A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (1935, revd. 1954)

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.
(Borges’s 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy)

Long ago

One thinks of Borges as a modern classic so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn just how long ago he was writing. Born in 1899, Borges published his first book in 1923 and wrote steadily for the next 60 years (he died in 1986). In his long life he published an enormous number of volumes (‘In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies’) and the Wikipedia bibliography lists 66 volumes of prose, poetry and essays, in total.

Which makes it all the more odd or unfair that he is still best known in the English-speaking world for more or less one volume, Labyrinths, and a handful of lesser works. Borges had published the following before we get to the book under review:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) poetry
  • Inquisiciones (1925) essays
  • Luna de Enfrente (1925) poetry
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza (1925) essays
  • El idioma de los argentinos (1928) essays
  • Cuaderno San Martín (1929) poetry
  • Evaristo Carriego (1930) essays
  • Discusión (1932) essays

You’d expect poetry from a starter author, but it’s notable that so many of these early volumes contain essays, in other words short prose explorations of ideas – about other authors, historical events or topics etc. It was for his short essays on imaginary or fantastical subjects that he was to become famous and A Universal History of Infamy, more or less the earliest work by Borges you can read in English translation, gives an indication why.

A Universal History of Infamy

A Universal History of Infamy is not, in fact, a universal history of infamy or anything like that ambitious. In reality it is much smaller in scope, and consists of:

  • seven ‘biographical essays’ – witty, ironic accounts of legendary bad guys and women from history whose stories Borges has cherry picked from his highly eclectic reading
  • one relatively straightforward short piece of fiction
  • eight summaries of stories or anecdotes he had come across in arcane sources and which attracted Borges for their fantastical or humorous aspects

Most of the essays had been published individually in the Argentine newspaper Crítica between 1933 and 1934. The 1934 collection was revised and three new stories added in the 1954 edition. There are two English translations of the book. The one I own dates from 1972 and was translated by Borges’s long-standing English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The 2004 English edition gives the stories slightly different titles.

The title A Universal History of Infamy derives from the fact that the seven biographical essays are fictionalised accounts of real-life criminals. The textual sources for each biography are listed at the end of the book: for example, the essay about the Widow Ching cites a 1932 History of Piracy as its source,  the essay on Monk Eastman cites Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of The Gangs of New York, the essay about Lazarus Morell cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the one about Tom Castro cites the Encyclopedia Britannica as its source, and so on.

So the sources are a) not particularly recondite and b) they were often fairly recent to Borges’s time of writing, in some cases published only a year or so before Borges wrote his potted summaries.

That said, Borges treats his sources very freely, changing dates, incidents and even names as he fancied to make his fantasy biographies deliberately fanciful and untrustworthy.

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

So these are stories Borges found in other books during his wide and eclectic reading and which attracted him for their elements of the macabre or gruesome, and which he chose to retell, dropping or adding details as he saw fit.

The Dread Redeemer

Lazarus Morell is poor white trash who grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and as an adult comes to be a leader of crooks who devise the following scam: they persuade gullible black slaves to run away from their owners and allow themselves to be sold on by the Morell gang who promise to liberate them and share the proceeds of this sale. But they don’t. They have ‘liberated’ some 70 slaves in this manner until the gang is joined by Virgil Stewart, famous for his cruelty, who promptly betrays them to the authorities. Morell goes into hiding in a boarding house, then, after 5 days, shaves off his beard and makes an escape to round up what remains of his gang and try to create a mass uprising of the southern slaves and lead a takeover of the city of New Orleans. Instead he dies of a lung ailment in Natchez hospital in January 1835 under an assumed name.

This story is quite florid enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for the lurid and melodramatic. What tames and raises it from being a shilling shocker is Borges’s dry wit and irony.

Morell leading rebellions of blacks who dreamed of lynching him; Morell lynched by armies of blacks he dreamed of leading – it hurts me to confess that Mississippi history took advantage of neither of these splendid opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (or poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his grave.

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

If Borges’s narrative ends playfully, it opens even more so, with Borges referencing Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas. Why? Because it was de las Casas who (apparently) had the bright idea of importing African slaves to work the silver mines of the newly discovered New World. Borges phrases this with characteristic irony (or is it facetiousness?)

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines.

That is an example of what you could call literal facetiousness, the repetition of the initial heartless description being so unexpected as to be funny. But it then expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges goes on to deliver an unexpected perspective on the results of de las Casas’ brainwave i.e. the vast and numerous consequences of the invention of African slavery, and proceeds to a mock encyclopedic list of some of its untold consequences, namely:

W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, at the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe.

The intellectual pleasure derives from the combination of mock scholarliness with the pleasing randomness of the examples selected. And not only surreal but – and this is an important part of Borges’s appeal – conveying an enormous sense of spaciousness; the sense of an enormously well-read mind, overflowing with wonderful facts and references, from the obvious to the fantastically recondite and abstruse. And that by reading along with Borges, we too, become as fantastically learned and knowledgeable as him.

If you like this kind of subject matter, and the dry ironical tone, then the world of unexpected and outré references is like a door opening in your mind, hundreds of doors, revealing all kinds of wonderful, mind and spirit enhancing vistas and possibilities.

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping in 1834. He ran away to sea and resurfaced decades later in Sydney Australia where he had taken the name Tom Castro. Here he became friendly with a stately, clever black man, Ebenezer Bogle and the two set up as con-men. In 1854 a British steamer sank in the Atlantic and one of the passengers lost was slender, elegant Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to one of the greatest Roman Catholic families in England. His mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe he was dead and advertised widely throughout the colonies for his return. With wild and hilarious improbability Orton and Bogle decide to reply to her and claim that obese illiterate Tom Castro is in fact her slender, elegant aristocratic son…after some years of living in Australia!

Most of this is comic but Borges milks it for further comic ideas, such as the notion that it was the very outrageousness of the entire idea which gave Bogle and Orton confidence; the more ridiculous it seemed, the more emboldened they were to tough it out in the light of lawyers and Lady Tichborne’s heirs who violently rejected their claim. Very funny is the notion that so mad is Lady Tichborne to have her son restored that she will accept anything Orton says and so when he completely invents some tender childhood memories, Lady T immediately accepts them and makes them her own.

Finally, the relatives bring a trial where all is going well until Bogle meets his death at the hands of a passing hansom cab and Orton loses all his confidence. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison but, here again Borges emphasises the humour, pointing out that Orton so charmed his imprisoners that he was let off for good behaviour and then took to touring theatres giving a one-man show retelling his story.

It is typically Borgesian that, at each venue, Orton is described as starting out maintaining his innocence but often ends up pleading guilty depending on the mood of the audience.

A story, any story, about anything, is infinitely malleable.

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

China at the turn of the 18th century and the story of a redoubtable woman pirate who, when her husband Ching is killed in battle, takes over his pirate crew and leads them in 13 years of ‘systematic adventure’. The emperor sends one admiral against her, Admiral Kwo-lang, who she comprehensively defeats, and before leading her ‘six hundred war junks and forty thousand victorious pirates’ on devastating attacks on China’s seaboards. A second expedition is sent under one Ting-kwei. This one defeats Madame Ching who, on the night after a huge and bloody battle, has herself rowed over to the admiral’s ship, boards it and presents herself with the appropriately flowery oriental rhetoric: ‘the fox seeks the dragon’s wing.’ She was allowed to live and devoted her later years to the opium trade.

There is something immensely satisfying in the way Borges creates a scene, a historical period, its key characters and conveys a series of big events in just nine pages. More than that, the first page is devoted to two women pirates of the Western tradition, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, before we even get round to China.

Their speed and brevity, their exotic setting and subject matter, the tremendous confidence with which Borges cuts from scene to scene, zeroing in on key moments and drilling down to one line of dialogue, and all told in a wonderfully humorous, often tongue-in-cheek style, make these bonne bouches immensely appetising and pleasurable.

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges freely acknowledges his source for this narrative as Herbert Asbury’s 1928 volume The Gangs of New York, and gives a 2-page summary of some of the most notable hoodlums from New York’s Victorian underworld described in that book, before arriving at his potted biography of ‘Monk’ Eastman who is the particular subject of this narrative.

Born Edward Osterman, Eastman he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the whole goy underworld. He hired himself out as a hitman and led a violent gang. They were involved in a shootout so epic it became known as The Battle of Rivington Street, then a two-hour fistfight with the leader of the main rival gang, Paul Kelly, watched by a shouting crowd. He was repeatedly arrested and, after the final time, in 1917, decided to enlist in the US Army which had joined the war in Europe. This, like everything else in the story, is told with detached facetiousness:

We know that he violently disapproved of taking prisoners and that he once (with just his rifle butt) interfered with that deplorable practice…

On his return Monk quipped that ‘a number of little dance halls around the Bowery were a lot tougher than the war in Europe.’ He was found dead in an alley with five bullets in him. These throwaway endings, without any Victorian moralising, give them a Modernist, ‘so what’ aspect, a throwaway bluntness which contrasts vividly with the extreme scholarly punctiliousness about the sources.

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

Scenes from the life of William Harrigan aka Billy the Kid. For a start, it’s factually interesting to learn that Billy was a street hoodlum born in the very tough slums of New York before he headed out West. Borges amuses himself by assigning Billy’s life to different stages, namely:

  • The larval stage
  • Go West!
  • The Demolition of a Mexican
  • Deaths for Deaths’ Sake

He killed his first man aged 14. There’s a running joke that whenever Billy boasted about the number of men he killed he always added ‘not counting Mexicans’ who he held in utter contempt.

Borges’s wonderful fantasy-mindedness, the way he can introduce a mind-teasing idea into even the most obviously material occurs when he casually mentions that, despite his best efforts to turn himself into a hard-riding cowboy, Billy:

never completely matched his legend, but he kept getting closer and closer to it.

This implication that the legend of Billy the Kid existed before he began enacting it, and that he was fated to aspire to match his own legend… there is something wonderfully dizzying about this metaphysical-magical perspective, a dizzying magic metaphysical worldview which was to emerge more powerfully in his famous mid-career stories and excerpts.

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

To be honest I didn’t understand this one, even after reading it twice. It’s set in Japan in 1702. An imperial envoy comes to stay with Asano Takumi no Kami who has been ‘trained’ by a rude and dismissive master of etiquette, Kira Kôtsuké no Suké. Asano was rude to the imperial envoy who, as a result, had him executed. Asano’s other retainers came to Kira Kôtsuké no Suké and told him, that since the error stemmed from his poor training of Asano, he should commit hara-kiri, but he refused and ran away and barricaded himself into a palace. Asano’s 47 retainers laid siege to the palace, broke in, discovered he had hidden, found him and killed him. That is why the story is sometimes called ‘The Learned History of the Forty-seven Retainers.

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

The story of Hakim, born in 736, who grows up to assume the identity of the Prophet of the Veil and establish a religion to rival Mohammed’s, by telling the impressionable that a messenger from God had come down from heaven, cut off his head and carried it up to heaven to receive a divine mission from Allah. He crystallises his position when, amid a crowded caravan, someone releases a leopard which Hakim appears to quell with the power of his eyes alone. He becomes the Veiled Prophet or Masked One and leads his followers to military victory, taking cities. He keeps a harem of one hundred and fourteen blind women.

He promulgated a belief system derived from the Christian Gnostics, namely that the world is a parody of Divine Reality, created by nine emanations from the original.

The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations.

Five years into his rule, Hakim and his followers are besieged by the army of the Caliph when a rumour goes round from one of the women of his harem that his body has various imperfections. He is praying at a high altar when two of his captains tear away his permanent veil to reveal that Hakim bears the revolting disfigurements of the leper, and they promptly run him through with spears.

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

This is a surprisingly poor short story and a good explanation of why Borges focused on writing his metaphysical-brainteasing essays rather than trying any attempt at conventional fiction. It’s the account of a street hoodlum, a junior member of a gang in the unfashionable poor north side of Buenos Aires, and a supposedly fateful night when he and his gang are at a dance hall when in crashes a massive hard man, Francisco Real, who muscles his way through the crowd to confront the head of the local gang, Rosendo Juárez, at which point, inexplicably, Rosendo backs down and Real takes his place as head honcho and steals his woman, La Lujanera.

I found a lot of this inconsequential, silly and hard to follow because nobody seemed to be obeying any rules of human nature I’m familiar with. Rosendo disappears, and Real takes La Lujanera outside, presumably to copulate with her in a ‘ditch’:

By then they were probably going at it in some ditch.

Our narrator wanders out to take the air then returns to the dance where old gang members and new gang members seem to be dancing happily. Then there’s a banging on the door, and in stumbles the huge bruiser Real with a big gash in his chest. He collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, appear to rip open his guts and pull out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flows just outside the building.

In the final paragraph, the narrator mentions Borges’s own name as if he is recounting this story directly to him:

Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest – here by the left armpit, where I always carry it – and took my knife out again…

And in the last sentence implies that it was he, the narrator who, when he slipped out, managed to fatally stab Real – in which case why wasn’t there a description of this presumably fairly melodramatic scene, how did he manage to do it if Real was shagging La Lujanera in a ditch? How come La Lunajera didn’t point out our narrator to everyone in the hall as the murderer?

It seemed to me a collection of 1930s noir crime, lowlife clichés thrown together with no plausibility and no account of human psychology. Borges himself seemed bemused by the story’s popularity. Thank God he abandoned this mode of altogether in favour of the ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays gathered in Labyrinths.

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

Being short 2 or 3-page excerpts from scholarly books which presumably struck Borges because of the surrealism or bizarreness or humour of their content. The excerpts are interesting or amusing or ghoulish in their own right, but what really impresses is the arcane nature of their sources, and the range of reading and learning they imply.

A Theologian in Death

From the Arcana Coelestis by Emanuel Swedenborg (1749 to 1756).

The Protestant theologian Philip Melancthon (1497 to 1560) dies and goes to heaven but doesn’t realise this is what has happened because the angels recreate his worldly house and study. However, as a great and learned man, they pester him to write about charity. But Melancthon obstinately persists in writing that charity is unnecessary because, like a zealous Protestant, he believes we are justified by faith alone. The result is that the angels , as warning and punishment, slowly degrade his house and then his own body. Day by day ghost Melancthon awakes in a further degenerated condition, till the last that’s heard of him he is ‘a kind of servant to demons.’

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

In the Andalucian city of Ceuta was a citadel with a door to which each successive king by tradition added a lock. Then a wicked man usurped the throne and, against the advice of holy men, insisted on ripping out the locks and opening the door to find what was inside. He discovered a series of rooms containing wonders, the last of which contained an inscription saying whoever opened the door would be overthrown. And, indeed, within a twelvemonth, the Arab leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad overthrew the usurper and sold his women and children into slavery.

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

A merchant in Cairo falls asleep in his garden with a fountain and a fig tree and has a dream in which angels tell him to seek his fortune in Isfahan in Persia. So he packs up and off he sets.

After a gruelling journey, overcoming numerous threats and natural disasters, he finally arrives in Isfahan and falls asleep by a mosque.

But that night a house next to the mosque is robbed, the owners raise the alarm, the stranger is apprehended, thrown into prison and tortured. He is brought before the captain who asks who he is and why he’s here.

The merchant tells the story of his dream, and the captain laughs and says he also has a dream of a garden of a house in Cairo with a fig tree and a fountain which has treasure buried under it, but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it.

He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns all the way back to his house in Cairo, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure. So the dream came true, just not at all in the way expected.

The Wizard Postponed

From the Libro delos enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor at de Patronio (1335) by Juan Manuel.

A beguiling story in which a Dean from Santiago, wanting to learn about magic, visits the noted magician Don Illán of Toledo and promises him anything if he will teach him magic.

So the Don takes him down into a cellar deep underground and submits him to a test, namely telescoping the next thirty years of their lives together. In this quick journey through the future the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope.

At each step of the way the Don asks for some grace or favour but the newly promoted Dean puts him off, until he finally gets fed up of him and tells the Don to stop bothering him or he’ll have him thrown in prison.

At which point the entire future they’ve lived through disappears in a puff of smoke and the Dean finds himself back in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘I told you so’, escorts him to the door and wishes him a pleasant journey home.

The Mirror of Ink

From The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) by Richard Burton.

How the wizard Abd-er-Rahman al-Masmudi threw himself on the mercy of the tyrant of Sudan Yaqub the Ailing, who orders him every morning to show him visions and wonders, until one day al-Masmudi shows him a figure being dragged for execution. When Yaqub demands that the figure’s veil be taken off, it reveals his own face and he watches the executioner raise his great sword and, when it falls and severs the neck of the man in the vision, Yaqub the Ailing himself falls dead.

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Since the idea of Mohammed is so closely linked to religion in the minds of Muslims, Allah ensures that heaven is overseen by a kind of deputy or second Mohammed, whose identity actually varies. A community of Muslims was once incited by evil spirits to acclaim Mohammed as their God, so Allah brought the spirit of the actual Mohammed up from under the earth to instruct them.

The Generous Enemy

From the Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893) by H. Gering

In 1102 Magnus Barfod undertook to conquer Ireland. Muirchertach, King of Dublin, sends him a nine-line curse which, by roundabout means, ends up coming true.

On Exactitude in Science

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J.A. Suárez Miranda.

A fragment which tells of a magical empire where the geographers at first essayed maps so huge that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the Empire itself an entire Province. These were eventually replaced by the ultimate map of the empire which was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it point for point. Over the years it fell into neglect and now only a few tattered fragments survive in the Western Deserts, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.


Borges’ approach

Bookish

The content of the seven infamy tales is lurid and melodramatic, with plenty of murders, assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and suicides. But they are all refracted through a highly bookish, ironic sensibility which does at least two things: 1. It is very careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. it mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (a showy, pseudo-academic concern with indicating sources) is most evident in the opening of The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv:

If I am not mistaken the chief sources of information concerning Mokanna, the Veiled (or, literally, Masked) Prophet of Khurasan, are only four in number: a) those passages from The History of the Caliphs culled by Baladhuri; b) The Giant’s Handbook, or Book of Precision and Revision, by the official historian of the Abbasids, Ibn abi Tahir Taifur; c) the Arabic codex entitled The Annihilation of the Rose, wherein we find a refutation of the abominable heresies of the Dark Rose, or Hidden Rose, which was the Prophet’s Holy Book; and d) some barely legible coins unearthed by the engineer Andrusov during excavations for the Trans-Caspian railway. (p.77)

‘If I am not mistaken’, that’s a nice touch. The effect of these kinds of learnèd references is to give the very pleasurable sense that you are entering the magical realm of books and stories. Not the everyday books we encounter in our lives or local bookshops, glossy gardening books or biographies of celebrity chefs or tedious accounts of adulteries in North London – but that we have been transported to the realm of old-fashioned stories, stories of extreme actions and derring-do and marvellous deeds in exotic settings.

Stories from our remembered childhood which fired our imaginations before we were forced to grow up and become sensible. It is a very old-fashioned tone and it’s no surprise that Borges, throughout his career, said his earliest and most enduring inspiration derived from the yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exotic

This old-fashioned, bookish tone overlaps with the wonderfully exotic settings of many of the narratives: slave plantations of the Deep South; Australia; the China seas; 18th century Japan; the Wild West; 12th century Ireland; medieval Spain; medieval Persia.

In the first preface he mentions Robert Louis Stevenson as a source and you can feel Stevenson’s restless quest for exotic locations shared by Borges.

Intellectual themes

One of the most obvious recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently very modish theme of) ‘identity’. The seven historical characters freely change their names or have names assigned them by contemporaries or historians. Writing of Monk Eastman, he says:

These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit his real name – presuming there is such a thing as a real name.

The most flagrant example is Tom Castro who has already changed his name once before he embarks on the criminal project of impersonating Roger Charles Tichborne, which leads to the sensational trial in which the nature of ‘identity’ is central. A great deal could be said on the subject of fiction and identity but I’m going to pass.

Two prefaces

After the fact, Borges commented on his own stories in two prefaces, one written for the 1934 edition, one for 1954.

1934 preface

The 1934 preface is only one page long and Borges admits that the stories stem, in part, from:

my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego

combined with the over-use of certain tricks:

random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.

Traditional literature, and many short stories, focus on a psychological crux, a decisive moment in someone’s life, and investigate the ‘moral’ and psychological aspects of it. Borges consciously turns his back on that tradition and exploits his sources to create pen portraits which are not at all concerned with anyone’s inner life, but use the content as 1. entertainment, creating striking scenarios and tableaux, as if in paintings or – as he frequently remarks – like scenes from movies. In the 1954 preface he elaborates that:

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable

They are intended to be all surface. That partly explains why they end so abruptly and with no moralising whatsoever: to emphasise their shiny metallic surfaceness.

2. What Borges doesn’t mention is that the stories are also quite clearly used as starting points for ironic and amused meditations on ideas, the more metaphysical and paradoxical the better. And that this was a harbinger of the work which was to come later.

1954 preface

The 1954 preface is twice as long as the 1934 one, being an extravagant 2 pages in length. Borges immediately launches into a consideration of ‘the baroque’, claiming it is a style:

which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody… [that] only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.

He goes on to link this to a fundamentally comic worldview:

The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labour is essentially humorous.

I disagree. Having attended a big London exhibition about The Baroque I came away with the strong conviction that ‘the Baroque’ is above all about Power, the Complete Power wielded by monarchs who believed in their Divine Right to rule and the Total Power over all believers claimed by the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church.

Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas Borges, if he is anything, is a precise miniaturist. He is more like a Swiss watchmaker than a Baroque architect.

But we are not reading Borges for accurate scholarship, in fact the precise opposite, we are reading him for his whimsical playing fast and loose with facts and figures and ideas for our amusement, an attitude he makes explicit when he writes that the stories are:

the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of others.

Borges may be correct in using the term ‘Baroque’ to indicate an interest in following every detail or narrative possibility to its logical conclusion, in the compulsive inclusion of every finial and architectural flourish possible. But his work is at the opposite end of the scale from The Baroque style in art and architecture.

And the Baroque is, above all, deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed throughout by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. This bookish humour is entirely Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved so much.

Literary influence

Apparently (or, as Borges might write, ‘If I am not mistaken’) the Puerto Rican critic Angel Flores (1900 to 1994) was the first person to use the term ‘magical realism’ and dated the start of the Magical Realist movement from this book.

This is echoed by the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition which claims that Borges intended the stories simply to be light entertainments, newspaper squibs:

‘yet after its appearance in 1935 its influence on the fiction of Latin America was so profound that its publication date became a landmark in the history of Latin American literature.’


Related links

Borges reviews

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

‘I say, sir, this is a bit of a facer, isn’t it?’ said Alan
‘I’m afraid it is,’ Zellaby agreed.
(The Midwich Cuckoos page 80)

John Wyndham’s husband-and-wife teams

The Midwich Cuckoos opens as if it’s going to be another husband-and-wife story, much like The Kraken Wakes. Having read the 15 short stories in Jizzle I can now see that Wyndham is, by inclination, a whimsical and humorous writer. He slips into a homely, drawing room style whenever he writes about nice middle-class couples, in which the woman is invariably the stronger, more determined one and the slightly-henpecked, narrating husband wryly acknowledges her superior qualities. The entire attitude is epitomised in one of many similar exchanges from Kraken:

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

Like Kraken (whose couple are named Mike and Phyllis), Midwich (couple named Richard and Janet) is littered with throwaway jests about this or that aspect of married life, along with sardonic jokes about his or her jobs, stereotyped social attitudes to marriage, pregnancy and so on.

A village story

That said, after the opening scenes, Midwich Cuckoos quite quickly opens up to cover a far larger canvas than just a husband and wife. Indeed Richard and Janet disappear from the text for long stretches, as it focuses more on the household who live at Kyle Manor, namely the thoughtful but long-winded old author, Gordon Zellaby, his (second) wife, Jennifer, their fragrantly pukkadaughter Ferrelyn, and her fiancé, dashing Second-Lieutenant Alan Hughes, currently serving in the army.

But it’s more than just these half dozen upper-middle-class types; the novel opens out to also include a large cast of characters and to give a kind of intimate portrait of an English village in the mid-1950s. Thus there are quite large speaking parts for the vicar and his wife, the village doctor and his wife, the landlord of the village pub (The Scythe and Stone), the village baker, half a dozen labourer families, and various pretty village girls and their sweethearts, not forgetting the striking inclusion of a pair of village lesbians, Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb.

Cast list

One aspect of the large cast of characters is the sense the novel gives you of the gentle but persistent class divide between the (presumably privately) educated, upper-middle-class types (the Gayfords and the Zellabies), the middle-to-lower-middle class professionals who service them and the community (vicar, doctor, police chief, fire chief) and ‘the rest’, the ruck of villagers and rustics, ranging from small shopkeepers (pub landlord, baker, grocer), local farmers down to the manual labourers and their harassed wives, with a floating population of pretty young things who are no better than they should be.

The Posh

  • Gordon Zellaby, who Janet jokingly refers to as ‘the sage of Midwich’ (p.101), working away on his latest book, facetiously referred to as the ‘Current Work, lives at spacious Kyle Manor with his second wife, Jennifer
  • their posh daughter Ferrelyn
  • her fiancé Lieutenant Alan Hughes
  • the initial narrator, writer Richard Gayford and his wife Janet
  • Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research Station located in the Grange (p.52)
  • Tilly Foresham, jodhpurs and three dogs

It’s worth noting that the Zellabies employ a cook and maybe other domestic staff, as breakfast, luncheon, tiffin, dinner and late supper all appear as if by magic, prepared by unseen, unnamed hands.

The admin class

  • the Reverend Hubert Leebody, the vicar (p.91) and his wife, Dora Leebody (who has a breakdown and is sent away to a rest home)
  • Miss Polly Rushton, their pretty young niece
  • Dr Charley Willers and his wife, Milly (p.89)
  • Nurse Daniels

The lower-middle class

  • Miss Ogle, an elderly gossip who runs the village post office and telephone exchange
  • Mr Tapper, the retired gardener
  • Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb the village lesbians (pp.82)
  • Wilfred Williams, landlord of the Scythe and Stone
  • Harriman the baker

The working classes

  • Mr Brant the blacksmith and his wife
  • Alfred Wait
  • Harry Crankhart
  • Arthur Flagg labourer
  • Tom Dorry, rating in the Navy
  • Mr Histon

As we hear more about all these figures and are given little vignettes about them, the village comes to seem more like an Ealing Comedy than a disaster movie. There are quite a few bits of dialogue which come straight from the lips of pukka chaps in 1950s movies (‘I say, I’ll have to step on it. See you tomorrow, darling’) or you can imagine being voiced by Joyce Grenfell in one of the original St Trinian’s movies (which appeared over exactly the same period as Wyndham’s novels):

  • The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
  • Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
  • The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)

There are two schools of thought about this aspect of Wyndham. One is the well-known Brian Aldiss criticism that his novels portray all-too ‘cosy catastrophes’ in which decent middle-class types respond with improbable decency and moral rectitude to global catastrophes, never going to pieces or being corrupted. There’s a lot of truth in this rather brusque putdown.

But there’s the equal and opposite interpretation, that the catastrophes he describes are made all the more realistic and scarey for not having technicolor special effects and not having characters go into psychotic states as per J.G. Ballard’s stories, but remain stiff upper lip, pukka Brits in the face of complete social collapse (Triffids and Kraken in particular). Having met so many public school types, now, I’m inclined to think most of them would survive a world apocalypse very well, and put their experience of the officer training corps, running big organisations, and huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ to very effective use in post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Either way, The Midwich Cuckoos is obviously a science fiction yarn, but it’s useful to flag up the way it is also a fascinating piece of 1950s social history.

Wyndham’s fateful nights

Of Wyndham’s four Big Novels, three start with ‘fateful nights’ when the world changes forever!

In Day of the Triffids, it’s the night of Tuesday 7 May when the whole world watches the spectacular meteor shower and, as a result, goes blind.

In The Kraken Wakes, it’s 11.15pm on the night of 15 July when Mike and Phyllis, on a honeymoon cruise, see the first fireballs fall into the sea.

And in The Midwich Cuckoos the narrator and his wife are up in London celebrating him having signed a contract with an American publisher, which means they’re not present in the nondescript, quiet little village on the fateful night of 26 September!

(Actually, once you realise that The Chrysalids is set in the aftermath of a calamitous nuclear war, you realise it’s likely that that, too, took place on a specific day, maybe night, although, centuries later no-one has any way of knowing when.)

Brief plot summary

The Midwich Cuckkos is 220 pages long in the old Penguin classic edition I own, a comfy, sensible length for an adventure novel. The text is in 21 chapters divided into 2 parts, 15 in the long part one, five in the short part two.

The story is fairly well known, not least from the terrifying 1960 movie adaptation, Village of the Damned, so successful at the box office that it prompted a sequel.

During the ‘fateful night’ of 26 September all the occupants of the village of Midwich pass out. Everyone trying to enter a perfectly circular radius around the village also passes out, presumably due to what used to be called a ‘force field’. The authorities get wind of it and the village is sealed off. 24 hours later the mystery condition disappears and everything returns to normal. Except that, a few months later, all the women of childbearing age report that they are pregnant (which causes difficulty among couples who have stopped having sex, or for single women).

Nine months later the pregnant women all give birth. Their babies are all perfectly healthy but, as they develop, have an eerie similarity of appearance, with platinum blonde hair and piercing golden eyes. The inhabitants knew something strange has happened, and realise the children aren’t natural. And as they grow it becomes clear that the Children can impose their wishes on their parents through some form of telepathy or mental control, which is eerie enough. But it’s only towards the end of the story that one of the leading figures, retired author Gordon Zellaby, comes to appreciate just how much of a threat they pose to all human life, and decides to take drastic action.

Detailed plot summary

Chapter 1 No entry to Midwich

Sets the scene, describes Midwich in the county of ‘Winshire’ (p.34) as an average English village with a handful of the usual historical episodes, including the dissolution of the local monastery, Cromwell’s men stopping over en route to some battle, a notorious 18th century highwayman, and so on.

The initial narrator of the story, author Richard Gayford, has lived in the village for just over a year (p.11) with his wife Janet. They are out of the village, up in London celebrating him signing a contract with American publishers on ‘the fateful night’ of 26 September.

On returning they find the village sealed off by the Army. Being naughty, they drive away from the roadblock but then double back, park at the entrance to a field and try to cut across fields to their cottage. Janet is making her way across a field when she suddenly drops to the ground unconscious. Richard runs forward and similarly blacks out.

Chapter 2 All quiet in Midwich

Quick overview of the village and what all its characters were up to on ‘the fateful night’ i.e. bickering in the pub, listening to the radio, trying to get a new-fangled television set to work, on the phone to a friend in London, relaxing in front of a nice roaring fire.

Chapter 3 Midwich rests

Briefly describes how a succession of early morning visitors to the village disappear, are heard from no more, including the baker’s van, local bus, an ambulance sent to find out what’s going on, a fire engine which goes to investigate reports of smoke, and so on.

Chapter 4 Operation Midwich

The army gets involved. Lieutenant Hughes finds himself consulting with the chiefs of the local fire brigade and police who are establishing a cordon round the village. Alan has the bright idea of getting a soldier to drive off to find a pet shop and requisition a canary in a cage which they can tentatively push forward into the ‘zone’ to see if it collapses. Then another soldier paints a white line on the ground and another indicates the perimeter on a map.

Richard and Janet are dragged by soldiers using a long hook a few yards from where they’re lying prone to just outside the ‘zone’ and immediately wake up and feel fine. They are driven along to the pub in the next door village, which they find packed with journalists, radio and TV people, and Richard is delighted to be hailed by Bernard Westcott, a colleague of his from back in the army days, who, it becomes clear, is now something in Military Intelligence.

Military Intelligence? Yes, they’re here not only because it’s an anomalous event, but because of The Grange. The Grange?

The Grange Upon investigation, it turns out that Midwich is not quite such a boring, average, run-of-the-mill village as the narrator initially implied. It is also home to an old grange building which has had a modern extension added which contains laboratories, amounting to a Research Station, supervised by Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research. What kind of research goes on there? Well, a little surprisingly, we never really find out. And the entire question is, I think, a red herring, thrown in to complexify the early part of the story and make readers wonder whether the mysterious event is some kind of attack on the grange by ‘the enemy’. But by half way through it’s become clear that it wasn’t and the existence of the Grange is more or less irrelevant to the story.

But not here at the start. There is an impressive gathering of military and civil administrator types – army, air force Group Captain, chief policeman, head fireman and so on – who have a summit conference about how to deal with it. An airplane flies over and takes photos of the village. That and the patient perimeter work with the canary establish that the ‘zone’ comprises a perfect circle two miles in diameter., and at the dead centre sits a large object, which has a metallic appearance and looks like a convex spoon (p.36).

The Russians As in The Kraken Wakes there is much speculation about whether the event is an attack by the Russians, by ‘the other side’, by ‘those Ivans’ (p.38). This turns out to be irrelevant to the plot but it is a fascinating indication of how heavily the Cold War rivalry, and the threat from the Soviet bloc, and the constant fear of what new trick they might pull, weighed on the imagination of the West, or of western writers, or of western writers of science fiction, or of John Wyndham, anyway.

Chapter 5 Midwich reviviscit

And then suddenly everybody wakes up. The advantage of Wyndham’s realistic style is he gives a very vivid description of what it feels like to wake up after 2 days suspended animation, in an unnatural position on the sofa or the floor, how you are utterly numb, the pain when the feeling slowly starts to return to your limbs and extremities.

Chapter 6 Midwich settles down

Describes how everyone concerned comes to cope with it, this strange event, which comes to be called the Dayout (p.47). No fewer than 11 people perished, several when their houses caught fire, several from exposure from lying out in the open for two days and nights (there’s a list on page 47).

Bernard Westcott pays a couple more visits to the village, specifically to check up on the Grange but drops into the Gayford cottage for chats. They invite Bernard for dinner and he asks Richard and Janet if they’ll be informal eyes and ears i.e. spy on the village. Janet is at first sceptical, what’s the need? Bernard points out there may be lingering after-effects: after all X-rays, radiation and so on are invisible. There’s no sign of those in the village, they’ve tested, but who knows what other after-effects there may be…

Chapter 7 Coming events

About two months later, in late November, Ferrelyn, after much nervousness, summons up the courage to tell Angela Zellaby, over posh breakfast at the Manor, that she’s pregnant. Angela astonishes Ferrelyn that shs is, too. What worries Ferrelyn, though, is that it isn’t Alan’s. It isn’t anyone’s. She’s a virgin. How can she be pregnant and she bursts into tears.

Briefly, the narrative explains how, over the next few days, women come forward to confide to the vicar, Mr Leebody, or the village doctor, Willers, that they are pregnant – from the oldest to the youngest, all fertile women in the village are pregnant!

Chapter 8 Heads together

Dr Willers calls on Gordon Zellaby to break the news that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Zellaby, in his detached intellectual way, considers the options, giving them smart Greek names:

  • parthenogenesis
  • some form of artificial insemination
  • xenogenesis

It is suggestive that the fertile women who spent the Dayout unconscious in the village bus are not pregnant because the bus was, for the duration, in plain sight of people outside the zone. Maybe whatever was done to the women inside the zone was not to be observed.

The Thinker Several points: Zellaby fulfils something of the same role as Bocker performs in Kraken Wakes and, up to a point, Uncle  Axel, in The Chrysalids – he is a figure peripheral to the main action, who can comment and analyse it. Exactly as Bocker is the first to realise that the fireballs in Kraken might come from another planet and is the first to grasp the threat they pose, so Zellaby in Cuckoos is the first to articulate the theory that the pregnancies are the result of conscious and co-ordinated action, the first to establish the Children’s telepath, and the first to grasp what a serious threat they pose.

But the role of all three characters (Bocker, Alex, Zellaby) is not only to crystallise the reader’s suspicions and move the plot forward, but to express intellectual ideas prompted by the book’s events. Thus Bocker not only warns about what is happening to earth, but speculates about what kind of intelligence has arrived on earth and interesting ideas about whether two intelligent but very different species can ever share a planet. (No, is the short answer).

Similarly, the central theme of The Chrysalids is ‘What is normality and what is deviance?’ and Uncle Alex is the mouthpiece of the author’s interesting ideas on the subject. For example, when Alex made his long sea voyage he discovered lots of communities which were ‘deviant’ in one way or another but each one regarded themselves as normal and all the others as the mutations. On a different but related trajectory, it is Alex who shares the speculation that, maybe David’s family and community, by trying to keep plant, animal and human lineage ‘pure’ and how they were before the nuclear holocaust, maybe they are setting themselves against biological change, when, in fact, evolution and change is the one constant of Life. So that maybe David’s mutation (he is a telepath) is an inevitable next step in human evolution and his family are trying to prevent the inevitable.

And so it is retired author and easily distracted Gordon Zellaby, his mind wandering on strange elusive patterns, who fulfils the same role in Cuckoos not only crystallising the action (I mean drawing together scattered events, making sense of them, as he explains them to Richard or Alan) but going on to express ideas and implications arising from the book’s premise.

Chapter 9 Keep it dark

This is a very interesting chapter because of the way the subject matter is treated. The plot level it is straightforward. Gordon and the doctor decide they must hold an Emergency Meeting of all the village’s womenfolk to explain to them what they think they’ve discovered, to bring it into the open and to air it.

What’s interesting is the extreme care they take to make it a women’s event – to invite only the women, and to ensure that the actual presentation is made by Angela Zellaby. It is a meeting for women, organised by women, and led by a woman. After she has made the initial presentation of the facts, she is emotionally shattered but insists to Gordon and the Willers (waiting in a room off to one side) that the next bit is the most important – it is absolutely vital that the women be given the space and time to talk about it, to talk it through and cultivate a feeling of communal solidarity.

Before and after Zellaby is given speeches, in his conversations with the village doctor, about how strange it is to be a woman and know your body is designed for childbirth, at the best of times, about the uncanniness of being so obviously an animal with a basic animal function of producing offspring, and yet fully human at the same time. A duality which men simply can’t understand, never fully.

This is also the chapter, at the meeting, where Miss Latterly, one of the pair of village lesbians gets up to storm out, outraged at the idea that she – who has never had anything to do with men – could be pregnant, only to be forced to stay when her lesbian partner, Miss Lamb mutely remain, dramatising in a surprisingly sensitive and effective way a) that the latter is pregnant b) her shame c) her partner’s mortification. It’s a good example of the way Wyndham’s terribly British way of handling these things conveys subtle shades of emotion.

Chapter 10 Midwich comes to terms

The Emergency Meeting leads to several outcomes. One is secrecy. No-one will tell anyone outside about it, not even the neighbouring villages, because Angela Zellaby made quite clear how hellish life would become if the world’s press were alerted and came to observe and report on every development during the remainder of the pregnancies.

The other is mutual support. Angela had made it plain that it is happening to all the women, regardless of married status, and so went out of her way to defuse stigma and shame and get all the other women to agree. Instead she led in setting up a programme of social activities and support and we are told the Zellabies themselves help out with money for the less well-off and for single mums.

Religion. In Triffids there was a conference of the survivors of the Great Blinding, held in a lecture room in Senate House during which a Miss Durrell expressed the Christian view that the catastrophe was God punishment of an immoral world. Similarly, in this novel, Mrs Dora Leebody, the vicar’s wife has a sort of breakdown and takes to preaching at the village war memorial that all the pregnant women have been cursed by God. A few days later she is found in the market square of the neighbouring town, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, preaching about God’s punishment. She is quietly brought home, sedated and then sent off by her husband to a rest home

But rather like the concern with the Russians expressed early in the novel, this brings home to the reader how prominent a factor in British culture Christianity was in the 1950s, in a way it probably wouldn’t be in the multicultural 2020s UK.

This comes out even more clearly in the final chapters where Zellaby engages in extended debates with the vicar about the morality of dealing with the Children, as they grow ever-more threatening.

Chapter 11 Well played, Midwich

Nerves hold up well through the spring until, in May, some of the heavily pregnant women start to crack under the uncertainty of not knowing what they are carrying in their wombs. Resilient and intelligent Angela Zellaby is given a speech declaring that men can never understand what it is like to be a woman, and not to have the faintest idea of the nightmare strain the pregnant women of Midwich are under (p.87).

Funnily enough, the first to have her baby is the lesbian Miss Lamb, who stumbles on a milk bottle on her doorstep, takes a fall and goes into labour. Hours later, having delivered the baby, the village doctor returns to his anxious wife and declares the baby is perfect in all respects. Over the coming month all the other babies are delivered, physically perfect specimens, but with golden eyes and blonde hair. 61 in total, 31 males, 30 females.

Chapter 12 Harvest home

The vicar falls into a stroll with Zellaby and assures him all the women have now had their babies. He is uneasy. Can’t shake the feeling it’s some kind of test. Zellaby makes remarks repeating his sense that, as men, they are hors du combat, outside the zone and cannot hope to understand what the women are going through.

Walking on Zellaby observes Mrs Brinkman pushing a pram and is a little surprised when she abruptly stops, takes the baby out, sits on the war memorial, unbuttons her blouse and starts suckling it. She is embarrassed when Zellaby draws abreast and explains that the baby made her do it. Walking up to the lodge, there’s a beep and Ferrelyn is in a car behind him. She too, flushed and upset, and says the baby made her come. Aha.

Chapter 13 Midwich centrocline

A centrocline is: ‘An equidimensional basin characteristic of cratonic areas, in which the strata dip to a central low point.’

Over the coming weeks every single mum who’d moved away from Midwich (for example most of the women researchers from the Grange who had been on secondments and gone elsewhere for their pregnancies and births) find themselves compelled to return

The text quotes a report Dr Willers submits to his superiors, outlining the sequence of births, the compulsion all the mothers felt to return and other matters, above all emphasising that some kind of official study should be being made of the children’s births, weights, development and so on.

Bernard turns up, goes for a chat with Zellaby, then comes for dinner with Richard and Janet, repeating some of Zellaby’s speculations. Apparently, Zellaby wonders whether it was a mistake that Homo sapiens is so very different from all other animal species, if our culture would be improved if we had to deal with at least one other intelligent life form on the planet. (This is one of the ideas floated in the Kraken Wakes.)

Chapter 14 Matters arising

Precisely half way through the book, Alan pays a call (he is currently stationed by the army a long way away, in Scotland, and can only get leave to visit Midwich occasionally).

Gordon takes him for a chat out in the garden of the manor. In garden chairs on the fine lawn under the old cedar tree, Gordon expounds his theory that the women have borne alien children. Earlier generations would have recognised them as changelings (p.106) – ‘deformed or imbecilic offspring of fairies or elves substituted by them surreptitiously for a human infant’. We moderns, Zellaby says, might think of them as cuckoos (p.106), laid in another species’ nests, force the mothers to work themselves to death to feed them, then exterminate all the true fledgelings.

That’s why he’s asking Alan to persuade Ferrelyn to leave the baby in his care and depart Midwich, go with him to Scotland. Nobody knows what it means or what might happen, but Zellaby introduces the idea that, if you were going to attack a civilisation and had plenty of time to plan it, might it not be a good idea to introduce a fifth column to work against the host nation from within. Maybe that’s what the babies are.

Chapter 15 Matters to arise

Months pass. The Grange is emptied and all its staff leave, but leaving four babies behind, in a new nursery. Over the winter pneumonia carries off some of the parents and three of the babies, leaving 58.

A dessicated couple called the Freemans move into the cottage vacated by Crim, and turn out to be officials sent to monitor developments, but they do it in a very ham-fisted way and become known as the Noseys.

Early in the summer Gordon pays Richard and Janet a visit and asks them to come with him to witness an experiment. The Children (everyone refers to them with a capital C, now) are barely a year old but look like healthy 2-year-olds. Gordon drops in on a family with one, asks the mum’s permission, then presents the child with a cunning Japanese wooden box with a sweet inside. The child struggles for a while, then Gordon shows him how to unlock it, relocks it. Given it again, the child unlocks it easily, but that’s not the point. Gordon takes them to see several other children and they all unlock it easily. Once one knows, they all know. Gordon presents his interpretation: they may have different physical bodies, but what if the Children compose one mind! He has christened it collective-individualism’ (p.123)

With typical intellectual sprezzatura Gordon speculates that maybe Homo sapiens is stagnating, the race limited to individuals with just the one mind, all jostling. Maybe the next breakthrough in evolution would be to combine the powers of individual minds into a collective. Maybe they are the progenitors of a new race. That’s why, he says, looking vaguely out the window at a bumble bee hovering over the lavender, he keeps thinking the collective boys and the collective girls should be renamed – Adam and Eve.

On the last page of Part One, Richard gets a job in Canada, leaving at once, and Janet follows soon after. She expresses relief to be shot of Midwich and its weird atmosphere and God, so grateful they were out of the village on ‘the fateful night’ and so she never bore one of those monster children.

Part two

Chapter 16 Now we are nine

Eight years pass. Richard and Janet live in Canada now, but occasionally pop back to the old country. On one such trip, Richard bumps into Bernard, who is now a colonel. They go for a drink and the subject of Midwich comes up. Richard has almost forgotten about it, says how are things going, Bernard says he’s scheduled to pop down for a visit next day, would Richard like to come?

The reader thinks this might be the first of several episodic visits, but in fact it turns into one continuous visit which leads to the climax of the story.

On the drive down Bernard tells Richard the Grange has been converted into a special school for the Children. Zellaby was right, what one boy learns they all learn, what one girl learns, ditto. The Children have developed at twice normal speed and now look 17 or 18. The news blackout has continued to be a success, the neighbouring communities regarding Midwich as ‘touched’ by the event, and the inhabitants retarded. The word they use is ‘daytouched’ (p.133). They consider the entire community a kind of open asylum. Some of the mothers were reluctant to let their children attend the new school but one by one the Children went of their own accord, to be together.

Bernard is driving down for a post-mortem on a local young man, Jim Pawle. Richard attends. It is a tense affair, with a very bad mood among the villagers attending, although nothing out of the ordinary is done or said. Zellaby greets Richard as if they’d only said goodbye the day before, invites him and Bernard to the Manor, describes what happened. He was an eye-witness. The local boy was driving his car along a lane when he hit one of a group of four Children by mistake. Zellaby watched as the other three focused their mental force on making the unhappy driver get back into his car and set off at top speed towards a wall, hitting it head on and dying.

Others saw it too. It gave Zellaby a very bad shock. Now he shares his feelings with Bernard and Richard. What if it had been him or Angela or Ferrelyn driving? He tells them Dr Willers died a few years earlier, suicide, overdose of barbiturates (p.143). Richard is surprised, he didn’t seem the sort. Gordon agrees, and wonders now whether… Whether the Children made him do it? Richard completes the thought. My God. Now for the first time, Zellaby says he is scared, thinking he should send Angela away.

Angela appears from the house, comes onto the veranda, joins the conversation, and mentions the incident of the dog – which bit one of the Children and promptly ran in front of a tractor – and the bull – which attacked one of them and promptly ran through several fields and drowned itself in a mill pond. She is in no doubt the children cause the deaths of anyone or anything which harms them.

The mother of the driver of the car wanted to attend and denounce the Children, but her other son and husband prevented her. What good would it do? The entire village is now living in fear.

Bernard and Richard say their goodbyes and leave, driving very carefully. They come on a group of four Children and Bernard slows down to let Richard appreciate just how much they have grown. Their golden eyes make them look like semi-precious stones. Both are stunned when a gunshot goes off and one of the Children falls to the ground. Richard gets out, a Child turns to look at him and he feels a gust of confusion and weakness flood through him.

Then they are aware of a high moaning keening sound and realise it is the other Children, a way off, expressing the same pain the shot one is feeling. And then they hear whimpering and another shot fired and screaming. Pushing through the hedge they come across a young man who has blown his own head off and his girlfriend, Elsa, next to him, hysterical. It’s the brother of the young man whose inquest they attended. He was taking revenge on the Children by shooting one of them and now they’ve killed him, too.

Local labourers come running, lift up the girl, take her home, the ones Richard hears vowing revenge against ‘the murderin’ young bastards.’ Richard and Bernard motor back to the Manor where Gordon hears the full story over a fortifying drink. Hmm. This is how blood feuds begin…

Chapter 17 Midwich protests

Shaken, Bernard and Richard return to Kyle Manor where the Zellabies graciously offer to put them up and invite them for dinner. They have barely withdrawn to the living room (the cook and other invisible servants having, presumably, cleared away the meal things) than the vicar, Leebody, enters in a fret. He warns that the situation is escalating.

Leebody and Zellaby engage in quite a high-flown debate about the morality of the Childrens’ activities. Leebody says they have the appearance of humans but, if they are not human inside, in their souls, then the laws of the Bible and conventional morality do not apply. Zellaby gives his view which is that the laws devised by one species to regulate its societies do not apply to a completely different species.

This high-flown talk is interrupted by Mrs Brant, who makes her apologies to ‘is worship Mr Zellaby, and then physically drags Leebody to the door, saying the Midwich men had been gathered in the pub, working themselves up into a fury, and have now set off in a body to burn the Grange to the ground and murder all the children. Only Mr Leebody can stop them, and she drags him, fluttering and stammering off into the night.

Zellaby, Bernard and Richard are about to follow, but Angela slams the door shut and stands in front of it, absolutely implacable. She knows there is going to be trouble and absolutely forbids any of them to leave. And they meekly accept her orders.

Chapter 18 Interview with a child

The Chief Constable of Winshire looked in at Kyle Manor the next morning, just at the right time for a glass of Madeira and a biscuit.

That gives you a sense of the sedate, well-mannered, upper-middle-class milieu we are operating in. We quickly learn that the attempt to torch the Grange backfired disastrously, as the Children made the attackers attack each other with the result that three men and a woman are dead and many others injured. Angela was quite right to prevent her menfolk going along.

What quickly transpires is the chief constable knows nothing about the Children, their special history or ability, and Zellaby, Bernard and Richard struggle to convey it to him.

The mildly comic scene where the phlegmatic policeman becomes more and more frustrated is interspersed with vignettes from the village. Passengers attempting to enter the village bus find their feet unable to move. Polly Rushton seeking to drive back to London finds herself stopping at the village perimeter and turning back. In other words, the Children have set up a kind of psychic boundary which the villagers can’t escape.

The Chief Constable goes up to the Grange where the current administrator, Mr Torrance, arranges an interview with one of the Children. This boy announces in forthright tones that the Children did make the village men attack each other in self defence because they knew the men had come to burn down the Grange. Well, why not just turn them back? asks the policeman. Because they needed to make an example to warn off other would-be attackers.

The Chief Constable is so appalled at the boy’s arrogance and the casual way he mentions the murder of four civilians that he starts abusing him and goes to stand, when he suddenly freezes, choking, then falls to the floor gasping and whimpering, vomits and passes out. Bernard watches all this in terror. He and Torrance call some of the police officers and have the CC carried to a car and taken away, still unconscious, then Bernard returns to the Manor.

Richard tries to leave but finds himself unable to, unable to shift gear or push the accelerator and so reluctantly turns back. Looks like he’s trapped along with the others.

Chapter 19 Impasse

Bernard returns to the Manor, has a couple of strong whiskeys and recounts what he saw. Gordon and Angela, Bernard and Richard sit down to another fine luncheon prepared by cook (p.178), and their conversation includes some major revelations. These last 40 pages of the novel become very wordy. There is more and more theorising and less and less action – up until the abrupt climax, that is.

Now, at this meal, Zellaby and Bernard both agree that they think the children are the result of the intervention of non-terrestrial aliens (p.188). But Bernard now makes the revelation of the book: that during the three or so weeks surrounding the Dayout, radar detected an unusual number of unidentified flying objects and that Dayouts happened at other communities.

He knows about incidences in the Northern Territory of Australia where, for reasons unknown, all the children died on birth. In an Eskimo settlement in northern Canada where the community was so outraged at the incident that it exposed the babies at birth. One at a remote community in the Irkutsk region of Mongolia where the local men considered their women had slept with the devil and murdered not only babies but mothers. And another in Gizhinsk. This is the important one.

For here the children were allowed to grow by the Soviet authorities who, after initially suspecting a capitalist trick, decided the children’s powers may be of some advantage in the Cold War. However, the Soviets eventually concluded their Children were a threat not only to the local community but to the state itself and – here’s the point – struck the town with atomic weapons. The town of Gizhinsk no longer exists.

And the other guests are electrified to learn that this happened only the previous week, just before the Children murdered Pawle. They knew. Somehow they knew about the murder of their peers in Russia and, from that moment, have escalated their actions, retaliating for even mild slights with immediate disproportionate violence.

After luncheon Bernard announces he is going back up to the Grange for a proper conversation with Torrance. He walks. However on the way he stops by two Children sitting on a bank. They are looking up. Bernard hears the drone of a jet plane passing high overhead. He sees five dots appear from it. For a moment I thought they were bombs and that’s how the book might end, but instead they are parachutes. The Children have made the five crew on the plane bail out, the plane will fly on till it crashes somewhere.

Bernard tells them that’s a very expensive plane, they could just have got to the pilots to turn back. The children calmly logically reply that that might have been put down to instrument failure. They must make their message plain.

‘Oh, you want to instil fear, do you? Why?’ inquired Bernard.
‘Only to make you leave us alone,’ said the boy. ‘It is a means; not an end.’ His golden eyes were turned towards Bernard, with a steady, earnest look. ‘Sooner or later, you will try to kill us. However we behave, you will want to wipe us out. Our position can be made stronger only if we take the initiative.’
The boy spoke quite calmly, but somehow the words pierced right through the front that Bernard had adopted. (p.196)

The Children explain in terms way beyond their years (and reminiscent of Zellaby who has, after all, been teaching them for years) that it is a clash of species. They explain that they know about the murder of the Children of Gizhinsk. And then they proceed to give a merciless analysis of the political and moral situation here in England. In Soviet Russia the individual exists to support the state and individuals can be arrested, imprisoned or liquidated if their existence or thoughts, words or actions threaten the state.

By contrast, here in the West, the State exists to support the wish for self-fulfilment and freedom of vast numbers of heterogenous individuals. No government could unilaterally wipe out a settlement like Midwich with all its innocent civilians. That’s why they’ve erected an invisible barrier and no-one can leave. The civilians are hostages. Any government which wipes Midwich out will never be re-elected. Meanwhile all kinds of mealy-mouthed do-gooders and experts on ethics will wring their hands about the Childrens’ rights. And they will use this time to get stronger.

Bernard becomes aware that he is sweating, panicking at hearing such cold-blooded sentiments coming out the mouth of a teenager. The Child moves beyond a shrewd analysis of the Realpolitik of the situation to a deeper, biological or Darwinian interpretation.

‘Neither you, nor we, have wishes that count in the matter – or should one say that we both have been given the same wish – to survive? We are all, you see, toys of the life-force. It made you numerically strong, but mentally undeveloped; it made us mentally strong, but physically weak: now it has set us at one another, to see what will happen. A cruel sport, perhaps, from both our points of view, but a very, very old one. Cruelty is as old as life itself. There is some improvement: humour and compassion are the most important of human inventions; but they are not very firmly established yet, though promising well.’ He paused, and smiled. ‘A real bit of Zellaby, that – our first teacher,’ he put in, and then went on. ‘But the life force is a great deal stronger than they are; and it won’t be denied its blood-sports.’ (p.200)

Chapter 20 Ultimatum

Meanwhile Zellaby takes Richard for a turn round his favourite Thinking Walk. Here he propounds at length his speculation that, we maybe describing the Children as aliens, but what if the human races are also alien interlopers? Impregnated into low-intelligence Neanderthals by the aliens, to create a step-change in evolution?

His evidence is the remarkable lack of fossil evidence for the evolution of Homo sapiens combined with the huge gap between us and any other living thing. What if we too were planted here by a Maker or a team of extra-terrestrial scientists carrying out experiments in evolution and the earth is their testbed? (p.205)

Bernard arrives back from his conversation with the two Children. They had concluded by presenting an ultimatum, hence the title of the chapter. More accurately, a demand. They want to be transported to somewhere where they will be safe. They will supervise all aspects of the transportation. They want Bernard to escalate it to his superiors and, ultimately to the Prime Minister.

Zellaby is not surprised. In the latest of his many speculations and formulations, he amuses himself by saying the they now face a ‘moral dilemma of some niceness’:

‘On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours. On the other hand, it is our culture that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities, not to mention the practical obstacles to such a solution.’ (p.208)

If you like moral dilemmas, this is the one at the core of the book. Do we have the right to ‘liquidate’ the apparently harmless, if we have good suspicions they will eventually come to pose a threat to us?

If absolute moral values can’t help us decide, then Zellaby invokes the classic Utilitarian argument for making decisions based on their practical outcomes.

‘In a quandary where every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with the least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at that conclusion. In nine years I have grown rather fond of them…’ (p.208)

And that is what he does. Bernard says his goodbyes and sets off to London to convey the Children’s ultimatum. Richard stays on at the Manor.

Chapter 21 Zellaby of Macedon

Next morning Gordon asks Angela to get a jar of bullseyes, the Children’s favourite sweet, from the shops in Trayne. He is preparing to give them one of his regular film shows, about the Aegean Islands. When Richard joins him on the veranda before luncheon, Zellaby calmly says life goes on, he’s happy to give the Children another film show and lecture, they enjoy it, he likes them despite everything. The key thing is they trust him.

Early that evening Richard helps load his projector gear into the car, a surprising number of surprisingly heavy boxes and then drives Gordon to the Grange, helps the Children unload and carry the equipment into the building. Richard asks to stay, since he is still recently enough returned to be fascinated by the Children but Gordon suavely asks him to go back to the Manor and be with Angela, her nerves are so high strung, poor thing. So Richard reluctantly drives off.

He has barely parked, entered the Manor, poured a drink and begun chatting to Angela who is expressing her fears about what the children will do next, when there is a flash, a colossal bang and then a shock wave hits the Manor and shatters all its windows. When Richard picks himself up and runs to the french windows he sees detritus all across the lawn, creepers ripped off the facade of the Manor, and flames rising from the Grange up on the hill.

Gordon had packed the projector boxes with explosive and has set it off, killing himself and all the children. From the endless stream of speculations and musings which dominate the final chapters, it appears there were real conclusions and a practical outcome endless. It was a war of species. The Children needed to be liquidated in order to preserve our species. And if moral speculation was no use, then utilitarian considerations provided a basis for action. Which he took, knowing that the Children’s trust was a unique quality which he alone of maybe the entire human race had. And so he abused it to murder them all. If it was murder (see the long discussion with the vicar about the morality of inter-species killing).

The Midwich Cuckoos is a gripping, thrilling read, which is strangely inflected between, on the one hand its almost insufferably pukka, upper-middle-class, English characters and, on the other hand, the frequent and very thought-provoking debates about morality, the rights and wrong of eliminating a racial threat, the possibility that the entire human race is a galactic experiment, and other quietly mind-bending topics.


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John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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
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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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

1910s

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

1920s

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 and they rebel
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, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern 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

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces 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  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
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 who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
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, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

Rockaby by Samuel Beckett (1981)

Rockaby is a short play which Samuel Beckett wrote at the request of Daniel Labeille from the State University of New York, for a festival and symposium arranged to celebrate Beckett’s 75th birthday.

In the printed text, one and a half pages of detailed description of the stage setup, the actor’s costume and position and so on are followed by eight pages of actual text, the words to be spoken. This is unusual for Beckett, in that it’s written in short unrhymed lines so the text looks more like a poem rather than prose. Less unusual is the fact that all but ten or so words are not spoken by the actor we seen onstage but are pre-recorded. So the majority of the play consists of listening to a tape recording of the actor’s voice, similar to the setup in That Time which features a single actor onstage who never in fact says anything, but listens to three different tape recordings of his own voice interweaving seamlessly.

As part of the Beckett on Film project, Rockaby was filmed in a production featuring Penelope Wilton as the Woman, directed by Richard Eyre. This version runs for 14 minutes, but I can’t find it anywhere online.

For the duration of this short performance, an old woman (‘prematurely old’) with unnaturally large eyes (heavily made up) sits rocking in a rocking chair, while we hear her pre-recorded voice reciting the short lines of the text. Her rocking and the recorded voice both start when the woman in the chair says ‘More’. After a few minutes the rocking and voice come to a stop, there’s a characteristically Beckettian pause and then the woman says ‘More’, and the voice and rocking start again.This pause and then rather harrowed request for ‘more’ occurs four times, punctuating the action, giving it a shape and rhythm.

It’s as if the Woman has to call the voice into action in order to restart her rocking, to give her motion, activity and, by implication, life.

The play premiered on April 8, 1981 at the State University of New York, starring Beckett’s favourite woman actor, Billie Whitelaw, directed by his longtime American associate, Alan Schneider. A documentary film, Rockaby, was directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and recorded the rehearsal process and the first performance. This is the performance segment of that film. It is not great quality but it does feature the brilliant Billie Whitelaw and she was coached for the performance by Beckett himself, so it’s probably as close to being definitive as possible.

The impression is that only the Voice allows her to continue. The Voice keeps her rocking. The Voice keeps her going, ‘keeping going’ being the concern of most of Beckett’s characters ever since The Unnamable was published in 1953.

Repetition

And repetition, arguably Beckett’s central literary strategy. Key phrases and words are repeated numerous times to create an incantatory, spooky, ghostly power, like the witches at the start of Macbeth reciting in unison. It’s quite spectacularly brilliant and disturbing, isn’t it?

went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

The text invokes confused identities, seems to indicate that the person going down the steep stair into the basement where the old rocker is, in doing so exchanges identities with the dead mother:

time she went right down
was her own other
own other living soul

So that the physical movement ‘down the steep stair’ appears to also be a psychological transition in which the woman upstairs metamorphoses into the mother in her rocking chair. The overlap of personalities or avatars or spirits comes into focus or crystallises at the three moments where the Woman onstage breaks her silence and speaks the short phrase ‘time she stopped’ in synchrony with the recorded Voice (a trick, incidentally, Beckett had used in …but the clouds… at the couple of moments when the phantom woman suddenly mouths the male speaker’s words in synchrony with him).

In the literary world, this theme of merging identities can be unravelled at some length because literature and literary criticism, particularly of a psychoanalytical persuasion, are obsessed with identity, the self and the ever-threatening ‘other’, the repressed or controlled elements of our psyche which are always threatening to break free.

But on a less highfalutin’ level, the theme of possession is a staple subject of horror novels and movies which routinely feature the innocent heroine venturing down to the spooky basement or the spooky attic to find themselves becoming possessed by a dead spirit – this is the very familiar and assimilable subject of countless horror movies.

Indeed, the image of the old woman dressed in black and gone quite mad and then dead, the image of a dead old woman in a chair, reminds me of Norman Bates’s mother dead in her basement chair in one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, Hitchcock’s, Psycho.

image

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
and rocked
rocked
saying to herself
no

Beckett and his mother

It adds quite a big new layer to your interpretation of the performance when you learn that in his 20s, Beckett underwent extensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London (over 1,500 sessions spread over two years with the pioneering psycho-analyst Wilfred Bion) in order to bring his panic attacks, night sweats and heart arrhythmia under control. In his massive biography of Beckett, James Knowlson explains that the core of Beckett’s psychological problems, and the cause of his psychosomatic symptoms, was established as his unusually intense love-hate relationship with his mother:

The key to understanding Beckett, said Dr Geoffrey Thompson – who, with Wilfred Bion himself, was the one most likely to know – was to be found in his relationship with his mother. And reductive analysis must have focused on the intensity of his mother’s attachment to him and his powerful love-hate bond with her.
(Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson, page 178)

Mother and son problems, OK. And yet in this and the very similar play, Footfalls, written a few years earlier (1976) it is not a man who struggles with the memory of his mother, but a woman who struggles with the memory of hers. It is a woman in these plays, a woman’s voice, a woman’s psyche, which is dominated and (maybe) taken over by the very old or dead mother, the dead mother whose personality lives on in the daughter, which appears to fight for ownership of the daughter’s mind.

so in the end
close of a long day
went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

So you can, if you wish, bring aspect of Beckett’s personal life to the play; or you can dwell on the countless writings about identity and ‘the other’ produced by critical theorists throughout the 20th century (Freud, Lacan, Derrida) and investigate the impossibility of the self, and the multiple conflicts which not only rive the mind, but fissiparate language itself, a tiny glimpse of which is given in the ‘confusion’ or closeness of the words mother and other in the recitative format of the play.

But there is also the simple aspect of the theatrical performance to consider. Just to sit and listen and watch, to let yourself be drawn slowly further and deeper in to an uncanny zone by the actor’s deliberately flat, repetitive, incantatory voice (Beckett was forever instructing all his actor’s to drain all colour and expression from his words, to speak like robots), is to have an almost out-of-body experience.

Watch it with all the lights in the room turned off, close your eyes and drift with the words, and accompany the text on that slow descent into the basement and to sit in the rocking chair of the dead mother. It is a genuinely creepy experience. You rarely find critics categorising Beckett as a writer of ghost stories, of horror stories, but I think they should.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Footfalls by Samuel Beckett (1976)

Footfalls is a short play by Samuel Beckett. Although it consists of barely five pages of text, it lasts a good 25 minutes in performance because of the very frequent use of long, pregnant pauses and its division into four parts separated by intermissions when the lights go completely dark, while the audience hears the solitary chime of a distant church bell.

The action, the onstage activity such as it is, consists of one woman, May, pacing slowly across the stage, reaching the edge of the stage, turning and… pacing slowly back, all the time exchanging slow, moody dialogue with the voice of a woman offstage, who she refers to as ‘Mother’.

Stage directions

In terms of stagecraft, Footfalls is another example of Beckett’s fastidious concern with ultra-precise stage directions. Here’s his instructions for how it opens:

Curtain. Stage in darkness.
Faint single chime. Pause as echoes die.
Fade up to dim on strip. Rest in darkness.
M discovered pacing towards L. Turns at L. paces three more lengths, halts, facing front at R.

That’s the opening, but the full mise-en-scène is this, complete with a precise diagram showing the footsteps.

Strip: downstage, parallel with front, length nine steps, width one metre, a little off centre audience right.Directions for the actress to walk in Samuel Beckett's Footfalls

 

 

Starting with right foot (r), from right (R) to left (L), with left foot (I) from L to R.
Turn: rightabout at L, leftabout at R.
Steps: clearly audible rhythmic tread.
Lighting: dim, strongest at floor level, less on body, least on head.
Voices: both low and slow throughout.

Start stage right, take nine steps, length one metre, starting with the right foot, ending with the right foot, then turn and commence the return journey with the left foot.

The lighting is brightest at floor level to really emphasis the feet pacing and growing dimmer further up the body so the audience can barely see the walking woman’s face, making her voice disembodied.

The consolation of mechanism

I’m so glad I took the trouble to read Beckett’s shorter fiction because it’s in a relatively obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, that Beckett writes that:

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort…

This, for me, is the key which opens Beckett’s entire worldview. I’ve always felt the critics who dwell on the supposed nihilism and bleakness and existentialism of his worldview were missing or downplaying the equally important element of mechanism, his mechanical way of conceiving the human body and human activity, the obsessive enumeration of all the ways of performing deliberately trivial tasks which infests novels like Molloy and Watt, the obsessive visualising of the way human bodies are cramped and confined and bent at precise angles in the avant-garde prose pieces like How It Is or All Strange Away, and then the obsessive attention to precise measurements in all aspects of the later plays, not only physical distances such as the head of the actor being 8 feet off the stage in Not I but 10 feet in That Time, right down to the exact specification for duration of pauses or, for example in That Time, of the breaths (10 seconds).

Comfort. The boy Beckett found comfort in simple sums, counting and figures. The effect for the reader and viewer may to be powerfully alienated from the protagonists of the fiction and the performers in the plays, which emphasise an anti-humanist mechanistic view of the human machine.

And, when you read the stage directions of this play you realise that the words, the speaking of the words, must at moments exactly match the pacing of the feet. That must be extremely difficult to achieve in actual performance. It is bending the performer to become as precise as a musical instrument, as regular as a metronome.

The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett tells us that, once he saw it in performance, Beckett changed the number of paces from seven to nine. It was crucial to the rhythm of the piece. Likewise, the period of seven seconds. He told the director of the German production that the first chime of the bell must die away in seven seconds and the light comes up in seven seconds. At the end of each of the three parts the light must fade away across seven seconds, and then comes back up for the next part in seven seconds. Exactly. Mechanical and precise as a composition by Bach.

Yes, we understand all that but… it transforms your understanding to realise that this entire worldview has its origin in an urge to control the world, and to control his feelings, felt by a lonely, solitary little boy, and a very clever, sensitive and isolated young man. To realise that the extreme mechanicalness of all these stage details is fraught with tightly controlled emotion. Ready to explode. Those phrases in Heard In the Dark 2 are the key which explains why such low-profile, muted, quiet, dimly-lit and precisely choreographed pieces of stagecraft are, in fact, bursting with suppressed fury.

Beckett on film

This is the Beckett On Film version, directed by Walter Asmus, with Susan Fitzgerald as May, the walking woman, and Joan O’Hara as the Voice, referred to as Mother.

The most obvious thing about it is that it ignores the purity of Beckett’s stage direction and complicates things visually by placing May behind a row of banisters and making it look like she’s on the landing of a house, pacing up and down outside two bedroom doors. Making it much less abstract and minimalist, much more specific than the play’s directions justify.

Themes

Numbers

Obviously it’s two women, a dyad but, in a way, more dynamic than the characters, is the play’s careful division into four parts: part 1 May and mother’s dialogue; part 2 the mother’s monologue; part 3 May’s monologue; part 4 the brief coda with no-one onstage.

Speed

The speed is the extreme opposite of Not I or Play in which the actors were told to rattle on at breakneck speed. Here it is the opposite, slow to almost to soporific, with long pregnant pauses between phrases. And the metronomic speed of the pacing steps is like the tempo of unheard music.

Voices

It is a play of voices, maybe most plays are, but Beckett’s more than most, where there is often no action at all, no interplay, just the haunting effect of voices. One aspect of voices-only drama is that the voices themselves can change identity in the way a physical actor cannot.

Decrepit

Beckett delights in the details of physical decay and decrepitude, hence the initial dialogue about the bedpan, dressing sores etc. Can the Voice really be 90 years old, 89 or 90? The woman onstage, May or Amy, she is quite old, too, certainly a wreck: ‘dishevelled grey hair, worn grey wrap hiding feet, trailing.’ Very often Beckett throws in a swearword or two. Maybe he was restrained out of respect for a woman actor.

Identity

Footfalls is divided into 4 parts by silence and the lights going down to blackness and then the distant chime of a church bell. It is very unnerving when the lights come up on part two and May is no longer speaking, but is addressed by the Voice, the alleged mother, in a sustained monologue, revealing creepy details about the woman we observe continuing her endless pacing. As the piece progresses their respective identities become more uncertain, as the Mother speaks vindictively about the daughter in part 2, before May appears to have a breakdown in part 3 as she becomes utterly absorbed into the anecdote about the mother and daughter in church, before she finally seems to reveal that the mother’s voice is part of her psyche.

And then all identities are cancelled when part 4 opens (briefly) on an empty stage. All gone like dreams, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’ or, in this case, nightmares of personality disorder.

Pacing

How many Beckett characters are engaged on endless, pointless trudges, from Molloy and Malone in the Trilogy or Mercier and Camier on their pointless quest through to the more blighted characters in prose pieces like How It IsEnoughHeard in the Dark 1, or Lucky and Pozzo on their pointless circular journey in Waiting For Godot?

Footfalls in a sense zeroes in on just this aspect of Beckett’s small palette, zeroing in on more than the pacing to focus on the very process of footfalls, the falls of foot, precise and precisely notated, the loud, bocking noise of the hard woman’s shoes clod clod clodding across the carpetless floor, ‘however faint they fall’, in an endless sequence, forever.

Stephen King

One of the commentators on YouTube mentions Stephen King. It’s a reminder that Beckett exists in the real world, the wide world that includes Disneyland and Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and reggae. Seen from the perspective of ordinary people a play like this is a spooky ghost story. In fact Beckett’s obsession with people we can see – like May, here, or Joe in Eh Joe or the Listener in That Time – being haunted, bullied and harrowed by the voices of the unseen, they are very much like ghost stories.

The spine-chilling ghoulishness is brought on by the Voice telling us about the woman onstage, that when she was a girl, when other girls were out playing lacrosse, ‘she’ was already at it, at this, at this pointless pacing which has consumed her life. She has rarely if ever left the house, living a life of confinement and obligation to an aged parent. Trapped.

And then the vehemence of the apparently trivial anecdote of the mother and daughter in church, pretty pointless in itself but which leads into the terrifying last minutes where the woman we see, the actress onstage, appears to change from the ‘May’ who began the piece into the ‘Amy’ who featured in the church story. And now for the first time we appear to see that the voice of ‘mother’ is inside her head, as she expresses both characters, Mother and Amy.

It turns, in the final moments, into Psycho, an initially sensible, calm-seeming younger person apparently possessed by the personality of their dead mother.

Leading up to the very final stage instruction which is that, after the lights go down for the third time, after we hear the distant chime even more feebly than before, after an even longer wait for the lights to slowly, feebly go back up, a little…. there is NO TRACE OF MAY! She has disappeared. She was never there. She was a ghost in our minds just as her mother was a ghost in her mind.

For the play turns out to be about people who are not there, in multiple senses. May may only be a figment of her mother’s imagination. Or memory. And May’s rather violent anecdote of the mother and daughter in church may be a representation of the mother’s guilt, a confused expression of the accusation she know can be hurled at her of immuring her daughter, the mother realising her representation of the fictitious version of her daughter, Amy, is as incomplete as her actual daughter, May’s, actual life was. Hence Amy, and maybe her mother through her, claiming:

Amy: I was not there. Mrs W: Not there? Amy: Not there.

Maybe May only existed because her mother gave her being (in a literal and psychological sense, for which she apologises, like everyone in Beckett is sorry for being born) and then gave rise to an accusing imago, May, who berates her. And maybe none of them existed. Or existed for only as long as the audience watched the play. For before and after the curtain went up and down, none of them were there. No one was there.

Personal taste

Myself, I preferred That Time. It may be down to a number of factors: I preferred the lulling cadences of the boyhood memories in That Time which, probably against Beckett’s intentions, I found had an overall comforting effect.

Maybe it’s a gender thing: I found the stories of his earlier life which the Listener is subjected to, were vivid and empowering and adventurous, catching a midnight ferry, ducking into a gallery out of the rain. I identified with them. Whereas Footfalls seemed to me a very feminine story of entrapment, of a middle-aged woman whose life appears to have been stifled into becoming her elderly mother’s carer. It seems to be about a form of psychological imprisonment, immurement since girlhood, the complete loss of agency and, eventually, of identity. I found it demoralising.

Plus I really liked the voice of the Beckett On Film performer, Niall Buggy. I found it warm and enfolding, whereas, I’m afraid to say, I didn’t like Susan Fitzgerald’s performance. It may be apt and appropriate but I found her icy and unsympathetic and, towards the end of her monologue, harsh and shrewish.

Then again, maybe it’s neither performer so much as their respective plays, for Footfalls seems to me much more cold, calculated and detached. It is more spectral and spooky, certainly. It made me feel cold and rather scared. I only watched it once. Whereas I listened to warm Niall’s stories about running away to his boyhood refuge in the ruins on Foley’s Hill multiple times, and enjoyed it more each time I listened.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Pushing paper contemporary drawing from 1970 to now @ the British Museum

‘Learn to draw, learn to see.’
(Established artist Eugène Boudin to the up-and-coming young Monet)

A travelling show

The British Museum houses the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world, and houses approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

Of these 50,000 drawings, some 1,500 are by contemporary or modern artists. From this 1,500, the museum has worked with curators from other galleries around the country to make a selection of 56 drawings for this exhibition, which:

  1. highlight the range and diversity of contemporary drawings
  2. are designed to show how the entire concept of ‘drawing’ has been subjected to radical experiments and redefinitions during this key period, 1970 to the present

The idea is that after a couple of months on display in London, the exhibition will travel to the partner museums around the country, which will add works from their own collections to the display, thus creating a unique combination at each venue.

You can see how this will a) make the works accessible to audiences round the country and b) create a network of curators who are interested and informed about drawings, which could lead to who knows what consequences in the future.

What is a drawing?

Here’s one of the first works you encounter, Untitled by Grayson Perry, featuring an early outing by his transvestite alter-ego, Clare (note what seems to be a dog’s tail coming out the back of her skirt). So far, so gender-bending.

What’s really going on here, though, is the extreme stress Perry is applying to the concept of the ‘drawing’. It clearly contains elements of collage, with stereotypical photos from magazines tacked onto it, plus the diagonal colour washes and diagonal bands of glitter. Is it a drawing at all?

Untitled (1984) by Grayson Perry © The Trustees of the British Museum

That is the question which echoes through the rest of the show. Some works are old-style figurative depictions of some real object in the world, for example this attractive portrait by Jan Vanriet (although I was a little puzzled whether this was a drawing or a watercolour. Is it a drawing which has been watercoloured? Is that still a drawing?)

Ruchla by Jan Vanriet (2011) © The Trustees of the British Museum

It turns out to be one of a series developed from portrait photos of the Jews deported from one particular location in Belgium to concentration camps where they were all murdered. Kind of changes your attitude to the image, doesn’t it?

Drawing also contains the genre of satire or caricature or political cartoon, here represented by Philip Guston‘s unforgiving image of American president Richard Nixon, whose face seems to have turned into a penis and scrotum. To his left what I initially thought was his body is in fact a caricature of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was addicted to playing golf, hence the clutter of golf clubs and balls. And the crab-like glasses on the right reference Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger.

Untitled by Philip Guston (1971) © The Trustees of the British Museum

(This caricature is a reminder to younger viewers that there’s nothing new about Donald Trump: America has a long, long, long track record of scumbag, murdering, lying presidents. Why, then, do the arbiters of culture give America so much weight and respect?)

And then there are what you could call artistic ‘deformations’ of real objects, specifically the human body, subjected to stylisation, morphing into abstract patterns, as in this drawing by Gwen Hardie, the tiggerish striping of the torso counterpointed by the stylisation of what are presumably female sex organs, the leaning-back posture a cross between a cave painting and a Henry Moore sculpture. Gwen is a woman artist ‘who has a longstanding preoccupation with the body and its perception’.

Untitled (1962) by Gwen Hardie © The Trustees of the British Museum

A striking ‘deformation of the actual’ is this work by Hew Locke, a British artist of Guyanese descent. According to the wall label, Locke takes the view that the Queen has been party to countless secrets during her record-breaking reign, and that this nightmarish image captures the corroding and corrupting effect all these secrets and lies have had on her, by the look of it, transforming her face into a mask of eyes against a backdrop of scores of little wiggly lime-green skulls. The image ‘asks us to question the Queen as a symbol of nationhood , as well as the power and history which she embodies.’

Sovereign 3 by Hew Locke (2005) © The Trustees of the British Museum

For those of us who were around during the punk Summer of Hate of 1977 – 42 years ago – this is nothing new. Taking the piss out of the Queen is an extremely old activity, in fact it made me feel quite nostalgic.

Sex Pistols album cover (1977)

According to the curators, the period from 1970 to the present saw a resurgence of interest in drawing. Previously it had mostly been seen as a format in which you practiced life studies, or prepared for work in a more demanding medium such as painting. The 1960s opened the box on this (as on so many other genres and practices) and freed up artists to be as playful and experimental as they could imagine. Thus:

Drawings in the exhibition encroach on territories traditionally associated with mediums including sculpture, land art and even performance.

‘Drawing’ spills out all over the place.

Five themes

The exhibition groups the works into five themes, ‘examining’:

  • Identity
  • Place and Space
  • Time and Memory
  • Power and Protest
  • Systems and Process

Personally, I felt these ‘themes’ rather limited and directed and forced your responses to works which often had nothing at all in common, and could each have stood by themselves. Except for the last one, that is: because a lot of the works genuinely are interested in systems and processes.

For example, there’s a yellow square by Sol LeWitt which is just one of countless of works the American artist generated from algorithms, from sets of rules about geometry, shapes and colours, which he created and then followed through to produce thousands of variations.

There’s a drawing of the tiles on a floor by Rachel Whiteread which comes with quite an extensive label explaining that a) she has always been interested in floors which are the most overlooked parts of a room or building and b) that it’s a heavily painted drawing, done in thick gouache onto graph paper, which points forward, or hints at, the vast casts of rooms and entire buildings which she was soon to create.

There’s a work by Fiona Robinson which juxtaposes two sets of vibrating lines which she created while listening to the music of John Cage, and then of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Related to these, insofar as it’s black and white and made of abstract patterns, is this charming drawing by Richard Deacon.

Some Interference 14.01.06 (2006) by Richard Deacon © The Trustees of the British Museum

I found a lot of these ‘abstract’ works a lot more appealing than many of the rather obvious ‘messages’ in the ‘Power and Protest’ section. But maybe you’d prefer the latter. Different strokes. The whole point is, the exhibition has been designed to showcase the immense variety of images, formats and materials which can go into the making of ‘a drawing’.

The artists

What is a drawing? Well, this exhibition presents an impressive roll call of major contemporary artists all giving answers to that question, including:

  • Edward Allington
  • Phyllida Barlow
  • Louise Bourgeois
  • Stuart Brisley
  • Pablo Bronstein
  • Glenn Brown
  • Jonathan Callan
  • Judy Chicago
  • Adel Daoud
  • Richard Deacon
  • Tacita Dean
  • Michael Ditchburn
  • Peter Doig
  • Tracey Emin
  • Ellen Gallagher
  • Philip Guston
  • Maggi Hambling
  • Richard Hamilton
  • Gwen Hardie
  • Claude Heath
  • David Hockney
  • Andrzej Jackowski
  • Anish Kapoor
  • Anselm Kiefer
  • Minjung Kim
  • Marcia Kure
  • Micah Lexier
  • Liliane Lijn
  • Hew Locke
  • Nja Mahdaoui
  • Bahman Mohassess
  • David Nash
  • Cornelia Parker
  • Seb Patane
  • A R Penck
  • Grayson Perry
  • Frank Pudney
  • Imran Qureshi
  • Gerhard Richter
  • Fiona Robinson
  • Hamid Sulaiman
  • Jan Vanriet
  • Hajra Waheed
  • Rachel Whiteread
  • Stephen Willats

Apart from anything else, it’s a fascinating cross-section of the artistic practices and concerns of some of the most important artists of the last 50 years.

Mountain by Minjung Kim (2009) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pushing Paper is in room 90, which is right at the back of the British Museum and up several flights of stairs, in the Drawings and Print Department. It is varied and interesting and thought-provoking, and it is FREE.


Related links

  • Pushing Paper continues at the British Museum until 12 January 2020

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels like the reason for this is simply that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ in the title of the book not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if Kundera’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera describes both Irena’s experience after her husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002. All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Turner prize 2018 @ Tate Britain

The Turner Prize has been running since 1984. It is awarded annually to an artist born or based in Britain. Each year four artists are shortlisted by a jury for an outstanding exhibition or public presentation of their work in the previous year. This year, for the first time since its inception, all four finalists are video film-makers, namely the organisation Forensic Architecture, and three individual artists: Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson.

You go through the exhibition glass doors into a big light lounge-type space dominated by a big square table ringed by grey sofas. On the table are books for visitors to read on the exhibition’s themes. These are gender and identity, race and sexuality, politics, repression and resistance. Pretty standard, down the line, mainstream art school stuff ideology, then.

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

From this comfortable if antiseptic space four black doorways lead off. Beside each is a set of wall panels explaining the work and biography of each artist. You read about them, then walk into the black space which, in each case is in fact a short corridor which leads to a corner, turning into a pitch-black projection space, the corridor and turn being to ensure the projection space is as dark as a cinema.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Mohaiemen was born in 1969 in London and grew up in Bangladesh. Now, inevitably, he lives and works in New York. In the opinion of the jury his works ‘explore post-colonial identity, migration, exile and refuge’. He presents three works

Tripoli Cancelled is a fictional film which follows the daily routine of a man who has lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. It is 93 minutes long.

Two Meetings and a Funeral recreates key meetings from 1973 and 1974 during which the Non-Aligned Movement, set up after the Second World War to represent newly independent former colonial countries, began to reject socialism and move towards religion as a uniting force. It is 89 minutes long.

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Volume eleven (flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism) is a pamphlet.

Luke Willis Thompson

Thompson lives and works in London. He makes silent 35mm films which are projected by an enormous and noisy film projector onto a huge wall, rather than a screen. In the words of the jury, he ‘investigates the treatment of minority communities and the way objects, places and people can be imbued with violence.’

He presents a trilogy of films which ‘reframe histories of violence enacted against certain bodies, and offers counter-images to the media spectacle of our digital age.’

Cemetery of uniforms and liveries (2016) is 9 minutes 10 seconds long and features doleful portraits of the descendants of two women hurt in London by the police. Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, who was shot by Metropolitan Police in 1985 when they raided her home looking for her son Michael. The shooting, which left Dorothy Groce paralysed, led to the 1985 Brixton riot. Graeme is the son of Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old Jamaican mature student living who died as the result of being bound and gagged by police who had raided her home intending to deport her in 1983. None of the officers involved in these women’s deaths were convicted. Brandon and Graeme face the camera in stark black and white, unmoving, unspeaking, with serious, grim, maybe mournful expressions.

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

autoportrait (2017, 8’50”) I saw this at the Photographers’ Gallery where it had won the Deutsche Börse photography prize in May of this year. In July 2016 Diamond Reynolds filmed and live-streamed the moments after the fatal shooting of her partner Philandro Castile by American police, the footage of her then and subsequently distributed round the world being of a hysterical crying woman. Thompson approached her with the idea of recording her image as she chose to present it, in clothes of her choosing, expressionless, aloof, in control.

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

_Human (2018, 9’30”) There is a long essay about this film on the Frieze website:

It examines the small sculpture the late British artist Donald Rodney made, using scraps of his own shed skin, and held together with dressmaking pins, as he lay ill with sickle cell anaemia.

Forensic Architecture

Unlike the other three entries, Forensic Architecture is not an individual: it is an international research agency that uses innovative technological and architectural processes to investigate allegations of state violence. It’s a well-funded and organised body, with members including architects, archaeologists, artists, filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, scientists, software developers and theorists.

They work with internationally reputable charities such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Amnesty International. You might well ask yourself what they are doing in an art exhibition.

Well, their typical working method is to be called in when deaths have occurred, often caused by state actors, and to investigate the events using state of the art techniques they have pioneered.

The big example here relates to an incident which took place on 18 January 2017, when Israeli police attempted to clear an unrecognised Bedouin village so the area could have an Israeli settlement built on it. During the confused armed confrontation between the villagers and the police, local Yakub Musa Abu al-Qi’an and a Israeli policeman Erez Levi were killed.

The Israeli police at first claimed he was a terrorist, amid a set of evidence which presented a narrative justifying the police behaviour. But pro-Bedouin Israeli activists were present and filmed some of the events and took photos.

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Bringing to bear the full panoply of modern forensic reconstructive technology, the agency’s experts were able to assemble a detailed timeline into which the scrambled footage, scattered audio, stills taken by the activists and the police themselves could be used to reconstruct what really happened. The Forensic Architecture website gives a detailed breakdown of the series of events as they eventually established and proved them.

As a visitor what you experience is: 1. in a dark room the hectic hand held footage captured by a reporter who, at the sound of shots falls to the ground, and you get a lot of scrabbled shots of the rocky ground. 2. But you can walk through the projection room and into a normal white gallery space: along one wall is the timeline of events I’ve just linked to, and then a separate, related work, Traces of Bedouin Inhabitation, which is a really characteristic piece of Forensic Architecture. The Israeli government claims it has the right to move Bedouin off the land since they are only temporary settlements. However Forensic Architecture experts have gone back and found the original aerial maps of the area produced by the British in 1945, and been able to prove that Bedouin settlements existed then, i.e. are older than the state of Israel.

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

This is fascinating, worthwhile and cutting edge forensic, legal, scientific and image manipulation work being done by an international team of experts. The installation also includes details of workshops the organisation held where people could go along and find out more about aspects of their work (and maybe get involved).

I’ve left till last the fourth installation which, on 4 December, was announced as the winner of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Charlotte Prodger’s Bridgit

Prodger is a Scottish lesbian. She has been working with the moving image for over 20 years during which time she has experimented with the changing technologies we use to capture images. In the words of the jury, she ‘deals with identity politics, particularly from a queer perspective. Using a range of technologies from old camcorders to iPhones, Prodger’s films build a complex narrative exploring relationships between queer bodies, landscape, language, technology and time.’

Bridgit is her most autobiographical work to date. It was shot on her iphone over the course of a year, capturing scenes around her including (the ones I saw) her cat lying on her bed, some impressive standing stones in a field with a mountain in the background, and the back of a ferry recording the white wake continually unfurling across the sea behind.

Over this are ‘found’ sounds like the radio on in the background, cars, planes, the rain. But also Prodger reading out excerpts from her journal in which she talks about coming out, working in a care home, and the experience of going under anaesthetic.

The work’s title comes from the neolithic goddess, Bridgit, whose name and associations have altered across time and location. She is not only a sort of presiding spirit over some of the Scottish locations Prodger films, but an example of the way ‘identity’ is unstable and fissiparous.

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

I walked in just as Prodger was reading part of her journal:

Names themselves weren’t codified as personal descriptors until the Domesday book. The idea behind taking a name appropriate to one’s current circumstance was that identity isn’t static. The concept of one’s public and private self, separately or together, changes with age or experience (as do the definitions of public and private); and the name or label or the identity package is an expression of that concept.

Now, 1. I’m not sure that’s true about Domesday. I just happen to have been looking at the Domesday book a few weeks ago in the British Library’s fabulous exhibitions about the Anglo-Saxons and whereas Anglo-Saxon churls may not have recorded names, I’m pretty sure the Norman aristocracy had very clearly defined names, and names, and nicknames, which often defined their roles. William the Conqueror.

And 2. It was just like being back at school with a teacher at the front of the room lecturing me. Or in a lecture hall back at college, and being lectured about the ideology of queerness and identity politics.

It always amuses me how the more PC art curators and artists will accuse the Victorians of heavy-handed moralising – but then praise to the skies the kind of art included in this show as radical and subversive when, quite clearly, it is equally committed as the Victorians to promoting, sustaining and forwarding the values of the day, the ideologies of our era – jam packed with ‘important’ and urgent social and moral messages.

The content may change but the Urge To Preach is an enduring feature of a certain kind of art, and is lapped up by a certain type of critic.

Thoughts

The most obvious conclusion from the show is that ‘art’ is being swallowed by ‘news’.

What was once the specialist field of news and current affairs journalism is now slap bang centre stage in three of the four works shortlisted for Britain’s biggest art prize.

The judges and some critics I’ve read called this ‘a political show’, maybe ‘the most political selection the Turner has ever made’.

I think that flatters both artists and jury. They can attend their gala champagne prize-winning dinner, funded by Banque National Paris (the eighth largest bank in the world), hand out the cheques for twenty-five grand, and still be under the flattering delusion that they are ‘radicals’ who are ‘changing the world’.

But there is a very big difference indeed between politics and news. News flashes onto our TV screens, laptop and mobile phone screens in a blizzard of outrage and anger. Twitter storms. Social media hurricanes. Trump says something stupid. Corbyn says something sexist. Black man shot in Los Angeles. Riots in Paris. Brexit latest. Ukraine latest. Jose Mourinho latest.

News is about making a big splash with sensational or tricksy coverage of essentially ephemeral incidents. News is here in a great flurry of excitement and then… gone, forgotten, yesterday’s tittle-tattle, only good for wrapping up chips.

Politics, on the other hand, is defined as:

the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties seeking or trying to maintain power

Politics requires long-term planning to organise large bodies of people behind mass movements working for well defined social and economic ends, usually laid out in a manifesto or campaign pledges. It takes a lot of planning and involves mobilising millions of people.

If there is a spectrum with news at one end and serious, mass movement politics at the other, all the exhibits in this show are at the news end.

Moreover, when it comes to the use of video as a medium, the movement of news reporting away from newspapers and magazines, and its dominance by television coverage, has been one of the notable aspects of the past fifty years (with much lamentation from old-school journalists). Flashy footage of missiles taking off or people rioting has, during my lifetime, replaced the more sober analysis of events which you used to get in newspapers and news magazines. (They still exist, obviously, but their readerships have steadily declined.)

In this respect too – by virtue of the simple fact that all four entries consisted almost entirely of video footage – the Turner Prize hasn’t become more political – it has become more like the news.

Therefore, for what it’s worth, in my opinion this year was not particularly political. It was intensely newsy. It made big headlines with tricksy and inventive ways of covering essentially ephemeral stories.

In fact, even as news, the stories fall short.

The subjects tackled in these videos may epitomise long-running political issues – American police are racist, refugees have a hard time, the Israeli security forces can get away with killing unarmed Arabs – but none of these stories actually is news. They are the opposite of news. They are in fact very old stories. They were well-established tropes when I was growing up in the 1970s.

Given all this, you could sum up the Turner Prize exhibition as a selection of yesterday’s news.

Even though there are good moments in all the presentations, even though Thompson’s hauntingly silent black victims, or Forensic Architecture’s amazingly detailed and techno-savvy reconstructions, or Naeem Mohaiemen’s airport man or Charlotte Prodger’s standing stones all have their moments – there’s something about the medium of video itself which feels insubstantial, cheap, and unrewarding.

It may be all-consuming while you watch it — but then is almost immediately forgotten. Just like the TV news. Watch it, be horrified by this, scandalised by that, chuckle at the final comedy item, go to bed – forget all about it.

Prodger’s very personal film was the exception, so maybe that’s why she won. Footage of beautiful Scottish scenery. Footage of her cat. Footage of a sea ferry. All shot very badly with her fingers over the lens half the time. Edited deliberately clumsily. And with a voiceover telling us identity is flexible and fluid and that people have to be free to express themselves.

Maybe it was the very familiarity of these tropes which made the piece seem so already-seen, like a hundred other home-made art-school efforts lecturing us about queer identity – which gave the judges such a reassuring sense of familiarity. The stretches of it which I watched were certainly very restful.

Videos of the four finalists

There are short videos devoted to each of the four finalists.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Forensic Architecture

Luke Willis Thompson

Charlotte Prodger

A brief promo video for the whole show.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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