Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham (1960)

‘All we want to do is to give people something. To make an old, old dream come true. We can offer them life, with time to live it; instead of a quick scrabble for existence, and finish. Time to grow wise enough to build a new world. Time to become full men and women instead of overgrown children.’
(Diana Brackley, Trouble With Lichen, page 123)

Wyndham’s wish to write literature

It’s quite a surprise to come to Trouble With Lichen after Wyndham’s big four science fiction, apocalyptic, adventure novels – The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Each of those adventure yarns throws you into the strangeness of the Big Event early on, and then keeps up an unrelenting pace of mounting crisis and urgency.

Wyndham doesn’t appear to have written much about his own practice as a writer and took pains to destroy much of his correspondence and private papers. The two-page Foreword to the short story collection The Seeds of Time is all I’ve come across so far. In this he makes it pretty plain how limiting and constricting he found the trashy, adventure-story formula you had to write your short stories in in order to get them published in the 1930s. He explains that all the stories in The Seeds of Time were post-war attempts to break free of the space opera limitations of sci fi and explore other genres and tones. It quickly becomes obvious from those stories that his natural inclination is for the comic; many of the stories are comic in shape and plot or, even when dealing with serious subject matter, filled with humorous asides.

Thus it is this side of his character Wyndham channeled into Trouble With Lichen which contains extended sequences of gentle comedy and social satire. In fact, stepping back a bit, the entire story is in effect a prolonged satire on contemporary obsession with beauty and eternal youth.

And with romance. Wyndham has a soft spot for soppy love stories, or for relations between men and women depicted in a wonderfully quaint old world way, all darling this and darling that. Chronoclasm, Pawley’s Peepholes, Opposite Number, Time To Rest from Seeds of Time, they’re all stories about men and women cast in a ‘Honey, I’m home’ cheeriness.

All this helps put Trouble With Lichen into perspective. It’s as if, after writing four brilliantly thrilling and logically conceived stories in which the world we know is turned upside down as witnessed by characters who are little more than functions of the plot, he decided – or felt confident enough – to try and write a more character-based story.

And it is symptomatic of all the tendencies listed above that he makes the lead figure in Lichen not a rough tough guy, but a woman. She is Diana Brackley, a famous biochemist.

Like Kraken the story starts at the end, with a brief description of Diana Brackley’s funeral, attended by hundreds of women; in fact it is described by a (fictional) newspaper as the biggest tribute from women to a woman since the funeral of famous suffragette Emily Davison in 1913. Why the big turnout, why so many women, why was Diana Brackley so important to so many women? Well, in a thoroughly traditional and comfortable way, the narrative then goes back to the start of the story and set out to tell us why, in three parts divided into 15 chapters.

Part one

The narrative proper sets the tone by opening at the leaving party held at St Merryn’s High School for girls. One of the teachers gravitates over to slender, striking Diana Brackley who has just won a scholarship to Cambridge. Diana is not a smooth small-talker and manages to ask her teacher unsettling questions, before she can navigate away. We are introduced to Mrs and Mrs Brackley, the latter of whom thinks it is foolish of Diana to take her studies so seriously, she should really be focusing on finding a nice husband to settle down with and produce babies. All this biochemistry stuff sounds frightfully complicated!

In other words, these opening scenes establish the subtle and not so subtle psychological pressures brought to bear on intelligent and enterprising young women in the 1940s or 50s (it’s not specified exactly when) to conform to gender stereotypes.

‘After all, a woman ought to be married; she’s happier that way…’
(Diana’s mother to her when she turns 25, page 43)

Diana’s Cambridge career is dealt with in a few sentences in order to hurry along to the next phase, which is a job. She is recommended to try a private biochemistry research company, Darr House Developments (in the fictional town of Ockingham), set up by:

Francis Saxover, Sc.D., F.R.S., sometime Gilkes Professor of Biochemistry in the University of Cambridge, and widely regarded as an intellectual renegade.

Intellectual renegade, eh? Golly.

There’s a fascinating passage devoted to Saxover’s interview of fresh-faced new graduate Diana, which devotes a couple of pages (pages 25 to 26) to the trouble and disruption previous young ladies caused Darr Developments i.e. distracting the male employees and in one case prompting a duel. Saxover discusses it with his wife, Caroline. Another of the interviewers with his wife. I think this is what Wyndham has in mind when he says he was trying to escape the constrictions of science fiction, its imprisonment within cliff-hanger melodrama. Here, it seems, he is trying to write something far more like a conventional novel with a large cast of characters, whose raison d’etre is purely their psychological interplay.

All this is well and good but a bit boring and more than a bit patronising. Something like a plot gets going on page 30 when, eight months into her role, Saxover brings Diana a bowl of milk she left out for his cat and which he has just nearly tripped over. They both notice the milk has curdled, except round a speck of something in the milk. Now Diana had recently been analysing a sample of lichen sent to the lab by an explorer they have a contract with. Some of this got into the milk and prevented it curdling. Hmm.

Further investigation is interrupted when, shortly afterwards, Saxover’s beloved wife Caroline dies. He has something like a breakdown, retires into reclusiveness. Diana finds herself looking after his 12-year-old daughter, Zephanie, who is then sent off to boarding school. Meanwhile work on the lichen extract becomes an obsession, Diana works on it day and night. A chance encounter with Saxover and his hurried answer to her enquiry whether he is working on it, strongly suggests to Diana both that he is, and that he’s keeping it unusually secret. Why?

Her studies continue for months and slowly she realises why, although it has a disillusioning affect on her that one of her intellectual heroes is breaking the great commandments of working openly and transparently together, and of sharing Knowledge.

Eventually all her studies are complete and she knows what the lichen extract can do. Soon afterwards, she turns 25 and her parents tell her about the fabulous inheritance left to her by her grandfather, the enormous sum of £40,000 (p.43). She buys some posh clothes and a zippy little car. Her mother asks her if she’s now going to leave work and live off the interest and – most importantly – find a husband. No, no, Diana says, a) marrying is just a habit, a convention b) she has more important work to do.

On one of her many walks and talks with schoolgirl Zephanie, the latter is saying how each generation of women just about gets life figured out, when it is tricked into having children, slaving away for 20 years, and then is too exhausted to hand on its wisdom… and Diana has a brainwave. She realises what she wants to make her life’s work. Back at Darr she asks for an interview with Saxover and abruptly resigns her post.

Part two

It is 14 years later. Saxover has invited his children, Paul, now aged 27, and Zephanie, a 23-year-pld post-grad, to his office along with Diana. He gives a brief explanation. What he and Diana discovered was an extract from that species of lichen provided a substance he’s called lichenin which is an antigerone. It retards the ageing process. It makes you live longer. As Diana pithily describes it later in the novel:

‘It is a chemical substance, possibly one of a class of such substances produced by micro-organisms, that has the property of retarding certain of the metabolic processes, and bears a distant chemical relationship to the antibiotics.’

Zephanie has a sudden revelation and angrily asks her father how long she is going to live. Factually, he replies: 220 years.

He goes on to explain the precise situation. The particular species of lichen grows only in a few remote places. There is probably only enough lichenin to go round for maybe three to four thousand people. How on earth do you decide who will get it and who won’t. (This reminds us of similar conversations in Day of the Triffids: if they can only save a handful of the blinded, who should it be?) In the event, Saxover has dosed himself and Paul and Zephanie without their knowledge, pretending they were annual flu inoculations. So, now Zephanie realises why she looks so youthful and Paul why it took him so long to grow a beard. They have been ageing at roughly a third of the average rate since they were 16.

And Who To Tell turns out to be the theme of part two of this book because:

Paul gets cross with his father because he hadn’t told Paul’s wife, Jane (to ensure the secret remains a secret as long as possible to prevent the social turmoil that will ensure when word gets out). Paul storms out and, admittedly, takes a day or two to summon up the guts to tell his wife but, when he does, she passes through disbelief to anger that she isn’t getting it, and then her eyes light up with the possibilities of marketing it to millionaires – precisely what Saxover wanted to prevent.

Zephanie returns to her flat to find her boyfriend, Richard, waiting impatiently outside. She says she doesn’t want to go to the theatre as planned, prefers dinner, where she proceeds to get drunk and starts crying, afflicted with the sense that she is going to be the only one to live on while all around her die. Richard takes her home where Zephanie continues to bemoan her fate and there is a broadly comic moment when Rich thinks she’s saying that she’s pregnant. In an interesting piece of social history he asks, ‘Why couldn’t you wait for me?’ thus suggesting that they both expected Zephanie to be a virgin when they marry.

Diana. Remember Saxover had called his children in because he thought it was going to be a meeting with Diana? It was because after all these years Diana had been in touch with Saxover because something has gone wrong and she needs to see him. In the event, the three Saxovers get a message that she’s not coming, but she is relevant to the story because we now learn that after leaving Darr, Diana went on a round the world cruise, returned to London and set up a very high-class beauty salon for the wives of the rich and influential whom she is, of course, treating with lichenin to make them look younger. But now one of these influential women has had an allergic reaction to lichenin and is suing Diana.

– The Press So successful is Diana’s beauty company – named Nefertiti – that the gutter press take an interest. We see the meeting of an investigative reporter and the editor of a newspaper humorously, if bluntly, named Sunday Prole. Reluctantly, the editor agrees with the reporter’s suggestion that he digs into this Diana Brackley to see what the racket is all about (this section includes the investigative hack presenting a two-page potted biography of Diana which fills in a lot of the backstory of her and her parents).

– Diana and Zephanie Zephanie hasn’t seen Diana for those 14 years, but now the revelation that she’s been dosed with lichenin prompts her to travel up to London to meet Diana at her fabulously luxury pad overlooking St James’s Park. They have another of the intellectual conversations they had when Zephanie was a girl. (I haven’t reread Wyndham since I was a boy and had completely forgotten that his sci fi novels are so full of people discussing ideas about human nature and evolution and intelligence.) Anyway, Diana explains straight out that the beauty parlour she runs isn’t just a money-making business, it is part of a plan to reshape the human race.

What is wrong with the world? The fact that people have barely got a hang of what is wrong with society before they are dragooned into marrying and having kids of their own, enslave themselves to bringing them up and then emerge from the experience lucky to have enough money to eke their way through retirement, then they die. Nobody sticks around to witness the long-term consequences of their generation’s greed.

‘You know as well as I do that the world is in a mess, and floundering deeper every day. We have only a precarious hold on the forces we do liberate – and problems that we ought to be trying to solve, we neglect. Look at us – thousands more of us every day…. In a century or so, we shall be in the Age of Famines. We shall manage to postpone the worst one way and another, but postponement isn’t solution, and when the breakdown comes there’ll be something so ghastly that the hydrogen-bomb will seem humane by comparison.

‘I’m not romancing. I’m talking about the inevitable time when, unless we do something to stop it, men will be hunting men through the ruins, for food. We’re letting it drift towards that, with an evil irresponsibility, because with our ordinary short lives we shan’t be here to see it. Does our generation care about the misery it is bequeathing? Not it. “That’s their worry,” we say. “Damn our children’s children; we’re all right.”

‘And there’s only one thing I can see that will stop it happening. That is that some of us, at least, should be going to live long enough to be afraid of it for ourselves. And also that we should live long enough to know more. We simply cannot afford to go on any longer attaining wisdom only half a step before we achieve senility. We need the time to acquire wisdom that we can use to clear up the mess. If we don’t get it, then like any other animal that overbreeds we shall starve; we shall starve in our millions, in the blackest of all dark ages.

‘That’s why we need longer life, before it is too late. To give us time to acquire the wisdom to control our destiny; to get us beyond this state of acting like animal prodigies, and let us civilise ourselves.’

In Diana’s opinion the great apocalypse facing humanity (apart from the nuclear war which threatens at any moment and which Wyndham had dealt with in The Chrysalids and The Outward Urge) is overpopulation, famine and social collapse. When she stumbled across the life-stretching properties of lichenin (which, incidentally, she has given a different name, tertianin, p.91), she realised this was an opportunity to re-engineer the human race, to produce Homo superior, ‘a step in evolution, a new development that would lift us one more plane above the animals’. (‘You gotta make way for the Homo Superior’, as David Bowie sang a mere 11 years later.)

Hence Diana’s plan to recruit about 1,000 of the most highly-placed and influential women in the country, via the Nefertiti beauty business. Chances are, when news comes out about the elixir of eternal youth, there will not only be riots to get hold of it, but the powers that be will try to ban it. Why? Because institutions, in all their corruption, depend on humanity’s short life spans. If people start living to be 200 or 250 years old, the kind of continuity current institutions provide will become redundant. Realising this, chances are all kinds of organisation will band together to suppress purveyors of lichenin, maybe to murder them and strangle the threat at birth.

Hence – the thousand influential women. They don’t currently know they’re being treated with lichenin, but when Diana tells them, they will be perfectly placed to prevent any such suppression taking place. The women are, as Lady Tewley puts it, later in the book:

‘wives, or daughters, of half the Establishment. We’re married to four Cabinet Ministers, three other Ministers, two Bishops, three Earls, five Viscounts, a dozen blue-chip companies, half-a-dozen Banks, twenty-three members of the Government, eight members of the Opposition, and lots of others. In addition, we have close relations that are not quite marital with a lot of other Influences. So, you see, one way and another, there isn’t much we don’t know, or can’t get to know.’ (p.176)

Zephanie listens in amazement, at the thoroughness with which Diana has thought through the social implications of her discovery, the thoroughness of her plan, and the thoroughness with which she has carried it out. She is also startled to learn that the lichenin can be administered at different strengths or factors. Her father’s giving her Times Three but Diana has extracted up to Time Five i.e. expected lifespan 350 years. That’s what she’s dosing herself.

The plot proceeds along the five or so plotlines which Wyndham has now established – Paul and his scheming wife Jane; Zephanie and her boyfriend Richard; Saxover and his plans; Diana and her clinic; the newspaper hacks snooping around her operation.

The latter two come together when one of Diana’s employees (a Miss Brandon) says she’s been asked out by a guy who turns out to be a newspaperman and is asking lots of questions. With humorous cynicism, Diana plays the journalists, briefing the employee to go along to a nightclub with them and tell the journos she doesn’t know much about the magic treatment, but thinks it comes from seaweed found in Galway Bay. Which prompts an infestation of hacks in Galway and soaring prices for seaweed. As in The Kraken Wakes Wyndham is quick to see the humorous side of how our wretched corrupt society reacts to big news or changes.

To please his daughter, Saxover starts treating her boyfriend, Richard. The young couple plan for all the wonderful time they’re going to have together.

Francis Saxover meets Diana for dinner. There is a lot of unresolved emotional tension. Diana always hero-worshipped him and Francis, for his part, has long been a widower, and… Well, they suppress these feelings like good solid English chaps and focus on the crisis in hand. Diana has a lot of amusing scams ready to spin the Press to keep them off the track for years, but Francis bursts her bubble by revealing that Jane not only bulldozed her way into Darr and insisted on having a tab of lichenin sewn into her arm (the method for administering it), she then promptly went somewhere and passed it on – presumably for the promise of future benefits and the prize of big cash in hand.

Francis tells Diana that Paul found this out, the couple had a blazing row, he slept on the sofa, next day she had packed her bags and left. Nice wife you’ve got there, Paul. So – Francis tells Diana – the lid is about to be blown off the whole thing before they’re completely ready. Diana is sanguine. We’d never have been ready she says. She will start to mobilise her 1,000 rich women, Let battle commence!

Part three

The storyline about the hacks who’ve descended on Galway Bay, the dodgy beauty companies already flogging Galways glamour products – there’s a huge dollop of Ealing Comedy in all this, as there is in the sassy dialogue between the Nefertiti employee (Miss Brendon) who Diana now collaborates with to decoy the press further (not to mention Diana’s relationship with her answer-back secretary, Miss Tallwyn:

‘Sarah, dear, how long have you been in this enterprising trade?’ Diana inquired.
‘I am not in it,’ said Miss Tallwyn. ‘I am your secretary.’

– Joyce Grenfell should have had a part somewhere in the movie).

Now, as things get moving, Diana makes smart Miss Brendon an offer to come in as a partner and right-hand woman. Shortly afterwards she’s paid a visit by Lady Tewley, who she first met ten years earlier, when she needed help rising to the challenge of dressing and behaving like a member of the aristocracy. Previously she had been a medical student and a few years ago she twigged to the anti-ageing treatment. Now she’s come to tell Diana the press are working on her, too, her beastly husband has fixed her up with a lover who everso gently but persistently keeps asking her about her beauty treatment.

Their conversation is interrupted by a panicky call from Zephanie. Someone broke into Darr to try and steal the secret, then set a fire to cover their tracks. Francis was lucky to escape, but did so over the rooftops to the main body of the building which was unaffected. Diana is shaken by the news. We know how much she loves him.

Right! Diana realises it’s time to mobilise her army of rich women and tells her secretary to post the big bundle of letters which has been waiting in the safe all these years, to invite them all to a special emergency meeting.

In a separate development, Richard and Zephanie’s car is pulled over by the police. Except it isn’t the police. It’s crooks. They are bundled out at gunpoint and taken to the den of some crook who sits behind a bright light and interrogates Zephanie. Every false answer Richard is beaten. Quite quickly she breaks down and tells them all she knows which isn’t, in fact all that much, she knows it’s a lichen but has no idea which species.

The sequel is described to Francis in a phone call to Diana, namely Zephanie woke up next to the car she’s been kidnapped from, Richard unconscious beside her with a few teeth missing. A passing labourer helped get him into a car and hospital.

Meanwhile Diana holds her big meeting-cum-press conference and is bitterly disappointed when none of the press report what she considers the biggest story since Adam. This prompts some broad satire on the reality of the newspaper business delivered by Miss Tallwyn. The extended focus on the press, including direct quotes from the coverage of her meeting from the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Express, Mirror, Herald and Sketch, are exactly cognate with the similar passages in Kraken Wakes where the narrator quotes at length from the newspaper coverage of various key events.

Also, bear in mind that Wyndham had been writing for nearly 40 years by now. Her has developed a kind of late style which allows him to zoom in on some areas, dismiss others (like Diana’s entire Cambridge career) with a few lines. Turns out not to be the press which cause a fuss but the markets. A few life insurance companies suspend dividends while they recalibrate their sums, if a life extension drug has been discovered. Wyndham laconically gives us the comments of stockbrokers reading about this.

‘I reckon we might sell those General Eventualities before the going gets rough.’
It was not an isolated decision.
The going got rough.

Laconic, eh? Major shifts in the Stock Exchange force the papers to take serious notice of Diana’s claims and she gives a second press conference which is, this time, widely reported. Next day, reviewing the results in the Sundays, Miss Tallwyn rings up and tells her to listen to the BBC Home Service, there is a vicar giving an impassioned sermon against interfering with the nature and the works of God.

Diana drives to see Francis and it is an opportunity for more of the philosophising about The Great Change forms such a large part of all Wyndham’s novels. In this case she wants to give people longer lives not just to party and enjoy themselves, but so that they evolve into an entirely new form of human,

It will become worthwhile. There will be time – time to do really great things at last…

‘You’re wrong if you think I want power, Francis. All I want to do is see that Homo diuturnus gets born somehow. I don’t care how inconvenient he is, how different; he must have his chance. If it takes a caesarian to give him a start, it doesn’t matter. If the surgeons won’t help, then I’ll be head midwife, and do it myself. The only advance in millions of years, Francis! It shan’t be crushed – it shall not, whatever it costs!’

Behind their speculations about what will happen, and Diana’s conviction that every power in the land will try to suppress the new drug, lies the unresolved emotional tension between them. Diana complains that she was never so unhappy as when she worked at Darr because of her unrequited love for him. Francis begins to stutter a reply, but she bursts into tears and storms out.

Cut to a new scene, Diana reviewing the papers. Once again there are direct quotes from the Mail, the Trumpeter, Telegraph, the Gazette and Mirror. The text collapses into a series of snippets expressed entirely in dialogue:

  • Diana tells Miss Brendon to gather some of the girls and go out to pubs and clubs and laundrettes and coffee shops and sound out the word on the street
  • an executive meeting of an advertising agency says whoever’s handling Nefertiti’s PR is making a right horlicks of it
  • telegram to the Home Secretary from the General Council of The Brotherhood of British Morticians asking for compensation for loss in trade
  • a middle-aged woman pestering her doctor to give her an estimate of her age
  • three brokers in a coffee bar, one of them advising the future is in ladies fashions and lingerie
  • telegram to the Prime Minister from the Secretary of the Sabbath Preservation Society protesting that the God-given lifespan is three-score years and ten
  • old Sir John asks his manservant Spiller his opinion about the whole fuss then orders him to make him, Sir John, an appointment at this clinic
  • two civil servants preparing for a question about antigerone which has been tabled for the minister, one admitting  his wife is a regular at Nefertiti’s
  • two senior coppers speculating about what they can arrest Diana for
  • The Evening Flag suggests the first candidate for the anti-ageing treatment should be the Queen
  • a very working class Cockney telling his mate down the boozer how his missus didn’t arf go on about it, ‘ow it’s not fair and so on
  • a lower middle class woman asking her husband to turn the radio on so they can listen to an interview with that anti-ageing woman, and we then have the transcript of a long interview in which Diana easily bests her mealy-mouthed BBC interviewer
  • a couple in bed, the woman asking if 300 years of married life are going to be bearable
  • a snippet from Radio Moscow claiming the well educated people of the Soviet Union of course know that the first antigerone was developed by a Hero of the Soviet Union Russian biochemist
  • dialogue between a police constable and a drunk middle-class man who claims to be a statistician and to have worked out that if everyone lives to be 200 the human race will starve

Lady Tewly visits and tells Diana their Women’s Movement is well and truly advanced but the cause of the drug faces many enemies. The entire trades union movement is against it and is calling a general strike and rallies in Trafalgar Square. They see it simply as a way for employers to tie employees to their workbenches and factory floors for three times as long. Prolonging the exploitation. The Tories and Labour are at odds over it and the Prime Minister is conflicted because, on the one hand it sounds like a boon to humanity, on the other hand so many, particularly on the Left, are calling for it to be banned.

But Lady Tewly alarms Diana when she announces news has got out about the lichen’s true location. Diana and Francis had discussed this long ago, but the only site she could find when she went on her ’round-the-world’ trip (which was really a cover for her tracking down its natural growth areas) was in a remote part of China. Point being a) when the Chinese realise this, they will close the area and keep it for themselves. But b) the area is very close to the Russian border and so there is every chance the Russians might invade China.

Alarmed, Diana tells her secretary to contact the media and arrange for a no-holds-barred interview. This time she will share everything she knows about lichenin.

That night she’s woken by a phone call. It’s Zephie saying a gang of men attacked Darr House and this time completely burned it to the ground. Francis managed to jump from a window and sprained a wrist, is in shock, several of the staff, one old man, the groundsman, was killed by a single blow from a cosh. Things are getting serious. The Anti-G forces are growing violent.

Diana’s death and cause

Thus it is with a spirit of determination that Diana and her entourage brave the crowds surrounding her luxury block of flats (Darlington House) the next morning, as the commissionaire makes a path through the shouting protesting rowdy throng towards the Rolls Royce waiting to take her to the radio interview. Suddenly three shots ring out, Diana clutches her side and falls across the steps. A young man pushes forward, tells the commissionaire he is a doctor, already one of her assistants is calling an ambulance. Cut to a radio announcement cancelling the talk and announcing that Diana was shot on the steps of her building and died in the ambulance.

The result is she becomes a martyr to her movement, to the League for the New Life. We are shown a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square called by representatives of the workers, presumably Labour and Trades Unions leaders, who whip up the crowd into an anti antigerone fervour. It’s worth quoting at length because this was still the kind of political rhetoric which dominated my boyhood in the 1970s. The speaker is speaking from a platform to a packed rally in Trafalgar Square:

‘The Antigerone,’ he said, ‘the dirtiest weapon of all the dirty weapons that the Tories have aimed at the workers. The bomb with the selective fall-out – that falls on the workers. The men who live lives of comfort and luxury are happy with the Anti-G – of course they are. For them it means more years – many more years – of that comfort and luxury. But what does it mean to us, the workers, who produce the wealth that buys that comfort and luxury? I’ll tell you what it means to us. It means working for three lifetimes instead of one. And if you are going to keep on working for three lifetimes, where are your sons going to find work? Yes, and your sons’ sons, too. It means two generations, two whole generations of unemployment, two generations on the dole, two generations born to rot in unemployment that will bring down your wages. I tell you that never in the history of the whole working-class struggle –’

What happens next is amazingly modern because this speech against scientific advances by a man is interrupted by a counter-speech in favour by educated middle-class women. A loudspeaker from a van very loudly retorts to the workers leader that he and his ilk are ‘Murderers! Cowards! Woman-killers!’

‘We’re not going to let you shorten all our lives. We’ve met you before. You are the dolts, the dimwits, the Luddites. And now you carry Luddism to its logical conclusion – don’t stop at smashing the machines, smash the inventors, too, and they won’t invent any more!’

The police – enforcers of the status quo – rush over to the van, burst open the door and drive it away. At which point another van elsewhere in the square continues with the pro-antigerone, anti-Luddite message, until the police likewise remove it. In all four vans are dealt with but not before they’ve got their message across that the speaker represents Luddism, philistinism, and murdering cowards who killed a saintly woman who was trying to give us all longer, better lives.

From the vantage point of 2020 this looks entirely contemporary, with university-educated feminist women berating working class men for their ignorance and toxic masculinity. Plus ça change, plus it’s exactly the same chose.

There’s a brief reprise of Diana’s funeral which, you remember, is the scene the novel opened with, attended overwhelmingly by posh grateful women whose lives she was extending, and ‘young women’ bearing banners and handing out badges supporting the LNL, the League for New Life.

Cut to a 2-page scene between the Prime Minister and a mature woman of influence, his wife? his mistress? Lydia Washington. Anyway, the conversation serves the purpose of explaining how and why the Prime Minister is in a pickle how to respond to the antigerone furore, how the political parties are split.

The most significant piece of new information in this conversation is that the Chinese have learned somehow that the main locations for the rare lichens are on their territory. Francis has discovered and communicated to the Prime Minister that the Chinese have announced they are digging over the entire area and making it into one of their huge communal farms. There was never very much of the lichen to begin with; now it looks as if it will be lost for good.

The PM and Lydia’s conversation ends with the thought that he needs to distract the populace with something new, a new toy and distraction. Cut to the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation in which he invokes British patriotism to mask the fact that supplies are minuscule but the government will be setting up an enquiry / task force / commission etc etc:

‘He had little doubt, indeed our record of scientific progress assured him that he need have no doubt, that British brains, British purpose, and British know-how would succeed – and succeed in the very near future – in producing a supply of the Antigerone for every man and woman in the country who wishes to use it….’

Sounds like Boris Johnson. Sounds like the windy rhetoric surrounding Brexit. As at other moments in the story, you find yourself realising how some things have change, but other things have remained exactly the same.

A surprise happy ending

The last scene is tranquil and funny and moving. Francis Saxover parks his car by the gate of an isolated farmhouse on the edge of the fells, so presumably somewhere in the Lake District. He calls for the owner and his suspicions are confirmed when Diana comes to the door. She’s so surprised to see him she faints.

Yes, because Diana is not dead. She faked her own death with the aid of an actor who played the assassin, an actor who played the doctor tending her into the ambulance and a fake death certificate. She had been preparing this remote bolthole for years. She shows Francis round. It even has a laboratory attached and she has been trying to grow some of the famous lichen.

In the final ‘philosophical’ or sociological conversation of the novel they both foresee trouble ahead. The Americans and Russians are devoting resources to isolating the antigerone, sooner or later it will be mass produced and then there will be revolutionary social change. But she’s done her part, as she explains:

‘The real trouble will come later on. We may get through that without bloodshed too, but it won’t be easy. If we wake up to the famine problem now, if we work flat out on ways to increase food supplies, if something can be done to discourage the suicidal birthrate, we might just manage it with no more trouble than discomforts and short rations for a time. We shall see. All I care about is that we’ve got homo diuturnus, or homo vivax, or whatever they’ll call him, on stage, and waiting in the wings.’

As dusk falls the pair repair to the living room and a roaring fire to discuss the future. Between them they have enough supplies to continue dosing themselves and their nearest and dearest. Their long-suppressed love story comes to a happy ending as it is agreed they will get married. What was once an insuperable aged difference between them is no longer an obstacle, it will melt away before the new extended lifespans they expect.

The final bombshell of the story is understated but massive. On the last page it is implied that both Diana and Francis misled their relatives and the world about the longevity affects of lichenin. They used two or three times normal lifespan as illustrations of its effects, but the implication on the last page is that the true, full effect of the substance could be much, much longer lifespans. Nobody says this but the implication is it could make life… endless… Immortality!

Satire

Arguably the entire novel is a satire: on the beauty industry, on newspapers, and politics, on Labour and the Trade Unions and crusty old aristocrats, on spivs in advertising, on the Cold War with its ludicrously boastful Russians and loudmouth braggart Yanks, a satire on men and women, gender relations, and social stereotyping and constraining of women. It is a far-reaching satire on the whole contemporary world as Wyndham understood it.

Plausibility

It certainly has more validity as social satire than as serious sociological speculation. The passages involving criminals, left wing politicians, and the rich, work as quick satirical stereotypes of likely reactions of these stereotyped sectors or types to news of an elixir of life has been discovered. However, these days we all know a lot more about old age, not least from the spotlight which has been shone on the care home sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that the leading cause of death in the UK is Alzheimer’s Disease and that people are living longer than ever before BUT spend a good deal of those extra years suffering from chronic conditions which require extensive medication or surgery to maintain.

This is the one real-world implication of a pill for longer life which Wyndham doesn’t address at all – the notion that people might well be made to live for 350 years but spend the final 150 of it ill, incapacitated, on heavy medication, requiring surgery or dialysis etc – and it’s interesting to speculate that this is because, in the late 1950s, nobody knew this about extended lifespans.

Feminism

Wyndham makes Diana’s great-aunt Anne a leading suffragette (‘Hammer for the shop-windows, petrol for the letter-boxes, scenes in the House!’, p.123) and Diana herself a thorough-going feminist and independent woman. The book is drenched in comments about the conventions and norms expected of women, with Diana leading numerous conversations about the plight of women, the role of women, the women’s struggle, women’s struggle for freedom / equality / independence, and so on.

These occur early on in Diana’s frequent conversations with her Mummy Darling – embodiment of the Pressure to Conform – a bit later with Zephanie, representative of the Young Generation who she warns not to get suckered in by social pressure or advertising, and then with the employees of her beauty salon, Nefertiti, and with her adored mentor, Francis Saxover.

On having a family

‘I’m not at all sure that I do want to raise a family,’ Diana told her. ‘There are so many families already.’
Mrs Brackley looked shocked.
‘But every woman wants a family, at heart,’ she said. ‘It’s only natural.’
‘Habitual,’ corrected Diana. ‘God knows what would happen to civilization if we did things just because they were natural.’
Mrs Brackley frowned.
‘I don’t understand you, Diana. Don’t you want a house of your own, and a family?’
‘Not furiously, Mummy, or I expect I’d have done something about it long before this. Perhaps I’ll try it, though, later on. I might like it. I’ve plenty of time yet.’
‘Not so long as you think. A woman is always up against time, and it doesn’t do to forget it.’
‘I’m sure you’re right, darling. But being too conscious of it can produce some pretty ghastly results as well, don’t you think? Don’t you worry about me, Mummy. I know what I’m doing.’

On the pressure of advertising 1

‘Perhaps it’s not entirely me. Now, you don’t think as much as you did before you went to that school. If you just go on taking what they tell you without thinking about it, you’ll turn into advertisers’ meat, and end up as a housewife.’
‘But most people do – become housewives, I mean,’ Zephanie said.
‘I know they do – housewife, hausfrau, house-woman, house-keeper, house-minder. Is that what you want? It’s a diddle word, darling. Tell a woman: “woman’s place is in the home”, or “get thee to thy kitchen” and she doesn’t like it; but call it “being a good housewife”, which means exactly the same thing, and she’ll drudge along, glowing with pride. My great-aunt fought, and went to prison several times, for women’s rights; and what did she achieve? A change of technique from coercion to diddle, and a generation of granddaughters who don’t even know they’re being diddled – and probably wouldn’t care more if they did. Our deadliest susceptibility is conformity, and our deadliest virtue is putting up with things as they are. So watch for the diddles, darling. You can’t be too careful about them in a world where the symbol of the joy of living can be a baked bean.’ (p.45)

On the pressure of advertising 2

‘I told myself: “This is the twentieth century, for what it’s worth. It’s not the age of reason, or even the nineteenth century, it’s the era of flummery, and the day of the devious approach. Reason’s gone into the backrooms where it works to devise means by which people can be induced to emote in the desired direction. And when I say people I mean women. To hell with reason.”‘ (Diana Brackley, p.91)

Women are their own worst enemy

‘Aren’t you going to get married, Diana?’
‘Oh, I daresay I shall – one day,’ Diana conceded.
‘But if you don’t, what’ll you do? Will you be like your great-aunt, and fight for women’s rights?’
‘You’ve got it a bit muddled, darling. My great-aunt, and other people’s great-aunts, won all the rights that women need ages ago. All that’s been lacking since then is the social courage to use them. My great-aunt and the rest thought that by technically defeating male privilege they’d scored a great victory. What they didn’t realize is that the greatest enemies of women aren’t men at all, they are women: silly women, lazy women, and smug women. Smug women are the worst; their profession is being women, and they just hate any women who make any other kind of profession a success. It sets up an inferiority-superiority thing in them.’
Zephanie regarded her thoughtfully.
‘I don’t think you like women very much, Diana,’ she decided.
‘Too sweeping, darling. What I don’t like about us is our readiness to be conditioned – the easy way we can be made to be willing to be nothing better than squaws and second-class citizens, and taught to go through life as appendages instead of as people in our own right.’ (p.46)

The beauty industry

‘Well, if you’d spent twelve years working for it, embroiled in a pink-shaded, flower-scented, soft-carpeted, silk-bowed, Cellophane-protected dreamland populated by purring, scheming, hardeyed, grasping, cynical, retractible-clawed bitches who support themselves by assisting other women to employ their secondary sexual characteristics to the best advantage, you’d welcome pretty nearly any kind of change, too.’ (p.124)

Diana’s casual insights into sexism:

‘You can, if necessary, brush off an article slanted at women more easily than one that purported to give reliable news to men.’ (p.153)

‘I don’t want to lead all these women. I’m just making use of them – deceiving them, if you care to say so. The idea of a longer life has an immense superficial appeal to them. Most of them have no notion of what it is really going to mean to them. They don’t see yet that it will make them grow up – that they simply won’t be able to go on for two hundred years leading the nugatory piffling sort of lives that most women do lead; nobody could stand it….

‘They think I’m just offering them more of the same life. I’m not. I’m cheating them.’

‘All my life I’ve been watching potentially brilliant women let their brains, and their talents, rot away. I could weep for the waste of it; for what they might have been, and might have done… But give them two hundred, three hundred years, and they’ll either have to employ those talents to keep themselves sane – or commit suicide out of boredom.’

Of course a modern feminist might well object how patronising it was for a man to write any book like this, claiming to speak for women, and would not be slow to point out the numerous places where 1950s gender stereotypes still occur, even in the thinking of Diana herself, a hundred and one slips of phrase which betray its fundamentally reactionary mindset. It wouldn’t be difficult to dismiss the book as the patronising mansplaining of a stale, pale and male author,  yet another dead white man, modern feminism being so prolific in new insults and abuse.

Still, it’s a really noteworthy achievement for an author who is mostly remembered for his sci fi horror shockers to have devoted so much time and energy to a book entirely setting out to vindicate women, champion women, comment on how women are patronised and marginalised and pressurised by society and manipulated by advertising, a book-length study of an extremely strong, independent woman, a scientist to boot, who makes a great discovery and then isn’t pushed aside by men, but conceives and carries out a series of clever schemes to change the world, who sets the pace and leads the narrative right up to the last scene and the final sentences. Surely this is a remarkable achievement for 1960.


Credit

Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1960. All references are to the 1974 Penguin paperback edition (recommended retail price 30p).

Related link

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 relatively 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, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
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

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and is by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which had been the backdrop to Kundera’s first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to Kundera’s two most successful novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And 15 years had passed since Kundera, in 1975, had finally abandoned all hope that Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, accounts of the Communist Party, and memories of the awful political events which his homeland had endured in the post-war decades.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial and, in my opinion, represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three aspects:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator makes his first in-person appearance on page five and quickly proceeds to share with us all his moans and complaints about life in the West. He:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer who’s on the nail about everything, to sounding like your moany old grandad who thinks the world is going to the dogs.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives. But I wonder if it was also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young.

Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and energetic and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels) by contrast, sounds tired and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ character is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time, but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas in particular) which are life-affirming qualities – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another disappointing aspect of Kundera’s dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat soundbites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator. He just sounds like my Dad.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix (which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’). Well, as you read on into it you realise that part of the reason that Immortality is Kundera’s longest book is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint – paper allocations at communist publishers or something – which required the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone at his French publishers said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’

And so it feels like Kundera has undone his belt and… it’s all come flooding out – fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching an older woman at a swimming pool waving to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and she tried to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body’s bad behaviour came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone expected to die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died while her Father lingered on. When her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto Agnes. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has:

the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. The scene is brief because the great general is distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity, that it might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. Bettina bombarded the older man with letters and saved all his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, aware that Bettina is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the fact that, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, in order to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe.

The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country – gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 pages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristically clever and insightful Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, Kundera appears to have been completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the Free World, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and behave like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera must at some point have been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124).

The protagonist listens to a radio programme where the present is interviewing a film actor but only wants to talk about the actor’s private life. ‘Can’t we talk about my films?’ the actor asks. ‘Why, what are you trying to hide?’ the interviewer asks, insidiously. There is no escape from the ghastly, rude and philistine insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138).

The narrator complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127). By this he means the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128).

This grumbling about imagologues is half-heartedly incorporated into the story. Agnes’ husband, Paul, is a lawyer by profession, but works part-time at a radio station. Kundera has one of the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station tell its director (nicknamed the Bear) to sack Paul from his weekly radio talk.

Although Paul carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was violently against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He becomes so preoccupied with this message that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him, but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: this is Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships – the unknowability of other people – which rings loudly through all his previous fiction.)

Bernard begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices this and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of the weekends when he goes away by himself to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.)

And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He:

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of Goethe’s fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all of Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to Goethe’s relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

This recounts how one day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk when they saw the Empress i.e. the wife of the ruler of Weimar, coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote about Beethoven, even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of Ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-upmanship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies in order to milk their resources and to centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle and approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal Trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company opens an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera-the-narrator is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Kundera and Avenarius then discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind of the suicidal girl – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which led the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death, which I found unpleasant to read.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming, imagining he has a knife to mug her or rape her. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

But Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital. Avenarius’s tyre-slashing meant that Paul didn’t get to see his wife one more time before she died.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this part turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac because astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or can only remember odd, quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain, vanilla sex with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the Lute Player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the Lute Player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt Rubens, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. And as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the Lute Player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married but it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the Lute Player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the Lute Player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through most of the rest of the novel.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that, in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzlingly obstinate difficulties of life as most of us experience it.

The section still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul.

This scene appears to be set years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and how biographiesare part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled but realises that Paul’s long tirade is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His (Paul’s) daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he (Paul) married his dead wife’s sister, Laura, but has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. At which point we are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of Avenarious that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death instead of getting him off the charge.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

1. French bourgeoisie There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

2. Goethe The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists.

So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

3. Lack of political charge Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same narrative techniques as the earlier ones – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

4. Narrow Put yet another way, the weaknesses of the novel are encapsulated in its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them.

When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious, ever-changing complexity of the world round them much more interesting than the clever lucubrations of the self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 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

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