Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard (1994)

‘Is this how new religions begin?’ (Neil to Carline)

The problem with Ballard’s later novels

Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) are powerful displays of fictional autobiography, of Ballard taking autobiographical elements from his life and creating highly contrived, posed and arranged scenes and narratives, which both display the autobiographical roots of his peculiar imagination and arrange and elaborate them for purely fictional purposes.

However, as if in some Faustian fable, the imaginative effort which went into creating these two highly crafted novels seems to have involved some kind of trade-off, seemed to use up his ability to conceive decent plots or stories which adequately support, justify and contextualise his weird imaginative insights, obsessions and language.

What I mean is: the three early ‘disaster’ novels, and then the three ‘urban disaster’ novels of the 1970s, and then the two autobiographical novels, are all centred on clear narrative ideas which justify his dazed, feverish way of looking at the world. That the characters in The Drowned WorldThe Drought or The Crystal World go slowly mad seems a wholly adequate response to the extreme situations they find themselves in. Ditto Crash and High Rise where we accompany relatively small groups of people step by step as they go to pieces.

The power of all these books derives from the way you can half imagine yourself responding sort of the same way. Empire of the Sun may appear to be a realistic autobiography, but it is in fact very artfully designed – very focused in conception and shape and pattern to – again – draw us in to what, when you really examine it, is a tissue of feverish hallucinations and extreme mental states.

Ballard had already turned his back on traditional science fiction by the time of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) in order to focus on the intense and claustrophobic urban situations depicted in CrashConcrete Island and High Rise. The intensity is achieved by having small casts, set in concrete urban environments, who go to pieces. It helps that all three of these books are also relatively short, so that they read more like novellas, their brevity contributing to the feeling that they have an almost allegorical simplicity you get from fables.

However, around the time of Empire of the Sun (1984), and maybe as a result of writing it, Ballard seems to have made a conscious decision to let his fiction become longer and more discursive. As a result it becomes less focused. Since the stories are longer he comes to rely on plot structures which are much more ‘conventional’ than anything that came before, set in recognisably contemporary places, and featuring larger and larger casts of people. (He also comes to copy the plots of previous ‘classic’ novels, as I’ll explain below.)

The problem with all this is that contact with the modern world and a wider cast of characters somehow highlights how narrow, intense, weird and, ultimately, how unreal, unique and idiosyncratic Ballard’s vision is.

When one man, Robert Maitland, is marooned in a stretch of waste land between two motorway spurs, and goes hungry, and thirsty and becomes malnourished and feverish and eventually goes schizo, the reader can go all the way with Ballard because it is just one man, and accidents and extreme things do happen to individuals, and it is a short, punchy narrative which has the super-real power of a fable or deranged fairy tale.

However, in the later novels, Ballard takes on the attempt of describing relatively large groups of people, in a recognisably contemporary world, in the kinds of situation many of us might have experienced ourselves – and this results in the reader finding themselves repeatedly thinking, ‘Well, that just wouldn’t happen’, or ‘I just don’t believe they’d behave like that.’

Rushing to Paradise 1

Take Rushing to Paradise. A discredited English doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who’s a doctor), Dr Barbara Rafferty, a 40-year-old obsessive, was struck off the Medical Register for euthanasing some old ladies in England. She left the UK, knocked around the world a bit and has ended up running a home for disabled children in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Here she learns from Kimo, a disgruntled Hawaiian policeman (who got fired from the force because of his obsession with setting up an independent Hawaiian nation and kicking out the American tourists) that the French military are reopening a nuclear testing facility on Saint-Esprit, a remote atoll 600 miles from Hawaii and, in so doing, are wiping out the colonies of rare albatross that live there.

At a stroke Dr Rafferty takes up the cause of the albatross and starts carrying a banner reading SAVE THE ALBATROSS and hanging round posh Honolulu restaurants haranguing rich diners.

It’s outside one of these posh restaurants that rootless 16-year-old, Neil Dempsey, having just had dinner with his mother and American step-father, sees her being pushed around by security guards and takes pity on her.

Dempsey is the son of a London radiologist who died three years earlier. He is obsessed with nuclear weapons and abandoned nuclear test sites, partly because his father had attended the British nuclear trials held at the Maralinga test site in Australia, and his widow (Neil’s mother) claims that her husband’s cancer could be traced back to these poorly monitored atomic explosions.

Neil was brought out to Hawaii by his widowed mother who has fallen in love with an American colonel in the Marines, Colonel Stamford, but Neil packs in school, becomes a beach bum, and develops into a fit, long-distance swimmer who gets a job working as a part-time projectionist at the University of Hawaii.

When she learns about this job, Dr Rafferty is instantly convinced Neil must know all about cameras, so can film her heroic exploits, and bullies him into accompanying her and Kimo on a hired steamer all the way to the remote atoll.

Here they go ashore in an inflatable dinghy and are filming each other struggling to hang up one of her home-made SAVE THE ALBATROSS banners when a few lazy French troops emerge from the jungle and, when our little squad make a run for it, shoot Neil in the foot.

Cut to six weeks later and Neil has become a worldwide celebrity and poster boy for the environmental movement due to the footage of him being shot which has been shown on all the news channels. After remanding the hapless trio in custody for a few weeks, the French authorities had been forced by diplomatic and media pressure to repatriate them to Honolulu.

Here Neil watches from his hospital bed TV an endless loop of footage of environmental protests by students at universities round the world, intercut with Dr Rafferty making grandstanding speeches. She has become ‘the bag lady of the animal rights movement.’

She finds a sponsor, Irving Boyd, a reclusive thirty-five-year-old computer entrepreneur now living in Hawaii. He had recently retired after selling his software company in Palo Alto to a Japanese conglomerate, and is now devoting himself to wild-life causes, starting with media star Dr Barbara Rafferty. Boyd has donated the Dugong, a 300-ton Alaskan shrimp-trawler which he has had equipped as a floating marine laboratory, and which Dr Rafferty insists she’s going to sail right back to the Saint-Esprit.

Neil hobbles along to the Honolulu docks to watch the fuss around the Dugong as it is loaded with food and equipment, as tourists come down to watch and film it, as a pop up market appears to cater to the tourists, and as the whole ‘expedition’ turns into a media circus.

What is this book about?

At this stage, about page 60, I was really wondering what this book is ‘about’.

Is it a satire on the TV age, the media age, in which any damn fool with a cause can find themselves at the centre of a media storm?

‘The Dugong‘s a stage-set, Dr Barbara. Like the replica of the Bounty. For him everything turns into television.’ (Neil to Dr Rafferty)

Ballard was obsessed with television. The psychological impact of the supposedly desensitising affect of endless atrocity footage from Vietnam and Africa is at the core of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.

The simultaneously alienating and empowering power of the camera is also a recurrent theme in his fiction. In High Rise it is attached to the figure of the TV documentary film-maker, Richard Wilder, who makes a long, arduous and doomed ascent of the vast luxury high rise carrying his trusty ciné-camera, long after it has been smashed beyond repair and become a psychological talisman rather than a rational aid.

A central sidekick character in Day of Creation is the academic-turned-TV-star, Professor Sangar, who flies in with the full panoply of TV cameras and lights and tapes and monitors and editing machines so he can make a documentary about his heroic efforts to feed Africa, a plan which goes badly awry.

And one of the handful of recurring characters in the supposedly autobiographical book The Kindness of Women is Professor Richard Sutherland, psychologist-turned-TV pundit, whose scenes provide Ballard the opportunity for extended conversations / meditations on the peculiarly alienating effects of TV, which makes everything histrionic and fake while at the same time making even the genuinely weird seem domesticated and tame.

Is that the way to read this novel, as an extended riff on the theme of television fame, the odd combination of super-saturation and utter vacuousness which television creates?

Rushing to Paradise 2

No, is the short answer.

It turns out to be another utterly Ballardian vision of decline and fall, of the physical, moral and psychological collapse of a small group of initially posh, intelligent, middle-class types who end up hunting each other like feral animals.

It turns out, in other words, to be a rewrite of Lord of the Flies for the TV age. At the last minute Neil is persuaded to join Dr Rafferty on the second expedition, kidding himself that he is going to ‘look after’ her. Also on the team are:

  • Monique Didier, in her late thirties, daughter of one of France’s first animal rights activists, the writer and biologist René Didier. She and her father had set up a wild-life sanctuary in the Pyrenees for an endangered colony of bears. For years they endured the abuse and hostility of local farmers angered by the bears’ sheep-killing and their sentimentalised image in the metropolitan press. All this had made Monique prickly and defensive, but she was dedicated to her campaign, brow-beating her first-class passengers on the Paris-New York and Paris-Tokyo runs. After repeated warnings, Air France had lost patience and sacked her
  • A young Japanese couple, Professor Saito and his wife, professional botanists, who abandon their careers at the University of Kyoto to join Dr Barbara’s crusade.
  • A film crew of three – Australian director Janet Bracewell, camera-man, her American husband Mark, and Indian sound-recordist, Vikram Pratap
  • David Carline, the last volunteer to join the expedition. The president of a small pharmaceutical company in Boston, he had been on holiday in Honolulu when he learned of Dr Barbara and her mission to save the albatross. The family firm had for decades supplied its pharmaceuticals to the third world, and Canine had frequently taken leaves of absence to join American missionary groups in Brazil and the Congo, teaching in mission schools and delivering lay sermons at the open-air church services.
  • Captain Wu and his seven Filipino crew crew

When they arrive at the atoll after weeks at sea, things take an ominous and tragic turn. The Dugong is menaced by a French frigate which cuts across its bows and, in a freak miscalculation, sheers of the stern railing and walkway, tipping the cameraman, Mark Bracewell, into the sea where he is crushed to death between the hulls of the two boats. Mourning. Grief. The French crew take the expedition members aboard and give them medical treatment. The Dugong drifts onto the reef outside the atoll, where it is holed and starts leaking polluting engine oil. The crew go ashore to bury Bracewell, stay in makeshift tents and when they wake up – the French have gone. The French authorities recognise bad publicity when they see it and have decided to abandon the atoll and announce the cancellation of any forthcoming tests.

Our heroes are alone on the island with their passion and their albatrosses.

They had taken footage of the Dugong resisting the beastly French, which had been beaming out live to a worldwide audience of millions via Irving Boyd’s state of the art satellite technology, so a huge audience had watched Bracewell die on live TV.  The result is that a flotilla of volunteers and supporters deluge the atoll, bringing food and volunteers. Dr Rafferty gives TV interviews declaring the atoll a sanctuary and refuge for endangered species from around the world, and donors give greenhouses and human cages and all the equipment you need to house and nurture rare species.

The motley crew of nine (Rafferty, Neil, Kimo, Carline, Monique, the Saitos, Janet, and Vikram) begins setting up a camp and for months afterwards they find a) regular planes flying into the military runway bringing generous donations of food from round the world and b) a steady stream of ships, yachts and schooners anchoring inside the atoll’s reef and coming to interview the noble environmentalists, or also bringing endangered plants and animals from around the world.

The middle part of the book lists the various boats with oddballs, fanatics and genuine helpers who anchor and hang out, before moving on. One bunch who stay is a quartet of German hippies who arrive in a dishevelled yacht painted psychedelic colours, the Parsifal, and set up their own little camp on the beach, nursing a Downs Syndrome child, Gubby, between them.

But what follows is not a David Attenborough documentary. It is not only like Lord of the Flies but like The Beach by Alex Garland which was published two years after Ballard’s novel.

For weird changes are afoot. The relentless intrusion of the outside world makes Dr Rafferty increasingly antagonistic and bitter. She persuades them to pull down the French army’s radio aerial across the atoll’s military runway. The American, David Carline, had enjoyed running the radio shack which he used to guide planes with donations and supplies into the French airstrip, but one night it is burned to the ground. No more planes, no more of the generous supplies which were being landed every month by Captain Garfield, the cheerful sixty-year-old Queenslander.

The German hippies are always hanging round cadging food and one evening Dr Rafferty persuades the impressionable Neil to fire up the massive bulldozer the French left behind, and to bulldoze all the crates of food and material brought from the outside world, pushing them across the beach and into the sea. Now, Dr Rafferty beams at the dazed and appalled members of hewr little crew who have woken to find this sabotage being carried out. They will have to be strong, they will have to provide for themselves.

And so they have to turn to foraging, to finding yams and beating yarrow to make it edible. They lose weight. They develop sores and ulcers. Dr Rafferty eggs them on with over-bright eyes.

Ballard has turned the tropical paradise they arrived at into a passable imitation of the Lunghua Internment Camp whose long shadow hangs over Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991). An outbreak of diarrhea weakens everyone. Dr Rafferty takes to lecturing everyone that the men are particularly weak, worn out by centuries of competition and fighting.

Slowly, the colony becomes more feral. The gung-ho American, Carline, takes to organising night-time ‘attacks’ on the German hippies in which the more fired-up colonists blow a whistle and then charge the hippies’ ramshackle tent on the beach, knocking it over, waving flaming brands in their faces, Neil accidentally swings a club into the (defunct) television screen they’d half embedded in the sand, shattering broken glass everywhere. The laid-back daytime activities of sunbathing and lazing give way to something much darker at night-time.

In the same spirit, everyone is shocked one evening to see the ramshackle yacht the hippies arrived on, the so-called Parsifal covered in psychedelic patterns, burning, all the masts and rigging burning down. Now even more impoverished and wretched, the hippies come begging to the main camp every day until Dr Rafferty loses her temper and declares no-one is to give them any more food, forcing a kind of moral decision on the colonists, whether to follow their conscience, or obey the Fuehrer. Most obey.

Gubby, the Downs Syndrome child of the German hippies, comes down with diarrhea and Dr Rafferty reluctantly agrees to admit it to her ‘clinic’ and treats it carefully, even as its condition deteriorates. Eventually Gubby dies.

Monique had been joined, back in the early weeks while there was still contact with the outside world, by her ageing father, René Didier the famous environmentalist. Now he too becomes very ill, bed-ridden, and one night dies of a stroke.

But Neil sees the pillow which he suspects Dr Rafferty held over Gubby’s face. And later sees the same marks and a few bloodstains on René Didier’s pillow.

The other men fall ill. Professor Saito keeps himself to himself in the special greenhouse he’s constructed from donated material to house his collection of rare fungi. But he too falls ill and, the more Dr Rafferty tends him in her ‘clinic’, the sicker he becomes.

Now, it is no secret that Dr Rafferty was struck off for performing illegal euthanasia on her elderly patients back in Britain. Neil read the full details in a magazine profile of Rafferty published back in Honolulu. What puzzled me is that the book presents the sequence of events on the island as if it is all an imponderable mystery instead of being bleeding obvious. Neil is portrayed as going along with Dr Rafferty’s explanations for the mysterious deaths, despite the fact that we are told that he read about Dr Rafferty’s record of criminal euthanasia while he was in hospital in Honolulu. Later on, he admits that he’s known all along that Dr Rafferty is killing off the men, but at the time he is powerfully under her sway. We are meant to believe he knows and doesn’t know, at the same time. Basically, for me, this doesn’t work.

This is vividly demonstrated when the increasingly psychotic Dr Rafferty disappears after Gubby’s death. She just ups stumps and disappears.

Her crew are bereft without her but Neil, more given to roaming the atoll’s forest than the others, comes across her holed up in some kind of concrete bunker embedded in a cave half way up a densely forested hill. Here Dr Rafferty completes her domination and enslavement of Neil by a) getting him to help her steal endangered animals from the compound, whisk them away, and cook and eat them outside her cave; and b) having sex with him.

Swaying her shrivelled dugs over his face, Dr Rafferty rides Neil’s penis with feverish eyes until she climaxes, then stands over him and urinates all over the sores on his chest, before finally lying on his body and letting him stroke her fevered hair. Quite enough to enrapture any 16-year-old boy, let alone one already deranged by an obsession with nuclear war, and in the standard Ballard state of advanced malnutrition and feverish decay.

After a few weeks, Dr Rafferty returns to her colony and they, who had been bereft without her, welcome her back as a saviour. It turns out to have been a clever psychological move.

Throughout this long period of decline, as the mood darkens and intensifies, Neil is warned and protected by Major and Mrs Anderson, American donors who wisely choose to remain aboard their yacht anchored in the lagoon. Neil himself realises that they are just the latest in a succession of surrogate parents which he seems to attract.

In this respect he slowly comes to resemble, the wayward feverish teenage protagonist of Empire of the Sun right down to the way the others are always trying to ‘calm’ his feverish over-excitement.

But one night, as they are visiting ashore, the Andersons’ yacht, like the Germans’ before them, is hit by a drastic fire which burns most of the superstructure. The Major swiftly makes a decision to leave, totally sure the fire was no accident but arson. They don’t have many supplies and their dinghy was damaged in the fire but they sail off. As they leave, Neil happens to be swimming in the lagoon and finds himself swimming out to them, and for a few minutes believes he’s going to grasp the hand the Major is reaching out to him. But as usual, he is conflicted and ambiguous, and when voices call him from the shore he finds himself turning back, and watches the Andersons sail away as best they can in their damaged boat.

In among the other slow deteriorations in morale, as Professor Saito falls ill, as Kimo comes down with dysentery, the German men spend their time trying to repair what’s left of the Parsifal. One day the German hippy girls wake to discover their menfolk have left, sailed off in their leaky boat to get supplies from the nearest island. According to Dr Rafferty, that is. The characters appear to believe her, but the reader doesn’t, which makes the characters appear dim and slow.

Although the first flush of publicity has long waned, other boats do occasionally still call by the island, anchor and come ashore. In every case all the women are welcomed ashore but, after a few days, their husband’s or parent’s boats abruptly leave, usually leaving a message with Dr Rafferty that they have left to go fetch food or cruise a bit more before returning…

Eventually, in a succession of dialogues, Dr Rafferty explains to Neil that she is building a feminist colony, a sanctuary for women.

‘Saint-Esprit isn’t a sanctuary for the albatross, it’s a sanctuary for women – or could be. We’re the most endangered species of all… Who were the first domesticated animals? Women! We
domesticated ourselves. But I know women are made of fiercer stuff. We have spirit, passion, fire, or used to. We can be cruel and violent, even more than men. We can be killers, Neil.’

Professor Saito wastes away and dies, but by this time his hard-eyed wife is so indoctrinated by Rafferty that she doesn’t care.

Part of the reason she doesn’t care is because she’s pregnant, but not by her husband. As the narrative becomes weirder and more intense, Dr Rafferty plays on Neil’s naivety and trust (and his strikingly fit, lean body and his teenage hormones) to suggest that he, er, impregnates all the women.

The idea takes a while for Neil to process, and maybe the women, too – and yet Ballard has, by now, created such a weird feeling about the island of dead men, that the reader accepts that the German hippy women, then angry Monique, and even fierce Mrs Saito, let him inseminate them. Or in Mrs Saito’s case, briskly and brutally milk him for his seed.

Other degradations happen. The women are now openly killing, butchering and cooking the once-precious endangered species. It is under the eerily empty eyes of these towers and bunkers, built to monitor nuclear test explosions across the lagoon four kilometers away, that this Lord of the Flies scenario plays out.

There are strange and beautiful descriptions of Neil learning to dive deeper and deeper into the reef offshore, in order to catch fish for the increasingly malnourished little crew. He finds that classic Ballard prop, a drowned warplane which crashed decades earlier, whose pilot was still in his straps but has long ago been eaten by the fishes.

Poor Kimo had been wasting away with the same illness as Professor Saito. He dies almost unnoticed.

Women recruits arrive in dribs and drabs: the Van Noort sisters, daughters of ‘an amiable Amsterdam architect and his handsome wife’ in the yacht Petrus Christus; two New Zealand nurses, Anne Hampton and Patsy Kennedy; the grand-daughters of a rich Canadian couple. They are welcomed, taken in, start helping with chores and maintenance. One night a few weeks later the van Noort parents ship anchor and sail away, leaving a message with Dr Rafferty for the girls that they had sailed for Tahiti and would return in a month or so’s time.

But a few days later, from up on the mountain, Neil realises he can make out the shape of a yacht sunk beyond the reef. Because he is the colony’s fit sea-diver it is easy for Neil to swim out and then down to the submerged yacht and to discover that is it the Petrus Christus, the yacht which brought the Dutch sisters. Not only that, but it is attended by a festival of fish, feasting on fresh food stored below decks. Having read one or two books, and seen one or two thrillers, the reader has a good idea what has happened. The parents have been murdered and their yacht scuttled.

Neil surfaces, swims ashore and rushes to tell Dr Rafferty about it but almost faints from hunger and the effort of diving and swimming. Dr Rafferty soothes him (‘calms him’ in the lexicon of the novel), deflects all his excited claims by saying he is tired, he needs rest, he should come to the clinic where she can look after him, and, pressed against her chest and smelling her smell, Neil falls under her sexual-psychological spell and forgets his urgent message.

He settles into the ‘clinic’ and into the same routine of ‘care’ as Dr Rafferty administered to Prof Saito and Kimo. Neil is reassured and soothed by her mothering presence even as he becomes more feverish and weak, but deep down knows what happened.

A few weeks later he wakes from his fever in the night and staggered to the doorway of the clinic where he had seen Carline, the only other man left in the expedition, and who continues to have a very odd, tangential relationship with the psychotic doctor, slipping down to the beach in the middle of one night and hours later, returned dripping wet. Next day, Neil overhears that the Canadian grand-parents have sailed off in the night but left a reassuring message with Dr Rafferty for their puzzled grandchildren. But now Neil knows now that Carline goes silently out to their yachts and kills them, all the inconvenient male or older relatives, sails the yachts a little beyond the reef, and scuttles them, leaving the colony of young women to grow.

Also on board the Petrus Christus when it first arrived had been a copper-skinned 14-year-old Moluccan cabin boy, Nihal. As Neil gets sicker and sicker in the so-called clinic, he is aware that all the by-now heavily pregnant women have taken to petting and feeding Nihal. He is their new favourite. Neil realises he is past his sell-by date. By now he is spending all his time in bed ill with an intense fever, in the same bed where Professor Saito sweated his last, and is being regularly injected by Dr Rafferty. He is so delusional that he still trusts her, and this is really the hardest part of the entire story to believe.

Problems with Rushing to Paradise

We are now in the final third of the book and there are two glaring objections to the whole thing:

  1. Neil is a bright boy. He must have known for a long time that Rafferty was becoming psychotic, had killed off the other men, commissioned Carline to murder the adult yachters, and is now killing him.
  2. For this long second half of the book I think readers are meant to be puzzled and a little unsure what’s happening, thus giving the book some elements of thriller or whodunnit… But – as Ballard’s earlier ‘whodunnit’, Running Wild – it was extremely obvious to me what was going on: that Dr Rafferty was going psychopath crazy from fairly early on, and then there were hundreds of clues all pointing one way.

Is the book intended to be a whodunnit? Is the reader meant not to understand what is going on? Are we meant to be on tenterhooks of suspense?

In which case it’s a fail, because not only is the entire decline and fall narrative super-familiar – it’s Ballard’s basic plot – but the ‘clues’ are so blatant as to generate no suspense and no tension at all.

Or is Neil’s slowness on the uptake meant to indicate the strange psychological hold Dr Rafferty exerts over everyone so that they all know exactly what is going on but accept it? This is a subtler artistic goal, and the book comes closer to achieving it, but it boils down to whether you go along with Neil’s self-deceit: this is why the backstory of his dead father, his distant mother and his obsession with nuclear test sites are so structurally important: they are meant to indicate that Neil was psychologically damaged or vulnerable from the start and so easily manipulable by Dr Rafferty even though he knew what was going on.

In a way the entire novel stands or falls on whether you accept the character of Neil and his schizophrenic gullibility.

By presenting events very artfully Ballard is able to elide obvious common-sense questions like: doesn’t Mrs Saito care that Dr Rafferty murdered her husband? Don’t the two German hippy girls care that Dr Rafferty murdered their child? Doesn’t Monique care that Dr Rafferty murdered her father? And doesn’t Neil, in the end, care that Dr Rafferty murdered the kindly gentle Hawaiian Kimo, and the whip-smart troubled Carline who always gave Jim, er I mean Neil, such good advice?

No. All of them are swept along by the logic of the narrative which can brook no hesitation or complications.

I’m guessing that in interviews about Rushing To Paradise Ballard would invoke the real-world example of the Jonestown Massacre (November 18, 1978) in which a total of 918 people died from cyanide poisoning, many murdered, but many willingly going to their deaths, and all overawed, frightened by or obedient to their charismatic leader Jim Jones. Or maybe the tragic events surrounding the Waco Siege, which reached its bloody climax in February 1993. Maybe he said this novel was an ‘investigation’ of the way one charismatic psychopath can come to dominate a group of submissive well-intentioned helots, and lead them eventually to their deaths…

But saying that something similar happened in real life doesn’t help you when your book is judged as a work of fiction. I mean it needs more than factual references indicating that something like this is possible. It needs to persuade us, to show us how it is possible.

I suppose Ballard and his supporters would argue that the novel is an extended fictional investigation of the nature of fanaticism and that the environmentalism topic is just a current, modish focal point for what has obviously been an enduring type of fanatical human behaviour. Ballard appears to have had a dim view of environmentalists, as this casual remark Super-Cannes suggests:

 ‘It could be racist, or some mad animal rights thing. Fanatical Greens always veer off-course, and end up trying to save the smallpox virus…’ (spoken by Paul Sinclair, the 1st-person narrator of Super-Cannes)

Ballard must have taken pleasure in conceiving the genuinely unnerving reversal of the entire colony’s environmentalist aims when we learn that, first Dr Rafferty, and then by insensible steps, all the other women, take to killing, butchering and cooking the endangered species which have been brought from all round the world and entrusted to their care, and which are meant to provide the colony with its raison d’etre, while Neil watches and accepts this, as he does every other twist and perversion of their original purpose.

All this sounds like a good idea, it is quite a good idea – the problem is whether you really believe or buy into the actual execution of it in this novel. I struggled.

Rushing to Paradise 3

Anyway, Neil is obviously being brought to death’s door by the good doctor’s ‘treatment’ when one day, by accident, he stumbles out of the ‘clinic’ and around Dr Rafferty’s vegetable garden which she’s been digging and preparing for as long as anyone can remember. Only to discover that this is quite literally where the bodies are buried. Delving with the spade sh’d left in the earth, Neil discovers that here are the two German hippies buried one on top of the other, and here is Carline who everyone had assumed had left with one of the many yachts which mysteriously vanished in the night, and here…. here is a shallow grave prepared for Neil, and already filled with his few spare clothes!

Finally, finally, sparked to act on all his knowledge and suspicions, Neil staggers off away from the settlement and up into the forested hillsides. Here there is freshwater, berries and he is able to kill wild animals and eat them raw. Slowly his ‘fever’ wears off and he realises the extent to which Dr Rafferty was poisoning him.

Several mornings in a row, he sneaks back to the camp and pinches the fresh bread left out to cool by Monique who has emerged as the baker among the colony of pregnant women. Except that the second time he tries it the women are lying in wait with knives and machetes. He is stabbed in the arm and has burning coals thrown over him before he can break out of the circle of vengeful women, and run off into the jungle.

The women chase him like maenads in a Greek myth but he has built up a good knowledge of the jungly hills and goes to ground in a cave and dozes. He wakes from a fevered sleep to realise the hillside is covered in smoke, The mad women are pouring gasoline from the French army bulldozer all over the hillside and setting fire to it.

At this point, I realised the narrative was following William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies not just in a general way, but has converged to become almost an exact copy. In the Golding book the schoolboys-turned-into-savages hunt the last decent boy, Jack, through the tropical forest, and set fire to it to flush him out.

Now we find Rafferty’s women doing exactly the same, setting fire to the island to flush Neil out.

And then, exactly as in Lord of the Flies, as the chase reaches its climax and the women confront Neil with their terrifying knives and are just about to kill their sacrificial victim… they all hear the sound of a helicopter overhead and then see a French naval vessel out at sea. The grown-ups are back. The descent into hell is over.

(Realising just how closely the climax of the book copies the climax of Lord of the Flies reminded me of how much Day of Creation mimics Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Ballard is not exactly plagiarising – the original stories are too well known for anyone to think he’s pinching them. On one level he is rewriting them for the age of satellite TV. On another level he is invoking their power as predecessors, as so many literary authors do. In another way he is laying claim to be the successor to these feted authors. There are probably other elements to it, but this deliberate echoing of two super-classic narratives in his two post-Empire novels is very noticeable.)

The women flee although the hillside is still in flames. Some time passes while Neil checks it is safe, and then makes his way by circuitous paths back to the camp. Here he wanders in a daze and discovers that half the women are lying dead in their bunks, the hard core followers Monique and Mrs Saito dead in each others’ arms, the other women dying of poisoning. Looks like Dr Rafferty persuaded them all to be injected with poison and end their lives rather than capitulate to the enemy or let the colony be broken up by the approaching French.

Just like Jim Jones persuaded all his followers to die rather than ‘surrender’ in the Jonestown Massacre.

Dr Rafferty has disappeared. The last Neil saw of her she had taken Carline’s gun and was shooting and stomping the dying albatrosses. Dying? Yes, for some time Dr Rafferty had been injecting poison into the fish on the shoreline which the albatross ate. Why? In order to exterminate them. Extermination. ‘Exterminate the brutes’ as Colonel Kurtz said. The degradation of the environmentalists’ cause into its exact opposite is symbolically complete.

Then she ran off into the forest.

Neil comes across some of the more recent converts, the New Zealand nurses and the Canadian girls, half conscious and is able to get them to vomit up the poison Dr Rafferty had administered and to massage their circulations back into life. And it was this obvious life-saving action, testified to by the survivors, which stands him in good stead when the French ship finally anchors and sends ashore a landing party. The French had been tipped off by Major and Mrs Anderson whose yacht did indeed sink, as Rafferty and Carline had intended, but who managed to survive and be picked up by a rescue ship. Now the French authorities come ashore and try to establish exactly what has happened in this madhouse.

Rather like the reader. The last word is given to Neil who lies to the authorities, telling them he saw Dr Rafferty running into the waves to her death. But she didn’t. She escaped into the jungle. And Neil knows that if she resurfaces, alive, and if she asked him to join her again on another of her expeditions… he would! Thus right to the end the psychological ambiguity of Neil is the keystone on which the entire narrative depends.


What was that all about?

It’s about so many things that, is Rushing to Paradise about anything in the end?

1. Television I dislike Ballard’s obsession with TV and the media, it feels sooo dated. I worked in broadcast TV from 1987 to 2000 and so much satire about TV, in my opinion, makes obvious points about celebrity and media circuses, goes on to claim that TV has created a new ‘reality’ and so on but somehow misses the point. The truth is subtler than that. Everyone knows that TV is not ‘reality’, but it does create a certain kind of discourse, or whole networks of discourse, which have a variety of effects, which would repay careful study, but… there’s nothing that subtle in this book. When Ballard writes that:

The endless bedside interviews and television appearances had done their work, Neil reflected. He was now a talisman of the animal rights movement, to be carried shoulder-high like the stuffed head of a slaughtered bison.

You reflect that it sounds good, but that TV celebrity is not actually like that. Ballard’s view on it is distorted by his wish to present it as some kind of latter-day religion, creating tribal totems. But even if we think about Greta Thunberg, who is quite a close comparison with Neil, the media discourses around her are more interesting, more complex, and far less melodramatic than what Ballard needs for his macabre tale of decline and fall.

2. Environmentalism Similarly for the big central theme of the novel which appears to be satirising environmental activism. No doubt there is a satirical novel to be written about Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but this isn’t it, not least because, by the end, the Lord of the Flies horror show has drowned out anything which isn’t drenched in blood and psychosis.

Satire works best when it has a sympathetic understanding of its subject, and knows just where to stick the knife for maximum effect, but in his book Ballard describes Dr Rafferty is a deranged old baglady from the beginning, and one with an unhealthy old lady-murdering past.

Friends of mine work for The Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Forestry Stewardship Council. The ambience and mindset is nothing at all like this book. Ballard isn’t interested in ‘investigating’ environmentalism, it’s just a hook for his enduring central obsession with mental collapse.

3. Feminism in the second half of the novel Dr Rafferty is given a stream of speeches promoting women, declaring women are stronger than men, that women do all the real work, women have more endurance yet are exploited and abused in the real world.

‘There are too many men, Neil. We simply don’t need so many men today. The biggest problem the world faces is not that there are too few whales or pandas, but too many men… Their time has passed, they belong with the dugong and the manatee. Science and reason have had their day, their place is the museum. Perhaps the future belongs to magic, and it’s we women who control magic. We’ll always need a few men, but very few, and I’m only concerned with the women. I want Saint-Esprit to be a sanctuary for all their threatened strengths, their fire and rage and cruelty…’

As she goes into a phase of declaring the island will be a sanctuary for women as well as other endangered species, women who, it turns out, will be fertilised by one tame male kept as a farm animal, but easily eliminated when he is surplus to requirements.

‘Men exhausted themselves building the world. Like tired children they’re always fighting each other, and they can’t see how they hurt themselves. It’s the women’s turn to take over now – we’re the only ones with the strength to go on. Think of all-women cities, Neil, parks and streets filled with women…’

If it had stopped there, the novel might have been a sort of satire on feminism, except that it, of course goes further, and in the end even Dr Rafferty’s beloved women, like her beloved albatrosses, turn out not to be up to her demanding vision, and she tries to exterminate both groups.

So what is it saying? That feminism – like environmentalism – is a creed which attracts homicidal maniacs? Or are both the environmentalism and feminism included solely to show how a psychopath can twist any cause, no matter how well-intended, to his or her purposes? Or did Ballard’s long-term girlfriend, Clare Churchill, just tell Ballard to put more feminism in his books?

4. Group psychology Is it a fictional investigation of the Jim Jones-Waco psychology – of the fanatical leader-worship which leads a group of already slightly unhinged followers to go off to a remote jungle fastness where they can go suicidally nuts? On paper, yes, it certainly is something like that: the entire narrative can best be summarised as a group of high-minded environmental activists find themselves marooned on a remote Pacific atoll where they submit to the homicidal impulses of their psychotic leader.

In the six weeks since the destruction of the radio-cabin the sanctuary had come to resemble the encampment of a religious sect….

Maybe it is the simplest and most obvious interpretation of what the novel is ‘about’.

5. Sympathetic magic But although this sounds like a reasonable description, in fact almost all the characters are mentally unstable right from the start. Doc Rafferty we have already established was an enthusiastic murderer of old ladies, but Neil himself, the central figure, is mostly defined by his unhealthy interest in nuclear weapons and testing grounds. He doesn’t give a damn about the albatross, he wants to see another nuclear weapon detonated at Saint-Esprit.

And alarm bells ring – we realise we are among hard core Ballard characters – when we learn that the Japanese taxonomist Professor Saito’s wife thinks they are travelling to Saint-Esprit as the delegates of all the nuclear casualties of World War II. We enter the world of Ballard logic when she says that, by saving the albatross, they will be helping the spirit of many people in Hiroshima, and all other casualties of nuclear bombing and testing.

As I read this passage I suddenly realised that this kind of thinking, which afflicts so many of Ballard’s characters, is a form of sympathetic magic.

Sympathetic magic, also known as imitative magic, is a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence.

A shaman sticks pins in a doll, the person the doll represents will feel pain; a shaman does a dance mimicking the falling rain, it will rain. In just the same way, the Japanese couple believe that, if they can ‘save’ the albatross, they will also ‘save’ the Hiroshima victims, and all the other people either physically or mentally damaged by nuclear weapons. Professor Saito has brought along a terracotta jar of human ashes, a small sample entrusted to him by the keepers of a Hiroshima ossuary, which he hoped to bury beside dead albatross on the quiet sands of the Saint-Esprit lagoon.

If it’s an investigation of how charismatic psychopathic leaders emerge, it’s also a description of an odyssey from Western ‘rational’ thought into the realm of more primitive, tribal psychology.

Descent into primitivism

‘Is this how new religions begin?’ (Neil to Carline)

Maybe looking for a ‘rational’ explanation is pointless because Ballard is determined to push us towards far more primitive, pagan forces at work. There are distinct and eloquent passages about:

  • the television age
  • modern feminism
  • environmentalism

But rumbling along beneath the entire text is a deeper bass drone about the fundamentally irrational roots of human behaviour, and in particular a careful littering of the text with numerous words  and terms connected with primitive religion:

  • A concrete blockhouse sat in a grove of tamarinds, a forgotten totem of the nuclear age that seemed more ancient than any Easter Island statue
  • ‘You’re a shaman, Neil, you’ll live in the forest with Professor Saito and count the winds.’ (p.82)
  • The towers on the high island had been swallowed by the advancing forest, ancient megaliths left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death.
  • Dr Barbara lifted the flap of the tent and pointed to the runway, where Kimo and Carline, Monique and the Saitos sat under the palms beside the bulldozer, watching the clouds. The surface of ground coral had been swept by Kimo to befit the arrival of a queen. ‘Waiting for the sky. We’re turning into a cargo cult.’
  • He was now a talisman of the animal rights movement, to be carried shoulder-high like the stuffed head of a slaughtered bison.
  • Dr Barbara clasped the rusty safety pin between her breasts, a talismanic brooch… (p.100)
  • The gleaming complex of reaction vessels and separation chambers filled with ion exchange resins sat under the trees like a machine deity, its bowels emitting curious noises and a few drops of rusty water… (p.105)
  • Too busy to consider this, Dr Barbara hacked away at the undergrowth, and at last Monique took pity on them and told them to consult the desalination plant, which she described as the island’s oracle… (p.106)
  • This glass structure became their tribal wigwam, around which they gathered in the evenings to smoke their pot. (p.109)
  • ‘Saint-Esprit isn’t a sanctuary, it’s a rubbish tip picked over by TV crews. You may not realize it, David, listening to your head-phones, but you’ve been running a cargo cult.’
  • Werner muttered a mantra over the creature, plucked a feather from its wing and stitched it through the collar of his sheep-skin jacket. (p.139)
  • Around this dour tribe the endangered plants and animals thrived and bred like visitors from another planet
  • Neil replied cautiously, aware that Dr Barbara was standing among the trees above the beach, a latter-day Margaret Mead watching the courtship rituals of an island tribe. (p.149)

Noticing the care with which Ballard has scattered these references through the text makes me realise:

  1. What a canny and careful contriver he is, in this as in all his other books, creating themes and topics and threads for readers no notice and unweave.
  2. How it doesn’t work. It works intellectually – any fool could write a paper about ‘The Imagery of primitive religion in Rushing To Paradise‘. I mean it doesn’t excite, surprise or amaze the reader. It feels too artful and contrived.

And the fundamental message – that beneath the veneer of ‘civilisation’, we’re all ‘savages’ – wasn’t even that new when Freud wrote about it in the 1920s, and has been the subject of vast swathes of literature and art ever since, sepecially after the Nazis and the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Ballard is so often described as a ‘prophet’ and prescient writer of the future, and yet the future he writes about is eerily reminiscent of the past, of the darkest perceptions of the 1940s and 50s – just updated to include satellite TV and Greenpeace.

Ballardisms

And also, woeven into the narrative, are the same handful of key words which push and compel and constrain our responses into the same narrow set of emotions and attitudes. Neil and the feverish Doc Rafferty are always having to be calmed:

  • Kimo steadied the trembling gate, his huge arms raised as if to calm the air.
  • Neil tried to calm her trembling shoulders, but she pushed him away.
  • Neil pulled her hands from the air and pressed them together, trying to calm her
  • Neil tried to calm himself…
  • Though thrilled at first by her own daring, Dr Barbara soon calmed herself…

This is because the lead characters are permanently at odds with the world, ill at ease and unsettled.

  • Neil had been unsettled by the fate of the huge birds, but he already realized that he was filming a well-rehearsed scene in the theatre of protest.
  • Neil was still unsettled by the suicide of his father, a radiologist who had diagnosed his own lung cancer and decided to end his life while he could breathe without pain.
  • The sight of the unguarded stores and the three inflatables on their trailer seemed to unsettle him Neil felt distanced from the rest of the expedition.
  • He missed Louise, and had been unsettled by her self-immersed chatter on the radio-phone.

The next stage beyond unsettled is the state of permanent over-excitement which so many Ballard characters seem to spend their entire lives in, or are stricken with the symptoms of actual fever. In the last quarter or so of the book Neil is in the Clinic suffering a permanent fever caused by Dr Rafferty’s slow poisoning of him, and the word ‘fever’ appears multiple times on every page.

  • The ordeal of Didier’s first month on the island and the nights of feverish sleep had wasted the old ecologist.
  • After a feverish night he ate a bowl of tepid tapioca, which set off another bout of vomiting and diarrhoea…
  • Dr Barbara helped herself to a second glass of communion wine. Already her face and neck were flushing, and she ignored the feverish ramblings of Professor Saito in his mosquito net.

And the next stage beyond feverish hallucination is actual insanity.

  • Neil held her around the waist, fearing that the deranged physician would leap into the bloody waves…
  • Neil tried to restrain her whirling hands, moving across the night air like deranged birds…
  • This storm-battered sloop was the Parsifal, and its hull and patched sails were painted with psychedelic colours, slashes of mauve and acid green that flared from the waves like the fins of a deranged kraken…
  • Carline rowed through the burning waves, his oars scooping up pockets of flame, grinning owlishly to himself like a drunken parent at a deranged children’s party…
  • A delirious convention was taking place, a deranged banquet of the fathoms…
  • Carline stood at the controls, working the brake levers with his frantic hands like a fairground organist grappling with a berserk calliope…

I don’t know what I think about Ballard’s obsessive use of the same key words over and over again, in book after book.

On one level it is a highly stylised gesture, like Japanese or ancient Greek theatre, a narrow set of stylised masks and gestures, created and arranged with a limited compositional vocabulary in order to create a more narrow and intense effect.

On the other hand, it means the reader is not surprised. If characters are described as ‘demented’ right from the start, then there isn’t a long way for them to fall, and you lose the psychological and fictional interest of following the process of watching someone really falling apart, travelling from a state of what most of us would call ‘normality’ to genuine psychosis. Describing your characters as ‘deranged’ almost from the start of the book, removes the element of surprise when they actually do start behaving deranged.

If anything it has the opposite effect. I knew Dr Rafferty was killing off the ‘patients’ in her ‘clinic’ well before all the other characters, and got bored waiting for them to catch up.

Because Neil himself is an odd boy right from the start, because he begins the story with feverish dreams of atom bombs and searing light across the lagoon, we miss out on any genuine sense of shock when he makes his final discovery, of the murdered bodies in Dr Rafferty’s ‘garden’. My reaction wasn’t one of shock and horror but relief that he’d finally cottoned on to what the reader has known for a hundred pages.

In another author’s hands the various stations of the community’s descent into madness might have been accompanied by genuine jolts of adrenaline. For example, I still remember the genuine bolts of terror I felt when I read Ira Levin’s two brilliant chillers Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. They are very focused narratives which are written in a cut-down prose which is incredibly effective at conveying shock and then terror.

There was nothing like that in Rushing To Paradise. It’s a much more literary book, self-consciously stuffed with ideas and issues, and conveyed in a highly wrought prose full of careful analogies and repeated diction, whose characters are bonkers from the start. And therefore the entire thing feels more like a dream or fantasia, like a kind of slow-motion nightmare, than an actual thriller.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham Volume One

‘Human nature is very odd, isn’t it?’
‘Very,’ said Landon, helping himself to another glass of brandy.

Biography

William Somerset Maugham was born in 1874 in the British Embassy in Paris, where his father was a lawyer. His first language was French. His mother died when he was eight and, when his father died two years later, young Willie was farmed out to his unsympathetic uncle in Kent and then on to the traditional English miserable experience at boarding school. During his unhappy childhood he developed a debilitating stammer.

At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King’s School and was allowed to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. Here he wrote his first book, a biography of opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, and he met John Ellingham Brooks, with whom he had an affair. He discovered, in other words, that he was gay.

Maugham returned to England and began to study medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, while writing fiction in the evenings. The success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897, persuaded him to try writing full time. He proceeded to churn out numerous articles, reviews and other ephemeral journalism, while producing a sequence of mostly forgotten novels during the Edwardian period. In 1904 his first play was performed and he turned out to have a great flair for dramatic writing. At one point no fewer than four of his plays were running simultaneously in the West End and he continued to have theatrical success throughout the 1920s.

In the Great War Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross’s ‘Literary Ambulance Drivers’. He met Frederick Gerald Haxton, who became his permanent companion and lover until Haxton’s death in 1944. Of Human Bondage, published in 1915, brought more critical and popular success.

In the same year Maugham became a British agent working for the forerunner of MI6 in Switzerland, keeping tabs on the representatives of all the combatant nations, an experience he recycled into the excellent series of stories collected in his spy book, Ashenden (1928).

After a year Maugham, relieved of espionage duties, came back to London to promote his latest play and, in 1916, he and Haxton made the first of numerous trips to Pacific islands to research the novel which became The Moon And Sixpence, loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin. Published in 1919, it was not only a commercial success but began the process of associating Maugham with settings in the Far East and Pacific, confirmed by his next book, The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (1921).

In May of 1917, Maugham had married Syrie Wellcome, with whom he had a daughter. It was to turn into a very unhappy marriage. In June of 1917 he went on another mission for the British Secret Intelligence Service, this time to Russia to counter German pacifist propaganda and keep the provisional government in power. That didn’t work out so well but Maugham had some fascinating and historic encounters.

After the war Maugham wrote fewer plays but a steady stream of short stories which established his reputation for chronicling life among the fast set on the Riviera, and an equal fascination with life in the Far East and the Pacific Islands. He travelled widely, funding himself by travel articles and features, which he gathered into a series of travel books, and everywhere he went he carefully took notes on the people and places.

In 1927 he and Syrie divorced and in 1928 Maugham bought the Villa Mauresque in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. The villa became famous as a great literary and social salon as well as his home.

In 1940, as France fell to German occupation, Maugham fled to the United States. In Hollywood he tried his hand at screenwriting. When Haxton died in 1944, Maugham returned to England, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived until his death. Alan Searle became his companion in this latter part of his life.

Whether at home at Cape Ferrat, at social events in London or Paris, travelling in Spain, America or the Pacific, Maugham made notes and observations, which he worked up into a sequence of short stories which slowly came to eclipse the reputation of his novels.

His Edwardian plays didn’t wear well into the very different atmosphere of the feverish Jazz Decade and not many of his twenty or so novels have lasted – but his short stories have endured.

The stories amount to a collective portrait of remote and exotic places between the two wars, when the European empires of France and Britain were at their height, although the American presence was being felt more and more. Alongside these are elegant portrayals of society life in Paris and London, stories about Spain which he regularly visited, and stories set in country house England of the very comfortably off middle class which recall the settings of Agatha Christie novels or even Wodehouse’s comedies.

By the time of his death in 1965, Maugham had become a kind of poet laureate of a type of refined and gracious upper-middle-class living – in London and the Home Counties, in Paris or the Riviera, and in the oppressive heat of the tropics where gentlemen still dressed for dinner – which had slipped into history.

April 1921 cover of The Smart Set magazine advertising Maugham's long short story, 'Miss Thompson', later retitled 'Rain'

April 1921 cover of The Smart Set magazine advertising Maugham’s long short story, Miss Thompson, later retitled Rain

In 1951 Maugham’s life’s work of some 100 short stories was collected into a complete edition in three big volumes. These were reprinted as four Penguin paperbacks in 1963.

Short stories volume one

Volume one of Somerset Maugham’s Complete Short Stories is 476 pages long and contains the following 30 stories.

  • Rain (1921 – Samoa – 3rd person narrator)
  • The Fall of Edward Barnard (1921 – Chicago/Tahiti – 3rd)
  • Honolulu (1921 – Hawaii – 1st person narrator)
  • The Luncheon (1924 – London restaurant – 1st)
  • The Ant and the grasshopper (1924 – London restaurant – 1st)
  • Home (1924 – Somerset and China – 1st)
  • The Pool (1921 – Samoa – 1st)
  • Mackintosh (1921 – Samoa – 3rd)
  • Appearance and Reality (1934 – Paris – 1st)
  • The Three Fat Women of Antibes (1933 – the Riviera – 3rd)
  • The Facts of Life (1939 – London – 3rd)
  • Gigolo and Gigolette (1935 – the Riviera – 3rd)
  • The Happy Couple (1908 rewritten 1943 – the Riviera – 1st)
  • The Voice of the Turtle (1935 – the Riviera – 1st)
  • The Lion’s Skin (1937 – the Riviera – 3rd)
  • The Unconquered (1943 – Soissons, France – 3rd)
  • The Escape (1925 – England – 1st)
  • The Judgement Seat (1934 – Heaven – 3rd)
  • Mr. Know-All (1925 – on a liner – 1st)
  • The Happy Man (1924 – London and Seville – 1st)
  • The Romantic Young Lady (1947 – Seville – 1st)
  • The Point of Honour (1947 – Seville – 1st)
  • The Poet (1925 – Ecija, Spain – 1st)
  • The Mother (1909 – Seville – 3rd)
  • A Man from Glasgow (1947 – Algeciras – 1st)
  • Before the Party (1922 – England and Borneo – 3rd)
  • Louise (1925 – England – 1st)
  • The Promise (1925 – Claridge’s restaurant, London – 1st)
  • A String of Beads (1927 – London dinner party – 1st)
  • The Yellow Streak (1925 – Borneo – 3rd)

Style and voice

The voice is humane, civilised and ironic, always detached and urbane. 18 of the 30 stories are told in the first person, the remaining 12 via a third-person narrator. But even the the third person ones often feature a character who observes the action and comments on it with much the same detached urbanity as Maugham’s ‘I’. In other words, the cumulative, ‘centre of gravity’ of all of them, is an urbane man of the world.

In fact the line between Maugham the author and the narrator is deliberately blurred when quite a few of the stories are told in the voice of a famous writer who lives in the south of France and dines at good London restaurants with notable members of the upper classes or writers or opera singers or gentlemen of his acquaintance. This use of his own persona was a particular characteristic of Maugham’s later fiction

(The Happy Couple seems to take place at Maugham’s own house on Cap Ferrat, The Voice of the Turtle in a Bloomsbury apartment where he’s been invited to sign some of his books, and so on).

Obviously the narrating voice of these stories is manipulated in each of them in order to suit the narrative and bring out the story’s points – but, collectively, they create a very consistent world of charming old-world manners and dignified high living, amid which there are sudden surprising revelations.

Take the moment in the story The Promise, where an ageing aristocratic lady is confiding her love life to the narrator.

‘If a man stops loving a woman old enough to be his mother do you think he’ll ever come to love her again? You’re a novelist, you must know more about human nature than that.’

In the third person narratives, I noticed the number of times there is a character who plays a backseat, observing role – the Watcher, the Observer, the Writer – who sometimes barely even speaks. At most The Observer murmurs or nods, as the various troubled or tortured or sometimes comic protagonists pour out their agonies to him.

‘Heaven helps those who help themselves,’ I murmured. (The Facts of Life)

‘I sometimes think you’re quite strong enough to do the things you want to,’ I murmured. (Louise)

‘Don’t forget that you’re English yourself, George,’ I murmured. (The Alien Crn)

Characters rather than people

For a century literary criticism has concerned itself with psychology, especially the depth psychology of Freud which has been spun into hyper-sophisticated theories, not least by the French, much influenced by the Freudian revisionism of the influential Jacques Lacan in the 1950s, and then a cohort of French feminist psychoanalytical critics from the 1970s, who deconstruct all language in terms of its patriarchal sexism.

In complete contrast, although some of Maugham’s stories deal with intense psychological states, most of them begin and many of them continue, at what you’d call a purely social level, with the narrator simply interested in people as they appear, as they present themselves to the eye.

As a token of this, it’s noticeable how the appearance of every character in all the novels and all the stories is noted, often at some length. I kept being reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip, ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’

Once I’d noticed this I began to consider that there’s some kind of sense in which even the plots of the stories seem oddly external. Even the most intensely terrible and murderous ones – and there are several stories about murders and suicides – retain something detached about them. Of course there’s psychology of a sort involved in all of them, but often it is conveyed by appearance and changes in appearance. We rarely go inside the heads of these tormented characters. They are seen from outside, and even then often at one remove, for the narrator mostly hears about the story ‘later’, via other third-part tellers. Very often he is telling us a story which he himself was told.

Rain

Thus the plotline of one of his most famous stories, Rain, is notoriously intense.

A missionary and his wife are forced to hole up in a cheap boarding house while they wait for a boat to take them onto their mission in a remote South Seas island. Unfortunately, a rough working class woman, Miss Sadie Thompson, who likes putting on ragtime records and entertaining ‘the boys’ in her room, and who we quickly realise is a prostitute, is also staying in the same hotel.

After some shouty confrontations, the missionary undertakes to save her soul and goes every afternoon to pray with her and for her, encouraged by his dry-as-dust missionary wife. All this is observed with characteristic detachment by Maugham’s representative in the story, the calm and phlegmatic Scotsman, Dr McPhail.

After 40 pages of slow build-up the surprise climax comes suddenly in the last few page when the good missionary fails to come back to the room he shares with his sister and his body is then discovered in the sea next morning, still clutching the razor with which he has cut his throat.

After identifying the body, Doctor McPahil returns, stunned, to the boarding house where he finds Miss Sadie putting a ragtime record back on the gramophone and breaking out the scotch with some sailor friends. ‘Pigs. All men are the same. Pigs’, she yells at McPhail- and he understands. In the battle for her soul – in the battle between God and the Devil – the dark lord won, the high and mighty missionary was tempted and fell. He had sex with Miss Thompson, and then had nowhere to hide from his own guilt and remorse.

Obviously, the plot sounds pretty lurid, but it’s only in the last page or so that it turns melodramatic. The previous 39 pages have all been very buttoned-up and British, and the plot developments have been conveyed not only (obviously enough) through the characters’ dialogue and confrontations – but also by their appearances and by the changes in their faces, features, stances and so on which take place during the sequence of events.

Maugham goes to a lot of trouble to really concretely describe his characters’ appearances, their physical behaviour and presence, right down to the last detail.

Mrs Davidson came and stood beside him. She was dressed in black and wore round her neck a gold chain, from which dangled a small cross. She was a little woman, with brown, dull hair very elaborately arranged, and she had prominent blue eyes behind invisible pince-nez. Her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness; she had the quick movements of a bird. The most remarkable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic, and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating to the nerves like the pitiless clamour of the pneumatic drill.

A little way off [McPhail] saw his wife in a long chair talking with the Davidsons, and he strolled over to her. When he sat down under the light and took off his hat you saw that he had very red hair, with a bald patch on the crown, and the red, freckled skin which accompanies red hair; he was a man of forty, thin, with a pinched face, precise and rather pedantic; and he spoke with a Scots accent in a very low, quiet voice.

[Mr Davidson the missionary] was a silent, rather sullen man, and you felt that his affability was a duty that he imposed upon himself Christianly; he was by nature reserved and even morose. His appearance was singular. He was very tall and thin, with long limbs loosely jointed; hollow cheeks and curiously high cheek-bones; he had so cadaverous an air that it surprised you to notice how full and sensual were his lips. He wore his hair very long. His dark eyes, set deep in their sockets, were large and tragic; and his hands with their big, long fingers, were finely shaped; they gave him a look of great strength. But the most striking thing about him was the feeling he gave you of suppressed fire. It was impressive and vaguely troubling. He was not a man with whom any intimacy was possible.

[The prostitute, Sadie Thompson] was twenty-seven perhaps, plump, and in a coarse fashion pretty. She wore a white dress and a large white hat. Her fat calves in white cotton stockings bulged over the tops of long white boots in glacé kid. She gave Macphail an ingratiating smile. ‘The feller’s tryin’ to soak me a dollar and a half a day for the meanest sized room,’ she said in a hoarse voice.

‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’

Maugham’s prose style

It’s not great writing, there’s nothing fancy or rhetorical about it. And it’s not profound psychology either. But in story after story Maugham is able to limn a character in a paragraph and then lead you slowly by the hand through their tale, leading you in a deliberate dance to unexpected places, surprising revelations or bathetic comic climaxes.

It is, throughout, not an experimental or particularly elegant prose, but eminently practical, limpid and enjoyable. A very clubbable, confiding sort of tone.

I don’t know that I very much liked Landon. He was a member of a club I belonged to, and I had often sat next to him at lunch. He was a judge at the Old Bailey, and it was through him I was able to get a privileged seat in court when there was an interesting trial that I wanted to attend. He was an imposing figure on the bench in his great full-bottomed wig, his red robes and his ermine tippet; and with his long, white face, thin lips and pale blue eyes, a somewhat terrifying one. He was just, but harsh; and sometimes it made me uncomfortable to hear the bitter scolding he gave a convicted prisoner whom he was about to sentence to death or a long term of imprisonment. But his acid humour at the lunch table and his willingness to discuss the cases he had tried made him sufficiently good company for me to disregard the slight malaise I felt in his presence. I asked him once whether he did not feel a certain uneasiness of mind after he had sent a man to the gallows. He smiled as he sipped his glass of port.

‘Not at all. The man’s had a fair trial; I’ve summed up as fairly as I could, and the jury has found him guilty. When I condemn him to death, I sentence him to a punishment he richly deserves; and when the court rises, I put the case out of my head. Nobody but a sentimental fool would do anything else.’

Gossip

Maybe the stories’ success is due on one level to their nature as a sort of higher gossip. Above and beyond the first- or third-person narrator, Maugham often invokes the idea of a community among which certain characters and their stories are well known. This is particularly true of the stories set on Samoa or in Seville, for both of which he conjures up the sense of local communities – not least through the use of native words and vocabulary – where everyone’s business is known, where nothing can be kept secret.

Maugham travelled widely and met many interesting people, high and low, Europeans and ‘natives’, and he quietly soaks up stories, tales, yarns and anecdotes about all of them. People confide in him. He likes stories about people and his characters like telling and listening to stories and the stories themselves often comment on the process of story-making and story-listening.

‘I hope you won’t think it very odd for a perfect stranger to talk to you like this.’ He gave an apologetic laugh. ‘I’m not going to tell you the story of my life.’ When people say this to me I always know that is precisely what they are going to do. I do not mind. In fact I rather like it. (The Happy Man)

I do not vouch for the truth of this story, but it was told me by a professor of French literature at an English university, and he was a man of too high a character, I think, to have told it to me unless it were true. (Appearance and Reality)

Collectively, the stories build up a portrait of a mature and wise man who is fascinated by the endless foibles and weaknesses of human nature, sometimes subtly ironic, sometimes howlingly funny, sometimes bitterly tragic – and who applies the same sympathetic but calm and even tone to all of it.

Middle age

Maybe another element of the effect is related to Maugham’s age. He wrote short stories during the Edwardian decade, but his first successful ones seem to date from just after the Great War, by which time he was well into his 40s. In 1924 he turned fifty. Quite old, isn’t it, to be hitting your stride as a writer?

Maugham’s relative maturity means that he tells his tale with the mellowness of age, the detachment of a man whose passions are beginning to wane, who is able to cast a pretty cold eye on life and death. He is often quizzical, a little puzzled by his characters; sometimes horrified, often urbanely amused – but never really shocked or disrupted. Nothing ever really ruffles his well-bred feathers.

And, of course, Maugham was a Victorian, already in his late twenties when Queen Victoria died. Although he is at home in the world of charabancs, cocktails and parties on the Riviera, he doesn’t bring the wide-eyed youthfulness of a Scott Fitzgerald or the macho posturing of a Hemingway to the French scene. He brings the courteous manners and gracious politeness of a much older generation.

His age means that he often writes about women of a similar age to him, mothers or even grandmothers. When young women are behaving badly, Maugham’s stories aren’t about them but about the worries of the parents. This is a refreshing change from the tortured novels of authors in their twenties who think they are the first people ever to have their hearts broken.

And his homosexuality means that Maugham writes about women in a particular way: he is polite, as always, but he sees them for what they are, with neither the lust of the young male hetero nor the bitterness of the old debauchee. He combines precise external description (as always, it is a hallmark of his approach) with unflinching accuracy about women.

Sometimes it is for comic effect – there are quite a few raddled and ravaged 60 and 70 year old ladies in his stories who are plastered in inappropriate make-up. Often comic, but also compassionate. We all age and wither, and Maugham, writing in his 50s and 60s, knows it. But he also knows that just because people are old, doesn’t mean you should let them off the hook.

Mrs. Forestier was a very nice woman. Kindly people often say that of a woman when they can say nothing else about her, and it has come to be looked upon as cold praise. I do not mean it as such. Mrs. Forestier was neither charming, beautiful nor intelligent; on the contrary she was absurd, homely and foolish; yet the more you knew her, the more you liked her, and when asked why, you found yourself forced to repeat that she was a very nice woman. She was as tall as the average man; she had a large mouth and a great hooked nose, pale-blue short-sighted eyes and big ugly hands. Her skin was lined and weather-beaten, but she made up heavily, and her hair, which she wore long, was dyed golden, tightly marcelled and elaborately dressed. She did everything she could to counteract the aggressive masculinity of her appearance, and succeeded only in looking like a vaudeville artist doing a female impersonation. Her voice was a woman’s voice, but you were always expecting her, at the end of the number as it were, to break into a deep bass, and tearing off that golden wig, discover a man’s bald pate. She spent a great deal of money on her clothes, which she got from the most fashionable dressmakers in Paris, but though a woman of fifty she had an unfortunate taste for choosing dresses that looked exquisite on pretty little mannequins in the flower of their youth. She always wore a great quantity of rich jewels. Her movements were awkward and her gestures clumsy. If she went into a drawing-room where there was a valuable piece of jade she managed to sweep it on the floor; if she lunched with you and you had a set of glasses you treasured she was almost certain to smash one of them to atoms. Yet this ungainly exterior sheltered a tender, romantic and idealistic soul. (The Lion’s Skin)

Irony

The term ‘irony’ is bandied about a lot in literary criticism. In his tragic stories, there is straightforward tragic irony: the protagonist is fortune’s fool, wishing and intending one thing, and then finding that the exact opposite comes about.

Thus in The Pool, the protagonist’s passionate love for the half-breed native woman makes him take a series of decisions which lead her to despise him. In the rather shattering story, Before the party, the nice middle-class family start out fussing about what hat and gloves to wear to the vicar’s garden party until, little by little, it comes out that their widowed daughter’s husband didn’t die of some exotic illness on colonial duty in Borneo, and that he didn’t even commit suicide, a rumour the elder daughter has heard from friends just back from the area. No, what slowly emerges is that the man was a hopeless alcoholic who made their sweet younger daughter’s life a misery and that one night, in a fever of disappointment and rage she murdered him as he slept.

So there’s a shattering irony in the complete disconnect between the nice middle-class chatter with which the story opens and the appalling secret which is revealed.

And then, in another layer of irony, and in a classic example of Maugham’s detached urbanity – despite this bombshell going off in the middle-class family’s nice drawing room – when the servant knocks a moment later to announce that the car has been brought round to the front of the house, mother, father, shocked elder daughter and the murderous younger daughter duly dry their eyes, apply a puff more powder, and set off for the garden party, regardless.

Very English

All this is very English. In the hands of a Sartre or Camus, some of the more intense stories might have been the opportunity for much description of the searing heat and the blinding sun and alienation, about the Absurdity of Existence and the Tragedy of Being. Maugham, on the other hand, rarely expresses much emotion. On the contrary, he often uses the stories to emphasise his stiff upper lip and emotional distance.

In The voice of the turtle, when the preposterous opera singer, La Falterona, shouts abuse at him in his own home, Maugham replies with a studied dissection of her maliciously narrow character which they both know to be true. They stare at each other, cards on the table. And then agree to be civil and return to dinner. Just so.

The traveller

Maugham never loses the habit of airing his lofty, travel writer’s knowledge of the customs and language of wherever the story is set. There are a handful of stories which deal with out-and-out tragedy, murder and suicide – Rain, The Pool, Mackintosh, The Unconquered (an oddity – the only story set during any of the wars of Maugham’s time, viz the German invasion of France 1940), Before the Party. He isn’t shy of using the correct native term to describe for the natives’ clothes, or drink, or dugout canoes. Similarly, the stores set in Spain urbanely let you know that the narrator is a fluent speaker. Naturalmente!

As Maugham knew, it is precisely the attention paid to the little details of daily life, the polite hellos, thank yous and goodbyes, to the exact clothes and shoes and hats which the characters wear – and to the little local phrases, clothes and customs, which make them so human, so mundane, so believable – and therefore the shocking things which happen to them all the more unaccountable and upsetting.

It is part of what lifts them above run-of-the-mill entertainments and makes them worth rereading, even when you can remember the plot – for the skill with which character is etched in and then events and changes in character or perception conveyed through selected details.

Overt comedy

Some of the stories are intended to be comic, for example The Luncheon.

In this story the narrator is middle class but hard up and has to count his pennies very carefully. A lady fan invites herself to lunch with him and dismays him by selecting an expensive restaurant, which he thinks he’ll be able to afford if he chooses the cheapest items. The meal that follows is an ordeal because the well-born lady, while telling him all the time that she prefers a simple luncheon and only ever eats one item, in fact chooses a whole string of the most expensive items on the menu, including champagne.

The comedy derives from her reiterated claim to preferring simplicity and diet, before then ordering meringue and cream – while we observe the narrator’s mounting anxiety and eventual collapse, as he realises he will be spending his entire monthly allowance on just this one meal.

High Life

It’s so obvious maybe it doesn’t need saying, but most of Maugham’s characters come from the English professional upper middle-classes (like his father, a lawyer at the British Embassy in Paris) and live a charmed and elegant life most of us can only dream about. By my count at least four of the stories are set on the French Riviera, in wonderful villas or restaurants; three are set in very nice restaurants or clubs in London; one is set in a fashionable night club in Paris.

In these stories the reader enjoys the pleasure of pure social escapism. None of the characters in these stories seem to work. Captain Forestier in The Lion’s Skin lives entirely on his rich wife’s money, dressing to perfection, playing golf and dining at Riviera restaurants. When Louise in the story of that title marries her second husband, she forces him to resign his commission in the army and then they spend their winters at Monte Carlo and their summer’s at Deauville.

Does anyone live like that nowadays? Doing nothing except lunching and dining and attending smart parties? Reading Maugham’s short stories allows you, for the duration of the reading experience, to vicariously enjoy these charming elegant, if sometimes rather damaged, lives.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

%d bloggers like this: