vexations of his little life. In fact it rains throughout their holiday week but Charles is determined to look on the bright side, despite his own son refusing to be seen with him wearing the ridiculous new straw hat he had made specially for the holiday.

‘August 16.—Lupin positively refused to walk down the Parade with me because I was wearing my new straw helmet with my frock-coat. I don’t know what the boy is coming to.’

His greatest humiliation is when he attends the Lord Mayor’s ball and tries to please Carrie by whisking her out onto the dancefloor but, because he is wearing new shoes, slips on the polished floor and falls heavily, banging his head nastily, pulling Carrie down with him, in front of everyone. Hard to live that one down.

But there are plenty of other humiliations, large and small. After church one Sunday he is flattered to be approached by ‘Mrs. Fernlosse, who is quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’ and she is just about to start talking to him when a gust of wind blows his hat off and into the middle of the road, where he has to scamper about like an idiot to retrieve it only to turn and discover…. Mrs Fernlosse has moved on to chat to some of her swell friends.

It was a very shrewd move to introduce Charles and Carrie’s son in chapter 6 while Charles and his tribulations were still fresh i.e. before we’d got bored with his little escapades. The pacing bespeaks two authors who between them had written countless sketches and stage shows. Before Charles and Carrie’s little world has a chance to flag, the arrival of Pooter Junior introduces a whole new realm of comic possibilities for he is a son who blithely ignores all Charles’s advice, orders and attempts to stand on his dignity, as casually as his friends and tradesmen have been shown to.

The son has been christened William but much prefers his larky middle name, Lupin. He is 20 years old and had been working at a bank in Oldham but ‘got the chuck’ and has come back to live with his parents. Right from the start he demonstrates a breezy indifference to Charles’s well-meaning but stuffy rules and advice, stays out late with his mates, gets drunk, only gets up after lunch, is reluctant to get another job. Charles conscientiously writes a succession of letters to prospective employers and the steady stream of rejections becomes a comic leitmotiv of the second quarter of the book.

Things move on apace when Chapter 8 introduces us to the fact that Lupin has fallen in love and proposed to a young woman named Daisy Mutlar. Inevitably, when they finally meet the young lady, both Charles and Carrie think she is not quite right for Lupin:

We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law. My heart quite sank. She is a big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin. I did not even think her good-looking.

But, just as inevitably, Charles tries to put a brave face on it.

NOVEMBER 3. Lupin said: ‘I’m engaged to be married!’

From my description you might have thought Charles and Carrie’s lives would be dull and boring but in fact they have a surprising number of parties and get-togethers, albeit in a rather straitened, Victorian way.

Because Charles is always standing on his dignity, these ‘do’s’ involve no end of complications, resentments and bad feeling. Like when Lupin brings home his friend from the local amateur dramatic society he has joined, the Holloway Comedians, one Mr Burwin-Fosselton, who does a storming impersonation of the famous late Victorian actor, Mr Henry Irving. The evening is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Charles’s friend Gowing invites along a fat man named Padge, who insists on sitting in the best armchair all evening, and smoking a gross pipe.

‘NOVEMBER 23. The man Padge, who had got the best arm-chair, and was puffing away at a foul pipe into the fireplace.’

Or the extravagant engagement party Charles and Carrie hold for Lupin and Daisy where the guests scoff all the food and swill all the champagne so that when Charles’s boss arrives, coming late in the evening from another engagement, Charles is mortified not to be able to offer him anything, not even any soda water.

Charles is very clumsy. Take, for example, the time he visits Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand, who had created impressive displays of Christmas cards. He takes it upon himself to tell one of the shop assistants how careless the other customers were, when:

DECEMBER 20. The observation was scarcely out of my mouth, when my thick coat-sleeve caught against a large pile of expensive cards in boxes one on top of the other, and threw them down. The manager came forward, looking very much annoyed, and picking up several cards from the ground, said to one of the assistants, with a palpable side-glance at me: ‘Put these amongst the sixpenny goods; they can’t be sold for a shilling now.’ The result was, I felt it my duty to buy some of these damaged cards.

Or:

FEBRUARY 18. I was this morning trying to look at [my hair] by the aid of a small hand-glass, when somehow my elbow caught against the edge of the chest of drawers and knocked the glass out of my hand and smashed it. Carrie was in an awful way about it, as she is rather absurdly superstitious.

Or:

JULY 3, Sunday. In the afternoon, as I was looking out of the parlour window, which was open, a grand trap, driven by a lady, with a gentleman seated by the side of her, stopped at our door. Not wishing to be seen, I withdrew my head very quickly, knocking the back of it violently against the sharp edge of the window-sash. I was nearly stunned.

Clumsiness is connected to bathos, which is itself a kind of textual falling over, a stumble from the dignified to the comically clumsy. (Bathos is defined as a literary ‘effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.’) Take the moment when (December 21) Charles tells Lupin not to take Daisy breaking up with him to heart, at which Lupin loses his temper with his interfering father:

He jumped up and said: ‘I won’t allow one word to be uttered against her. She’s worth the whole bunch of your friends put together, that inflated, sloping-head of a Perkupp included.’ I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.

Or (March 21) after his boss, Mr Perkupp, has movingly paid tribute to Charles’s loyal, dogged character, on the bus home Charles feels like crying:

It was as much as I could do to prevent myself from crying in the ’bus; in fact, I should have done so, had my thoughts not been interrupted by Lupin, who was having a quarrel with a fat man in the ’bus, whom he accused of taking up too much room.

It is emblematic of the way Charles’s continual quest to have finer, more dignified feelings is continually undermined by the insensitive boorishness of the cut-price world around him.

Characters

Diary of a Nobody is generally taken as mocking the narrow, boring world of suburbia, which on one level it obviously is. But this doesn’t mean the narrative is restricted to a small number of people; quite the opposite. When you stop and count them there are far more characters in the book than you think:

  • Charles Pooter
  • Caroline ‘Carrie’ Pooter
  • William ‘Lupin’ Pooter
  • Sarah the servant
  • Mrs. Birrell the charwoman
  • Gowing, friend
  • Cummings, friend
  • Farmerson, the ironmonger
  • Horwin ‘a civil butcher with a nice clean shop’
  • Borset the butterman
  • the grocer’s boy
  • Mr. Putley, a painter and decorator
  • woman hired to make some chintz covers for our drawing-room chairs and sofa
  • ‘the little tailor’s round the corner’, presumably the same as Trillip’s round the corner which Carrie recommends to repair Charles’s shirts
  • Lockwood’s, a local store which sells ‘the Unsweetened’, some kind of spirit
  • the curate of the local church
  • Perkupp, Charles’s boss
  • Buckling, one of the senior clerks at Perkupp’s
  • Pitt, an impertinent junior clerk at Perkupp’s, aged just 17
  • Shoemach, friend of Gowing
  • Stillbrook, friend of Gowing and Cummings, accompanies them on the ill-fated walk to Hampstead, when Charles is refused admission to a pub which the others swan into
  • Merton, friend of Cummings, who is in the wine trade and promises to get him free tickets to the theatre which turn out to be anything but
  • Mr and Mrs James from Sutton, the wife being an old schoolfriend of Carrie’s
  • Mr. Willowly, manager of the Tank Theatre, Islington
  • Brickwell, friend of Charles’s who recommends the new Pinkford’s enamel paint
  • the Lord and Lady Mayoress
  • Franching, from Peckham, who Charles thinks he sees at the ball, then later invites round for tea, ‘a great swell in his way’
  • one of the sheriffs, in full Court costume
  • Darwitts, the gentleman who helps Carrie to a chair after she slips over at the Mayor’s ball
  • Brownish, the chemist
  • Miss Jibbons, makes Carrie’s dresses
  • Mrs. Beck, landlady of holiday apartments at Harbour View Terrace, Broadstairs
  • Edwards’s, men’s tailors
  • Mr. Higgsworth, friend who owns a telescope, ‘which he always lends me, knowing I know how to take care of it’
  • Mrs. Womming, another landlady in Broadstairs, who offers them rooms after Mrs Beck lets them down
  • the caddish new next door neighbours who throw a brick in his bed of geraniums
  • Mrs. Burtsett, an old friend of Carrie’s cousins, the Pommertons, late of Dalston
  • Daisy Mutlar, Lupin’s beloved
  • Black’s, the stationers
  • Harry Mutlar, Daisy’s brother, ‘rather a gawky youth’
  • Frank Mutlar, another brother
  • Mr Mutlar, Daisy’s father
  • Mr. Peters, the waiter at Lupin and Daisy’s big engagement party
  • Mr. Burwin-Fosselton, one of the ‘Holloway Comedians’, who gives gives his wild impersonation of Henry Irving to Charles, Carrie and guests
  • Mr Padge, a ‘very vulgar-looking man… who appeared to be all moustache’
  • the local laundress
  • Mrs. Fernlosse, ‘quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’
  • Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand
  • Carrie’s mother who they visit for Christmas
  • ‘the dear old Reverend John Panzy Smith, who married us’
  • ‘a young fellow named Moss’ who shocks Charles at the Christmas lunch by grabbing a sprig of mistletoe and kissing all the ladies including Carrie
  • the unnamed rude man who opens the door to Gowing’s house when he is away
  • ‘Mr. Murray Posh was a tall, fat young man’ and rival for Daisy Mutlar’s hand
  • Job Cleanands, owner of Job Cleanands and Co., Stock and Share Brokers, who turns out to be a crook
  • Mr. and Mrs. Treane, members of their congregation
  • the rude and impertinent young Griffin boys next door
  • Mr Griffin, their rude father
  • Captain Welcut of the East Acton Volunteers
  • Mrs Lupkin, kind to Carrie at the Volunteers Ball
  • Putley the plumber
  • Teddy Finsworth, an old school friend of Charles’s
  • Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth (of Finsworth and Pultwell), owner of a nice house, Watney Lodge, ‘only a few minutes’ walk from Muswell Hill Station’
  • Mrs Finsworth, defender of her rather aggressive dogs
  • Mr Short, luncheon guest at Mr Finsworth’s
  • Mr. Hardfur Huttle, ‘a very clever writer for the American papers’
  • Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hillbutter, Mrs. Field, Mr. and Mrs. Purdick, Mr. Pratt, Mr. R. Kent – guests at Mr Franching’s dinner party in Peckham
  • Mr. Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon of Crowbillon Hall, the most valued customer of the firm Charles works for
  • Mr. Mezzini, Mr. Birks Spooner – guests at a meat-tea given by the James’s of Sutton
  • ‘Lillie Girl’, nickname of Mr and Mrs Posh’s daughter, ‘very tall, rather plain, and I thought she was a little painted round the eyes’, who, right at the end of the text, we discover is engaged to Lupin

My point being that it’s quite an extended world, isn’t it. Certainly most of the characters are from the lower middle and tradesmen classes the book is intended to portray, but there are also quite wealthy people like the Poshes and the Finsworths, not to mention the egregious American, Mr Hardfur Huttle who dominates the book’s ending. There are at least 70 characters in all.

In other words the book is a good deal more panoramic than people give it credit for, and the sheer number of people Charles interacts with helps to give the book, although it is ostensibly just about Charles and Carrie and Lupin, a surprising sense of capaciousness.

Making do and mending

I could not help thinking (as I told her) that half the pleasures of life were derived from the little struggles and small privations that one had to endure at the beginning of one’s married life.

Their world of little means and scraping by and making do and always counting the pennies is continually present. When Charles tells Carrie the big news that he’s been promoted and had a significant pay rise:

I need not say how dear Carrie received this joyful news. With perfect simplicity she said: ‘At last we shall be able to have a chimney-glass for the back drawing-room, which we always wanted.’ I added: ‘Yes, and at last you shall have that little costume which you saw at Peter Robinson’s so cheap.’

It is funny and pitiful at the same time. They are not poor, Charles can buy whiskey and champagne when he wants to. But only the cheap brands, and he smokes cheap cigars and has to fight with tradesmen about the costs of everything. He doesn’t buy an address book when he needs a new one, he buys ‘a cheap address book’.

It is a tiny detail but poignantly telling that they turn down an invitation to Miss Bird’s wedding, not so much because they’ve only met her a few times but because ‘it means a present’. I.e. they can’t really afford one. What a world of careful self-denial in that short, clipped phrase.

Charles has been steadily employed at Perkupp’s for 20 years and is used to getting a £10-a-year pay raise and they can afford an annual holiday. But only at ‘good old Broadstairs’ and, as mentioned above, happily put up with a boarding house near the station because, after all, one on the cliffs with a view would be a bit too expensive.

So it is in no way a tragically confined life, as the pitiful existence of the truly poverty stricken is in A Child of the Jago (1896) or Liza of Lambeth (1897). There is cheap champagne and card parties and evenings of dominoes or music. There is fun and life. But no avoiding the continual sense that overall their existence is narrow and scrimped.

Concision

Something else which has made the Diary a classic is its pithiness. Usually the Victorians, and their descendants, the Edwardians, wrote at lugubrious length in their fiction, whereas one of the book’s qualities is its crispness and clarity. Obviously this comes with the diary format, and the sense the author is writing brief notes for his own use. The best of these entries are masterpieces of charged brevity.

MAY 4. Carrie’s mother returned the Lord Mayor’s invitation, which was sent to her to look at, with apologies for having upset a glass of port over it. I was too angry to say anything.

Those two sentences say a huge amount. The fact they sent Carrie’s mother the invitation in the first place, to show off and share their pride in the invitation, and the rather claustrophobic presence of the mother-in-law; the rather inevitable fact that the mother spoils it, and the precise detail that it is a glass of port wine she spills; Charles’s characteristic seething rage at this petty accident and the characteristic way he cannot express it. ‘I was too angry to say anything’ sums up countless incidents throughout the book. Charles is a man of boundless silent seething. So these two short sentences are a perfect example of the aphoristic power of ‘the diary entry’ as a genre.

Part of the appeal is the way the mundaneness of his life, with its little psychological inflections, can be captured in the briefest of entries. After Gowing tells Charles he has ruined his favourite walking stick by painting it a shiny new black colour, Charles is (as so often) mortified and does his best to make amends. Hence:

MAY 22. Purchased a new stick mounted with silver, which cost seven-and-sixpence (shall tell Carrie five shillings), and sent it round with nice note to Gowing.

‘Shall tell Carrie five shillings’ says everything about the little velleities and grace notes of married life, manages to be sweet and funny at the same time.

It’s true that some of the set-piece scenes are much, much longer, go on for pages and can be very funny too. But a lot of the pleasure comes from these quick little hits, these bite-size bursts of insight into the protagonist’s everyday life and little fusses.

Charles Pooter’s jokes

Another part of the book’s complicated mixture of humour and pathos derives from Charles’s recounting of the many awful jokes he and those around him make. He is continually making terrible puns which crack his wife and friends up, but not his savvy disrespectful son and certainly not the numerous tradesmen and other ‘outsiders’ who never seem to show Charles the respect he feels he deserves.

APRIL 12. Gowing began his usual sniffing, so, anticipating him, I said: ‘You’re not going to complain of the smell of paint again?’ He said: ‘No, not this time; but I’ll tell you what, I distinctly smell dry rot.’ I don’t often make jokes, but I replied: ‘You’re talking a lot of dry rot yourself.’ I could not help roaring at this, and Carrie said her sides quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I have ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.

MAY 25. Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing.

NOVEMBER 16. I was starting for the office, when Lupin appeared, with a yellow complexion, and said: ‘Hulloh! Guv, what priced head have you this morning?’ I told him he might just as well speak to me in Dutch. He added: ‘When I woke this morning, my head was as big as Baldwin’s balloon.’ On the spur of the moment I said the cleverest thing I think I have ever said; viz: ‘Perhaps that accounts for the parashooting pains.’ We roared.

JANUARY 3. ‘Do you know anything about chalk pits, Guv?’ I said: ‘No, my boy, not that I’m aware of.’ Lupin said: ‘Well, I give you the tip; chalk pits are as safe as Consols, and pay six per cent at par.’ I said a rather neat thing, viz.: ‘They may be six per cent. at par, but your pa has no money to invest.’ Carrie and I both roared with laughter.

FEBRUARY 11. Gowing dropped in just in time, bringing with him a large sheet, with a print of a tailless donkey, which he fastened against the wall. He then produced several separate tails, and we spent the remainder of the evening trying blindfolded to pin a tail on in the proper place. My sides positively ached with laughter when I went to bed.

But even when they’re terrible, the reader is encouraged to laugh along with these jokes because they embody the humour of the character himself; their very badness is testament to the unchanging nature of the character himself, who we’ve come to sympathise with, as in all the best sitcoms. In a way, the badness of the jokes is what makes them funny, because we are not laughing at the joke itself but at the way the sweet and dim characters find it funny, and that is endearing.

Englishness

Many critics and later writers have praised the book for its essential Englishness. I would say theis ‘Englishness’ consists in the Diary‘s sense of constant embarrassment and humiliation.

This is exemplified in chapter 18 when Charles and Carrie accept a kind invitation to a dance given by the East Acton Volunteers, arrive late at the dance hall, help themselves to a delicious dinner, with plenty of champagne and ices and a cigar only to discover that… this wasn’t free provision and part of the invitation – it has to be paid for! As the waiter patiently explains:

‘Your party’s had four suppers at 5s. a head, five ices at 1s., three bottles of champagne at 11s. 6d., a glass of claret, and a sixpenny cigar for the stout gentleman—in all £3 0s. 6d!’ I don’t think I was ever so surprised in my life.

Never so surprised nor humiliated, Charles manages to scrape together almost all the money, lacking a few shillings which he promises to pay later. But this means that, when he and Carrie, at the end of the evening, take a cab back to North London, or at least to the Angel Islington which is far as the cabbie will take them, it’s only when they disembark that Charles realises he has no cash on him. The cab driver calls him every name under the sun and violently pulls his beard, all within view of a policeman who, when he learns Charles and Carrie have taken a long cab journey but cannot pay the driver, has no sympathy for them. They then have to walk the last two miles to Holloway, late at night, in the pouring rain, seething with humiliation and embarrassment.

The entire scene is a kind of apotheosis of English shame and embarrassment but the book is packed with plenty of other examples. Take the passage towards the end when Charles is being shown round Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth’s drawing room full of fine pictures and Charles remarks of one of the portraits that ‘there was something about the expression of the face that was not quite pleasing. It looked pinched.’

Mr. Finsworth sorrowfully replied: ‘Yes, the face was done after death—my wife’s sister.’ I felt terribly awkward and bowed apologetically, and in a whisper said I hoped I had not hurt his feelings.

‘I felt terribly awkward.’ That could be Charles Pooter’s motto and also stand as the core essence of  a certain type of Englishness.

The final chapters

Possibly I’m influenced by reading in the introduction to the OUP edition, and in Wikipedia, that the last four chapters were added after the magazine serialisation was complete, and were written specially for the book edition – but they felt significantly different from everything else that had preceded.

Previously it had been a dawdling, enjoyably aimless diary of a suburban nobody’s quiet life and footling concerns but in the added chapters the narrative suddenly felt like the authors had decided it was A Novel and so needed to have a sense of a plot and of a climactic ending.

Hence the introduction of an unusually elaborate storyline wherein Lupin advises Perkupps’ oldest client, Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon, to leave the firm and use a rival. This ‘betrayal’ of the old firm mortified Charles and Mr Perkupp asks him to write a letter of apology to Crowbillon, explaining that his son is new at the firm and inexperienced in the ways of the City in the hope of winning him back. So far, so consistent with the mode of embarrassment and humiliation which characterises the earlier parts.

But then comes a Fairy Tale Ending. Crowbillon not only sends Lupin a check as thanks for giving him such good advice, but the firm Lupin recommended him to, Gylterson and Sons, hires Lupin and at the princely salary of £200 a year, which it is hinted is comparable to Charles’s pay (I don’t think we ever learn Charles’s precise salary).

As a result Lupin hires rooms in the far more fashionable district of Bayswater and announces he is engaged to the daughter of the well-off Posh family, who sell hats across the North of England and are opening ‘branch establishments at New York, Sydney, and Melbourne, and [are] negotiating for Kimberley and Johannesburg.’ Suddenly, Lupin is rich!

And although Charles’s letter fails to win back Crowbillon, in the very last pages we meet again a rather loud-mouthed opinionated American Hardfur Huttle, who had made his first appearance at a dinner party which he dominates with his none-too-subtle opinions.

Right at the very end of the book, and out of the blue, this American summons Charles to his hotel to tell him he’s been impressed by him and his firm and so will be directing an important American friend to give Perkupp his business! With the result that, right at the very end of the novel, Mr Perkupp grandly rewards Charles for bringing in the new American client by buying and giving Charles the freehold to ‘The Laurels’, an act of stunning generosity which leaves Carrie crying with joy and Charles sending out for champagne to celebrate with his old muckers, Gowing and Cummings.

My point being: chapters 18 to 24, although they continue with the same characters and include many of the same kinds of social embarrassments, nonetheless feel significantly different from their predecessors, because they suddenly feel like they have a direction and a plot, and because that plot acquires an increasingly fairy tale quality of happiness and (cheap) champagne all round.

The meandering, silly and inconsequential charm of the opening chapters which didn’t appear to have any direction or purpose feel long gone and something of the book’s initial charm and innocence is lost as a result


Related links

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 2

…his view that suffering is the norm of human life, that will represents an unwelcome intrusion, and that real consciousness lies beyond human understanding
(Knowlson summarising how Beckett found his deepest beliefs reinforced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, page 268)

This is a truly excellent literary biography. Knowlson documents Beckett’s life with immense thoroughness but shows a completely sure touch, a very satisfying sense of taste and tact throughout, not only regarding the complexities of Beckett’s private life (a lifelong companion and a small cadre of mistresses) but in tracing the sources and gestation of his many works, and lightly, intelligently bringing out their important aspects.

I summarised the first third of the book, up to the 1930s, in my last blog post. But that only covered 200 of the Damned To Fame‘s 700 or so pages and, as I tried to summarise the rest, I found there was simply too much material, it was overwhelming.

And so I abandoned a chronological summary in favour of looking at topics from Beckett’s life and works, some big and serious, others short and frivolous, as the fancy took me, to create a mosaic or collage of a review.

Affairs of the heart

Ethna MacCarthy Beckett was a slow starter, which was traditional for his time and place (1920s Ireland). As a tall but timid student at Trinity College, Dublin, he fell in love with Ethna MacCarthy, also studying modern languages, a strong, independent-minded feminist (p.58 to 60). He was swept off his feet by her intelligence and charisma but she had plenty of other admirers and it emerged she was having an affair with an older man, a married college professor (plus ça change…). A few years later, just before he quit his job at Trinity College, Dublin and left Ireland for the last time, he took Ethna for a night out in his car and, whether drunk or showing off, crashed it down at the docks, escaping with bruises himself but seriously injuring Ethna who had to be taken to hospital. The guilt never left him (p.143).

They kept in touch and remained good friends though Beckett was discombobulated when she embarked on a long affair with one of his best friends from college, Con Leventhal (even though Con was married). This affair continued until Con’s wife died, in 1956, at which point he immediately married Ethna. But fulfilment turned to tragedy when she was stricken with cancer and died in 1959. Beckett remained close friends with both of them.

Later on, we are told that the happy memories of love which haunt Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape are likely reworkings of his memories of Ethna.

Peggy Sinclair In summer 1928, having returned home after having graduated from Trinity College Dublin and a brief abortive spell as a teacher at a boarding school in the North, Beckett returned to Dublin and fell deeply in love with his second cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, generally referred to as Peggy, daughter of his aunt Cissie and the Jewish art dealer William ‘Boss’ Sinclair with whom she had moved to the town of Kassel in north Germany. Peggy was only 17 and on her first visit to Ireland. 22-year-old Sam drove her around in his dinky sports car, took her to galleries and the theatre, she was overawed. After a few months she returned to her parents in Germany, but they exchanged letters, he visited her in Kassel a few times over the coming years, and when she went to dance  school in Austria (in Laxenberg, south of Vienna, pages 83 to 86), visited her there, too, all this despite the very strong disapproval of Beckett’s parents for whom 1. Boss’s notorious poverty 2. Boss’s Jewishness 3. the fact Sam and Peg were cousins, all resulted in strong opposition to the relationship. He visited Kassel quite a few more times over the coming years, although the affair with Peggy came to an end and she became engaged to another man. But Beckett was devastated when she died terribly young of tuberculosis in May 1933.

Lucia Joyce When Beckett took up the post of exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure, his predecessor Tom MacGreevey introduced him to James Joyce and his circle in February 1928. This included Joyce’s wife, Nora, son, Giorgio, and daughter Lucia. Born in 1907, so just a year younger than Beckett, she was clever, creative and wilful and fell in love with the tall, quiet Irishman whom her father used as a secretary and assistant. She asked him to take her out for meals, for walks and so on and generally hoped they would fall in love. She was slender and had some training as a dancer. According to Beckett, even at this stage, she was bulimic (p.150). When it became clear Beckett wasn’t interested, Lucia accused him to her parents of leading her on. Nora never liked Beckett, had taken against him, and Lucia’s accusation was all it took to force Joyce to drop Beckett, much to the latter’s devastation (pages 103 to 105). Later Lucia was to suffer a mental breakdown into irreparable mental illness. Beckett, reconciled with Joyce at the start of 1932 (p.156), went on to watch his mentor devote huge energy and money to trying to find a cure which, slowly, friends and family realised would never work.

Mary Manning Howe In summer 1936, back in Dublin staying at the family home, after failing to get an affair going with a woman named Betty Stockton, Beckett had a brief whirlwind sexual affair with a friend since childhood, the now married Mary Manning Howe (p.229).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil While in hospital after being stabbed in Paris in January 1937, he was visited by Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and a friendship slowly grew which was to become the key relationship of his life. She was austere, intellectual, puritanical – not unlike his mother in many respects, although maybe not insofar as, being a good post-war French intellectual, she was a fervent communist. Profile of her character page 296.

Suzanne shared with Beckett their panic flight from Paris after the initial Nazi invasion in 1940 (pages 297 to 302). Then, when they returned, the risks of his life as an operative for the Resistance until they were forced to flee Paris a second time when their cell was betrayed August 1942, and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

In the bleak post-war period she doggedly supported his writing and hawked his manuscripts from publisher to publisher. Despite his many infidelities to her, in the conversation with Knowlson at the end of his life, Beckett repeated that he owed her ‘everything’ (p.473).

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 to 1979) At the time the relationship with Suzanne began, Beckett was involved in a passionate affair with heiress Peggy Guggenheim who was madly in love with him and nicknamed him ‘Oblomov’. The mismatch between the super-rich socialite heiress and the frugal, moody Irish intellectual is amusingly detailed by Knowlson, pages 281 to 288. She was obsessed with him for a good year, although Knowlson suspects Beckett mainly kept things going because of the influence she could bring to bear on promoting his artist friends such as Geer van Velde.

Pamela Mitchell 32-year-old American working for Beckett’s American publisher, arrived in Paris to meet with Beckett in September 1953 to discuss rights and editions. He showed her the town and they had a brief fling, with follow-up letters after she returned to New York and further visits and meetings until January 1955 (pages 398 to 403).

Barbara Bray (1924 to 2010) In 1957, on a trip to London to supervise the premiere of Endgame and the radio production of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett met Barbara Bray, 18 years his junior, a widow with two small children, who had been working as a script editor for the BBC Third Programme. Knowlson writes:

She was small and attractive, but, above all, keenly intelligent and well-read. Beckett seems to have been immediately attracted by her and she to him. Their encounter was highly significant for them both, for it represented the beginning of a relationship that was to last, in parallel with that with Suzanne, for the rest of his life. (p.458)

In 1961 Bray quit her job in London and moved to Paris, taking an apartment in the Rue Séguier where Beckett regularly visited her. She had a piano. He played Schubert, Haydn or Beethoven on it (p.595). He routinely visited her, she came to see him on his trips directing abroad, they were in most respects an item for the rest of his life. Which is interesting because he continued to live with Suzanne and go with her on increasing numbers of foreign holidays which Knowlson describes in winning detail (Lake Como, Sardinia, Tunisia, Morocco, the Canaries).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil part 2 When Bray announced in 1961 that she was packing in her career with the BBC in London and moving to Paris, Beckett’s reaction was unusual. He promptly married Déchevaux-Dumesnil in March 1961 in a civil ceremony in Folkestone (pages 480 to 484). This was ostensibly to ensure that, if he predeceased her, Déchevaux-Dumesnil would inherit the rights to his work, because there was no common-law marriage under French law – but maybe also because he wanted to affirm his primary loyalty to her. But as soon as they were back in Paris he went to visit Barbara and spend much of his free time with her. Barbara outlived Sam and Suzanne (who both died in 1989) only passing away, in Edinburgh, in February 2010.

There appear to have been other, more fleeting dalliances: Jacoba van Velde, older than Beckett, literary agent and novelist (p.519). Mira Averech attractive young journalist, who interviewed him (p.553).

The BBC

The BBC played a key role in commissioning and producing and broadcasting Beckett’s work to a vastly wider audience than it would have reached via the theatre alone. The second half of Knowlson’s book is stuffed with accounts of commissions and productions overseen by Donald MacWhinnie, radio director and then director of TV drama, Head of BBC Radio Drama 1963 to 1977 Martin Esslin. In other words, Beckett had very powerful supporters within the national broadcaster, who supported him at every step of his career. There’s a book on the subject. Its blurb states:

This book is the first sustained examination of Samuel Beckett’s pivotal engagements with post-war BBC radio. The BBC acted as a key interpreter and promoter of Beckett’s work during this crucial period of his ‘getting known’ in the Anglophone world in the 1950s and 1960s, especially through the culturally ambitious Third Programme, but also by the intermediary of the house magazine, The Listener. The BBC ensured a sizeable but also informed reception for Beckett’s radio plays and various ‘adaptations’ (including his stage plays, prose, and even poetry); the audience that Beckett’s works reached by radio almost certainly exceeded in size his readership or theatre audiences at the time.

Beach

As a boy Beckett went on summer holidays with his parents to Greystones, a seaside resort village just down the coast from Dublin, complete with fishermen, cliffs and a pebbly beach. He played with his brother but also spent hours skimming stones across the waves or staring out to sea. Beaches and the sound of the sea figure heavily in works like Embers and Cascando and the protagonist of Molloy famously spends a couple of pages working out which order to suck a collection of 16 pebbles he’s gathered from the beach (p.28).

Beckett, the surname

Beckett is originally a French name. The family are descended from French Huguenots who fled persecution in the 18th century, first to England and then on to Dublin (p.6) – a fact which adds colour to:

  1. the way Beckett subsequently returned to live in France
  2. the several of his texts which are ‘about’ refugees, namely Lessness (p.564)

Breath

Beckett’s fury at Kenneth Tynan for letting the super-short, absurdist theatre piece, Breath, which he contributed as a personal favour to Tynan’s ‘ground-breaking’ 1969 extravaganza, Oh Calcutta!, be festooned with naked actors, and then going on to print his name in the published script opposite photos of the naked men cavorting onstage during the production. He owed Tynan a big debt of gratitude for writing a rave review of the first English production of Waiting For Godot which helped turn critical opinion in its favour back in 1953. But his behaviour over Breath infuriated Beckett who called Tynan a ‘liar’ and a ‘cheat’ (pages 565 to 566).

Censorship

Lifelong opponent of censorship, whether it was the Irish Free State banning Joyce in the 1920s, the Nazis banning Jewish and degenerate art in the 1930s, or the British Lord Chamberlain insisting on stupid edits to his plays before they could be performed in London in the 1950s and 60s. He banned his own works from being performed in apartheid South Africa, and publicly supported writers suffering from state censorship or persecution.

Chess

Beckett was a serious chess player (p.9). He was taught to play by his brother Frank, and then learned more from his Uncle Howard who once beat the reigning world champion, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, when the latter visited Dublin. He was a noted chess player at his private school (p.43). He inherited a Staunton chess set from his father (p.627).

His first published story, Assumption, contains allusions to chess. Murphy plays a game of chess against the mental patient Mr Endon in Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (p.210). In fact Beckett really wanted the cover of Murphy to be a photo he’d seen of two apes playing chess (p.293).

Later in life Beckett played against Marcel Duchamp (p.289), he played against his friend the painter Henri Hayden, when the latter came to live in a village near Beckett’s rural retreat. Beckett built up a large collection of chess books, many given as gifts by friends who knew his interest or on sets like the magnetised chess set given to him by the artist Avigdor Arikha (p.595). When ill or isolated at his country bungalow at Ussy, he played against himself or played through famous games of the grandmasters.

Damned to fame

At first glance this seems like a melodramatic title, but it’s a quotation, from Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic comic poem, The Dunciad, whose subject is the fantastic lengths utterly talentless writers will go to to become famous. The short phrase thus contains multiple ironies, and Beckett used it of himself with maximum irony (p.644), and again (p.672).

Drinking

Teetotal as a youth and student, discovered alcohol in Paris and never looked back. In adult life, especially socialising in Paris, he often became drunk in the evening. Knowlson details numerous evenings of hard drinking with certain cronies, notably the two Irishmen Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. Suzanne hated his drinking: she had to cope with him rolling home in the early hours, disturbing her sleep, his late start the next morning, and resultant bad mood and depression.

Favourite dish

Mackerel (p.416).

Finney, Albert

Finney was cast in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court in 1972. He was completely miscast and Beckett found it hard to hide his boredom and impatience, at one point falling asleep. The more Finney tried his full range of colours and emotions the more impatient Beckett became. At one point, with unusual bluntness, Beckett held up his little finger and declared there was more poetry in it than in Finney’s entire body (p.596).

Foxrock

Village south of Dublin where, in 1902, William Beckett bought some land and had a family house built for him and his wife, Maria Jones Roe (widely known as May), named it ‘Cooldrinagh’, where Sam’s older brother, Frank, was born in 1902, and where Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906. He was named Samuel after his maternal grandfather. According to Knowlson, nobody alive knows where his middle name came from. The house was named Cooldrinagh after the family home of Beckett’s mother, May, which was named Cooldrinagh House. The name is from the Gaelic and means ‘ back of the blackthorn hedge’ (p.3). There was an acre of land, a summerhouse, a double garage and outbuildings (p.14).

French

Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because — as he himself claimed — it was easier for him thus to write ‘without style’. English had become overcrowded with allusions and memories. He had experimentally written a few poems in French before the war, but it was only on his return to post-War Paris that he began to write in French prose.

By adopting another language, he gained a greater simplicity and objectivity. French offered him the freedom to concentrate on a more direct expression of the search for ‘being’ and on an exploration of ignorance, impotence and indigence. (p.357)

However, this had an unintended consequence which becomes abundantly clear as Knowlson’s book progresses into the 1950s and Beckett acquires more writing in either French or English, which is the effort required by translating his work from one language to the other. Knowlson quotes countless letters in which Beckett complains to friends about having to translate monster texts such as L’Innomable or Mercier et Camier from French into English.

He in effect gave himself twice the labour of an ordinary writer who sticks to just one language.

This explains the complexity of a timeline of Beckett publications because very often there is a lag, sometimes a significant lag, between the publication of a work in French (or English) and then of its translation into the other language, which makes his publishing record complex and sometimes pretty confusing. And then there was German.  Beckett took it on himself to translate, or at least supervise translations, of all his plays into German scripts. The biography brings home how this turned out to be a vast burden.

Generosity

Legendary. ‘Few writers have distributed their cash with as much liberality as Beckett’ (p.603). Knowlson quotes Claude Jamet’s story of being in a bar with Beckett when a tramp asked him for his coat and Beckett simply took it off and handed it over, without even checking the pockets! (p.408). Jack Emery met him in La Coupole bar and watched as a beggar approached Beckett with a tray of shabby postcards and Beckett promptly bought the lot (p.642). He gave money and support without stint to almost anyone who asked for it. He supported actor Jack MacGowran’s family after he died, and numerous relatives after spouses died. He gave away most of the money from the Nobel Prize, supporting friends and relatives in times of grief and difficulty.

An outstanding example of this is the support Beckett gave to an American convict, Rick Cluchey, serving time in San Quentin gaol, California, for robbery and murder. In prison, Cluchey became a changed man, who read widely and began to direct and act in plays. He wrote to Beckett asking permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot, and this was the start of a friendship which lasted the rest of his life, as Cluchey, once released on probation,  put on further Beckett productions, securing the great man’s artistic and financial aid (p.611, 613).

Late in life his friends worried that Beckett was a soft touch. He was unable to refuse requests for help

Germany

In September 1937 Beckett left for what turned into a seven-month trip to Germany. It is possibly a scoop for this biography (I don’t know, I haven’t read the others) that Knowlson has obtained access to the detailed diary Beckett kept of this seven-month cultural jaunt which saw him tour the great cultural centres of Germany, and so is in a position to give us a day-by-day account of the visit, which is almost all about art. Beckett systematically visited the great art galleries of Germany, public and private, as well as getting to know a number of German (and Dutch) artists personally. As well as experiencing at first hand the impact on individual artists, of galleries and ordinary people of Nazi repression. He loathed and despised the Nazis and is quoted quite a few times mocking and ridiculing the Nazi leaders (pages 230 to 261).

Ghosts

At one point I thought I’d spotted that Beckett’s use of memories, of voices and characters from the past amounted to ghost stories, shivers. But then they kept on coming, one entire play is named Ghost Trio and the ghost theme rises to a kind of climax in A Piece of Monologue:

and head rests on wall. But no. Stock still head naught staring beyond. Nothing stirring. Faintly stirring. Thirty thousand nights of ghosts beyond. Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost … he all but said ghost loved ones…

When Beckett was directing Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls (1976) he told her to make the third section ‘ghostly’ (p.624). In other words, everyone and their mother has been well aware for decades that Beckett’s final period can is largely defined by his interest in ghosts, ghostly memories, apparition, and voices from beyond the grave (as in What Where).

Maybe the only contribution I can make is to point out that it’s not just the style and presentation of many of the later plays which brings to mind ghosts and faint presences, but there’s a sense in which much of the actual content is very old. What I mean is that about ten of Beckett’s total of 19 plays date from the 1970s and 80s – out in the real world we had fast cars, speedboats, supersonic jets, ocean liners and rockets flying to the moon, but you’d never have known it from Beckett’s plays. In those plays an ageing man listens to memories of himself as a boy in rural Ireland (That Time), an ageing woman paces the floor ridden by memories of herself in rural Ireland (Footfalls), an old man alone in a room waits for a message from his lost love (Ghost Trio), an ageing man remembers walking the back roads while he waits for the appearance of his lost love (…but the clouds…), an ageing man remembers back to his parents and funerals in rural Ireland (A Piece of Monologue), an ageing woman sits in a rocking chair remembering how her old mother died (Rockaby), an ageing man sits in a room listening to a doppelgänger read about his younger life (Ohio Impromptu), an autocratic director poses an old man on a stage (Catastrophe).

My point is that although the form of all these plays was radically experimental and inventive, often staggeringly so, the actual verbal and image content of most of the late works is very old, Edwardian or late Victorian, ghostly memories of a world that vanished long ago, 50 or 60 years before the plays were first performed. Hence the widespread sense that Beckett was the ‘last of his kind’, emblem of a vanished generation (hence the title of Isaac Cronin’s biography, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist). It was because the actual content of almost all the later plays and prose more or less ignores every technological advance of the 20th century in favour of memories of trudging round rural back roads, walking hand in hand with his father, walking along a riverbank, of a small girl struck dumb till she became uncontrollably voluble (Rockaby), of dismal rainy rural funerals. Watching A Piece of a Monologue again, I am struck by how the central action is lighting an old-style lantern by fiddling with the wick, chimney and shade. All of this stuff could straight from the time of Thomas Hardy.

Illness

For someone so phenomenally sporty (rugby, cricket, swimming, long distance running, boxing and motorbike racing) Beckett was frequently ill. As a boy he suffered from night anxiety and as an undergraduate from insomnia combined with night sweats and a racing heart (p.64). He was knocked out one term by a bout of pneumonia (p.63). On his first return from Paris in 1930 he presented his parents with the sight of a young man stricken by a rash on his face and scalp (p.118).

  • May 1931 struck down with a case of pleurisy (p.130).
  • a painful cyst that developed on his neck required an operation in December 1932 (p.166)
  • May 1933 the same cyst had to be treated again (p.168)
  • July 1933 an abscess on his palm needed treating. Following the death of his father he developed night sweats and panic attacks (p.172)
  • August 1934 acute abdominal paints (p.185)
  • throughout 1935 the night sweats and heart which had triggered his psychotherapy persisted (p.200). Knowlson points out that Beckett gives the antihero of his first novel, Murphy, a vivid description of these heart problems (p.215)
  • Christmas 1935 bed-ridden with an attack of pleurisy (p.222)
  • 1936 on his German trip he developed a painfully festering finger and thumb (p.241)
  • January 1937, still in Germany, a lump developed on his scrotum that became so painful he was confined to bed (p.243)
  • September 1937 confined to bed with gastric flu
  • 1946 cyst lanced and drained (p.366)
  • 1947 abscess in his mouth and tooth problems (p.366)
  • August 1950 takes to his bed with a high temperature and raging toothache (p.380)
  • 1956 several teeth removed and bridges built (p.438)
  • 1957 abscess in the roof of his mouth (p.438)
  • 1958 persistent insomnia (p.456)
  • June 1959 bad attack of bronchial flu; exacerbation of the intra-osseous cyst in his upper jaw (p.464)
  • November 1964 operation on the abscess in the roof of his mouth, creating a hole into his nose (p.530)
  • July 1965 surgical graft to close the hole in the roof of his mouth (p.535)
  • 1965 extraction of numerous teeth and creation of a dental plate (p.535)
  • April 1966 diagnosis of double cataracts (p.540)
  • 1967 treatments for cataracts included eye drops, suppositories and homeopathic remedies (p.547)
  • February 1967 fell into the garage pit at a local garage and fractured several ribs (p.547)
  • April 1968 severe abscess on the lung, which had been making him breathless and weak, required prolonged treatment (p.558)
  • end 1970 – February 1971 operations on the cataracts in his left and right eye (pages 579 to 581)
  • April 1971 nasty bout of viral flu (p.582)
  • 1971 periodic bouts of lumbago (p.587)
  • November 1972 has eight teeth extracted and impressions made for dental plates (p.596)
  • 1970s – continued depression, enlarged prostate (p.645)
  • 1980 muscular contraction of the hand diagnosed as Dupuytren’s Contracture (p.660 and 679)
  • April 1984 bedbound with a bad viral infection (p.696)

Illustrated editions

An aspect of Beckett’s lifelong interest in art was the way many of his later texts, for all the lack of colour and description in the prose, turned out to be tremendously inspirational for a whole range of artists, who created illustrations for them. The volume of Collected Shorter prose gives an impressive list indicating the extensive nature of this overlooked aspect of the work.

  • All Strange Away, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1976)
  • Au loin un oiseau, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1973)
  • Bing, with illustrations by H. M. Erhardt (1970) Erhardt also produced illustrations for Manus Presse of Act Without Words I and II (1965), Come and Go (1968), and Watt (1971)
  • Foirades/Fizzles, with etchings by Jasper Johns (1976)
  • From an Abandoned Work, with illustrations by Max Ernst (1969)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine, with illustrations by Sorel Etrog (1977)
  • L’Issue, with six original engravings by Avigdor Arikha (1968)
  • The Lost Ones, with illustrations by Charles Klabunde (1984)
  • The Lost Ones, illustrated by Philippe Weisbecker, Evergreen Review, No. 96 (Spring 1973)
  • The North, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1972)
  • Séjour, with engravings by Louis Maccard from the original drawings by Jean Deyrolle (1970)
  • Still, with etchings by William Hayter (1974)
  • Stirrings Still, with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (1988)
  • Stories and Texts for Nothing, with drawings by Avigdor Arikha (1967)
  • Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman (1989)

Interpretations, dislike of

One of Billie Whitelaw’s great appeals as an actress to Beckett was that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose. It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and how Richardson was comically disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

In a similar vein, Knowlson quotes his exasperated response when Beckett went through the reviews of the English production of Godot, saying:

he was tired of the whole thing and the endless misunderstanding. ‘Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I don’t understand.’ (quoted page 416)

Repeatedly actors asked for more information about their characters and their motivations, but Beckett politely but firmly repeated his mantra:

I only know what’s on the page (p.513)

It’s ironic because Beckett of all people should have known why everyone who came into contact with his texts would waste vast amounts of time searching for sub-texts, symbolism, allegory, and a universe of extra meaning. Because simply taking things at face value is one of the things human beings are useless at. Making up all kinds of extravagant meanings and elaborate theories is what humans excel at.

Intrusive narrator and Henry Fielding

There’s a great deal to be said on this subject because lots of the prose works involve not only an intrusive narrator but multiple narrators and narratives which collapse amid a failure of narrative altogether. But one detail stuck out for me from Knowlson’s biography, which is the direct influence of the eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding. If you read Fielding’s shorter comic novel Joseph Andrews (1742) and his epic comic novel, Tom Jones (1749) you find that the narrator is a very active participant, not only describing events but giving a running commentary on them, moralising and judging and reminding us of previous events or warning of events to come. Once you get used to the 18th century style, this can be very funny. Obviously Beckett brings a completely different sensibility and a highly Modernist approach to what is more a ‘disintegrating narrator’. Still, it is fascinating to read in Knowlson that he specifically cites Fielding as showing just how interactive and interfering a narrator can be in his own text. It is August 1932 and Beckett has returned from Paris to the family home outside Dublin where he immerses himself in reading:

One of the most significant items on his reading list was Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews… He probably learned a lot from Fielding’s novels (for he went on to read Tom Jones) while he was writing the stories of More Pricks Than Kicks. This influence can still be detected in Murphy and continued even into the postwar novel trilogy. It can be seen in what he described as ‘the giving away of the show pari passu with the show’, in a balance and an elaborateness of phrase, and…in the playful pr ironic comments of a self-conscious narrator who makes regular intrusions into the text of his narrative. (page 165)

Ireland

There’s a lot of scope to discuss Beckett’s Irishness, how ‘Irish’ his own personality was, and his characters and his creations, but I don’t feel qualified to comment either way. Knowlson occasionally mentions Beckett’s love of the Irish countryside but only rarely addresses the subject of Beckett’s ‘Irishness’. Three aspects of the issue interested me:

1. Protestant Beckett wasn’t Catholic Irish, like James Joyce and the majority of the population. He was a Protestant, his mother was a God-fearing believer who took him to church every Sunday, and the private school he went to was redolent of strict Protestant teaching. It’s arguable that, although he lost his faith, Beckett retained this strict, almost Puritan turn of mind, in both his lifestyle, which was very spartan and simple, and, of course, in the unromantic, tough, self-punishing nature of his works.

2. Irish Partition I was surprised that Knowlson made so little of the partition of Ireland and the year-long civil war that followed 1921 to 1922. Beckett was born and raised in a suburb of Dublin, where his mother and brother continued to live, but the private secondary school he attended was in what became, while he was still attending it, part of Northern Ireland. The war was a long, drawn-out and very traumatic experience for the nation, but Knowlson barely mentions it and it seems to have had no impact on Beckett, which seems hard to believe. The entire subject of Irish nationalism is conspicuous by its absence.

3. Rejection of Ireland Again, it is underplayed in Knowlson’s book, but reading between the lines, it appears that some Irish considered Beckett moving to Paris in October 1937 and his continued living there was a studied rejection of his home country, a rejection he repeated at key moments of his career. Certainly Beckett, driven to exasperation by a lack of money, job, prospects, any success as a writer and the nagging of his mother to get a job, finally and decisively quit Ireland in September 1937 to make a permanent home in Paris. Knowlson says Beckett found Ireland too ‘narrow-minded and parochial’. He wrote to his old schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, that the move to Paris was like being let out of gaol (p.274). Ironically, only a few weeks after emigrating, Beckett was recalled to Dublin to act as a witness in a libel case brought against a book which appeared to lampoon his beloved Uncle, ‘Boss’ Sinclair, and was subjected to a fierce cross-questioning by the defending QC which raised the subject of Beckett’s ‘immoral’ writings in order to question his credibility. This gruelling experience set the seal on Beckett’s rejection of his homeland:

His remarks about Ireland became more and more vituperative after his return to Paris, as he lambasted its censorship, its bigotry and its narrow-minded attitudes to both sex and religion from which he felt he’d suffered. (p.280).

The theme recurs when Beckett himself imposed a ban on his works being performed in Ireland: In 1958, upon hearing that Archbishop John McQuaid had intervened in the Dublin Theatre Festival programme, forcing the organisers to withdraw a stage adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses as well as Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, Beckett responded by cancelling his permission for the Pike Theatre to perform his mimes and All That Fall at the festival.

The theme recurs again in the context of Beckett being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969 because, super-reluctant to attend the award ceremony himself, instead of asking the Irish Ambassador to accept it, according to the convention whereby a demurring author is represented by his country’s ambassador, Beckett instead nominated his long-standing and loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572). It was a typical gesture of friendship and personal loyalty but some Irish commentators took it as a calculated slight to his homeland.

So, just like his hero James Joyce before him, Beckett had a complex love-hate relationship with his homeland. Irish emigré Peter Lennon spent time with Beckett and recalls:

The sense of Ireland was strong in him, there was a subterranean emotional involvement… [but he also] despised the ethos of the place. (quoted page 490)

Mind you this argument is countered by the fact that, of all the honorary degrees he was offered during his lifetime, the only one he accepted was from his old alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, which he flew back to in order to receive an honorary D.Litt. degree on 2 July 1959 (pages 469 to 470).

Keaton, Buster

In the early 1960s Beckett developed a treatment for a short silent film to be shot with American collaborators. As a boy Beckett had loved the classic silent movies of Charlie Chaplin et al so the American producers approached a number of the greats, including Chaplin, Zero Mostel, Beckett’s friend MacGowran, but they had other commitments or weren’t interested.

Thus it was that they came to invite the legendary Buster Keaton, who delighted everyone by agreeing. Knowlson points out how the pair had a secret artistic affinity, a Keaton movie like Go West featuring a protagonist named Friendless, who is all alone in the world – closely related to Beckett’s worldview (p.54).

However, the actual meeting between Beckett and Keaton was a famous disaster, with Beckett invited into the Keaton apartment where Buster went back to sitting in a chair in front of the TV watching a game of American football sipping a beer from the fridge. After a few conversational gambits Beckett fell silent. Impasse (p.522).

The film ended up being shot over a few sweltering days in lower Manhattan in July 1964 during Beckett’s first and only trip to the United States.

London

Beckett lived in London for two years in 1934 and 1935. He lived first in rooms in Chelsea and then in the Gray’s Inn Road, locations invoked in the novel he wrote about the period, Murphy.

Beckett hated London. Dirty and noisy and cramped. It infuriated him the way strangers called him ‘Paddy’ in shops and pubs. In later life he referred to London as ‘Muttonfatville’ (p.512).

Jack MacGowran (1918 to 1973)

Beckett wrote the radio play Embers and the teleplay Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. The actor also appeared in various productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, and did several readings of Beckett’s plays and poems on BBC Radio. MacGowran was the first actor to do a one-man show based on the works of Beckett. He debuted End of Day in Dublin in 1962, revising it as Beginning To End in 1965. The show went through further revisions before Beckett directed it in Paris in 1970. He also recorded the LP, MacGowran Speaking Beckett for Claddagh Records in 1966 (the recording sessions described at p.539). Whenever he was over in Paris visiting, chances are the lads would go out and get slaughtered. Even worse when the duo turned into a threesome with fellow Irish actor Patrick Magee (p.514). After MacGowran’s death Beckett wrote immediately to his widow Gloria to offer financial assistance for her and daughter, Tara (p.599).

May Beckett

Tall, lean-faced, with a long nose, when you look at photos you immediately see that Beckett has his mother’s appearance not his father, who was round-faced and jovial. May Beckett had an unforgiving temperament and she ruled Cooldrinagh House and its servants with a rod of iron (p.5). Very respectable, she attended the local Protestant church every Sunday. Everyone found her difficult and demanding, she had regular shouting matches with the servants, but could descend into days of dark depression. A family friend, Mary Manning, said Beckett ‘was like his mother, he was not a relaxed social person at all’ (p.223). As he grew up Beckett developed an intense love-hate relationship with her until, by his twenties, he found it impossible to live in the same house. Beckett referred to her ‘savage loving’:

I am what her savage loving has made me (p.273).

His two years of psychotherapy in London (1933 to 1935) rotated around his unresolved relationship with this woman who was so difficult but who, in so many ways, he took after. According to his schoolfriend and doctor who recommended the therapy, Geoffrey Thompson, the key to Beckett’s problems was to be found in his relationship with his mother (p.178). It is, therefore, quite funny that the long and expensive course of psychotherapy was paid for… by his mother.

Mental illness

Beckett himself suffered from depression, as had his mother before him. It was partly deep-seated unhappiness triggered by his father’s death in 1933 which led to his two-year stay in London solely for the purpose of psychotherapy. The condition recurred throughout his life, in fact the second half of the book becomes quite monotonous for the repeated description of Beckett, if he had nothing immediate to work on, spiralling down into depression and isolation (p.441). As late as his 70s he was dosing himself with lithium as a treatment (pages 616 and 644).

He knew he had an obsessive compulsive streak, which could sometimes be regarded as determination and courage, at others simple neurosis: in his German diary Beckett refers to himself as ‘an obsessional neurotic’ (p.252).

Interesting to learn that during his London period (1934 to 1936) he visited his schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson who had taken up the post of Senior House Physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, where he observed the patients and learned about their diseases (pages 208 to 210). It was these trips and Thompson’s account which Beckett reworked into the fictional Magdalen Mental Mercyseat where the antihero of his novel Murphy finds a job. This real-life contact with mental patients (Knowlson quotes Beckett describing individual patients and their symptoms) was reinforced when Beckett undertook a series of visits to Lucia Joyce after she was confined to a hospital in Ivry in 1939.

This ‘long-standing interest in abnormal psychology’ (p.615) translated into characters who make up ‘a long line of split personalities, psychotics or obsessional neurotics’, as Knowlson calls them (page 590). Possibly Beckett’s works can be seen as a kind of escalation of depictions of various mental conditions, from the light-hearted neurosis of Murphy, through the more serious mental breakdown of Watt, but then taken to out-of-this-world extremes in the Trilogy, and particularly the collapse of subject, object and language in The UnnamableFootfalls is a particularly spooky investigation of strange mental states and situations such as the protagonist’s radical agoraphobia and chronic neurosis (p.616).

Miserabilism

Miserabilism is defined as ‘gloomy pessimism or negativity.’ It’s so obvious that Beckett’s work concentrates oppressively on failure and negativity that it barely needs mentioning. Soon after the war he gave his beliefs classic expression in the avant-garde magazine transition:

‘I speak of an art turning from [the plane of the possible] in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.’

And, when asked what the contemporary artist should be striving for, he wrote:

‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

His position didn’t budge much in the remaining 45 years of his life.

Music

He came from a very musical family. Beckett’s grandmother (Frances, Fannie) was very musical, wrote songs, set poems to music. Her son, Beckett’s Uncle Gerald, was very musical, piano in the house, spent hours playing duets with young Sam (p.7). Their daughter, Aunt Cissie, also very musical. Cissie married a Jewish art dealer, William ‘Boss’ Sinclair and moved to north Germany, where Boss tried to make a career dealing contemporary art. In his 20s Beckett went to stay with them and fell in love with their daughter, Peggy, a few years younger than him.

Beckett grew up able to play Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart piano pieces very well, as well as lighter pieces like Gilbert and Sullivan (p.28). At private school he carried on having music lessons and gained a reputation for being more or less word perfect in the entire Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre (p.43).

In his first year at Trinity College Dublin he commuted from his parents house, but in his second year moved into rented accommodation, where he installed a piano. He was by now into modern French music and studied and played the piano music of Debussy (p.65). It is, maybe, revealing that Beckett hated Bach. He described him to a friend as like an organ grinder endlessly grinding out phrases (p.193). He had pianos in most of his lodgings and houses. Once living in France he regularly listened to concerts broadcast on France Musique (p.453). In 1967 he bought a small Schimmel piano for the house in Ussy, which he played Haydn and Schubert on (p.546).

Music is overtly important in plays like Ghost Trio (named after a piano work by Beethoven) and Nacht und Träume (named after a song by Schubert). But it is arguable that many of Beckett’s plays, and certainly the later ones, are conceived as musical in rhythm and performance, and are dependent on essentially non-dramatic but musical ideas of repetition, repetition with variation, counterpoint, introduction of new themes, and so on (p.193).

What is important to him is the rhythm, choreography and shape of the whole production. (p.551)

Thus, when he wrote That Time he conceived of it as a sonata, paying meticulous care to the entrance and exits of the three voices from the protagonist’s past. Into the 1980s he was still listening to classical concerts on the radio, playing the piano and made a number of composer friends. Knowlson points out how many of his works have been set to music or have inspired composers (p.655).

Visitors to his supervision of a 1980 production of Endgame noticed that as the actors spoke his hand beat out the rhythm like Karajan conducting an orchestra. ‘It was all about rhythm and music’, said one of the actors (p.668). He particularly loved Schubert and it is a Schubert song which inspired Nacht und Träume and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise which inspired the play What Where (p.685).

Nobel Prize

1969 23 October Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (pages 570 to 573). He and Suzanne experienced this as a complete disaster, ending their life of peaceful anonymity. They were on holiday in a hotel in Tunisia and the announcement had an immediate impact in that the hotel was besieged by journalists and photographers.

Beckett accepted, recognising the honour, but couldn’t face attending the ceremony as he hated all such events. There was some sharp criticism back in Ireland when, instead of asking the ambassador of the nation of the winner i.e. the Irish ambassador, Beckett instead asked for the award to be given to his loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572).

Later Beckett blamed the award for a prolonged period of writer’s block which immediately followed it.

Not I

Inspired, or at least crystallised, by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in Valletta cathedral in Malta (p.588), and a holiday in North Africa where he was fascinated by the locals wearing djellabis. The original conception was of the woman speaker strapped into a device above the stage with a spotlight on her face as she spoke at breakneck speed, taking four pauses or breaks, during which the tall, faceless figure at the side of the stage wearing a djellabi slowly raised and then slowly lowered his arms, as in a gesture of helpless compassion.

But rehearsals for various productions eventually persuaded Beckett the play didn’t need the auditor at all, and the figure was quietly dropped from the 1975 BBC recording with Billie Whitelaw. And Beckett admitted to Knowsley that maybe the entire notion of the auditor was simply ‘an error of the creative imagination, a rare admission (p.617).

Ohio Impromptu

Beckett wrote this piece for American actor David Warrilow to play the part of Reader, a man sitting at a table next to a silent doppelgänger, reading out a narrative, a story which the audience slowly realises applies to the two men onstage. Beckett wrote to tell to Warrilow to read it as if it was ‘a bedtime story’.

O’Toole, Peter

Beckett hated him, and was infuriated when his agent, Curtis Brown, gave O’Toole permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot in 1969. Possibly Beckett disliked O’Toole because one boozy night down the Falstaff pub in London, O’Toole was about to throw his friend Peter Lennon down the stairs before Beckett personally intervened. Or maybe it was just his florid, attention-grabbing acting style, the histrionic opposite of everything Beckett’s minimalist theatre stood for. He called the resulting production ‘O’Tooled beyond redemption’ (p.567)

Painting

Visual art was very important to Beckett. He had started to systematically visit galleries and develop his taste, as a student (p.58). In summer 1927 Beckett travelled to Florence, calling on the sister of his Italian tutor at Trinity College, and systematically visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75). During his two years as lecteur in Paris he visited as many galleries as he could and immersed himself in the French tradition. Back in Ireland in 1931, he resumed his visits to the National Gallery (p.140). After his father’s death, at a loss what to do, it’s not that surprising to learn that he applied to be an assistant curator at London’s National Gallery (p.174).

A decade later, Beckett was to spend no fewer than seven months, from September 1937 to April 1938, on a really thorough and systematic tour of the art galleries of Germany. One of the features of Knowlson’s biography is that he got access to Beckett’s detailed diary of this trip and so gives the reader a city-by-city, gallery-by-gallery, painting-by-painting detailed account of not only the paintings Beckett saw, but also of the contemporary artists he met in cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Munich (pages 230 to 261). The first work he wrote in French after the war was an essay on contemporary art (page 357).

Beckett had a very visual imagination and many critics have found analogues for scenes in the prose and plays among classic paintings of the Old Masters, and by his own account, a number of works were heavily inspired by works of art.

Thus Waiting For Godot, notable Godot – in which the final scene of both parts, of two men looking up at the rising moon mimics Caspar David Friedrich (p.609), and Breughel paintings inspire various poses of the four characters; while Not I was directly inspired by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in the cathedral in Malta (p.588).

Decollation of St John The Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

Artistic friendships In November 1930 he was introduced to the Dublin painter Jack B. Yeats who was to become a lifelong friend. Travelling in Germany in 1937 he met Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde who became enduring friends. When he bought the cottage in Ussy outside Paris he found himself in proximity to the French painter Henri Hayden and his wife, Josette, who Sam and Suzanne had got to know well during their wartime stay in Roussilon, and who became close friends for the rest of their lives.

Paris

Paris came as a revelation to Beckett when he moved there for to take the post of lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure in 1928. He was quickly introduced to James Joyce and other members of the anglophone literary community, but also flourished in the city’s permissive, experimental avant-garde artistic and literary atmosphere. It was with reluctance that he moved back to Ireland in 1930.

Years passed with occasional visits and reunions with old friends before his patience with Dublin and living with his mother in the big empty family house finally snapped in September 1937, and he left Ireland for good to try and make his way as a freelance writer in Paris. However, he hadn’t been there long before he was stabbed in a random altercation with a pimp in Montparnasse. His lifelong partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil visited him in hospital and began caring for him. Once he’d recovered, she arranged for Beckett to move out of an expensive hotel into a flat at 6 Rue des Favorites.

They inhabited the Rue de Favorites flat for 20 years, but eventually their lives had diverged so markedly that they needed a bigger space. Beckett was a night owl, staying out late often getting drunk with friends when they were in town, and disturbed her when he got home. Suzanne was a morning person and disturbed Beckett’s lying-in when she woke. Plus the mistresses. His unexplained absences became harder to bear in a small space.

Thus in 1960 they moved to a larger space, a seventh floor apartment at 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its layout (p.472). It allowed them to live partly companionable, but partly independent lives. A notable feature of the flat was that from it he could see the windows of the Santé prison. He sat staring at a prison for long stretches of his day. Some visitors entered his apartment to discover him standing at the window semaphoring messages to the prisoners: ‘They have so little to entertain them, you know’ (p.642)

Poetry

In my opinion Beckett’s poetry is pants. Here’s part of an early poem:

But she will die and her snare
tendered so patiently
to my tamed and watchful sorrow
will break and hang
in a pitiful crescent
(The Yoke of Liberty, 1932)

And a few years later:

a last even of last time of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

God, it’s dire, the ineffectual repetition of ‘love’, the woeful metaphor of the heart as a pestle grinding away at words. Flat and lifeless and clichéd.

Beckett’s poetry is so poor because, in my opinion, he had little or no feel for the sensual aspect of language. He has nothing of what Keats or Tennyson or Yeats or TS Eliot had for language, an unparalleled feel for the mellifluous flow of sensual speech. A reviewer of his first collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, is quoted as writing that Beckett ‘has imitated everything in Mr Joyce – except the verbal magic and the inspiration’ (quoted page 184). I think that is dead right. Hardly anywhere in Beckett’s works is there ‘verbal magic’ in the sense that an individual phrase leaps out at you as a miraculous use of language. The opposite. They’re often heavy with cliches and triteness. Here’s part of a short poem he wrote in 1977:

one dead of night
in the dead still
he looked up
from his book (p.647)

No Beckett really does not have the magic touch required for poetry. Instead Beckett does something completely different with language. For me his characteristic strategies are paring back language, omitting key syntactical units, and above all using repetition, the clumping of key phrases which are nothing in themselves but acquire power by dogged repetition.

Traditional poetry requires a certain charge behind individual words. And yet this is the precise opposite of how Beckett works. Beckett works by applying the exact opposite of the mot juste, he works through processes of paring down, creating key phrases, and then repeating the hell out of them. He sandblasts language. Thus, in my opinion, his most successful ‘poetry’ is in the play Rockaby, where no individual word has the kind of poetic charge you find in Eliot or Larkin or Hughes or Hill – it is all about the remorseless repetition. 

till in the end
the day came
in the end came
close of a long day
when she said
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
another like herself
another creature like herself
a little like
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
till in the end
close of a long day
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped

My contention is that he is a great writer despite his lack of feel for language, because of his systematic methodology. He doesn’t feel or express so much as process language, submits it to distortions, denials and repetitions in order to make his language pared back, hard, white bone (‘All the verbs have perished’, as he wrote of his short prose piece Ping, p.542).

His prose and theatrical dialogue doesn’t work with language, doesn’t facilitate expression – it does something to language. Manipulates and twists it into a kind of abstract sculpture. And this, in my opinion, helps to explain why his poetry is so pants.

Politics

It is striking that there is so little politics in Knowlson’s account. He devotes precisely one sentence to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin (p.36) when Beckett was 10, and only 2 sentences to the partition of Ireland and the tragic Irish civil war which followed, (June 1922 to May 1923) when Beckett would have been 16 going on 17. There is a brief mention of the IRA, but only because the sister of his Italian tutor at college might have been an IRA operative (p.73). There is only one mention of the Great War and that only in connection with the impact it had on the calibre of teachers when Beckett was still at secondary school (p.44).

Again, most accounts of the 1930s are heavily coloured by the terrible international situation but this is mostly absent from Knowlson’s account. For example, in the second year of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) Nancy Cunard sent a questionnaire round eminent artists and writers asking which side they would support and why (Authors Takes Sides in the Spanish Civil War). Beckett sent back the famously short and pithy reply: “UP THE REPUBLIC!” I might have blinked and missed it but I don’t think this is mentioned in Knowlson’s vast tome.

The Nazis do come into it when Beckett makes his seven month tour round Germany from September 1937 to April 1938. Beckett despised and mocked them (pages 238 and 297). But they are considered more from the point of view of the material impact their bans and prohibitions had on the local artists Beckett met and came to respect. Similarly, when they begin to enforce their racial edicts in Paris in 1940, it is the direct practical impact on his friends and acquaintances which Knowlson emphasises (page 303).

Similarly, after the end of the Second World War, the entire Cold War is not mentioned at all in the book, Suez, Indo-China, Hungary, Cuba. Silence.

One area which is briefly covered is the war in Algeria. This affected Beckett because his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, became involved in a campaign to publish graphic accounts of the French Army’s use of torture in Algeria, which made the publisher the target of death threats (pages 492 to 495). We find Beckett helping other writers and actors who lost work because of their principles opposition to the war.

Twenty years later there’s a passage about Beckett, violently against the apartheid regime in South Africa, giving permission for a mixed-race production of Godot, and the issues surrounding that (pages 636 to 639).

But Knowlson makes the important point that Beckett’s post-war political activity was very constrained because he was not a citizen of France and only allowed to stay on sufferance. His carte de séjour could be withdrawn by the French government at any moment. Hence, tact.

Maybe this is because the book was already very long and Knowlson’s publishers and editor made him remove anything not directly related to Beckett. Possibly it’s because just too much happened in the Twentieth Century and once you start filling in this or that bit of political background, where would you end? Especially as Beckett was tied to the politics of not one but three countries – Ireland where he was born, England where he spent some time and a lot of his plays were premiered, and France which was his adoptive home. That’s a lot of politics to try and summarise. If you throw in America, because it was an important location for the premiering and performance of his plays, then that’s an awful lot of national and international politics to make even cursory references to. So maybe that explains why the book contains as little or as brief references to world affairs as are possible.

Psychotherapy

One of the revelations of Knowlson’s book is the extent of Beckett’s psychotherapy. His sense of frustration at not knowing what to do in his life, exacerbated by the death of his beloved father in 1933, and the very tense atmosphere of being a grown adult stuck at home with his disapproving mother, led to an escalation of physical symptoms – night sweats, panic attacks, heart palpitations. Beckett described to Knowlson how, on at least one occasion, he was walking down the street when he came to a complete halt and couldn’t move any further (p.172).

Beckett’s good schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson was now a doctor and recommended psychotherapy. It is startling to learn that, at that time, psychoanalysis was illegal in Ireland (p.173), so he had to go to London to be treated. And so it was that Beckett moved to London in January 1934 and began an astonishingly prolonged course of treatment with pioneering psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic. This continued for two years, three sessions a week, lying on his back dredging up memories, while his hyper-critical intellect dissected them, analysed the positioning of the protagonists, their words (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).

The actual physical experience of therapy, and the theories of the mind it invokes, both provide a plausible underpinning to much of Beckett’s work, particularly the prose works where characters lie in the dark, imagining, visualising, listening to the voices of memory. The haunting prose work Company consists of 15 paragraphs of memories from boyhood and young manhood, seeded among 42 paragraphs describing the situation of the protagonist lying on his back in the dark and remembering:

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. (p.653)

In October 1935 Bion took Beckett to a lecture by Carl Jung. Some critics have read Jung’s theories of archetypes, of the anima, of the female and male parts of the psyche into the split personas, into the very male male and very female female characters and protagonists.

Freud and Jung, between them, cooked up quite a handful of theories about the multiple aspects of levels of the mind, a fissiparation which was only complexified by their hordes of followers, respectable and not so respectable (p.616). Temperamentally predisposed towards them, they provided ammunition for Beckett’s attack on the Cartesian notion of the mind as unified and rational. Freud transformed human understanding forever into a completely different model of a mind divided into all sorts of fragments and compartments.

But both Freud and Jung and most of their followers thought that, with long expensive therapy, these various contending psychic forces could be brought into some kind of harmony, that people could be helped to master their neuroses and compulsions. As Freud put it, ‘Where id was, there let ego be’, and therapy undoubtedly helped Beckett, indeed the case is made that it transformed him from a haughty, arrogant, self-centred young man into a far more socialised, generous and considerate person. But he never believed the self can be saved. All Beckett’s post-war works can be seen as explorations of exactly the opposite – ‘Where id was… there is more id, and more id behind that, multiple ids, a wilderness of ids.’ A problematics of the self.

In Beckett’s case, voices, the voices, the voice that drives the narrators of The Unnamable and How It Is, the voices that taunt the protagonists of That Time and Eh Joe and Footfalls, and texts which collapse in the failure to be able to make sense of any narrative, to establish any centre, any self amid the conflicting claims of language reduced to wrecks and stumps, as in the devastating Worstward Ho

Late in his career, on 20 September 1977, Beckett met the American avant-garde composer Milton Feldman. Over a nervous, shy lunch Feldman said he wasn’t interested in setting any of Beckett’s works but was looking for their essence. Beckett got a piece of paper and told Feldman there was only one theme in his life, and quickly wrote out the following words.

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither

He later expanded this by another ten or so lines and it became the basic of the monodrama which Feldman composed and called neither. But the point is that Beckett considered this the very core of his project – the endless shuttling around of the mind, the psyche, the spirit call it what you will, looking for a solid reliable self which doesn’t exist. Here’s the opening ten minutes of the resulting ‘opera’.

P.S. It is funny to learn that Beckett was startled when, in his October 1935 lecture, Jung revealed that he never took on a patient unless he or she had had their horoscope read. This is the kind of voodoo bunkum which led Freud to disown and ridicule Jung. But the tip about the horoscope led Beckett to make it an important structuring element in his first novel, Murphy (p.208).

Quietism

The general sense of Quietism is a passive acceptance of things as they are, but in the tradition of Christian theology it has a more specific meaning. It means: ‘devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism’. Beckett deepened his understanding of Quietism in the 1930s in his reading of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, what drives human beings is will – ‘a blind, unconscious, aimless striving devoid of knowledge, outside of space and time, and free of all multiplicity’. The ‘world’ as we perceive it is a creation of the human will which may or may not bear any relation to what is actually ‘out there’. For Schopenhauer, it is this endless will, driving us on and inevitably banging us against limitations and frustrations which is the cause of all our pain and suffering. Well aware that he was coming very close to Eastern religions in his attitude, Schopenhauer argued that the only redemption or escape from the endless, hurtful engine of the will is the total ascetic negation of the ‘will to life.’ Damp it, kiss it, crush it, negate it, transcend it.

When it’s put like that you can see, not so much that Schopenhauer’s thought ‘influenced’ Beckett but, as so often with the thinkers important in a creative writer’s life, that Schopenhauer helped Beckett think through and rationalise what was, in effect, already his worldview. Once you identify it, you realise it is Beckett’s core view of the world and attitude to life, described again and again in variations on the same idea:

  • The essential is never to arrive anywhere, never to be anywhere.
  • What a joy to know where one is, and where one will stay, without being there.
  • Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

He and so many of the narrators of his texts, don’t necessarily want to die, as such. Just not to be. To cease being. Not to be, and not to know.

Radio

Beckett wrote seven plays for radio, being

  • All That Fall (1957) commissioned by BBC produced by Donald McWhinnie, small parts for Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowran
  • From an Abandoned Work (1957) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • Embers (1959) BBC Radio 3: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • The Old Tune (translation of a play by Robert Pinget) (1960) BBC: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by (Beckett’s lover) Barbara Bray
  • [Rough for Radio I – written in French in 1961 but not translated till 1976 and never broadcast in English]
  • Rough for Radio II – written 1961, broadcast BBC Radio 3 1976, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Billie Whitelaw directed by Martin Esslin
  • Words and Music (1962) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee
  • Cascando (1963) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee

They include some of his most haunting pieces such as Embers (44 minutes in the original BBC production featuring Jack MacGowran), the torture play Rough For Radio II, and the haunting Cascando, featuring Patrick Magee. The list also indicates 1. the central role played by the BBC in commissioning and broadcasting important works by Beckett 2. the specific role of Donald McWhinnie as director of the earlier radio plays 3. the close association with two key Beckett actors, Patrick Magee (who appears in all of them) and Jack MacGowran.

Beckett refused permission for his radio plays to be made either into TV productions or stage plays. He said they were expressly designed for their medium alone. Asked about the possibility of transferring the radio play All That Fall to the stage, Beckett wrote: ‘It is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to ‘act’ it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings … will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark.’ [emphasis added]

Resistance

On 1 September 1940 Beckett, back in occupied Paris after a brief flight to the south, joined the French Resistance. He was inducted into the Resistance cell Gloria SMH, run by Jeannine Picabia, daughter of the painter Francis Picabia. Knowlson goes into fascinating detail about the cell’s structure and work. Basically, Beckett continued sitting at his desk in his Paris flat, where he was registered with the authorities as an Irish citizen and a writer. His job was – various couriers brought him information written in a number of formats from typed reports to scribbled notes, and he translated them from French into good clear English, typed them up – then another courier collected these notes and took them off to an unknown destination where they were photographed and reduced to something like microfilm, before being smuggled south to the free zone of France by a network of couriers (pages 307 to 308).

It was the perfect role and the perfect cover since, as a bilingual writer, his flat was covered in scribbled notes and manuscripts in both languages although, if the Germans had actually found and examined the incriminating documents he would have been in big trouble. Written records exists in the French archive of the Resistance and of the British Special Operations Executive in London, which amply confirm Beckett’s identity and role.

Although the group paid lip service to the idea that all members only knew the names and details of a handful of other members, in practice Beckett thought too many friends who had been recruited who would give each other away under interrogation. But it wasn’t from an insider that betrayal came, and the most vivid thing about Beckett’s war work is the way it ended.

Basically the group was infiltrated by a Catholic priest, Robert Alesch, who railed against the Nazis in his sermons and came fully vetted. What no-one knew what that Alesch led a florid double life, respectable priest on Sundays, but coming up to Paris from his rural parish on weekdays, to indulge in nights of sex and drugs with prostitutes. He needed money to fund this lifestyle. So he inveigled his way into Cell Gloria and, as soon as he’d been given details of the members, sold it to the German authorities for a sum which Knowlson calculates as the lifetime earnings of an average worker. It was August 1942.

The Nazis immediately began arresting members, including Beckett’s good friend Alfred Péron, who was to die in a concentration camp. A brief telegram was sent to Beckett and Suzanne who immediately packed their bags ready for immediate flight. Suzanne went to the flat of a friend where she was briefly stopped and questioned by the Gestapo, who let her go and returned, traumatised, to the flat she shared with Beckett, they finished packing and left within the hour. Later the same day the Gestapo arrived to arrest them, and placed a permanent guard on the flat (p.315).

They went into hiding in various safe houses across Paris, before preparing for the long and dangerous trek by foot south towards the unoccupied zone of France, with the major stumbling block of having to arrange with professionals, passeurs, to be smuggled across the actual border. (It is fascinating to learn that Suzanne and Beckett spent ten days hiding out with the French-Russian writer Nathalie Sarraute, who was holing up in a rural cottage with her husband. They didn’t get on. (pages 316 to 317.)

After much walking and sleeping in haystacks and begging food, the couple arrived at the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Why Roussillon? Connections. A friend of Suzanne’s had bought an estate near the village and knew about local property and vacancies in the village. There they made a new life, initially staying in the small village hotel, then through local contacts finding a vacant property in the village, lying low, rerouting the small payments Beckett was owed from his father’s legacy and his handful of published books.

One of the major aspects of their two years in the village which gets no coverage is the fact that Beckett undertook demanding labour on local farms. He became a trusty and reliable farm labourer in the south of France, specifically for the Aude family, members of which Knowlson has tracked down and interviewed for eye witness accounts of Sam the labourer – managing the livestock, helping with ploughing and sowing and also, during the season, helping to trample down the grapes for that year’s wine. Can’t get more French than that (pages 323 to 326). Of course the motivation to do it was the extra food it brought Sam and Suzanne during a time of great privation.

Knowlson also brings out the fact that it was far from being a life of ‘rural idiocy’ and that a surprising number of intellectuals, writers and artists lived in the vicinity who quickly formed convivial social circles, dwelling on the charming, elderly lady novelist Miss Beamish, who lived with her ‘companion’. Autres temps (p.330).

After a lull, while they found their feet, Beckett rejoined the Maquis (their archives date it as May 1944) and helped out when he could by storing armaments in the shed of their village house (page 337). In this new situation, Beckett volunteered for more active service, going out on night trips to recover parachuted arms and was given training in the remote countryside on firing a rifle and lobbing grenades, but the local leaders quickly realised his poor eyesight and unpractical nature militated against fieldwork (pages 337 to 338).

All in all you can see why his prompt volunteering for the service, his unflinching integrity, his continued service even in the South, earned him the gratitude of the Free French government once Paris was liberated by the Allies 19 August 1944 and why, before the war was even over, in March 1945 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Revelation (pages 351 to 353)

Possibly the most important event in his life came when Beckett was back at the family home, long after his father’s death, just after the Second World War and all its tribulations, suffering the cloying attentions of his aging mother and frustrated at the difficulty of getting his pre-war writings published, an unemployed, largely unpublished ‘writer’, fast approaching 40, when he had a life-changing revelation.

Since his character, Krapp, discusses a life-changing revelation which came to him as he stood on the pier at Dún Laoghaire, generations of critics have assumed something similar happened to Beckett. But one of the huge selling points of Knowlson’s biography is that he got to ask Beckett questions like this, directly, face to face, or in extended question and answer correspondence, and was able to get at the definitive truth of cruxes like this. And thus it was that Beckett told him to set the record straight ‘for once and all’, that it was in his mother’s room in the family home, that he suddenly realised the way forward.

At a stroke, he realised his entire approach to literature was wrong, that he must do the opposite of his hero Joyce. Joyce was the poet of joy and life, which he celebrates with texts which try to incorporate sounds and smells and all the senses, try to incorporate the entire world in a text, which grow huge by accumulating new words, mixing up languages, swallowing the world.

In books like More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had come off as a sort of half-cocked Joyce, adding his own quirky obsessions with repetitive actions to heavy, pedantic humour and outlandish characters. Now, in a flash, he realised this was all wrong, wrong, wrong.

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

He realised at a stroke that he must be the laureate of rejection, abandonment and decay, all the fleeting moods and expressions of failure and collapse which had been neglected in literature, ignored and brushed aside so that the author could get on with writing his masterpiece.

But what about taking that failure, the failure of the text to get written, as the subject of the text? What about listening to the voices the author hears in his or her head, as they review a page and conclude it’s rubbish, start again, or sit and ponder the alternatives, voices saying one thing, then another, making one suggestion, then another? What if you made those voices, the voices you hear during the process of writing but ignore in order to get something sensible down on the page – what if you made those voices themselves the subject of the writing?

This not only represented a superficial change of topic or approach but also made Beckett face up to something in himself. Previously, he had tried to write clever books like Murphy while gloomily acknowledging to himself and friends that he wasn’t really learned and scholarly enough to pull it off. Pushing 40 he felt like a failure in all kinds of ways, letting down successive women who had loved him, letting down his parents and patrons when he rejected the lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, failing to get his works published or, if they were, failing to sell any – a welter of failures, intellectual, personal and professional

What if, instead of trying to smother it, he made this failure the focus of his writing? Turned his laser-like intellect inwards to examine the complex world of interlocking failures, from deep personal feelings, all the way up to the struggle to write, to define who is doing the writing, and why, for God’s sake! when the whole exercise was so bloody pointless, when – as his two years of intensive psychotherapy had shown him – we can’t really change ourselves. The best we can hope for is to acknowledge the truth of who we are.

What if he took this, this arid dusty terrain of guilt and failure and the excruciating difficulty of ever expressing anything properly as his subject matter?

‘Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.’ (quoted page 352)

Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle that knowing more was a way of creatively understanding the world and controlling it … In future, his work would focus on poverty, failure, exile and loss – as he put it, on man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er.’ The revelation ‘has rightly been regarded as a pivotal moment in his entire career’.

(Sentiments echoed at page 492).

St-Lô (pages 345 to 350)

Early in 1945, Beckett and Suzanne returned to Paris to discover that, although their flat on the Rue Favorite had been occupied, it had been left largely untouched (unlike other friends’ apartments which had been ransacked). Beckett then set off back to Ireland, of course stopping off in London to meet up with old friends and also hawk round the manuscript of the ‘mad’ novel he’d written during the long nights of his exile in the south of France, Watt. He was struck by the bomb-damaged shabby nature of the city. Then on to Dublin where he was upset by the appearance of his now aged mother.

But Beckett then found it very difficult to get legal permission to travel back to Paris. Things were confused, the bureaucracy was immense. So he took the opportunity of applying for a job in France, mainly to get official permission to return, namely as quartermaster/interpreter with the Irish Red Cross who were setting up a hospital in the Normandy town of Saint-Lô.

This passage is fascinating as social / war history. St-Lô had been utterly destroyed by allied bombing, with barely a building left standing. Knowlson explains the plight of the town and then the practicalities of setting up a hospital before investigating Beckett’s role.

Altogether the war radically changed Beckett. It humanised him. He went from being an aloof, arrogant, self-centred young man, to becoming much more humble and socialised. In his farmwork and then the work at St-Lo he was able to put aside his problematic psychology and just get on with it. Both experiences forced him into close proximity with a far wider range of people, from all classes, than he had previously met.

(Interestingly, this is the exact same point made in the recent biography of John Wyndham, who served in the London Air Raid Warning service during the Blitz, and then as a censor in Senate House, His biographer, Amy Binns, makes the identical point, that his war service forced Wyndham into close proximity with people outside his usual class [both Beckett and Wyndham went to private school] and resulted in a deepening and humanising of his fiction.)

Skullscapes

The word and concept ‘skullscape’ is Linda Ben Zvi’s, from the recorded discussion that followed the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988. Since Zvi suggested it has become common currency because it captures at least three qualities,

1. the bone-hard, pared-down prose works

2. the obsession with the colour white, the whiteness of the cell in All Strange Away, the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine, the whiteness of the cliff in the short text of the same title, the whiteness in Embers

bright winter’s night, snow everywhere, bitter cold, white world, cedar boughs bending under load… [Pause.] Outside all still, not a sound, dog’s chain maybe or a bough groaning if you stood there listening long enough, white world, Holloway with his little black bag, not a sound, bitter cold, full moon small and white…

The whiteness of the snow the man trudges through in Heard in the Dark 1 or the snow through which the old lady trudges in Ill Seen Ill Said, the spread white long hair of the protagonist in That Time, the White hair, white nightgown, white socks of Speaker in A Piece of Monologue:

White hair catching light. White gown. White socks. White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left. Once white.

The long white hair of Listener and Reader in Ohio Impromptu, the pure white overall of the Assistant in Catastrophe, and the Director’s instructions to whiten the Protagonist’s skull and hands and skin.

3. but the real application is to the prose works which seem to take place entirely inside the head of the protagonist or of the narrator or of the text, trapped in a claustrophobic space, a bonewhite space:

Ceiling wrong now, down two foot, perfect cube now, three foot every way, always was, light as before, all bonewhite when at full as before, floor like bleached dirt, something there, leave it for the moment…

Stabbing in Paris (pages 281 to 284)

and Suzanne Back in Paris Beckett was returning from a night in a bar on 6 January 1938 when a pimp came out of nowhere and started squabbling with him and his friends, insisting they accompany him somewhere and then, out of nowhere, stabbed Beckett in the chest. The blade narrowly missed his heart but punctured a lung, there was lots of blood, his friends called an ambulance, and he was in hospital  (the Hopital Broussais) recovering for some weeks. Initially it hurt just to breathe and for months afterwards it hurt to laugh or make any sudden movements. Beckett was touched by the number of people who sent messages of goodwill. Among his visitors was Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. He’d met her a decade before on a few social occasions in Paris (playing tennis) but it’s from the period of her hospital visits that stems the deepening of their friendship into what became a lifelong relationship.

Beckett met his near-murderer, a well-known pimp with a criminal record M. Prudent, because the police caught him, charged him, and Beckett had to attend the trial. He got to meet the man in the corridor outside court and asked him why he did it. According to Beckett the pimp shrugged his shoulders in that Gallic way and said ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur’ – I don’t know – before adding, embarrassedly, ‘Je m’excuse’. Sorry. Possibly Beckett simplified the story because it rather neatly reinforces his philosophical convictions that we don’t know why we act as we do, that it is impossible to know ourselves, that it is highly likely there is no such thing as one, unified self.

Suicide, against

Oddly, maybe, for a man who suffered from lifelong depression and whose work is often about despair, Beckett was against suicide. He thought it was an unacceptable form of surrender. It was against the stern sense of duty and soldiering on inculcated by his Protestant upbringing, amplified by his private school which placed a strong emphasis on duty and responsibility (p.569).

And Knowlson sees this in the works. Despite the widely held view that Beckett’s work is essentially pessimistic, the will to live, to endure, to carry on, just about wins out in the end. Witness the famous final phrase of The Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’.

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (1900 to 1989)

Beckett’s lifelong partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, was key to his success. After the war Dechevaux-Dumesnil became his agent and sent the manuscript to multiple producers until they met Roger Blin who arranged for the Paris premiere of Waiting For Godot.

In the 1930s, Beckett chose Déchevaux-Dumesnil as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim after she visited him in hospital after his stabbing. She was six years older than Beckett, an austere woman known for avant-garde tastes and left-wing politics. She was a good pianist which was something they had in common.

During the Second World War, Suzanne supported Beckett’s work with the French Resistance cell Gloria. When the cell was betrayed, together they fled south to unoccupied France and took up residence in the village of Roussillon. As Beckett began to experience success their lives began to diverge, with Sam increasingly called on to travel to England or Germany to supervise new productions of his works. He also had a series of affairs, the most important with Barbara Bray who became his lifelong lover. The move in 1960 to a bigger apartment in Paris allowed them to live more separate lives and for Suzanne to socialise with her own, separate circle of friends.

In 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England in order to legally establish her as heir to his works and copyrights and estate (pages 481 to 482). The classic love triangle Beckett found himself is the supposed inspiration for the play Play, written at this time (p.481).

Together they had bought a piece of land in the Marne valley and paid for the building of a simple writer’s house. At first Suzanne resented the long spells she spent there on her own when Beckett was going up to Paris for work or abroad. Later she grew to dislike going there and eventually ceased altogether, making the house in Ussy into a lonely, psychologically isolated location where Beckett wrote a lot of his later works, works in which a solitary, isolated individual stares out of the window or lies in the dark, often reminiscing about the past… As in the prose work Still (p.593).

Knowlson comments that in the last ten years of their lives people who met them as a couple often commented on how short tempered and irritable they were with each other. Suzanne is recorded as saying ‘celibataires’ (page 665). But there was never any question of him leaving her.

Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil died at age eighty-eight in July 1989, five months before Beckett. They are both interred in the cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Swearwords, prolific use of

Beckett wasn’t shy of using the crudest Anglo-Saxon swearwords. He used them liberally in his correspondence (in 1932 he wrote to a friend that he was reading Aldous Huxley’s new novel, Point Counterpoint, except he called it ‘Cunt Pointer Cunt’, p.161) and they are sprinkled intermittently throughout his works:

  • Simone de Beauvoir objected to Beckett’s first story written in French, The End, because of its Rabelaisian references to pissing and farting (p.359).
  • Balls, arse and pee in Endgame, which Beckett reluctantly agreed to alter for the English censor (p.449)
  • the c word plays a startling role in the novel How It Is
  • ‘Fuck life’ says the recorded voice in the late play, Rockaby (page 663).

Telegraphese, use of

According to the dictionary telegraphese is: ‘the terse, abbreviated style of language used in telegrams’.

You are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more than again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark. (How It Is, 1961) (p.602)

Television

Beckett wrote seven plays for the evolving medium of television. He strived to take advantage of the way TV has just the one point of view, unlike the audience at a theatre which has a much more panoramic view of the action. It is revealing that he heartily disliked a TV production of Waiting For Godot even though it was directed by his loyal director Donald McWhinnie. At the party after the viewing Beckett memorably said:

‘My play wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you’re all too big for the place.’ (quoted page 488)

As the 50s moved into the 60s Beckett encountered difficulties with other adaptations and slowly his approach hardened into a refusal to let a work be translated into another medium (p.505). When Peter O’Toole expressed interest in making a film version of Godot Beckett simply replied, ‘I do not want a film of Godot,’ (p.545).

Theatre

The most obvious thing about the theatre is how arduous and complicated it is having to work with all those people, producers, directors, actors and technicians, not to mention set designers, props and so on, especially for someone so morbidly shy and anti-social as Beckett.

Beckett acutely disliked the social side of theatre, and in fact couldn’t bear to go to the first nights of most of his plays – he sent Suzanne who reported back her opinion. He used the vivid phrase that, once the thing had finished rehearsals and had its dress rehearsal and first night, then it’s the ‘start of all the dinners’ (p.554).

Knowlson’s book charts how, from the success of Godot in 1953 until the end of his life, Beckett entered into a maze of theatrical productions, as new works were written, then required extensive liaisons with producers and directors, discussions about venues and actors, negotiations with state censors and so on. The book becomes clotted with his complex calendar of appointments and meetings and flights to London or Berlin or (on just the one occasion) America.

As to his attitude to theatre, the later works make it quite clear he saw it more as a question of choreography, his scripts giving increasingly detailed descriptions of movements, gestures, and how they synchronise with the words to create a ballet with words. It is no accident that several of his works are mimes, or mechanical ballets, like Quad. Or approach so close to wordlessness as to become something like four dimensional paintings (the fourth dimension being time) such as Nacht und Träume.

Themes

Some of Beckett’s most cherished themes: an absence of an identifiable self; man forced to live a kind of surrogate existence, trying to ‘make up’ his life by creating fictions or voices to which he listens; a world scurrying about its business, ignoring the signs of decay, disintegration and death with which it is surrounded. (p.602)

1930s

Beckett’s 1930s can probably be summed up as a long decade full of frustrating attempts to get his works published and, when he did, discovering no-one was interested in them. Only hard-core Beckett fans or scholars are interested in any of these:

1929 Dante… Vico… Bruno… Joyce (essay)
1930 Whoroscope (poem)
1931 Proust (literary study)
1932 Dante and the Lobster (short story)
1934 Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard, many works translated by Beckett
1934 More Pricks Than Kicks (series of linked short stories)
1935 Echoes Bones (set of linked poems)
1937 attempts a play about Samuel Johnson but abandons it
1938 Murphy (first published novel)

Murphy is the only one of these you might recommend to someone starting Beckett, and maybe not even then.

Tonelessness

Voices toneless except where indicated (stage directions for Play)

For most of his theatre productions Beckett made the same stipulation, that the actors speak the words without expression, flatly, in a voice as devoid of emotion or expression as possible. Thus in 1958 he told director George Devine the actors of Endgame should speak the words in a ‘toneless voice’ (p.457).

For Beckett, pace, tone, and above all, rhythm were more important than sharpness of character delineation or emotional depth. (p.502)

Sian Philips was disconcerted to discover just how mechanical Beckett wanted her recording of the Voice part of Eh Joe and the ‘vocal colourlessness’ he aimed for (p.538). He explained to actress Nancy Illig that he wanted her voice to sound ‘dead’, without colour, without expression (p.540). He made sure the exchanges of Nagg and Nell in a German production of Endgame were ‘toneless’ (p.551). He struggled with Dame Peggy Ashcroft who was reluctant to give an ’emotion-free’ performance of Winnie in Happy Days (p.604).

In this respect Knowlson mentions Beckett recommending actor Ronald Pickup to read Heinrich von Kleist’s essay about the marionette theatre, in which the German poet claims that puppets posses a mobility, symmetry, harmony and grace greater than any human can achieve because they lack the self-consciousness that puts humans permanently off balance (p.632).

Billie Whitelaw remembers him calling out: ‘Too much colour, Billie, too much colour’. That was his way of saying ‘Don’t act.’ (p.624) Surprisingly, given his preparedness to jet off round Europe to help supervise productions of his plays, Knowlson concludes that he was never an actor’s director. He never let go of his own, intense personal reading of the lines.

Translation

It’s easy to read of this or that work that Beckett translated his own work from French into English or English into French but it’s only by reading Knowlson’s laborious record of the sustained periods when he did this that you realise what an immense undertaking it was, what a huge amount of time and mental energy it took up. That Beckett composed many of his works in French sounds cool until you realise that by being so bilingual he gave himself twice the work an ordinary writer would have had, and the later pages of Knowlson ring to the sound of Beckett complaining bitterly to friends and publishers just what an ordeal and grind he was finding it.

Trilogy, the Beckett

The Beckett Trilogy refers to three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. There’s a vast amount to say but here are a few key facts (pages 371 to 376):

  • Beckett wrote all three novels and Waiting For Godot in just two and a half years, from May 1947 to January 1950.
  • Probably these four works are the highlight, the most enduring of his works.
  • Beckett himself disliked the use of the phrase The Beckett Trilogy to describe them.
  • Arguably, The Unnamable takes the possibility of writing ‘fiction’, explores what happens when you abandon the existence of a stable narrator or plot or characters or dialogue, to the furthest possible extreme. This explains why for decades afterwards he struggled to write any further prose because he was trying to go on from a place he conceived of as being the ne plus ultra of fiction. Explains why so much of the later prose amounts to fragments and offcuts, starting with the dozen or so Texts For Nothing that he struggled with in the early 1950s (p.397), and what he was still calling, 20 years later, ‘shorts’ (p.578). To understand any of it you need to have read the Trilogy and particularly The Unnamable.

Ussy

In 1948 Sam and Suzanne took a break from Paris by hiring a cottage in the little village of Ussy-sur-Marne, 30 kilometres from Paris in the valley of the Marne which he was to grow to love (p.367). Sam and Suzanne continued holidaying there intermittently. After his mother died on 25 August 1950, she left him some money and Beckett used it to buy some land near the village and then, in 1953, had a modest two-roomed house built on it, with a kitchen and bathroom. This was to become his country getaway and writing base. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its plain, spartan arrangements, including the detail that the flooring was of alternating black and white tiles like a chess board (p.388).

Waiting for Godot (pages 379 to 381)

Written between October 1948 and January 1949 (p.378). It is interesting to learn that Beckett told a friend that Godot was inspired by a painting by Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon.

Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1824)

But I think the single most interesting fact about Godot is that it was written as a kind of break or pitstop during the writing of the Beckett Trilogy, after he had completed Malone Dies and before he embarked on the daunting monolith of The Unnamable. It was the same subject matter but approached in a completely different angle and medium, and with numerous other elements, not least the music hall banter and silent movie knockabout slapstick.

Wartime background Another anti-intellectual interpretation of the play is Dierdre Bair’s contention that the play recalls ‘the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks… during the day and walked by night..’ Although Knowlson is dismissive of this view, he suggests an alternative ‘realist’ interpretation, namely that the basic situation and many of the details derive form the way Sam and Suzanne (and their friends in exile and, in a sense, an entire generation) had to sit out the war, filling in the time as best they could until the whole bloody nightmare came to an end (p.380).

Bad reviews in London It took two and a half years between the premiere of the play in Paris and the premiere of the English version in London, a long, drawn-out period full of delays and disappointments which Knowlson describes in excruciating detail, plus the way it opened to terrible reviews (very funny) until the situation was transformed by two favourable reviews from the heavyweight critics, Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan, to whom Beckett was eternally grateful (even if they later had an angry falling out) (pages 411 to 415).

Success and economic breakthrough in America The American premiere came three years after the French one. It opened in January 1956 in Miami, directed by Alan Schneider who was to become a long-time collaborator of Beckett’s and was a fiasco. The audience had been promised a comedy and hated it. By contrast, another production opened on Broadway in April 1956 and was a smash hit, running for a hundred performances, paying Beckett $500 a week, plus royalties from the paperback script which was sold in the foyer. Suddenly, Beckett found himself, if not exactly rich, in funds and making money for the first time in his life. God bless America! (p.423).

Billie Whitelaw (1932 to 2014)

Actress Billie Whitelaw worked with Beckett for 25 years on such plays as Not I, Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby. In her autobiography Billie Whitelaw… Who He?, she describes their first meeting in 1963 as ‘trust at first sight’. Beckett went on to write many of his experimental theatre works for her. She came to be regarded as his muse, the ‘supreme interpreter of his work’. Perhaps most famous for her role as the mouth in the January 1973 production of Not I. Of 1980’s Rockaby she said: ‘I put the tape in my head. And I sort of look in a particular way, but not at the audience. Sometimes as a director Beckett comes out with absolute gems and I use them a lot in other areas. We were doing Happy Days and I just did not know where in the theatre to look during this particular section. And I asked, and he thought for a bit and then said, “Inward”‘.

She said of her role in Footfalls, ‘I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting and, in fact, when Beckett was directing Footfalls he was not only using me to play the notes but I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting.’

‘Sam knew that I would turn myself inside out to give him what he wanted… With all of Sam’s work, the scream was there, my task was to try to get it out.’

Whitelaw stopped performing Beckett’s plays after he died in December 1989.

One of her great appeals is that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose.

The only thing important to Beckett was the situation. (p.506)

It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and was very disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

That said, Knowlson describes Beckett directing Whitelaw in her long-anticipated performance in Happy Days in 1977 led to unexpected problems. Billie turned up having learned the entire text only to discover that Beckett had made extensive minor changes of phrasing plus cutting one entire passage. Whenever she made mistakes she could see him putting his head in his hands and eventually his constant scrutiny made it impossible for her to work and she asked the director to have him removed. Surprisingly, he agreed, she got on with the production, and the final result was stunning.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

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

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

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

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

I, Robot is a ‘fixup’ novel, i.e. it is not a novel at all, but a collection of science fiction short stories. The nine stories originally appeared in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950, and were then compiled into a book for stand-alone publication by Gnome Press in 1950, in the same way that the Foundation trilogy also appeared as magazine short stories before being packaged up by Gnome.

The stories are (sort of) woven together by a framing narrative in which the fictional Dr. Susan Calvin, a pioneer of positronic robots and now 75 years old, tells each story to a reporter whose been sent to do a feature on her life.

These interventions don’t precede and end every story; if they did there’d be eighteen of them; there are in fact only seven and I think the stories are better without them. Paradoxically, they make a more effective continuous narrative without Asimov’s ham-fisted linking passages. Calvin appears as a central character in three of them, anyway, and the comedy pair of robot testers, Powell and Donovan appear in another three consecutive stories, so the stories already contained threads and continuities…

A lot is explained once you learn that these were pretty much the first SF stories Asimov wrote. Since he was born in 1920, Robbie was published when he was just 20! Runaround when he was 21, and so on. His youth explains a lot of the gawkiness of the language and the immaturity of his view of character and, indeed, of plot.

So the reader has a choice: you can either judge Asimov against mature, literary writers and be appalled at the stories’ silliness and clunky style; or take into account how young he was, and be impressed at the vividness of his ideas – the Three Laws, the positronic brain etc – ideas which are silly, but proved flexible and enduring enough to be turned into nearly 40 shorts stories, four novels, and countless spin-offs, not least the blockbusting Will Smith movie.

Introduction

The introduction is mostly interesting for the fictional timeline it introduces around the early development of robots. In 1982 Susan Calvin was born, the same year Lawrence Robertson sets up U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. The ‘now’ of the frame story interview is 75 years later i.e. 2057.

  • 1998 intelligent robots are available to the public
  • 2002 mobile, speaking robot invented
  • 2005 first attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2008 Susan Calvin joins U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc as its first robopsychologist
  • 2015 second, successful, attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2006 an asteroid has a laser beam placed on it to relay the sun’s energy back to earth
  • 2037 the hyperatomic motor invented (as described in the story, Escape!)
  • 2044 the Regions of earth, having already absorbed and superseded ‘nations’, themselves come together to form a global Federation

What this timeline indicates is Asimov’s urge to systematise and imperialise his stories. What I mean is that other short story writers write short stories are always part of a larger narrative (systematise) and the larger narrative tends to be epic – here it is the rise of robots from non-talking playmates to controllers of man’s destiny. Same as the Foundation series, where he doesn’t just tell stories about a future planet, or a future league of inhabited star systems – but the entire future of the galaxy.

1. Robbie (1940, revd. 1950 first appearance in Super Science Stories)

It is and 1996 and George Weston has bought his 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, a mute robot and playfellow. The story opens with them playing and laughing and Gloria telling Robbie stories, his favourite treat. However, Gloria’s mother does not like the thought of her daughter being friends with a robot so gets her husband to take it back to the factory and buy a dog instead. Gloria is devastated, hates the dog and pines away. To distract her her parents take her on a trip to futuristic New York. Gloria is excited but, to her mum’s dismay, chiefly because she thinks the family are going there to track down Robbie, who she’s been told has ‘run away’. When told that’s not the case she returns to sulking. Dad has a bright idea, to take her to a factory where they make robots in order to show Gloria that Robbie is not human, doesn’t have personality, is just an assemblage of cogs and wires. Unbeknown to Gloria or his wife, George has in fact arranged for Robby to be on the production line. Gloria spots him, goes mad with joy and runs across to him – straight into the path of a huge tractor. Before any of the humans can react, Robbie with robot speed hurtles across the shop floor and scoops Gloria out of danger.

This story, like the others, is supposed to give rise to some kind of debate about whether robots are human, have morals, are safe and so on. Well, since it is nearly 2019 and we still don’t have workable robots, that debate is fantasy, and this is a sweet, cheapjack story, written with flash and humour.

2. Runaround (March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction)

It is 2005 and two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, have been sent to Mercury along with Robot SPD-13, known as ‘Speedy’. Ten years earlier an effort to colonise Mercury had been abandoned. Now the pair are trying again with better technology. They’ve inhabited the abandoned buildings the previous settlers left behind but discovered that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are low on selenium and will soon fail.

The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away Donovan has sent Speedy to get some. Hours have gone by and he’s still not returned. So the story is a race against time.

But it is also a complicated use of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The pair discover down in the bowels of the abandoned building some primitive robots who carry them through the shade of low hills as close to the selenium pool and Speedy as they can get. (If they go into the direct light of the sunlight they will begin to be irreparably damaged, even through spacesuits, by the fierce radioactive glare.)

They see and hear Speedy (by radio) and discover he appears to be drunk, reciting the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Three Laws of Robotics are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now because Speedy was so expensive to build, the Third Law had been strengthened to preserve him and he has discovered something neither spaceman anticipated, which is that near the selenium are pools of iron-eating gas – much of Speedy being made of iron. When Donovan sent him to get some selenium he didn’t word the command particularly strongly.

So what’s happened is that, in Speedy’s mind, the second and third laws have come into conflict and given Speedy a sort of nervous breakdown. Hence the drunk-like behaviour. He approaches the selenium in obedience to the second law; but then detects the gas and backs away.

The astronauts try several tactics, including getting their robots to fetch, and then lob towards the selenium pool, canisters of oxalic acid to neutralise the carbonic gas. Eventually they tumble to the only thing which will trump laws 2 and 3, which is law 1. Powell walks out of the shadow of the bluff where they’ve been sheltering, into full sunlight, and calls to Speedy (over the radio) that the radiation is hurting him and begging Speedy to help. Law one overrides the other two and Speedy, restored to full working order, hurtles over, scoops him up and carries him into the protective shade.

At which point they give Speedy new instructions to collect the selenium, emphasising that it is life or death for them whether the photo-cell banks are replenished. With the full force of Law One behind him, this time Speedy overrides Law three (self protection) fetches loads of selenium, they fix the cells, everyone happy.

3. Reason (April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A year later the same ill-fated couple of spacemen are moved to a space station orbiting the sun whose task is to focus the sun’s energy into a concentrated beam which is then shot back to a received on earth. They finish constructing one of the first of a new range of robots, QT-1, who they nickname ‘Cutie’, and are disconcerted when it starts to question them. Specifically, it refuses to believe that they made it. In a series of increasingly rancorous conversations, Cutie dismisses the men as flimsy assemblages of blood and flesh, obviously not built to last.

Cutie eventually decides that the main power source of the ship must be the ‘Master’.He dismisses all the evidence of space, visible from the ship’s portholes, and all the books aboard the ship, as fables and fantasies designed to occupy the ‘lower’ minds of the men.

No, Cutie has reasoned itself into the belief that ‘There is no Master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet.’ Despite this it carried on going about its duties, namely supervising the less advanced robots in the various tasks of keeping the space station maintained. Until the guys realise, to their further consternation, that Cutie has passed his religion on to them and they now refuse to obey the humans. In fact they pick up the humans, take them to their living quarters and lock them in under house arrest.

Powell and Donovan become very anxious because a solar storm is expected which will make the immensely high-powered beam to the earth waver and wobble. Even a little amount will devastate hundreds of square miles back on earth. But to their amazement, and relief, Cutie manages the beam perfectly, countering for the impact of the solar storm far better than they could have. At some (buried) level Cutie is still functioning according the 1st and 2nd laws i.e. protecting humans. The pair end up wondering whether a robot’s nominal ‘beliefs’ matter at all, so long as it obeys the three laws and functions perfectly.

Although marked by Asimov’s trademark facetious humour, and despite the schoolboy level on which the ‘debate’ with the robot is carried out, and noting the melodramatic threat of the approach of the solar storm – this is still a humorous, effective short story.

4. Catch That Rabbit (February 1944  issue of Astounding Science Fiction )

It’s those two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, again. They’re jokey banter is laid on with a trowel and reeks of fast-talking, wise-cracking comedians of the era.

Powell said, ‘Mike — you’re right.’
‘Thanks, pal. I knew I’d do it some day.’
‘All right, and skip the sarcasm. We’ll save it for Earth, and preserve it in jars for future long, cold winters.’

The plot is comparable to the previous story. Now they’re on an asteroid mining station where a ‘master’ robot – nicknamed Dave because his number is DV-5 – is in charge of six little worker robots – nicknamed the ‘fingers’ – digging up some metal ore. Problem is they’re not  hitting their quotas and, when Powell and Donovan eavesdrop on the worker robots via a visi-screen, they are appalled to see that, as soon as their backs are turned, Dave leads the other six in vaudeville dance routines!

After much head-scratching and trying out various hypotheses – as in the previous story – they eventually tumble to the problem. The trouble seems to kick off whenever Dave encounters a slight problem. So it would seem that supervising six robots is simply too much of a strain, when an additional problem is added. Solution? Eliminate one of the robots. Dave can handle the remaining five, plus whatever issues arise in the blasting and mining operation, just fine.

There is, however, a typically cheesy Asimov punchline. So what’s with the chorus line dancing? Donovan asks. Powell replies that when Dave was stymied and his processors couldn’t decide what to do – he resorted to ‘twiddling his fingers‘ boom boom!

5. Liar! (May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Accidentally, a robot is manufactured which can read human minds. With typical Yank levity it is nicknamed Herbie, since its number is RB-34. U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc mathematician Peter Bogert and robopsychologist Susan Calvin, at various points, interview it. Now Herbie, as well as answering their questions, reads what’s on their minds, namely that Bogert wants to replace Lanning as head of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc, and that Calvin is frustratedly in love with a young officer at the firm, Milton Ashe.

To their delight, Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning has handed in his resignation and nominated Bogert to replace him, and tells Calvin that Ashe is in love with her too.

Their happiness doesn’t last. When Bogert confronts Lanning with news of his resignation, the latter angrily denies it. Calvin is on the point of declaring her feelings for Ashe, when the latter announces that he soon to marry his fiancee.

In the climactic scene the four character confront Herbie with his ‘lies’ and it is Calvin who stumbles on the truth. Herbie can read minds. He knows what his human interlocutors wish. He knows revealing that those wishes are unrequited or untrue will psychologically damage them. He is programmed to obey the First Law of Robotics i.e. no robot must harm a human being. And so he lies to them. He tells them what they want to hear.

Beside herself with anger (and frustration) Calvin taunts the cowering robot into a corner of the room and eventually makes its brain short circuit.

Little Lost Robot (March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

On Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive. One of their robots goes missing. US Robots’ Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, are called in to investigate.

They are told that the Nestor (a characteristic nickname for a model NS-2 robot) was one of a handful which had had its First Law of Robotics amended. They learn that, as part of their work, the ether scientists on Hyper Base have to expose themselves to risky levels of gamma rays, albeit for only short, measured periods. They and their managers found the Nestors kept interfering to prevent them exposing themselves, or rushing out to fetch them back in – in rigid obedience to the first law, which is to prevent any humans coming from harm.

After the usual red herrings, arguments and distractions it turns out that a nervy physicist, Gerald Black, who had been working with the missing robot, had gotten angry and told it to ‘get lost’. Which is exactly what it proceeded to do. A shipment of 62 Nestors had docked on its way off to some further destination. Next thing anyone knew there were 63 Nestors in its cargo hold and nobody could detected which of the 63 was the one which had had its First Law tampered with.

As usual Asimov creates a ‘race against time’ effect by having Calvin become increasingly concerned that Nestor 10 has not only ‘got lost’ but become resentful at being insulted by an inferior being’, and might carry on becoming more resentful until it plans something actively malevolent.

Calvin carries out a number of tests to try and distinguish Nestor 10, and becomes genuinely alarmed when entire cohorts of the nestors fail to react quickly enough to save a human (placed in a position of jeopardy for the sake of the experiment).

Finally, she catches it out by devising a test which distinguishes Nestor 10 as the only one which has received additional training in dealing with gamma radiation since arriving at the Hyper Drive base, the other 62 remaining ignorant.

After Nestor 10 has been revealed, Calvin sharply orders it to approach her, which it does, whining and complaining about its superiority and how it shouldn’t be treated like that and how it was ordered to lose itself and she mustn’t reveal its whereabouts… and attacks her. At which Black and Bogert flood the chamber with enough gamma rays to incapacitate it. it is destroyed, the other 62 ‘innocent’ nestors are trucked off to their destination.

Once again, this story is a scary indictment of the whole idea of robots, if it turns out that corporations can merrily tamper with the laws of robotics in order to save money, or get a job done, well, obviously they will. In which case the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Escape! (August 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Published in the month that the War in the Pacific – and so the Second World War – ended, after the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan.

In that month’s issues of Astounding Science Fiction readers learned that U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. possess a Giant Brain, a positronic doodah floating in a helium globe, supported by wires etc. Reassuringly, it is a chattily American brain:

Dr. Calvin said softly, ‘How are you, Brain?’
The Brain’s voice was high-pitched and enthusiastic, ‘Swell, Miss Susan.’

A rival firm approaches U.S. Robot etc. It too is working on a hyperdrive and, when its scientists fed all the information into their supercomputer, it crashed. Tentatively, our guys agree to feed the same info into The Brain. Now the thing about the Brain is it is emotionally a child. Dr Calvin thinks that this is why it manages to process the same information which blew up the rival one: because it doesn’t take the information so seriously – particularly the crucial piece of information that, during the hyperdrive, human beings effectively die.

It swallows all the information and happily agrees to make the ship in question. Within a month or so the robots it instructs have built a smooth shiny hyperdrive spaceship. It is over to the two jokers we’ve met in the earlier stories, Powell land Donovan, Mike and Greg, to have a look. But no sooner are they in it than the doors lock and it disappears into space. Horrified at being trapped, the two men wisecrack their way around their new environment. Horrified at losing two test pilots in a new spaceship Dr Calvin very carefully interviews The Brain. Oh, they’ll be fine, it says, breezily.

Meanwhile, Mike and Greg undergo the gut-wrenching experience of hyperspace travel and – weird scenes – imagine themselves dead and queueing up outside the Pearly Gates to say hello to old St Peter. When they come round from these hallucinations, they look at the parsec-ometer on the control board and realise it is set at 300,000.

They were conscious of sunlight through the port. It was weak, but it was bluewhite – and the gleaming pea that was the distant source of light was not Old Sol.
And Powell pointed a trembling finger at the single gauge. The needle stood stiff and proud at the hairline whose figure read 300,000 parsecs.
Powell said, ‘Mike if it’s true, we must be out of the Galaxy altogether.’
Donovan said, ‘Blazed Greg! We’d be the first men out of the Solar System.’
‘Yes! That’s just it. We’ve escaped the sun. We’ve escaped the Galaxy. Mike, this ship is the answer. It means freedom for all humanity — freedom to spread through to every star that exists — millions and billions and trillions of them.’

Eventually the spaceship returns to earth, joking Mike and Greg stumble out, unshaven and smelly, and are led off for a shower.

Dr Calvin explains to an executive board (i.e. all the characters we’ve met in the story, including Mike and Dave) that the equations they gave The Brain included the fact that humans would ‘die’ – their bodies would be completely disassembled, as would the molecules of the space ship – in order for it to travel through hyperspace. It was this knowledge of certain ‘death’ which had made the rivals’ computer – obeying the First Law of Robotics – short circuit.

But Dr Calvin had phrased the request in such a way to The Brain as to downplay the importance of death. (In fact this is a characteristic Asimovian play with words – Dr Calvin’s instructions to The Brain made no sense when I read them, and only make sense now, when she uses them as an excuse for why The Brain survived but the rival supercomputer crashed.

Like most of Asimov’s stories, there is a strong feeling of contrivance, that stories, phrases or logic are wrenched out of shape to deliver the outcome he wants. This makes them clever-clever, but profoundly unsatisfying, and sometimes almost incomprehensible.)

Anyway, The Brain still registered the fact the testers would ‘die’ (albeit they would be reconstituted a millisecond later) and this is the rather thin fictional excuse given for the fact that the Brain retreated into infantile humour – designing a spaceship which was all curves, providing the testers with food – but making it only baked beans and milk, providing toilet facilities – but making them difficult to find, and so on. Oh, and ensuring that at the moment of molecular disintegration, the testers had the peculiar jokey experience of queueing for heaven, of hearing their fellow waiters and some of the angels all yakking like extras in a 1950s musical. That was all The Brain coping with its proximity to breaking the First Law by retreating into infantile humour.

Follow all that? Happy with that explanation? Happy with that account of how the human race makes the greatest discovery in its history?

Or is it all a bit too much like a sketch from the Jerry Lee Lewis show?

Lanning raised a quieting hand, “All right, it’s been a mess, but it’s all over. What now?’
‘Well,’ said Bogert, quietly, “obviously it’s up to us to improve the space-warp engine. There must be some way of getting around that interval of jump. If there is, we’re the only organization left with a grand-scale super-robot, so we’re bound to find it if anyone can. And then — U. S. Robots has interstellar travel, and humanity has the opportunity for galactic empire.’ !!!

Evidence (September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A story about a successful politician, Stephen Byerley. Having been a successful attorney he is running for mayor of a major American city. His opponent, Francis Quinn, claims he is a robot, built by the real Stephen Byerley who was crippled in a car accident years earlier.

The potential embarrassment leads U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. to send their top robosychologist test whether Byerley is a robot or not.

  • She offers him an apple and Byerley takes a bite, but he may have been designed with a stomach.
  • Quinn sends a journalist with a hidden X-ray camera to photograph Byerley’s insides, but Byerley is protected by some kind of force shield

Quinn and Calvin both make a big deal of the fact that Byerley, if a robot, must obey the three Laws of Robotics i.e. will be incapable of harming a human. This becomes a centrepiece of the growing opposition to Byerley, stoked by Quinn’s publicity machine.

During a globally broadcast speech to a hostile audience, a heckler climbs onto the stage and challenges Byerley to hit him in the face. Millions watch the candidate punch the heckler in the face. Calvin tells the press that Byerley is human. With the expert’s verdict disproving Quinn’s claim, Byerley wins the election.

Afterwards, Calvin visits Byerley and shrewdly points out that the heckler may have been a robot, manufactured by Byerley’s ‘teacher’, a shady figure who has gone ‘to the country’ to rest and who both Calvin and Quin suspect is the real Byerley, hopelessly crippled but with advanced robotics skills.

This is one of the few stories where Asimov adds linking material in which the elderly Calvin tells the narrator-reporter than Byerley arranged to have his body ‘atomised’ after his death, so nobody ever found out.

All very mysterious and thrilling for the nerdy 14-year-old reader, but the adult reader can pick a million holes in it, such as the authorities compelling Byerley to reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious ‘teacher’ or compelling him to have an x-ray.

The Evitable Conflict (June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

The Byerley story turns out to be important because this same Stephen Byerley goes on to become the head of the planetary government, or World Co-Ordinator, as it is modestly titled

The story is a fitting end to the sequence because it marks the moment when robots – which we saw, in Robbie as little more than playthings for children in 1998 – taking over the running of the world by the 2050s.

Byerley is worried because various industrial projects – a canal in Mexico, mines in Spain – are falling behind. Either there’s something wrong with the machines which, by this stage, are running everything… or there is human sabotage.

He calls in Susan Calvin, by this stage 70 years old and the world’s leading expert on robot psychology.

She listens as Byerley gives her a detailed description of his recent tour of the Four Regions of Earth (and the 14 year old kid reader marvels and gawps at how the planet will be divided up into four vast Regions, with details of which one-time ‘countries’ they include, their shiny new capital cities, their Asian, Africa and European leaders who Byerley interviews).

This is all an excuse for Asimov to give his teenage view of the future which is that rational complex calculating Machines will take over the running of everything. The coming of atomic power, and space travel, will render the conflict between capitalism and communism irrelevant. The European empires will relinquish their colonies which will become free and independent. And all of humanity will realise, at the same time, that there is no room any more for nationalism or political conflicts. It will become one world. Everyone will live in peace.

Ahhh isn’t that nice.

Except for this one nagging fact — that some of the projects overseen by the Machines seem to be failing. Byerley tells Calvin his theory. There is a political movement known as the Society for Humanity. It can be shown that the men in charge of the Mexican canal, the Spanish mines and the other projects which are failing are all members of the Society for Humanity. Obviously they are tampering with figures or data in order to sabotage project successes, to reintroduce shortages and conflicts and to discredit the Machines. Therefore, Byerley tells Calvin, he proposes having every member of the Society for Humanity arrested and imprisoned.

Calvin – and this is a typical Asimov coup, to lead the reader on to expect one thing and then, with a whirl of his magician’s cape, to reveal something completely different – Calvin says No. He has got it exactly wrong. the Machines, vastly complex, proceeding on more data than any one human could ever manage, and continually improving, acting under an expanded version of the First Law of Robotics – namely that no robot or machine must harm humanity – have detected that the Society for Humanity presents a threat to the calm, peaceful, machine-controlled future of humanity – and so the machines have falsified the figures and made the projects fail — precisely in order to throw suspicion on the Society for Humanity, precisely to make the World Co-Ordinator arrest them, precisely in order to eliminate them.

In other words, the Machines have now acquired enough data about the world and insight into human psychology, as to be guiding humanity’s destiny. It is too late to avert or change, she tells Byerley. They are in control now.

Despite its silliness, it is nonetheless a breath-taking conclusion to the book, and, as with the Foundation stories, makes you feel like you really have experienced a huge and dazzling slab of mankind’s future.


Comments

The inadequacy of the Three Laws epitomises the failure of all attempts to replicate the human mind

I suppose this has occurred to everyone who’s ever read these stories, but the obvious thing about them is that every single story is about robots going wrong. This doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a robotic future.

A bit more subtly, what they all demonstrate is that ‘morality’ is a question of human interpretation: people interpret situations and decide how to act accordingly. This interpretative ability cannot be replicated by machines, computers, artificial intelligence, call them what you will. It probably never will for the simple reason that it is imperfect, partial and different in each individual human. You will never be able to programme ‘robots’ with universal laws of behaviour and morality, when these don’t even exist among humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics sound impressive to a 14-year-old sci-fi nerd, or as the (shaky) premise to a series of pulp sci-fi stories – but the second you begin trying to apply them to real life situations (for example, two humans giving a robot contradictory orders) you immediately encounter problems. Asimov’s Three Laws sound swell, but they are, in practice, useless. And the fact that the robots in the stories seem to do nothing but break down, demonstrates the problem.

Neither the human mind nor the human body can be replicated by science

Asimov predicted that humans would have developed robots by now (2018, when I write), indeed by the 1990s.

Of course, we haven’t. This is because nobody understands how the human brain works and no technologists have come anywhere near replicating its functionality. They never will. The human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It has taken about three billion years to evolve (if we start back with the origin of life on earth). The idea that guys in white coats in labs working with slide rules can come anywhere close to matching it in a few generations is really stupid.

And that’s just human intelligence. On the physical side, no scientists have created ‘robots’ with anything like the reaction times and physical adroitness of even the simplest animals.

We don’t need robots since we have an endless supply of the poor

Apart from the a) physical and b) mental impossibility of creating ‘robots’ with anything remotely like human capacities, the most crucial reason it hasn’t happened is because there is no financial incentive whatsoever to create them.

We have cheap robots already, they are called migrant workers or slaves, who can be put to work in complex and demanding environments – showing human abilities to handle complex situations, perform detailed and fiddly tasks – for as little as a dollar a day.

Charities estimate there are around 40 million slaves in the world today, 2018. So why waste money developing robots? Even if you did develop ‘robots’, could they be as cheap to buy and maintain as human slaves? Would they cost a dollar a day to run? No.

Only in certain environments which require absolutely rigid, inflexible repetitive tasks, and which are suitable for long-term heavy investment because of the certainty of return, have anything like robots been deployed, for example on the production lines of car factories.

But these are a million miles away from the robots Asimov envisaged, which you can sit down and chat to, let alone pass for human, as R. Daneel Olivaw does in Asimov’s robot novels.

All technologies break

And the last but not the least objection to Asimov’s vision of a robot-infested future is that all technologies break. Computers fail. Look at the number of incidents we’ve had just in the past month or so of major breakdowns by computer networks, and these are networks run by the biggest, richest, safest, most supervised, cleverest companies in the world.

On 6 December 2018 around 30 million people use the O2 network suffered a complete outage of the system. The collapse affected 25 million O2 subscribers, customers of Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, business such as Deliveroo, the digital systems on board all 8,500 London buses, and systems at some hospitals.

In September 2018 Facebook admitted that at least 50 million accounts had been hacked, with a poissible 40 million more vulnerable. Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp are also affected along with apps and services such as Tinder that authenticate users through Facebook.

In April 2018 TSB’s banking online banking service collapsed following a botched migration to a new platform. Some customers were unable to access their accounts for weeks afterwards. About 1,300 customers were defrauded, 12,500 closed their accounts and the outage cost the bank £180 million.

These are just the big ones I remember from the past few months, and the ones we got to hear about (i.e. weren’t hushed up). In the background of our lives and civilisation, all computer networks are being attacked, failing, crashing, requiring upgrades, or proper integration, or becoming obsolete, all of the time. If you do any research into it you’ll discover that the computer infrastructure of the international banks which underpin global capitalism are out of date, rickety, patched-up, vulnerable to hacking but more vulnerable to complex technical failures.

In Asimov’s world of advanced robots, there is none of this. The robots fix each other and all the spaceships, they are – according to the final story – ‘self-correcting’, everything works fine all the time, leaving humans free to swan around making vast conspiracies against each other.

This is the biggest fantasy or delusion in Asimov’s universe. Asimov’s fictions give no idea at all of the incomprehensible complexity of a computerised world and – by extension – of all human technologies and, by a further extension, of human societies.


Asimov breaks the English language

Asimov is a terrible writer, hurried, slapdash, trying to convey often pretty simple emotional or descriptive effects through horribly contorted phraseology.

As I read I could hear a little voice at the back of my mind, and after a while realised it was the voice of the English language, crying out as if from a long distance away, ‘Help me! Save me! Rescue me from this murderer!’

The main corridor was a narrow tunnel that led in a hard, clatter-footed stretch along a line of rooms of no interdistinguishing features.

Harroway had no doubt on the point of to whom he owed his job.

Dr. Lanning smiled in a relief tangible enough to make even his eyebrows appear benevolent.

The signal-burr brought all three to a halt, and the angry tumult of growingly unrestrained emotion froze.

The two giant robots were invisible but for the dull red of their photoelectric eyes that stared down at them, unblinking, unwavering and unconcerned. Unconcerned! As was all this poisonous Mercury, as large in jinx as it was small in size.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

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

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

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

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

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