The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 2

‘What is more human than war?’
(Michel Ducraux, head of the Red Cross delegation in Kabul)

Chapter 3. The seductiveness of moral disgust

This rather pompous chapter title conceals something much more simple, which is: Don’t give up on trying to help the victims in disaster zones because you’ve become disgusted by the endless stories of brutality and barbarism. Or: avoid becoming disillusioned.

Ignatieff describes how, for the first four or so years after the collapse of communism, there was a lot of brave talk in Western diplomatic, academic and media circles about the ‘peace dividend’ and the ‘new world order’. Those years saw the international community energetically intervening in crisis situations around the world – overseeing elections in Cambodia, throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, creating a safe haven for the Kurds, attempts to end the civil war in Somalia, UN intervention in Bosnia.

There was hope that the huge budgets previously devoted to war would be redirected into foreign aid. But now, as he writes in 1998, the early 90s feel like a vanished era and he describes how that optimism lapsed under the impact of a series of failures and disasters, marked by the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide (pages 89 to 91).

So this chapter considers how to keep the cause of international humanitarian intervention alive, and how to make it more practical and effective.

I. On the road with Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The first half of the chapter is an account of a fascinating week Ignatieff spent as a member of the small press pack accompanying United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who held the position from January 1992 to December 1996). Boutros had had a big impact: when he took over the UN had 4,000 peacekeepers worldwide; three years later it had over 70,000.

Thursday 13 July 1995: on the plane heading south from Cairo. Srebrenica has fallen, the Dutch UN peacekeepers have been taken hostage, Muslim men have been separated from their women and driven off never to be seen again. Ignatieff cross questions Boutros who insists the UN has done as much as it could. If they had not been in Yugoslavia things would have been worse. They have set up refugee camps. But when it comes to intervening in actual conflict, the UN are negotiators and you have to wait till parties are ready to come to the negotiating table.

Friday 14 July 1995: Nayarubuye, Rwanda. The town where the inhabitants have decided to leave the dead from the genocide unburied as a memorial to the genocide. Fergal Keane is show round it in his book Season of Blood. Ignatieff says the UN force in Kigali could have done more. The genocidal militias were spurred on by Radio Milles Collines; the UN contingent could have shut it down. Machete-wielding gangs roamed the streets of Kigali; UN tanks could have stopped them. The reduced UN contingent did set up a safe haven at the soccer ground and protected the famous Hotel Rwanda, but then was forced to sit and watch three months of genocide. It was an epic fail by any standard. Now, one year later, key members of the genocidal regime are in the vast Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, where they are being housed and fed by the same UN which failed to prevent the genocide.

Saturday 15 July 1995: Luanda, Angola. Boutros flies in to check on the ceasefire agreement between Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels and the government of Eduardo dos Santos. In the twenty year civil war half a million people died and an oil-rich country full of potential was turned into a wasteland. Now the UN tries to keep the peace in this ruined land.

The United Nations has become the West’s mercy mission to the flotsam of failed states left behind by the ebb tide of empire. (p.79)

Ignatieff notes that the UN has had to step in and administer failed or stricken states. He names Mozambique, El Salvador, Haiti, Namibia and Cambodia, to which we, in 2021, could add Iraq, Syria, Libya, let’s see what happens next in Afghanistan. After meeting with President dos Santos, Boutros and his entourage fly to the jungle base of the guerrilla leader Savimbi. The two men embrace. Diplomacy means dealing with murderers, that’s what it is.

Sunday 16 July 1995: Gbadolite, Zaire. Boutros, his team and the little pack of journalists which includes Ignatieff flies to the vast luxury jungle complex of President Mobutu. He keeps them waiting then arrives in a limo with entourage and charms everyone. Then smoothly promises Boutros he will not harm the Hutu refugees in their huge camps in eastern Congo. Three weeks later he breaks his promise and his troops start emptying the camps using whips and guns. [I’m not sure this is correct. All the other sources I’ve read claim that Mobutu supported and maintained the Hutu refugees. But maybe Ignatieff is referring to one event in what was a very confused situation, in the refugee camps, which went on for years.]

Monday 17 July 1995: Bujumbura, Burundi. Burundi is a kind of mirror image of Rwanda. It, also, is split in this great ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis, but instead of the Hutu majority in power (as was in the case in Rwanda, leading up to the genocide) the Tutsi minority have remained in power.

Forced by the ‘international community’ to hold genuine elections (as most third world countries were, after the end of the Cold War), in 1993 Burundi finally elected a Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, its first ever Hutu. His reforms antagonised soldiers in the Tutsi-dominated army and he was assassinated in a failed military coup in October 1993. This led to the Burundian civil war, in reality a series of massacres around the country, which dragged on for years and in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. Ignatieff pays tribute to a remarkable man, which is worth recording:

To stop Burundi from disintegrating, the secretary-general appointed a special representative, Ahmed Ould Abdallah, an indefatigable fifty-five-year-old Mauritanian diplomat, who bears himself with the imperiousness of a Saharan chieftain. In April 1994, on the night that the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali airport, Abdallah went on radio and television to prevent false rumours from precipitating a bloodbath. He sat up all night with the army chief of staff, phoning the local commanders and ordering them to remain in barracks. Most observers credit Abdallah with saving Burundi from the genocidal frenzy that overtook Rwanda next door. (p.85)

Ignatieff describes Abdallah as being on the phone all the time to local politicians, instructing them to keep a lid on things. He, personally, goes out on the streets, meeting the leaders of militias in ethnically cleansed towns, telling them to curb the violence or they will all be swept away. It’s a portrait of remarkable bravery. As always Ignatieff is interested in the theory or principle behind events, and sees in Abdallah a form of ‘preventative diplomacy’.

Ignatieff sits in on the meeting Boutros chairs with the country’s political elite. Tutsis and Hutus sit on opposite side of the table and won’t look each other in the eye. One by one they retell their long stories of grievance and offence: the Tutsis did this to us; no, the Hutus did this first. It is the behaviour of five-year-olds in a playground. Boutros waits till the end, then harangues them, telling them they are grown-ups, they are politicians, and the art of politics is compromise. You talk, negotiate and compromise with people from the other side; you don’t try to exterminate them.

II. The limits of UN power

That evening in the hotel Ignatieff interviews Boutros. Doesn’t he ever get tired of all this? Doesn’t he yield to ‘The seductiveness of moral disgust’? (So that’s where the chapter title comes from.)

Boutros has an important message. He tells the leaders of all these screwed-up countries that the ‘international community is watching them’ and monitoring their behaviour, but he adds an important rider. The United Nations will not save them. He manages down their expectations. Lots of leaders think they can behave like petulant children and the UN will somehow fly in and rescue them from the consequences. But in reality the UN is much more powerless than it seems, tied to ‘mandates’ which are thrashed out by the Security Council. When even the most liberal power in the world, America, refused to let UN forces in Kigali intervene in the Rwandan genocide, then you realise how impotent it is.

In reality all the UN can do is try to steer opposing forces to the negotiating table. They are Relate for countries mired in civil conflict, but in order to change the forces in a country have to want to change. The UN can broker deals and then it can police what was agreed – but the conflicting parties have to agree to want to make a deal in the first place. Boutros gives the Israelis and Palestinians as an example. How long did it take to get them to the peace table?

III. Maybe we should be more imperialistic

Ignatieff describes how, by 1995, the euphoria and optimism which followed the collapse of communism has evaporated. He reflects that the problem of foreign intervention of the past 5 years had been too half-hearted. The West is hobbled by post-imperial guilt. We lob a few shells at the bad guys then withdraw, expecting things to get better, but by and large they only get worse. For such a card-carrying liberal, Ignatieff surprises the reader by asserting that maybe we need to be more imperial, more interventionist and more assertive.

What if General Schwartzkopf had been made the MacArthur of Iraq, toppling Saddam and given free rein to rebuild Iraq as MacArthur rebuilt Japan? What if America had responded to the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu with full throttle aggression, had defeated the warlords or dragged them to the negotiating table, and were now policing the UN-supervised reconstruction of the country? What if NATO had responded immediately to the Serbian uprising in Bosnia in 1992 with air strikes and an aggressive ground campaign, which had prevented the creation of new concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, the long agony of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica? (p.94)

The West maintains the arrogant assumption that we know best, and reserves the right to intervene where and when we see fit, but then always does so a) too late and b) half-heartedly, withdrawing whenever as soon as anyone gets shot or public interest wanes and moves onto the next disaster somewhere else.

IV. Disillusion and disgust

So now we get closer to the core of his argument. Ignatieff thinks he detects a new mood of disillusion throughout the diplomatic community which has spread to some of the aid workers. What’s the point? What’s the point applying sticking plasters to countries whose leaders are hell-bent on mass murder and social destruction? So this chapter amounts to Ignatieff wondering aloud whether the entire project of Western intervention has reached the end of its tether or needs to be rethought.

V. Ideologues of disillusion

Ignatieff describes this wave of disgust and disillusion as if it’s a ride washing over the Western world and goes on to mention two of its leading thinkers or idealogues (definition: ‘Someone who espouses a particular ideology, particularly a political one.’), namely Samuel Huntingdon and Robert Kaplan

Samuel Huntingdon

Samuel Huntingdon (1927 to 2008) was an American political scientist, adviser, and academic who spent over half a century teaching at political science at Harvard University, as well as spells advising the governments of South Africa and Brazil. He became famous among the chattering classes for his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This predicted that, with the end of communism, global conflict would in future be caused by clashes between ‘cultural’ forces, by which he religious and ethnic blocs. He predicted that the Western world would find its most severe antagonist in the Islamic world. Most liberals pooh-poohed this idea as reactionary until 9/11 turned the world upside-down and gave his ideas renewed popularity.

Huntingdon took a relativistic view of human rights and democracy, seeing them as achievements of Western civilisation were not necessarily appropriate to other cultures. Therefore foisting our values on other countries and cultures was not only morally wrong but a practical mistake.

Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.

Ignatieff was writing very soon after Huntingdon’s book was published and takes strong issue with it. Huntingdon appears to be saying this kind of civilisational clash is fated and predestined whereas Ignatieff very strongly disagreed. For Ignatieff, the whole point of Yugoslavia and Rwanda is not that they were fated, but that specific rulers chose to whip up ethnic nationalism in order to stay in power. Civic nationalism was a realistic alternative for these countries but specific leaders chose to neglect that path. At the opening of chapter 2 Ignatieff ridicules Huntingdon’s idea that the war in Croatia was a ‘clash of civilisations’ by reducing it to absurdity, saying that Huntingdon’s theory implies that there is some kind of invisible line between the farmhouse full of Serbs that he (Ignatieff) is holed up in and the farmhouse full of Croats 250 yards away, and that this represents the borderline ‘between civilisations’.

Robert Kaplan

In February 1994 i.e. only a year or so before Ignatieff began writing his book, American journalist Robert D. Kaplan published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled ‘The Coming Anarchy’. He had been on a tour of West African states and had seen for himself the anarchy and chaos in many of them (Liberia, Sierra Leone) and the example of the failed state Somalia on the opposite coast.

Kaplan predicted that, with the end of the Cold War, conflict of ideology would be replaced by conflicts caused by multiple overlapping causes, a congeries of causes which would be difficult to disentangle and impossible to control (p.98).

  • environmental deterioration would bring ever-increasing conflict over resources
  • impoverished rural populations would migrate to cities, creating huge unstable urban areas liable to splinter along ethnic or cultural lines
  • cultural or ethnic groupings would supersede political borders, creating regions of conflict which cross traditional borders
  • the post-modern world would be a confusion of cross-cutting identities, systems and allegiances

Ignatieff summarises Kaplan’s view as predicting that future conflicts won’t even be dignified by the phrase ‘civil war’, they will ‘wars of disintegration’, fought over drugs, resources, control, power – a return to pre-modern warlordism. The West and its economically advanced partners in Asia (Korea, Singapore, the advanced parts of China) will go from strength to strength, leaving vast areas of the globe to become ‘a subrational zone of semipermanent violence’.

Ignatieff doesn’t explicitly counter Kaplan’s vision. On paper he ought to be against it because Kaplan, like Huntingdon, has such a fatalistic tinge. But Ignatieff summarises his view simply as the most famous representative of what can be called the modern chaos theory.

Three questions

Instead Ignatieff ends this essay by asking three questions in light of the Bosnian war:

  1. When is it necessary for outside powers to use military force in civil wars?
  2. When is it right to back a minority’s claim to secede from a state?
  3. How can civilian populations be protected from the consequences of civil wars?

Trying to define answers to these questions turns out to be very tricky in the context of the complexity of the Yugoslav wars, but one theme emerges. Half-assed intervention may do more harm than good. UN supplying food to refugees of both sides may have encouraged both sides in the war to fight on. Claiming to provide ‘safe havens’ which turned out to be anything but, was arguably very harmful. But then the West refused to counter Serb aggression and let the Serbs bomb Sarajevo into ruin for four long years! On the other hand, sending in limited numbers of UN troops to try and monitor ceasefire lines and so on, gave hostages to the enemies. Once they were in place, more aggressive intervention, such as air strikes, became impossible for the Serbs would have massacred or taken the UN troops hostage.

To summarise:

The chief threat to international security in the post-Cold War world is the collapse of states, and the resulting collapse of the capacity of civilian populations to feed and protect themselves, either against famine or interethnic warfare. In a world in which nations once capable of imperial burdens are no longer willing to shoulder them, it is inevitable that many of the states created by decolonisation should prove unequal to the task of maintaining civil order. Such nations have achieved self-determination on the cruellest possible terms. Either they are torn apart by ethnic conflict, or they are simply too weak to overcome the poverty of their people. (p.105)

What is needed is a more imperial approach, by which Ignatieff means a really long-term commitment to bring peace and then spend decades rebuilding a state with the kind of civic institutions we enjoy in the West. But this, also, is fraught with risk and probable failure. It may be that peoples in a failing state come to hate each other so much that only a third force can enter and hope to restore peace and order. But the experience of colonialism is that quite quickly both sides will unite against the peacekeeper. After all this is what happened in Northern Ireland where the British Army initially went in in 1969 to protect the Catholic community from attacks by Loyalists. But they hadn’t been there long before a sequence of incidents led the Catholic community to hate their presence and there followed nearly 30 years of violence on all sides.

And of course Ignatieff was not to know it, but the Americans were to try follow his admonition to be more not less imperialistic in Iraq and Afghanistan this century.

In Iraq overthrowing the dictator turned out to be the easy part and then trying to create a peaceful civil society proved impossible as the country collapsed into waves of insurgencies. In Afghanistan, we have just seen the end of twenty years and over a trillion dollars worth of investment which is that the ‘state’ everyone involved claimed to have created was overthrown in less than a week by the Taliban and their theocratic rule has been restored to what it was before 9/11. And after all that effort Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least educated places on earth.

Ignatieff thought the West was ‘disgusted and disillusioned by its failed attempts to intervene in civil wars, keep the peace and try to build nations, back in 1998. I wonder what his position is now?

Chapter 4. The Warrior’s Honour

This is the longest chapter in the book and gives it its title. It opens with a long factual account of the origin of the International Red Cross, starting with Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessing the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, and then volunteering to help treat the tens of thousands of casualties which clogged the town in the aftermath of the battle. He returned to Switzerland, dazed by what he had seen, began consulting with experts in the areas of medicine and law, war law, and in 1863 the founding charter of the Red Cross was published in Geneva.

Ignatieff follows the Red Cross’s history through the cataclysms of the twentieth century, showing how rules and processes were added, the most important being the organisation’s studied impartiality, bolstered by the way that the entire international committee remained Swiss until relatively recently, and  its commitment to secrecy i.e. it has historically refused to turn over details of participants in war crimes etc to various international courts, because doing so would jeopardise its ability to operate in future warzones.

It comes over several times that the International Red Cross does not pursue justice and it does not campaign for human rights. Its job is to police the laws of war. It polices the implementation of the Geneva Codes. As Wikipedia explains:

The Geneva Conventions are rules that apply only in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities; these include the sick and wounded of armed forces on the field, wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians.

In practice, as the Red Cross representative in Kabul explains, this means trying to calmly convey to warlords and militias the basic rules:

  • don’t shoot the wounded
  • don’t fire on ambulances
  • don’t target hospitals
  • don’t attack civilians
  • don’t torture prisoners

As Ignatieff summarises:

The Geneva Conventions are not about justice but about good treatment. (p.193)

And again:

Dunant’s original genius lay in his acceptance of war as an essential ritual of human society, which can be tamed but which will never be eradicated. (p.156)

Along the way Ignatieff points out that Dunant knew from the start that its principles of care for the victims of conflict no matter what their origin, ethnicity or involvement would not be enough to guarantee its future. Dunant also relied on the warrior’s code.

Ignatieff explains that almost all soldiers across all cultures, across all periods, have codes of honour, codes they operate by. Just being a mighty fighter isn’t enough. In general soldiers, whether Samurai or native Americans or Aztecs or medieval knights have operated by agreed codes of behaviour. He explains how the Red Cross has played along with these codes in various situations, matching its humanitarian aims to protect the weak and treat the sick with the nearest thing available in the warrior codes of the culture it found itself in.

However, things have changed. When his account continues into a detailed consideration of the role played by the Red Cross in the Yugoslav wars, he points out the organisation came under real stress. Both the Croat and Serb governments licensed the establishment of paramilitaries which were encouraged to carry out ethnic cleansing which their parent governments, and armies, could deny responsibility for (p.133). As part of this freedom from responsibility some of them attacked Red Cross convoys. The Red Cross were too late to help the inhabitants of Vukovar. The Red Cross were powerless to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. Red Cross officials were traumatised to discover the Serbs had built the first concentration camps in Europe since the Second World War near Banja Luka.

These cumulative failures made Red Cross staff and managers wonder the organisation was relevant any more. Or whether war had changed so much that its role needed to be reconsidered (p.140).

Worse, was the advent of a new feature of the wars of chaos, namely child soldiers. Young teenagers have maybe fought in armies through history, but entire units of children armed with machine guns was a new phenomenon. It was most salient in Africa, especially the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Here teenagers, often stoned out of their minds, lorded it over roadblocks and machine gunned people at random, including several Red Cross missions.

In both instances, the warrior code which Dunant knew his organisation relied on, was not just breached but had ceased to exist.

Ignatieff applies the same interpretation to the civil war in Afghanistan. He flew into Kabul 3 days after the former communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, had been caught by the Taliban who had just taken Kabul, tortured to death, castrated, beaten to a pulp and his body dragged round the street behind a lorry before being hung from a traffic pole.

Ignatieff laments that, for most of its history, Afghan warriors fought by a code, not least limited by its subsistence agriculture. They fought after the seeds had been sown and until harvest time. There were in-built modes of restraint. But after the Soviet invasion of Christmas 1979, the Americans poured weapons into the country and these, along with what the Soviets left behind when they abandoned the place in 1989, made it one of the most heavily armed countries on earth. Once the Soviets had gone the mujahideen militias of this deeply tribal country fell to attacking each other, with a technology which didn’t require a winter break. By the time Ignatieff arrives, year-round fighting with bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades and mortars had reduced most of the towns and cities to rubble. Ignatieff tells us that in all the warzones he visited he had never seen such devastation as 1996 Kabul.

The latter part of the essay analyses in detail the moral basis of the Red Cross’s work. Even some of its own staff think it should take a more proactive stance on human rights. But the veterans know its mission is narrower and darker than that. Its appeal to the warrior code may be a slender basis for action, a slender hope. But it also may be all that separates war from utter savagery.

But times have changed. For most of human history states have endeavoured to secure a monopoly of violence and vest it in a specialised warrior class, ruled, as mentioned, by a warrior code. But modern technology has removed much of the interaction of ‘soldiers’ in the West, who are increasingly technicians; while the rest of the world has seen an unprecedented flood of weapons, billions of small handguns, and endless amounts of the light, cheap and reliable Kalashnikov rifle.

The result is that poor, weak, post-colonial states often cannot enforce that monopoly of violence. What state collapse means is that violence passes into the hands of private armies, militias, paramilitaries, warlords, gangsters, drug cartels and so on. One commentator has described them as ‘ragged wars’. Many of them are hardly wars at all, but conflict between criminal gangs fighting for control of drugs or raw resources, such as the precious gems and minerals of eastern Congo.

a) It is very difficult for any society to claw its way back from such total collapse.

b) None of the purveyors of violence listed above conform to any warrior code. They have not been trained in the art of restraining and channeling violence. The result is unrestrained savagery. Barbarism.

Ignatieff delivers a surprising conclusion. What the world needs is states. Before humanitarian aid, or general aid programmes or economic development, these countries need states which control professional armies with trained leaders. These armies can then disarm the militias and paramilitaries and enforce a return to peace. This may mean not intervening in civil wars and letting a victor emerge naturally – then supporting them to restore the state’s monopoly on violence. Only under these conditions can there be any hope of a return to the basic stability which is required before any kind of social or economic development can be undertaken.

Chapter 5. The nightmare from which we are trying to awake

The past is an argument. (p.174)

The final chapter is a consideration of the purpose and effectiveness of truth and reconciliation commissions. The most famous one is the one set up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, but there were also attempts to air dirty secrets and establish the facts about the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.

These commissions are based on shaky propositions:

  1. That a ‘truth’ agreed by everyone can ever be achieved.
  2. That a direct analogy between individual psyche and national psyche.

We know that some people can be cured of crippling neuroses or obsessions or depression or other mental symptoms if they can be made to face up to traumatic experiences from the past; if they can ‘work through’ their ‘issues’. Bit it’s wishful thinking to imagine the same can happen for nations. A nation is not a person, doesn’t have a ‘mind’ and an ‘unconscious’.

Still, on the plus side, may people were brought ‘closure’, particularly by concrete information about what happened to their loved ones who went missing decades ago. They were tortured to death by the Chilean police or dumped out of helicopters into the sea by the Argentine air force.

Ignatieff suggests a kind of hierarchy of outcome, or a series of waystations, for these kinds of commissions, in order of attainability:

  1. truth
  2. reconciliation
  3. justice

Truth He draws a distinction between truth and justice. It’s one thing to get all sides to agree on a narrative of events (the ‘truth’), it’s quite another to get them to agree on an interpretation of what those events mean. After all, they’re likely to be coming from very different perspectives.

He says some international supporters of truth and reconciliation processes were disillusioned when the military in both Argentina and Chile refused to take part and refused to accept any blame or responsibility.

A truth commission can winnow out the facts upon which society’s arguments with itself should be conducted. But it cannot bring these arguments to a conclusion. (p.173)

Reconciliation is difficult because of the identities people all-too-often create around their plights and experiences. Both victors and victims create narratives which entrench their status, how both sides refuse to acknowledge any guilt or responsibility, how time hardens these myths into stone. Compromise becomes impossible.

Ignatieff takes us on a whistlestop tour of such T&R commissions. These include the ones about the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, which the military of both nations took part in but ensured their scope was severely limited. The one carried out in Germany after reunification.

The glaring fact that one has never been a public admission of guilt or acknowledgment carried out in Russia. Russia was never de-Stalinised and therefore continues to bear the burden of unspoken guilt, creating two Russias, one of the hundreds of thousands of liberals and intellectuals who are well educated and ashamed of its murderous past, and the tens of millions of party members who feel no guilt about the past, who take their medals and awards to their graves, who resent the liberals as traitors and foreign agents, who play into the hands of Putin the patriotic Russian nationalist.

The title of this chapter is a famous quotation from James Joyce, to be precise Joyce’s character Stephen Dedelus in his novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ The character, like Joyce, was conscious of Ireland’s stifling attachment to its grievances and oppression which almost guarantee that the same situation recurs over and over again, like the recurring nightmare of a trauma victim.

The only way to awake from the nightmare is to acknowledge the trauma and try to lay it to rest. Ignatieff praises President Alwyn of Chile who publicly apologised to the victims of Pinochet’s repression, and German Chancellor Willi Brand who got down on his knees in front of a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto. These gestures by leaders opened up a space in which millions of their citizens could also come out into the open and make gestures of apology. Saying sorry opens the door for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Ignatieff is full of scorn or anger that none of the leaders of the six post-Yugoslavia states have apologised for anything.

Vengeance

In the last pages Ignatieff offers a striking new interpretation of the idea of vengeance. He makes the brilliant point that vengeance is usually considered a low, dishonourable act, vulgar and crude. But it can also be interpreted as a strongly moral devotion to keeping faith with the dead, by continuing their work, by acting on their behalf. Thought-provoking idea…

But it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that vengeance tends to an eternal cycle of violence as sons take revenge for their fathers who took revenge for their grandfathers, and so on endlessly, just as the Serbs and Croats of 1992 were encouraged to avenge their grandfathers of 1942. Something must break this cycle, some act of penance or reconciliation. And the first step towards that is understanding of the other side and their hurt, no matter how difficult or repugnant that might be.

Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together. (p.190)


Credit

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


Related links

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

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

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

Long ago

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

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

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

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

A Universal History of Infamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

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

The Dread Redeemer

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

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

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

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

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

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

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

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

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

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

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

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

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

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

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

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

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

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

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

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

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

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

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

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

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

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

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

A Theologian in Death

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

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

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

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

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

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

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

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

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

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

The Wizard Postponed

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

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

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

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

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

The Mirror of Ink

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

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

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

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

The Generous Enemy

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

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

On Exactitude in Science

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

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


Borges’ approach

Bookish

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

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

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

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

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

Exotic

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

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

Intellectual themes

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

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

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

Two prefaces

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

1934 preface

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

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

combined with the over-use of certain tricks:

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

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

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

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

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

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

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

1954 preface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary influence

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

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

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


Related links

Borges reviews

Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham (1961)

‘The whole account is, of course, unreasonable,’ he said, ‘and yet it is pervaded throughout with such an air of reasonableness.’

Six short stories, four of them about alternative realities or minds which are inexplicably transferred forward in time and into other bodies. The first and longest story is a vivid continuation of Wyndham’s interest in women’s liberation.

Consider Her Ways (1956)

‘Woman, who is the vessel of life, had the misfortune to find man necessary for a time, but now she does no longer… Man was only a means to an end. We needed him in order to have babies. The rest of his vitality accounted for all the misery in the world. We are a great deal better off without him.’

This is by way of being a novella, running to 65 pages in the Penguin paperback. It starts with a page describing someone disembodied, outside themselves, not even aware of a personality, a floating ball of consciousness, a weird out-of-body description which could come from Sam Beckett’s highly experimental novel, The Unnameable (which had published only a few years earlier in 1953):

I hung in a timeless, spaceless, forceless void that was neither light, nor dark. I had entity, but no form; awareness, but no senses; mind, but no memory. I wondered, is this – this nothingness – my soul? And it seemed that I had wondered that always, and should go on wondering it for ever …

But, somehow, timelessness ceased. I became aware that there was a force: that I was being moved, and that spacelessness had, therefore, ceased, too. There was nothing to show that I moved; I knew simply that I was being drawn. I felt happy because I knew there was something or someone to whom I wanted to be drawn. I had no other wish than to turn like a compass-needle, and then fall through the void …

This floating consciousness slowly finds form and coherence and becomes aware of itself. It is a ‘she’ and discovers herself in a body in a hospital ward. Looking around she discovers three obscenely fat women lying on trolleys. Looking down she discovers she herself is encased in just such an obscenely fat body and starts screaming and then faints from shock. She is sedated. When she comes round she discovers her name is Mother Orchis, a Class One mother’, and is told she has just delivered four babies.

She is loaded into a pink ambulance (she is too fat to walk) and taken on a long journey through calm countryside. From the ambulance window she sees only women working in the fields, tough brawny looking lot she christens Amazons. (As a side note, there is a reference to ‘Whitewich’ [where Mother Orchis would be sent if she had had ‘grade 2’ babies, which reminds the reader of the fictional ‘Westwich of Pawley’s Peepholes and, of course, the Midwich of The Midwich Cuckoos.)

She arrives at some kind of ‘clinic’ where she is unloaded and wheeled into a ward by tiny little attendants who are about four feet tall and yet seem fully grown. Slowly she realises the five other women on the ward are all called ‘mothers’, too. But she is radically unlike them and scandalises them by claiming she can read and write. She now regards the entire thing as a hallucination.

The other Mothers are scandalised by her talk and she begins to realise they are illiterate and have been kept in a state of ignorance. When she starts to talk about her husband and men in general, she is stunned to realise the mothers genuinely have no idea what she’s talking about.

Suddenly she has a memory. Her husband was named Donald. She is named Jane, she was Jane Waterleigh until she married Donald Summers, she is a qualified doctor (i.e. highly rational and logical). Now she remembers that her husband was badly injured in a plane crash.

After more feeding and sleep Jane is visited by a woman doctor who, unlike either the mothers or the little helpers is a ‘normal’ shape and appearance. The doctor is shocked to discover she can read and disgusted that she’s been filling the other mothers’ heads with nonsense about ‘men’ and there being two ‘sexes’. During the interview the doctor goes from patronising, to astonished, to angry that someone has been filling Mother Orchis’s head with this rubbish, to genuine puzzlement.

After the doctor leaves, Jane makes a bid for freedom, but finds it difficult even getting out of bed and the four-foot Servitors are closing in on her even as she trips, falls down some stairs, bangs her head and loses consciousness.

Now more of her memory returns in a flash: how she was a fully qualified doctor, married to the loving Gordon, a test pilot, till he died in an aircrash, asked to return to work, worked at Wraychester hospital, then after some time was asked by a Dr Hellyer if she’d like to volunteer for trials of a new drug. It was called ‘chuinjuatin,’ a narcotic:

‘The original form is in the leaves of a tree that grows chiefly in the south of Venezuela. The tribe of Indians who live there discovered it somehow, like others did quinine and mescalin. And in much the same way they use it for orgies. Some of them sit and chew the leaves – they have to chew about six ounces of them – and gradually they go into a zombie-like, trance state. It lasts three or four days during which they are quite helpless and incapable of doing the simplest thing for themselves, so that other members of the tribe are appointed to look after them as if they were children, and to guard them… It’s necessary to guard them because the Indian belief is that chuinjuatin liberates the spirit from the body, setting it free to wander anywhere in space and time, and the guardian’s most important job is

Aha. So by now the reader has realised this is a kind of mind transportation story or, as the characters out it, a case of ‘transferred personality’, very like the story of From Pillar To Post and, like that story, the transportation has occurred into the Future, where – as so often in this kind of story – some massive social dislocation has taken place and the mind or time traveller needs to be informed (along with the reader) what happened to bring about such a drastic social change.

Which is precisely what now happens because, after her interview, the doctor who interviewed her decides Jane should be loaded up into another of those pink ambulances and driven through the relaxed countryside to a stylish 18th century villa, beautifully furnished inside, where she is introduced to Laura, an elegant 80-year-old lady, who’s a historian, and who can answer most of Jane’s (and the reader’s) questions.

She tells Jane that she is a historian and asks a servant to bring sherry i.e. Jane is going to be treated as an equal. Laura now tells her that, two long lifetimes ago, about 120 years, all the men died out in a plague, within a year.

In a sense the most interesting part of the story is what now follows for Laura, never having lived in a world with men in it, and as a historian, has studied the subject and – we realise – the dogma of the future, written by women for women taking the women’s point of view, portrays a world of two sexes as one of unremitting exploitation of women by men.

‘Women must never for a moment be allowed to forget their sex, and compete as equals. Everything had to have a “feminine angle” which must be different from the masculine angle, and be dinned in without ceasing. It would have been unpopular for manufacturers actually to issue an order “back to the kitchen”, but there were other ways. A profession without a difference, called “housewife”, could be invented. The kitchen could be glorified and made more expensive; it could be made to seem desirable, and it could be shown that the way to realize this heart’s desire was through marriage. So the presses turned out, by the hundred thousand a week, journals which concentrated the attention of women ceaselessly and relentlessly upon selling themselves to some man in order that they might achieve some small, uneconomic unit of a home upon which money could be spent.

Whole trades adopted the romantic approach and the glamour was spread thicker and thicker in the articles, the write-ups, and most of all in the advertisements. Romance found a place in everything that women might buy from underclothes to motor-cycles, from “health” foods to kitchen stoves, from deodorants to foreign travel, until soon they were too bemused to be amused any more.

‘The air was filled with frustrated moanings. Women maundered in front of microphones yearning only to “surrender”, and “give themselves”, to adore and to be adored. The cinema most of all maintained the propaganda, persuading the main and important part of their audience, which was female, that nothing in life was worth achieving but dewy-eyed passivity in the strong arms of Romance. The pressure became such that the majority of young women spent all their leisure time dreaming of Romance, and the means of securing it. They were brought to a state of honestly believing that to be owned by some man and set down in a little brick box to buy all the things that the manufacturers wanted them to buy would be the highest form of bliss that life could offer.’

Jane tries to protest that it wasn’t like that but Laura knows better and continues:

They hoodwinked you, my dear. Between them they channelled your interests and ambitions along courses that were socially convenient, economically profitable, and almost harmless.’

But what about ‘love’, Jane asks. Laura has a smart confident answer to that, too:

‘You keep repeating to me the propaganda of your age. The love you talk about, my dear, existed in your little sheltered part of the world by polite and profitable convention. You were scarcely ever allowed to see its other face, unglamorised by Romance. You were never openly bought and sold, like livestock; you never had to sell yourself to the first-comer in order to live; you did not happen to be one of the women who through the centuries have screamed in agony and suffered and died under invaders in a sacked city – nor were you ever flung into a pit of fire to be saved from them; you were never compelled to suttee upon your dead husband’s pyre; you did not have to spend your whole life imprisoned in a harem; you were never part of the cargo of a slave-ship; you never retained your own life only at the pleasure of your lord and master …

There’s one last fact to be conveyed, which is how the men died out. Laura explains that historical records show it was the result of the research work of a Dr Perrigan, who was doing extensive research producing viruses by radioactive mutation, with a view to controlling populations of first rabbits and then the brown rats which carry plague and other infectious diseases. Well, nobody knows how it got out, but a mutant virus which attacked humans escaped from the lab, and, although some women were infected, most made a recovery, whereas almost all men were infected and it killed them.

Within a few years almost all men were dead. Society collapsed since almost all manual labour, oil extraction, food raising and so on, was run by men. It took decades but the most educated women were often the doctors and they found themselves brought together into a new class, which called itself ‘The Doctorate’. They wondered how to re-organise society on a more rational, less exploitative basis until someone referred to the Bible quote: : “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways.”

‘A four-class system was chosen as the basis, and strong differentiations were gradually introduced. These, now that they have become well established, greatly help to ensure stability – there is scope for ambition within one’s class, but none for passing from one class to another. Thus, we have the Doctorate – the educated ruling-class, fifty per cent of whom are actually of the medical profession. The Mothers, whose title is self-explanatory. The Servitors who are numerous and, for psychological reasons, small. The Workers, who are physically and muscularly strong, to do the heavier work. All the three lower classes respect the authority of the Doctorate. Both the employed classes revere the Mothers. The Servitors consider themselves more favoured in their tasks than the Workers; and the Workers tend to regard the puniness of the Servitors with a semi-affectionate contempt.

The interview comes to an end. Jane is packed by the little women into another pink ambulance but taken to a new place, more a clinic than the Mothers’ home. Here three doctors attend who are not unsympathetic. The only solution they can think of to help her fit in with her current situation is to hypnotise her so she forgets everything. Jane is understandably reluctant and makes a suggestion of her own – that she be given another dose of huinjuatin, as close as possible to the original one. The doctors agree to give it a try and obtain some of the drug. Jane is very tense as they line up to give her big fat blobby body the injection and then…

At this point the narrative changes tone and we learn the entire thing is a written account of her experience which she deposited with her bank upon returning to the body of Jane in the 20th century.

And that, very like the ending of the From Pillar To Post, another mind transport story, the final part of the narrative switches away from the first-person narrator to the point of view of the authorities involved in ‘the case’ who are reviewing and considering the narrative we have just read.

Now, suddenly, right at the end, we learn that we are now back in the 20th century as a solicitor and Jane’s doctor, Dr Hellyer, consider her ‘case’. And it’s not an abstract discussion. Jane is on trial for travelling to Dr Perrigan’s house (he, of course, lives in England), trying to reason with him and, when he refused to stop his research, Jane is accused of shooting him dead and trying to burn the house down.

The solicitor and the doctor are reviewing the document we have just read to assess its usefulness in Jane’s murder trial now coming up. They conclude that the entire thing must have been a very vivid hallucination.

But the details of their discussion don’t matter so much because the story now reveals the Twist In Its Tail. And that is – that Dr Perrigan had a son, also a doctor, also a research scientist, and… he has vowed to carry on his father’s work!! You can’t change Destiny. Men will be exterminated.

Odd (1961)

Mr Aster is the main beneficiary of Sir Sir Andrew Vincell’s will. The latter’s solicitor, young Mr Fratton is curious. After a few professional meetings, the lawyer very discreetly enquires how Mr Aster knew Sir Andrew. They go for dinner at his club and the latter tells him the story.

One night he saw a distinguished old man clinging on to a railing looking dazed. He decided to help out, addressed the man and took him to the nearest pub for a brandy. Here the story comes out (so it is a story within a story).

Sir Andrew has been knocked down by a tram and this has somehow freed his mind and sent it 50 years forward in time. This dazed man is discovered in the street by Aster who buys him a drink and talks to him. The man is stunned by his appearance in the pub mirror and disbelieves the pub calendar and even the contents of his own pockets. None of it makes sense to a man who half an hour earlier was 23 and living in 1906. But, as Aster points out from the card in the pocket of his lovely jacket, he is now clearly a director of a plastics company. ‘What is plastic?’ Sir Andrew asks him, and Aster proceeds to tell him as much as he knows while the publican orders them a cab. Then Aster accompanies the dazed man to his very smart apartments in Bloomsbury Square. Next day he calls and is answered by a young lady who assures him Sir Andrew is fine and that’s the last he hears from him till he read his obituary in the papers and was contacted by his solicitor.

Basically, although neither man can credit it, the story is obviously true. Sir Andrew Vincell did have a mysterious accident which propelled his spirit 50 years forward in time, at which point he learned about the mysterious new material ‘plastic’, before somehow being sent back to his original time, to 1906, where, as a young man, he used the knowledge he had acquired in the future to set up a successful company.

And then, many many years later, left a huge sum to the man who came across him in his dazed, mind-transported state and was not only kind and caring to him, but gave him the technical secrets on which his fortune was subsequently based.

Oh, Where, Now, is Peggy MacRafferty? (1961)

Remember the short story about dragons in Jizzle? How the main thing about it was the very Welsh accents and locutions of everyone involved. Well, this story continues Wyndham’s interest in accents and attempts to do something similar for Ireland. Peggy MacRafferty lives in a small rural Irish community of Barranacleugh. From out the blue Peggy receives a letter asking her to appear on a quiz show produced by Popular Amalgamated Television, Ltd which is going to take place in the Town Hall at Ballyloughrish.

So Peggy takes a bus there, is welcomed, put at ease in the green room with all the the contestants and when it comes her turn to answer questions not only answers them correctly but is spirited and independent enough to cow the flashy presenter and win the hearts of the audience.

This prompts some other enterprising TV producers to take her up and fly her to London with a view to making her a movie star. We see the conversations among these hopeful producers (Mr Robbins), the flash hotel she’s put up in, the team who look after her make-up and buy her suitable dresses (led by Mrs Trump) and the irritable photographer, Bert, who makes her look like a glamour doll, before she is introduced to the powerful movie producer George Floyd, his partner Solly de Kopf and his henchman Al Foster. George and Solly decide Peggy has a certain look and presence so they’ll sign her up to ‘Plantagenet Pictures’ and trial her in a piece of stereotyped slush movie which they begin sketching out, and there’s some satirical comedy to be had from the decision to give plain Peggy the more romantic-sounding screen name of Deirdre Shilsean!

In other words, the story purports to take us into the heart of the British TV and movie industry circa 1960.

Next thing Peggy knows she’s flown off to a fashionable spa resort, Marinstein, somewhere in Germany (or Austria), complete with fairy castle, moonlight on the river etc. Peggy’s arrival here signals the start of part two because, like so many of Wyndham’s stories, this one seems almost as if two completely different plots have been welded together.

Having spent the first half following Peggy from a rural Irish village to the heart of London’s movie business, the story now switches focus and gives us a whole load of information about the founder of the Chaline Beauty Company, the enterprising Madame Letitia Chaline (real name Lettice Sheukelman). There is a page of satire about the self-appointed mission of beauty product designers to liberate womankind from the shackles of ugliness (touching directly on a central strand in the novel The Trouble With Lichen) before we move on to consider Madame Letitia’s daughter, Cathy, who married an impoverished aristocrat, and became Her Highness the Grand Duchess Katerina of Marinstein. She discovers it’s a rundown squalid dump, the castle is as cosy as a suite of caves and the inhabitants filthy, and only interested in drinking, begging and shagging.

So young Cathy sets out to comprehensively modernise and update it, concreting the airport runway, building new grand hotels, making the population attend compulsory lectures about hygiene and manners.

Ten years this is the world-famous paradise of beauty treatment in which Peggy arrives, soon making friends with another young would-be starlet, Pat aka Carla Carlita. They wander through the quaint cobbled streets packed with boutiques and salons. Next day they begin their ‘Screen Beauty Course’ to bring them in line with late 1950s movie ideas of beauty.

There is Miss Higgins for elocution, Miss Carnegie the personality coach, her coiffeur, her facial-artist, her deportment-instructor, her dietician, and Miss Arbuthnot who explains that the modern ideal of beauty requires a figure of 42-22-38. Goodness!

Then the point of view cuts back to the office of George Floyd and Solly de Kopf for the comic denouement, which is that George went to meet the plane back from Marinstein, and all the women looked the same. All of them have been turned into identikit Lolos (referring, I assume, to 1950s dolly bird movie star Gina Lollobrigida). Peggy from Barranacleugh must be among them but they are all so indistinguishable, George can’t find her and throws up his hands in despair.

Stitch in Time (1961)

Old Mrs Thelma Dolderson is sitting in her wheelchair, out on the lawn of the fine old house where she’s lived as child, young woman, married woman and now old woman. It was her son, Harold, who kept it in the family when, after the war, it became too large to run, by persuading his firm to buy it on the condition his mother retained a wing and rooms of her own. Subsequently the rest of the house has been converted into offices and laboratories where Harold pursues his researches.

(Country houses converted into research facilities are a recurring trope in Wyndham, namely the Grange in the Midwich Cuckoos where the alien children end up being housed and educated, and the Grange in the short story Una, where the mad inventor carries out his experiments in vivisection.)

Earlier in the day, Harold had tried to explain to Mrs D about the experiment they were planning to carry out this afternoon, something to do with time being an additional dimension. She doesn’t understand him but pats his hand approvingly and he leaves her sitting out in the lovely warm sun and she falls to reminiscing about her life, how odd and arbitrary life is, why it was on a summer’s day much like this, fifty or so years ago that she waited for Arthur, the love of her life, to pop over for tennis although they both knew he was coming to finally pop the question and ask her to marry him (full name: Arthur Waring Batley).

But he never showed. No explanation, no note, no nothing, he never got in touch, she never saw him again. Eventually she got over it and married Colin Dolderson who fathered her two wonderful children, Harold and Cynthia, but what if…

There is a strange shimmer in the air, a barely audible humming and then, to her amazement, Mrs Dolderson hears a familiar voice singing a tune from way back when and into view comes Arthur, spitting image of what he looked like all those decades ago… Yep it’s another story about time travel and things that might have been.

For Arthur realises something is wrong: it’s the same house but the flowerbed and creepers have changed, the trees are all bigger, there are new houses in what to be the empty field beyond. And who is this old lady in a wheelchair? Mrs Dolderson realises what has happened and adapts remarkably well. She pats his hand while Arthur feels increasingly sick and panicky. She asks him the date and he says 27 June 1913. Slowly she passes over her copy of The Times, with its date – 1 July 1963.

With a shock young Arthur in his blazer and boater realises that she, this wrinkled old wheelchair-bound lady, is the love of his life Thelma and he bursts into tears. Mrs Dolderson reaches out to stroke his hair and with the other hand reaches for the bell on the table.

She wakes in her bed. She’s had a relapse and been carried there where she was sedated by their doctor, Dr Sole. Now we have the full explanation, which we had sort of guessed anyway. Harold and his team turned on their time transporter at just the moment Arthur appeared and walked up the path, walking right into the little force field which catapulted him 50 years into the future. With Mrs Dolderson sedated, Dr Sole administered a mild sedative to Arthur to calm him down and then Harold and his team questioned him, discovering he really was from the world 50 years earlier. At which point, after some discussion, they decided the decent thing to do was give him the chance of returning back to his time. They weren’t sure the time machine could do it but determined to give it a jolly good try, told a still-weeping dazed Arthur to walk along the same path and he disappeared, just like that.

Back to that day 50 years ago when he quite obviously turned right round, got on his bicycle and never came back. A few years later Mrs Dolderson read about him being awarded a DSO in the Great War. Then she married Colin Dolderson. Now she reflects to her son, as he sits by her bedside, that it’s almost as if the course of events is written somehow and cannot be evaded (the same kind of conclusion the protagonists in any number of time travelling stories could have told her).

Time travel stories can be the opportunity for all manner of topics or issues or angles. It is entirely characteristic of Wyndham’s that his time travel stories focus on love and romance.

Random Quest (1961)

Colin Trafford works at an experimental institute. One afternoon an experiment is being conducted with some advanced device when there is bang, a flash of light, and Colin finds himself lying in darkness under several bodies. Looking up he sees a bus towering over him, pulls aside the unconscious woman lying on him, slowly realises the bus has ploughed into a shop window in Regent Street and he was caught up in the smash. He pulls himself free as the ambulances start to arrive and staggers to the Cafe Royal for a fortifying drink (the same place one of the groups of blind people in Triffids head for). But when he catches sight of himself in a mirror he gets a shock; he’s got a moustache. The Café doesn’t seem the same as usual. When he goes to pay the barman accepts a ridiculously small sum. Colin checks in his wallet and discovers a card but no mention of the EPI. On an impulse he phones the EPI but they have no record of him. He phones his own address but is not known there. So then phones the number on the card in his pocket, it works but rings and rings.

He walks along Piccadilly and is looking in the shop window of Hatchards the booksellers when he notices a book in the display by him! He’s never written a book. A voice hails him. It’s a friend he knew at Cambridge and knows was wounded in the war. They go for a drink, the other guy gossips about the ins and outs of the book world, but it’s all gibberish to Colin. Then he notices his friend’s hand. He knows for a fact he lost the last two fingers in the war. But now they’ve been magically restored. Worried about his funny questions and responses, his friend recommends going to see a doctor.

Finally Colin decides to go ‘home’ to the address on his car. It’s a nice apartment in a nice modern block but is completely unknown to him. There’s a study with a collection of books by him and he sits down and starts to read one. He’s interrupted by a key in the lock. It is his ‘wife’, Ottolie, as he goes to ‘greet’ her he realises he doesn’t even know her name. She’s barely got in with some shopping before the phone rings and it’s another woman. It takes a number of misunderstandings before he realises the woman on the phone is his mistress and the woman in the hall, his wife, knows about her but is upset at this flagrant phone conversation in front of her.

So: It is another Wyndham story about not exactly time travel, but the travel of a mind from the present day into the body of someone similar, either in the future, or in a parallel, alternative history.

Wyndham had described a relatively small jump across parallel timelines in the story Opposite Number where the different timelines only seemed to differ in that the couple at the centre of the story had married different people. Random Quest is on a much larger scale. In this alternative timeline Colin has been transported to, the Second World War never happened. Winston Churchill isn’t particularly well known, the absence of wartime inflation means everything is much cheaper, and the Germans are friendly allies who have just developed atomic fission.

Second point: All this is told as a narrative to a Dr Harshom. This doctor has learned that Trafford has been making enquiries all over England for an Ottolie Harshom. Well, Harshom is such a rare name that this doctor happens to know a number of Harshom branches around the country and several have mentioned getting letters from this Trafford fellow enquiring after an Ottolie Harshom, is there such a woman? Dr Harshom knows there is not and so has proactively invited Trafford down to his country home (gravel drive and manservant named Stephens) for a glass of sherry, a good dinner, and then a long, long conversation in the drawing room.

After a lot of hesitation, Trafford tells him the story summarised above. So why is he looking for this Ottolie Harshom? Because in the three brief weeks that he lived in the parallel timeline, Colin fell deeply in love with his ‘wife’ who was herself amazed at the change in her husband, from heartless philanderer to considerate lover, they both fell deeply for each other and then, one night… Trafford went to sleep in bed next to Ottolie and woke up alone in his bed back in ‘normal’ England. And that is why, he explains, to a slightly boggling Dr Harshom, he has set out on a quest to find the love of his life, to see if she even exists in this timeline, maybe Ottlie won’t be her name but… he won’t give up.

The good doctor listens to all this, including a page or so explanation of quantum physics, with atoms popping into and out of existence all the time, with our modern understanding that the universe is not rational and completely law-abiding, but inextricably linked with randomness. Trafford stays the night in the spare room, is given a hearty breakfast next morning, and goes on his way.

Two years later Dr Harshom receives a postcard from Canada with the simple message: ‘I found her’. There’s still a bit more story, though, for Trafford returns for a second interview with Harshom and takes a while explaining what happened. In Canada he tracked down a woman named Belinda Gale, fortunately unmarried – the exact equivalent of ‘Ottlie’ only in this timestream, is stricken with love for her and sets about slowly wooing her.

But the real twist in the tail is that, as he now explains, in conversation with Belinda’s mother, Mrs Gale, Trafford makes a momentary slip and refers to Belinda as Ottolie. Her mother turns pale with fright, and tells Trafford that nobody knows that is what she planned to call her daughter. And then reveals that Belinda is the daughter of Dr Harshom’s son, Malcolm, who got Mrs Gale pregnant but then she learned he had been killed in the war, and soon after she fell in love with another man, Reggie Gale, before she knew she was pregnant and moved to Canada with him.

At which point, with a dramatic flourish, Trafford tells Dr Harshom to prepare to meet his grand-daughter!

A Long Spoon (1960)

One of Wyndham’s rather heavily jocose stories, in which a young chap, Stephen Tramon, experimenting with playing tape spools backwards accidentally summons a very earnest demon named Batruel. The backward tape, slowed down, has accidentally played The Word of Power and the odds and ends of tape Stephen had chucked on the floor have accidentally formed the shape of a pentangle, traditional shape for invoking demons. Ooops.

After a brief explanation, and once Stephen has gotten over his initial shock, the demon accepts it was a mistake and prepares to leave except that… Stephen doesn’t know The Word of Dismissal. Double oops.

The situation is played for laughs – Batruel explains there is a taxi rank system of demons awaiting being called to earth and describes how busy they were in the 17th and 18th centuries, although things fell off badly during the 19th; they consider calling the local victim round to perform an exorcism but Batruel explains that that can be excruciatingly painful, so they decide against it – as Stephen and his young wife Dilys struggle to find a way to send the demon back where he came from without being accidentally damned in the process.

In the event they come up with a simple enough scam – the football pools. Batruel fixes a number of key matches to ensure Stephen’s predictions come true and he wins the pools jackpot three weeks in a row, pocketing a princely £655,000.

At which point Stephen pays a visit – in his new Bentley – to the headquarters of Gripshaw’s Pools, taking along his snappily dressed ‘advisor’, Batruel and being shown into the office of the founder and owner himself, Northerner Sam Gripshaw.

Gripshaw points out that Stephen’s series of wins is rocking the industry, a few more like that and it’ll go bankrupt. Stephen says he has a simple solution for that, and introduces Batruel who goes through his ‘temptation’ spiel like a pro: If Gripshaw will sell his soul to the devil, Stephen will stop using Batruel to fix the games’ results. In fact Batruel will disappear back to hell.

To Batruel and Stephen’s surprise, Gripshaw reads through the contract and agrees without hesitation. A penknife is fetched so that Gripshaw can sign the contract in his own blood, then they tie a handkerchief round the wound, Batruel performs a deep bow and disappears.

Stephen is surprised, but Gripshaw leans forward and lets him in on a secret. Tut tut those demons are most inefficient and old-fashioned. If and when Batruel goes to store Gripshaw’s contract in their filing system he’ll get a bit of a shock – he’ll discover Gripshaw has already signed a contract with the Devil. How do you think he got the capital to set up his business in the first place!?

And so this final collection of Wyndham short stories ends, as so many of his stories do, on a comic note.


Credit

Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1961. 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 century or so 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 bewildered 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

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

The Kraken Wakes is told in retrospect, by a man living in a drowning world, when most of England is under water due to the melting icecaps, looking back over the events which slowly led up to this catastrophe [in fact the action of the book seems to cover about ten years], who tells us he is setting out to piece together an account of the events leading up to the catastrophic present.

It began so unrecognisably. Had it been more obvious – and yet it is difficult to see what could have been done effectively even if we had recognised the danger. Recognition and prevention don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We recognised the potential dangers of atomic fission quickly enough – yet we could do little about them. If we had attacked immediately – well, perhaps. But until the danger was well established we had no means of knowing that we should attack – and then it was too late. However, it does no good to cry over our shortcomings. My purpose is to give as good a brief account as I can of how the present situation arose – and, to begin with, it arose very scrappily….

Like Day of the Triffids, Kraken is a first-person narrative told by a polite and well-meaning, middle-class man, in this case named Mike Watson. He’s a journalist with the (fictitious) English Broadcasting Corporation, which, in a recurring joke, people are always mixing up with the BBC. The fact that both stories are told by very much the same kind of young middle-class man made me speculate that Wyndham probably realised he needed a different tone or register for his narrator in order to prevent the two books sounding the same.

So that’s probably the reason why, whereas Bill Masen’s account in The Day of The Triffids is consistently grim and often horrifying, the narrator of this book keeps up a chirpy, facetious tone throughout. In fact, the central feature of this book is the narrator’s relationship with his smart and sassy wife, Phyllis, herself a documentary scriptwriter, with whom he keeps up a solid stream of jokey banter and backchat and has a very 1950s kind of relationship, to the extent that it’s made jokily clear that it’s very much the wife who wears the trousers:

‘But, with a pressure of tons, and in continual darkness, and – ‘ I began, but Phyllis cut across me with that decisiveness which warns me to shut up and not argue…

‘A man of perception,’ I said. ‘For the last five or six years – ‘
‘Shut up, Mike,’ said my dear wife, briefly. (p.124)

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

This snappy husband-and-wife banter completely differentiates the books from the rather grim, serious-minded tone of Triffids and makes this catastrophe feel much more like a bank holiday outing. This tone is established in the short prologue, or ‘Rationale’ as he calls it, which opens the book, Mike and Phyl are looking out over the English Channel, nowadays full of icebergs because the Arctic icecaps are melting and the sea-level is drastically rising, and he first suggests writing some kind of account of the disaster which has overtaken the world. Good idea, she says, and offers to help.

Plot summary

Phase one (pages 11 to 72)

Journalist Mike Watson is on a honeymoon cruise with his new wife, Phyllis, when they see five red shapes, fuzzy and gaseous, speed across their wake and crash into the sea. So he was lucky enough to be in at ‘the start’. There are other sightings, including from an RAF fighter pilot who encounters some of these flying speedballs, shoots one which promptly explodes. The years go by and Watson becomes the meteor specialist at his broadcaster, all the letters from cranks and flying saucer spotters are sent on to him. And yet reports continue to come in of groups of red dots flying at high speed across the sky and into the ocean, generally at its deepest parts.

At ECB Watson finds himself lumbered with reporting on the steady trickle of sightings of the fireballs and builds up a reputation as an expert. As such he is invited to the Admiralty where a Captain Winters shows him a map of the oceans with lines drawn showing the descent of the many fireballs reported over the past few years, which shows how they have all entered the water near the oceans’ deepest points, up to five miles deep, where the water pressure is up to five tons per square inch!

And that’s why he and Phyllis are invited aboard a Royal Navy mission to the Caribbean, where a bathysphere containing two men is lowered deeper than any such vehicle has gone into the deep sea before. It’s a tense and detailed description which leads to the inevitable – at the deepest depths where no fish are, the two men in the little metal sphere think they see some vague shape moving just out of reach of the lights. Next thing they are cut off. The cable is winched up and the hawser it was attached to hasn’t been cut, it has been fused. They try again with an unmanned sphere carrying cameras, this too gets to about the same depths, the watching crew see something, then all power is cut.

Actually they’re invited to witness this expedition because of Phyllis. She is a documentary scriptwriter (while the narrator Mike is a straight journalist). So the idea of having a husband and wife team means Wyndham gives his pair twice as many chances to be invited on expeditions or to meet and interview key figures and experts as the story unfolds.

In this respect, the solo nature of the narrator of Triffids emphasises the sense of loneliness and isolation which is one of the harrowing aspects of that book which describes how one man slowly uncovers the impact of the catastrophe; whereas the dynamic in Kraken is the exact opposite – he needs a number of sources in order to present a synoptic overview of events: and so having what are in effect two protagonists doubles the number of contacts and interviews and sources the book can use.

And a great deal of it is second-hand, in the sense that Mike and Phyllis – having been on the doomed bathyscaphe expedition – begin following every aspect of the story and scouring the news for related stories.

Thus, after another interview with Captain Winter back at the Admiralty, they go on to monitor new developments. So they meet up and interview a journo from NBC who accompanied an American version of the bathyscaphe expedition. All the hacks were on a separate ship accompanying the navy vessel and were watching their bathyscaphe via remote cameras when shouts from above brought them all up on deck in time to see some kind of electric charge surge up the cable, light up the ship like a Christmas tree, and then it exploded.

Something is down there, snipping the wires of these bathyscaphes, and then sending up enormous electric charges. The NBC guy tells them it’s not the only one. Another research ship has disappeared near the Aleutian Isles.

Time passes, three years to be precise (p.41) during which Mike and Phyllis celebrate the birth of son William and then mourn his death 18 months later. And then more reports of sinkings come in: the Americans lose a cruiser off the Marianas, the Russians east of the Kuriles, a Norwegian research ship in the Southern Ocean. I.e. the pattern extends.

When the Americans lose a destroyer their patience snaps. They invite half the world’s press along to witness an experiment with an atom bomb, which is towed out to above the deepest part of the sea off the Philippines where the destroyer was lost – it is released and allowed to sink several miles into the depths, then detonated. Mike and the other spectators see the eruption of water, the cloud forming above it and then their ship is buffeted by the wave, but little apart from that.

Back in London our pair have dinner with another couple of journos who swap theories and opinions. One of them recounts the theory put forward by a certain Bocker, which is the one the reader has figured out by now, which is that the ‘fireballs’ are some kind of spaceships carrying intelligent passengers who have evolved in a deep sea environment and now have come to colonise earth’s. They didn’t take kindly to the investigating bathyspheres, took to destroying the ships attached to them and now – they speculate – will not take kindly to having an atom bomb exploded over their heads.

In the coming months several more atom bombs are dropped into the depths with unmeasurable affect (p.53). But through the grapevine Mike and Phyllis learn that several of them failed to go off. That’s worrying (p.57). Several more research ships have disappeared.

Phyllis interviews Dr Matet, noted oceanographer and friend of Captain Winters of the Admiralty. He tells her oceanographers have begun to notice major discoloration of the oceans’ major flowstreams, as if vast amounts of the ooze on the ocean beds is being disturbed (pp.59-61).

They jointly interview Alastair Bocker, eminent geographer (pp.63-65). He has developed his theories further. If intelligent life has come from beyond earth, and if it thrives at the enormous pressures of the deep ocean, then they can be seen as settlers or colonists who will set about making the found environment more congenial to their civilisation. And if someone starts dropping massive bombs on their heads, we shouldn’t be surprised if they retaliate.

They read about a tsunami killing 60 or so people on the remote island of Esperanza. Neither of them know where that and Phyllis has never heard the word tsunami.

Phase one ends with a couple of pages of Phyllis reading out a draft script for ECB, written in amazingly purple prose about the mysterious depths of the great oceans, and bringing together all this scattered evidence to wonder what’s afoot…

Phase two (pages 73 to 182)

Part one – Ships being sunk

Years earlier they had bought a cottage in Cornwall with money left by an aunt of Phyllis’s. It has a fine view across a river, more land and to the sea beyond. I always think that, if you’re appearing in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world novel, it’s always a good idea to have a comfy country bolthole to retreat to.

In the Times is a report of a Japanese ocean liner, the Yatsushiro, which sank in moments, drowning over 700 passengers and crew. A day or two later an official statement is put out blaming it on ‘metal fatigue’. Our heroes are sceptical, sounds like a cover-up story. Phyllis imagines all those men, women and children as the freezing water gushed into their cabins, and is inconsolably upset.

Guests come to stay (Harold and is posh wife, Petunia or ‘Tuny’) and the posh wife without hesitation blames all these incidents on the Russians and lambasts Western politicians who are, she thinks, refusing to name names and, in effect, appeasing the commies. In her view Bocker is a fellow traveller propagating a Soviet cover story. General conversation, the guests go to bed and leave a few days later.

Mike works on a book commission for a history of royal love lives, Phyllis is writing a history of a stately home. A month later they hear the news on the radio that the huge British liner, the Queen Anne, has sunk. Half an hour later the head of EBC news and features rings up and says they want a half hour feature about it – why? Because rumour is going round that the Russians did it and might swell into enough of a movement to begin to pressurise the government to do something, risking escalation into, ultimately war.

Having written it they drive back up to London and arrive to hear that two more ships, American this time, have gone down. Now the Americans are angry and send a flotilla of battleships to the area loaded with high explosive and another atom bomb. But two of them are blown up as they get near the area, one was carrying the bomb primed to detonate at five miles depth, the other ships turn and flee, a few more being caught in the eventual blast, five surviving.

But now it’s official – there’s something down there. A global conference is held, at which the Russians walk out in protest. Watson is typically sarcastic about business as usual being resumed. Scientists devise anti-vibration protection and ‘dolphins’ which are supposed to spot the enemy, close in and blow up, and we get a description of an apparently successful trial. Governments declare the seas sailable again, and prematurely declare that ‘the Battle of the Deeps’ has been won (p.111). But it hasn’t. A month later a clutch more ships are sunk.

Part two – The sea tanks (pages 112 to 182)

But the real thrust or point of phase two is an entirely new development, which is the advent of the so-called sea tanks and their revolting sticky anemone weapons.

Reports start to come in from remote islands in the Pacific of some kind of attacks taking place on remote communities. A ship which investigates the next day discovers a poor shorefront settlement completely denuded of people, all the houses, trees and other objects glistening with a foul-smelling slime, and huge regular grooves running up the sand (pages 114 to 121).

As more and more reports come in, the authorities realise they are co-ordinated attacks. Bocker is consulted for his opinion. Mike is invited for a drink by EBC’s head of news and features (Freddy Whittier) who tells him that one of the stations’ sponsors is fed up with the lack of knowledge about these creatures and so is sponsoring an expedition to go and find out more. He has commissioned Bocker to lead it, since he has been right about the situation from early on. And since Bocker now holds advanced theories about the location of the enemy bases in the deepest parts of the oceans, Bocker calculates the next attacks will come in the Caribbean.

Since Phyllis and Mike have been in on it from the start, Bocker asks for them to come along as representatives of the media. So they fly to the island of Escondida and have barely arrived before there is an attack on a nearby island. (It is typical of the book’s deliberate flippancy that Mike translates Bocker’s scientific work into his own joky idiom when he says, ‘if we were disappointed, we were also impressed. It was clear that Bocker really had been doing something more than a high-class eeny meeny miney mo, and had brought off a very near miss.’ Eeny meeny miney mo 🙂 )

The team consists of Dr Bocker and two close assistants, Bill Weyman and Alfred Haig, Mike and Phyllis, Muriel Flynn, Johnny Tallton, the pilot, Leslie, Ted the cameraman, Alfred who rigs up bright stage lights down at the harbour and the streets into the square in case there’s a night attack.

In the most sustained and imaginatively intense passage in the book, they are woken one night, ten days into their stay, by an attack. They hear screams and shooting from the harbour, then see people fleeing across the main square which their hotel looks out onto. Then they finally see the ‘sea tanks’. Imagine an elongated egg, thirty or forty feet long, made of a dull, lead-like metal. Slice it along its length and place the flat surface on the ground, a bit like half an avocado, except longer than a car (p.138). Well, Mike and Phyllis watch these huge half-avocados made of dull leaden metal slowly moving forward, apparently without wheels, several of them barging through the sides of houses. They take up positions in the square, despite rifle bullets pinging off them. Then very slowly bulges begin to appear in their carapaces, turn into globes attached by spindly threads and then the globes break entirely free and hover in the air.

Then with a crack they explode and unleash scores of very long tentacles or tendrils which whip out in all directions. If they touch inanimate objects they fall to the floor but, somehow, if they touch anything human, even the clothes or shoes of a human, they stick. At the first bang Mike and Phyllis had instinctively recoiled but not fast enough and one thread attaches to Phyllis’s forearm. Almost immediately the thing starts reeling its threads back in, drawing every animate person along with them. Within seconds Phyllis is being drawn from the bedroom where she’d withdrawn, into the main room and towards the balcony. Mike grabs her round the waist and grabs the bed-leg with the other. Now it becomes a trial of strength and for a moment Mike is scared he’ll lose his grip but then Phyllis lets out a scream and the sticky tendril has torn a six-inch strip off her forearm and some of the skin from her fingers but it is withdrawing, without her.

Mike runs to the window in time to see the sequel, which is people from all parts of the square being drawn willy-nilly towards the anemone thing. There’s Muriel from their team, being pulled along by her hair, and Larrie, who seems to have broken his neck in the fall from his hotel window, and now Mike watches the disgusting sight of all these people being drawn closer and closer and finally packed and squidged into a ball of compressed flesh. Then the ball of people goes spinning away back down the street it came from, towards the sea.

Scattered firing from villagers who have rifles continues but makes no impression on the sea tanks which continue to release the anemone weapons until they’re quite done, and then slowly return backwards the way they came back into the sea. Long before that happens Mike is beside Phyllis, washing her wounds and tearing up bed sheets to dress them.

Only then do we learn, from Phyllis’s side of the dialogue, that Mike himself is crying and she is holding him in her arms (p.143). In a very understated, British way, they have both been severely traumatised.

Next day Bocker holds a conference of the survivors. The mood is grim. They speculate about the meaning of the attacks. Is it for food or sheer malice? Bocker gives one of his speeches (of which there are a number punctuating the book) in which he wonders whether man’s domain on earth might be under threat. Maybe humanity’s days are numbered…

Mike and Phyllis fly back to Britain with what film Ted the cameraman was able to take and eye witness accounts. Back in the office they discover similar attacks are proliferating all round the world and the number of sea tanks rapidly escalating into scores. Captain Winters of the Admiralty invites them in to give an eye-witness account to a senior admiral who asks them their opinion of Bocker’s theories and this is the trigger for more earnest, and strategic pondering on what ‘we’ (humanity) should do next.

They go down to the cottage in Cornwall but can’t get away from the news which brings accounts of multiple attacks all round the world. Almost as a throwaway we learn that ocean trade has all but dried up and so Britain is having to airlift in food and other essential supplies. It can be done but is very expensive and so the price of everything has shot up and rationing of some items has appeared. (When Kraken was published post-war rationing had still not completely ended.)

As news comes in of more and more attacks all round the world, Phyllis cracks. She had built herself an ‘arbour’ in the cottage’s garden, somewhere she could work outdoors on her ‘novel’, but one day Mike finds her sitting in it, slumped across the manuscript, crying her eyes out. She can’t think of anything except the state of war, and can’t get the shock of what they saw in Escondida out of her mind. For some relief they motor over to North Cornwall for some surfing and a day’s brisk activity does them good. But on the way back they make the mistake of turning on the radio, immediately hear more bad news, which takes them right back to the horror of the sea tanks, and Phyllis bursts into tears again.

Mike calls a doctor who gives Phyllis a sedative and recommends a Harley Street nerve specialist. It is only now, however, that we learn that part of her problem is that Mike has been talking about the incident on Escondida in his sleep, and makes it clear that in his dreams he sees Phyllis, not Muriel, being dragged across the town square and slowly mashed to pulp along with all the other victims. He too needs rest. And she needs a break from his nightmares and sleep-talking.

And so Mike travels by himself to stay in a room in a manor in Yorkshire, stops work, takes the phone off the hook, and devotes himself to long walks over the moors. After six weeks of rest cure he feels like a new man. Until he drops into a pub after a long hike and the radio is on and he overhears news of a massive attack on a port in north Spain where an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives.

By now the authorities all over the world are fighting back against the aliens. Ports large and small are either abandoned or heavily fortified. Tanks and artillery are deployed. And air forces put on high alert. And this has begun to pay dividends. If the sea tanks are hit by tank shells or airplane cannon shells they explode dramatically. There’s an extended passage describing the attack on Santander and how the local military called in air strikes which proved surprisingly effective. (I had to remind me that all this would have taken place under the military dictatorship of General Franco.)

His restful mood disrupted, Mike returns from his Yorkshire hotel to the cottage in Cornwall only to find Phyllis is long gone. She’s tidied up and locked up and apparently gone back up to London. When Mike arrives at their London flat he is surprised to find it deserted. He phones his pal at EBC, Freddy Whittier, and discovers that Phyllis lasted just a week in the Cornwall cottage by herself before she returned to the London flat and resumed work, writing material about the attacks. Freddy flabbergasts Mike by telling him that Phyllis has gone off with Dr Bocker to Spain, to investigate the scene of the recent Santander attacks. Bored and lonely, Mike spends the evening at his club (p.175). [His club?]

In the early hours of the next morning he gets a call from Freddy and at first panics, thinking it is bad news about Phyllis. Far from it, she’s doing fine in Spain. Freddy is ringing to say a taxi’s on its way, a plane ticket has been organised, and he’s being sent by the EBC to a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland which has just been attacked by what people are now calling the ‘bathies’. This journey and what Mike finds are not described in any detail. It is simply the trigger for the new development that the bathies now for the first time start to attack the coastline of Britain, which quickly reverts to a spirit-of-the-Blitz state of militarisation. Ports and harbours are mined and barb-wired, military deployed, RAF put on alert.

The British government lends all military aid to the Irish. (It is an interesting sidelight on history, that Mike the narrator sees this as the Irish being prepared to forgive and forget and put ‘the past in the past’ – an interesting insight into the rockiness of Anglo-Irish relations even in 1953.) Anyway, the bathies have lost the element of surprise and large numbers are blown up by the mines they trundle over, by depth charges dropped on them, by air strikes or artillery. Their casualty rate on some raids is 100% while human populations have learned simply to flee out of range at the first warning. The only raids England suffers are in Cornwall, and the only one with any real consequences is an attack on Falmouth Harbour.

A few days after the Falmouth raid, the attacks cease, worldwide (p.179). Dr Bocker makes one of his periodic comments on the situation in a speech in which he says his early suggestions that we try and communicate with the enemy were obviously wrong. Now he recommends a policy of total annihilation, before they launch the next phase of their attack, whatever that might be.

Phase three (pages 183 to 240)

The move from phase one to phase two was relatively smooth and continued the tone of the normal world and its activities. Phase three, however, opens with a jolt, literally, as the small boat Mike and Phyllis as navigating through water at night bumps into a net. As Mike begins tampering with it a flare goes up illuminating the scene and a rifle shot goes off. Mike looks across at the sides of the flooded valley, to the parade of houses which disappears under the water, and hears a voice warning him away. Aha. As Mike fires up the engine and their little boat putters away, Phyllis asks where they are and, as Mike replies, somewhere in the Weybridge area, the reader has his or her suspicions confirmed. Yes, we are clearly in full-scale disaster mode now.

For, as the text quickly explains, the aliens did indeed launch the next phase, though it took a while for humanity to catch on. Quite simply, it was to melt the polar ice caps and flood the world, completely flood it, until it is a world of water – just the way the aliens like it!

As usual it crept up very slowly on an unsuspecting humanity, not least because most trans-ocean shipping had been suspended for some time, and the weather ships which would have noticed changes in temperature and, especially, widespread fogs, had ceased to observe things. But the fogs become increasingly apparent in Siberia and north America. Then spotter planes report back on vast numbers of icebergs being calved from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. All of which leads up to another article by Bocker, this one titled The Devil and the Deeps.

Bocker and polyphony

I’ve come to realise that Bocker’s articles provide a sort of structure, or regular punctuation of the narrative, each appearance of article he writes crystallising the sequence of events to date and then making drastic suggestions, which his readers and hearers are consistently not ready to listen to.

Not only that, but they add to the multiplicity of voices in the book. As it has progressed, Bocker has emerged as a Cassandra figure, the first to speculate the fireballs were from another world, the first to theorise that the incidents of the sinking ships might not be accidents and the great flows of ooze might be more than a natural occurrence, but indicate the work of industrial intelligence in the ocean deeps. His articles have taken on a more and more Biblical tone of apocalypse and prophecy. They add to the spectrum of voices and register, which also includes:

  • the serious factual briefings from Captain Winters or the admiral
  • the scientific briefing about ocean-bottom ooze from Dr Matet
  • eye-witness accounts from the American journos in ships accompanying one of the first to be blown up
  • opinions of fellow journalists (Mallarby of The Tidings and Bennell of The Senate, p.44)
  • radio broadcasts, including the dramatic one of the ship trying to steam away from where a navy ship carrying an atom bomb went down (p.97)
  • newspaper articles and leaders (p.207)
  • even the hammy radio script which Phyllis herself writers (pp.70-72)

It’s a very polyphonic novel.

Anyway, in terms of the plot, Bocker’s article is the first one to grasp the enormity of the situation, something which he then expands on when Mike and Phyllis go to pay their by now regular visit. After some chatter it boils right down to this: the authorities will act too late because they always do; in any case, there’s probably no practical way to stop then; so the best strategy is – find a nice self-sufficient hilltop – and fortify it!

And so it comes to pass. Slowly the sea levels rise. In London the embankment is sandbagged but overflows anyway. But this is just the beginning. Bocker joins Phyllis to review the urgent work put into raising the embankment parapets by ten or 12 feet. Waste of time says baleful Bocker.

All round the world the waters continue their rise. Hundreds of thousands build levees but the smart money starts to abandon the cities and the low-lying ground and move to the country. Mike’s narration takes us through two successive years when, on each year, the spring tides broke through whatever barriers were erected. After the second flooding of London the authorities acknowledge that they’re going to have to leave.

What gives all this a frisson of familiarity is not only the fact that we now know that the ice caps are melting and the sea level is going to rise, but the shambolic response of the authorities to the gathering crisis, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude which we have all seen in the British government’s response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

News comes in of refugees from flooded Holland and Denmark. When they tramped into north Germany, fighting broke out. In England, too, refugees from the drowning East found high land along the Chilterns barricaded off. In London, people moving from the riverside towards Hampstead and Highgate found roads barricaded and snipers taking potshots from windows. And then the barricades were stormed. The emergency electricity supply failed. Looting broke out.

Mike and Phyllis move their stuff through the half-anarchic, half-orderly streets to a last-ditch studio and offices which the EBC have rigged up at the top of the Selfridge’s building in Oxford Street. They hear of increasing panic flights, of cars being stopped their occupants turfed out, widespread looting. Parliament moves to Harrogate, 700 feet above sea level.

Their bosses had imagined the small crew manning the station (complete with oil and petrol reserves, power generators, and as much food as they could loot from the store beneath) would remain and carry on presenting entertaining variety radio programmes until summoned north. In reality, as the year advanced, order broke down, the streets flooded faster than expected and became the prowling ground of armed gangs of looters, who they had to fight off several times.

By spring of the following year the staff in their redoubt have been reduced from 65 to 25, most requesting to be evacuated by the helicopter which can land on the store’s roof. (Note: helicopters play a small but significant role in both Triffids and this novel.) There’s an effective scene when, one bright sunny day, Mike and Phyllis walk down to Trafalgar Square. The water is lapping against the parapet on the north side. There is a sheet of solid water down Whitehall to the half-submerged Houses of Parliament. Seagulls squawk from St Martin’s in the Fields. They are surprised to see a speedboat come roaring under Admiralty Arch and zoom away down Whitehall. Phyllis says let’s leave. Mike agrees. They’ll need a boat.

But they hang on through another season. Their old friend, Freddy Whittier and his wife, who had stayed with them in the Selfridges redoubt, take a helicopter out. A few weeks later he phones to tell Mike and Phyl not to follow them. The government area of the town is under siege. Civil war is about to break out. He promises to get the next chopper back to London but, although it leaves Harrogate it never arrives. A week or so later the Harrogate office are dictating the latest in a long line of forlorn, futile, spirit-raising announcements, denying rumours of fighting and collapse, when the phone line goes dead. It is never restored.

Another winter comes round. The streets are almost empty, though the few people you meet are carrying guns. They hear the counties surrounding London have set up miniature fiefdoms and repel refugees. They still have plenty of food and oil for the generator but when the water level reaches Oxford street and starts to drain into the basement of the Selfridge’s building, they feel it’s time to move. On bright May day Mike finds Phyllis up on the roof looking across the lake that is Oxford Street and crying. She says what all people going through tribulation say, since the time of Job and before:

Look at it, Mike! Look at it! We never did anything to deserve all this. Most of us weren’t very good, though we weren’t bad enough for this, surely. And not to have a chance! If it had only been something we could fight – . But just to be drowned and starved and forced into destroying one another to live – and by things nobody has ever seen, living in the one place we can’t get at them! (p.229)

She’s breaking down. It’s time to go. Mike finds a fibre-glass dinghy and loads it up. They say goodbye to their remaining colleagues and set off upriver. And that’s where we found them as the start of this final section. Turned back by a net and sniper and taking shelter in the top story of a flooded house.

In the middle of the night Mike hears a bumping against the wall and springs out of his sleeping bag in time to see a smaller vessel bumping against the wall before drifting away. He gives chase in the dinghy, grapples and boards it to find the body of a woman shot dead. He turfs the corpse over the side.

It’s a motorboat named the Midge. He and Phyllis transfer their goods into it and take to the coast to navigate (in an amateurish way) down towards Cornwall. In fact first they return to central London and load up with maximum provisions. The last remaining team in Selfridges think they’re crazy and try to persuade them to stay. But once they’ve loaded everything they can think of, they set off downstream towards the Thames Estuary and then round and along the Channel coast. The journey takes a month, with scattered observations of what the English landscape, coast and cliff look like under 100 feet of water.

The cottage is still there. It has been ransacked but is physically sound. Only now does Phyllis reveal that the summer several years ago when she developed an interest in bricklaying and built the arbour, supposedly to shelter and write in… well, she buried a load of stores in it. Nobody’s found them. They should be alright for a while…

Now these are the last pages. Mike tells us he began writing his account in November. Now it’s January. The rate of seawater rise has decreased. The sea tanks have been reported but don’t find many victims and all the little scattered communities post watchers, so the inhabitants know to flee. The hill their cottage sat on has become an island. People leave them alone. The winter has been bitterly cold, with howling gales. Sometimes the sea has frozen. It is becoming an Arctic climate. Soon nothing will grow. They decide to rig the Midget with a sail and dead south, presumably to France.

Two endings

Ending 1

The 1973 British Penguin paperback which I own ends thus:

Just as I was expecting the couple to sail off into the blue, there is a dramatic last-minute reversal. One day as they’re preparing the yacht Midget for her big journey, a strange sailing boat enters their backwater and hails them. The man has a message. Over what radios survive have come messages announcing a government of reconstruction. Speech given Dr Bocker (him again, right here at the end of the narrative) saying the water has ceased rising. Mike and Phyll are astounded to learn that only between a fifth and an eighth of Britain’s land remains. But the population has collapsed. Three hard winters and no medical provision has seen millions die of pneumonia and related diseases.

Now they’re going to try and organise and rebuild. The messages ended with a list of specialist personnel required. Mike and Phyll’s names were on it. They are requested to report to London. The man even tells them the boffins seem to have developed some new device to combat the bathies. A device which emits powerful ultrasonic signals. Developed by the Japanese. Already it’s been trialled by them and the Americans and seems to have cleared some of the shallower deeps. Large amounts of white jelly have floated to the surface, same as what exploded with such force from the sea tanks when they were shelled.

Suddenly, suddenly there is hope. It’s going to be hard surviving in a world changed out of recognition and yet… they will face the future bravely!

Ending 2

Intriguingly, the online version of the novel I referred to ends differently, thus:

This version begins its final section at the same moment, with Mike and Phyllis preparing the Midget for her voyage but, instead of a sailing boat coming up the creek, they are amazed to see a helicopter (Wyndham and his post-apocalyptic helicopters!). It circles their island, then hovers just above the uneven stones and heather, a briefcase is thrown out then a figure clambers down a short rope ladder and dusts himself off as the helicopter lifts off and flies away.

As they run up to him they realise it is Dr Bocker! Again! Phyllis embraces him and bursts out crying. Mike walks up and shakes his hand. He admits it has been lonely, very lonely and depressing. They help him up and down to the house, where Bocker produces a flask of whiskey! and proceeds to explain. He first flew to London where the BC crew told him Mike and Phyl had come to Cornwall and so he followed.

They are going to rebuild, The water has ceased to rise. They have lost a lot of land and a lot of people. But he estimates with what remains they can feed five million people. The population of Britain has collapsed from 46 million to just five million! Bocker says the country has disintegrated into tens of thousands of micro communities each defending their own and utterly isolated.

Step one is to break down that isolation by producing thousands of cheap battery-operated radios and dropping them on the communities, helping them get back in touch, broadcasting the new central authority’s plans. That’s where Mike and Phyll come in. He needs experienced and confident broadcasters to lead the operation.

Mike and Phyl are both stunned, above all by the revival of community, the sense that there are others out there, and they can work together. But what about the bathies, what about the evil aliens lurking in the deeps? And this is when Bocker tells them about the ultrasonics weapons which the Japanese have developed and seem to work really well. They’ve sent plans to the Americans who have started to mass produce them. (America, Bocker tells us, was hit nowhere near as badly as Britain. Britain is a cramped over-crowded place and pays badly for it when put under pressure. America is vaaaast.)

For a while, none of us spoke. I stole a sidelong glance at Phyllis; she was looking as though she had just had a beauty treatment.
‘I’m coming to life again, Mike,’ she said. ‘There’s something to live for.’

What about the Arctic cold? Bocker replies the scientific consensus is that the water will slowly warm up. Improbably, he claims the climate may end up being better than it used to be. In other words, this ending feels as if it was written to order to be significantly more upbeat than ending A. Maybe – along with the reference to America not being hit nearly so badly and about to mass produce the weapons which will save the world – maybe this version was written specially to flatter an American audience.

Thoughts

When I read this as an impressionable adolescent my imagination was fired to extraordinary heights. After H.G. Wells, Wyndham was my god when I was about 13, and the scene in the Caribbean town square where the alien globules explode into masses of sticky tentacles stayed with me for years. However, returning as a jaded adult and a man tired out from raising a family and hanging on to a demanding job, I read and experience this book completely differently.

I am now struck by the cleverness of the book’s narrative structure, and by the tone. By structure I mean two things:

1. One is the way he makes the protagonists journalists in order to allow them not only to be sent to a number of key scenes and incidents (they see the first fireballs land in the sea, they witness the first atom bomb being dropped in the deeps, they are the first Western eye-witnesses of the disgusting coelenterates) but also to interview a number of key experts, namely Captain Winters from the Admiralty and, most importantly, to really get to know Alastair Bocker, the book’s main theorist for the entire sequence of events.

2. Second aspect of structure is the way the story is told by a husband-and-wife team. Mike is the sole narrator but Phyllis gets to interview some of the experts, or they jointly meet other witnesses over dinner or drinks, and her opinions are as important as, and often sharper than, her husband’s. This dyad gives us not only gives the narrative access to more important people and eye witness, it also means the husband and wife team spend a lot of time discussing events, pondering and analysing and speculating and, of course, taking the viewer with them in their theories and speculations.

And this ‘pair structure’ is just part of the way the information about the story comes in from multiple sources. Because they are journalists working for a broadcast outlet, they sit in the nerve centre of an organisation devoted to bringing together information from every possible source, from everywhere round the world. And, after their accidental eye witnessing of some of the earliest fireballs landing in the sea, Mike finds himself early on lumbered with the task of co-ordinating other news on the subject, nobody in the early stages realising it will go on to become the story of the age.

3. But the biggest and most dominant aspect of the book for me as a married man, is the tone. The entire book is drenched in the way Wyndham conveys the relationship between Mike and Phyllis, in fast-talking, witty banter. It reminded me a bit of the Thin Man movies (1934 to 1947) based on the smart-guy, knowing banter between husband-and-wife detectives, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Mike and Phyllis argue, they make up, she cuts across him during interviews and he knows when to shut up, they discuss ideas for stories and edit each other’s work. Thinking about it, Wyndham obviously not only wanted to differentiate the book, in structure and tone, from Triffids, but possibly also from standard science fiction, of the kind he’d been writing with so little success since the 1930s.

In the 1960s critics came to unkindly dismiss this approach as ‘cosy catastrophe’, but you can turn that critique on its head and point out that Wyndham was trying to take science fiction tropes away from the wide-eyed, boys-own-adventure world of the American SF magazines, and situate it, instead, precisely among the urban, middle-class bourgeoisie. To see what happens when you take characters who could come from a respectable drawing-room drama, who drink sherry before dinner and are oh-so-blasé about news reports and government statements – and then drop them into the middle of a world-shattering catastrophe.

I thought it was a telling moment when Mike and Phyllis are lounging by the pool on the island of Escondida and Phyllis jokingly says she feels as languid as a character in one of Somerset Maugham’s stories from the Far East (p.127). Maugham’s stories (which I have comprehensively reviewed elsewhere in this blog) are set among the pukka, public school-educated, colonial classes, and this passing reference is a reminder of the broader world this story is meant to be set in, and of the class Mike and Phyllis don’t really belong to, but certainly can relate to. What would happen to these pukka sahibs and memsahibs if catastrophe struck their world? Of course they’d carry on talking and acting the same, right up till the bitter end.

So from the point of view of the ‘radical’ 1960s, maybe The Kraken Wakes can be seen as a cosy catastrophe (as Brian Aldiss jokingly dismissed it). But maybe it’s also by way of being an experiment in mixing genres, of applying bubble gum disaster science fiction to drawing room drama characters and seeing what happens.

4. Loneliness I will now compare and contrast Kraken and Triffids. And I’ve already mentioned it, but the lasting impression of The Day of The Triffids is of intense and soul-harrowing loneliness. It’s a book with multiple levels of isolation and aloneness:

  • the protagonist is isolated when the rest of the world is struck blind
  • the entire world’s media (meaning, in those days, the radio and newspapers) ceases to function, so everyone becomes isolated, with no way at all of knowing what’s going on except by world of mouth
  • thus the protagonist has to find out what’s going on utterly by himself
  • and no sooner has he met a potential soul-mate who he can share his feelings with than she is kidnapped and taken off he knows not where, thus redoubling his sense of isolation and abandonment

But the fundamental metaphor at the centre of the narrative – blindness – is itself about eternal isolation from the visual understanding of the world, a theme which is rammed home on numerous occasions, when he either sees the blind in pitiful operation or reflects on the essential isolation which blindness imposes on its sufferers. There’s a searing moment when Masen comments on how quiet a blind world is because everyone is forced to listen to try and figure out what is happening. The only sound is the quiet shuffling of shoes along pavements and the sobbing of the newly blind in their infinite misery.

In the depth to which these tropes extend, in the multiple levels the story taps, Triffids approaches fable or allegory, and I found the totality and intensity of its vision truly terrifying.

So Kraken comes as an extraordinary contrast: it couldn’t be more the opposite, the jokey flippant, knowing, media-savvy tone of the two protagonists meaning the book is buoyed on a tone of knowing flippancy.

‘I wish,’ said Phyllis, ‘that I had been kinder and tried to pay more attention to dear Miss Popple who used to try to teach me geography, poor thing. Every day the world gets fuller of places I never heard of.’

Even when it becomes clear that the incident on Escondida has caused them both some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, this emerges only obliquely, and all the more movingly because of it. And in the later stages, even when Mike has to go to a rest home and Phyllis goes down to the cottage to recover: the stress and psychological impact is strongly hinted at and sort of described –but in this book the reader is never really as psychologically involved as I felt I was in Triffids.

Cold War references

I’ve mentioned some of the examples as they arise in the text, but it’s worth emphasising how strongly present Cold War themes are throughout the story. This operates at multiple levels.

At a ‘serious’ level, some of the experts, the men from the Admiralty or Bocker, discuss the possibility that the whole thing is a Russian ploy, some kind of new-fangled Russian attack.

In a different way, both Mike and Phyllis make jokey, ironic references throughout the novel to ‘our Russian friends’, ‘the other side’, ‘the Soviets’ and so on. Again and again they invoke, satirise and ridicule the Cold War rhetoric which the Russians had perfected about their ostensible quest for ‘peace’ (despite the obvious fact that they had occupied and continued to oppress all the nations of Eastern Europe).

Here’s an example of Wyndham pastiching Cold War rhetoric when, early on, the American government makes a formal complaint to Russia about the fireballs encroaching US airspace.

The Kremlin, after a few days of gestation, produced a rejection of the protest. It proclaimed itself unimpressed by the tactics of attributing one’s own crime to another, and went on to state that its own weapons, recently developed by Russian scientists for the defense of peace, had now destroyed more than twenty of these craft over Soviet territory, and would, without hesitation, give the same treatment to any others detected in their work of espionage…

The fact that Mike is a journalist allows Wyndham to give satirical swipes at the rhetoric of the press releases and communiques the Soviets perfected during this era, which managed to combine a pious wish for peace with barely disguised threats of retaliation and, always, the comic opera boasting that, whatever new technology the West developed, the Russians thought of it first and had already made it bigger and better.

Mr. Malenkov, interviewed by telegram, had said that although the intensified program of aircraft construction in the West was no more than a part of a bourgeois-fascist plan by warmongers that could deceive no one, yet so great was the opposition of the Russian people to any thought of war that the production of aircraft within the Soviet Union for the Defense of Peace had been tripled. Indeed, so resolutely were the Peoples of the Free Democracies determined to preserve Peace in spite of the new Imperialist threat, that war was not inevitable – though there was a possibility that under prolonged provocation the patience of the Soviet Peoples might become exhausted.

Then there’s the level of public opinion – because it’s a global phenomenon, Wyndham’s journalist protagonists regularly discuss the impact on public opinion of each stage of the ‘invasion’ and part of this public opinion is concern about ‘the other side’, and a predisposition to blame everything bad on the Reds.

This aspect – popular opinion – is actually embodied in one of the characters, Tuny, the self-important, pukka woman from Kensington who is the partner of Harold, an old friend of Mike’s. The pair come down to stay at Mike and Phyl’s Cornish cottage and, over dinner, Tuny leaves no-one in any doubt that she knows the entire thing is a Russian plot and that our government is refusing to say so out of fear. In her florid opinion, it’s appeasement all over again.

Quite distinct from the novel’s ostensible subject matter, all this is fascinating social history. At the end of the day The Kraken Wakes is a middle-brow work of fiction (i.e. has no particular aspiration to purely literary merit) but that makes all the more revealing the kinds of thoughts, conversations, opinions about world politics which Wyndham considered typical of the day (and of his likely readership).

The ‘two intelligent species’ problem

Having now read all of Wyndham’s four great novels, I can see that there is a strong unifying thread or impulse underlying all of them, namely the question: ‘Can two intelligent but completely different species cohabit on the same planet?’

Hitherto Homo sapiens has regarded itself as unquestionably the most intelligent species on earth and, probably, anywhere, and swanked and lorded it over creation. In Wyndham’s big four novels, humanity is suddenly confronted with creatures which present an existential threat: in Day of the Triffids, it’s the triffids; in Kraken, the deep sea invaders from space; in Chrysalids, the post-apocalyptic survivor communities are confronted by a new superspecies of human whose leaders treat old-style humans as animals to be eliminated; and in Midwich it is the alien children whose hive mind begins to present a threat to humanity.

All of these novels dramatise the plight of a planet divided into two opposing camps, two types of intelligent species who live in an uneasy balance of peace which, in all four novels, is knocked off kilter and in which our side is put on the back foot.

The point I’m driving at is that you could argue that the deep structure of all four novels embodies or reflects the Cold War rivalry between two highly intelligent, highly armed, aggressive camps – the capitalist and communist worlds – who live in an uneasy peace which could, at the slightest incident, be toppled over into catastrophic conflict.

In other words, that John Wyndham’s novels are Cold War novels not just by an accident of history or in incidental details or in the opinions of some of the characters, but in their deepest structure reflect the challenge of how two utterly opposed types of intelligence can inhabit the same planet without wiping each other out.


Credit

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1953. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.

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 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 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, and soon he and his mind-melding friends 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
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

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

2000s

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

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 2

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

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

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

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

Affairs of the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The BBC

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

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

Beach

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

Beckett, the surname

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

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

Breath

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

Censorship

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

Chess

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

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

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

Damned to fame

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

Drinking

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

Favourite dish

Mackerel (p.416).

Finney, Albert

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

Foxrock

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

French

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

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

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

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

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

Generosity

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

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

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

Germany

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

Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

Illness

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

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

Illustrated editions

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

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

Interpretations, dislike of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intrusive narrator and Henry Fielding

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keaton, Buster

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

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

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

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

London

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

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

Jack MacGowran (1918 to 1973)

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

May Beckett

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

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

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

Mental illness

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

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

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

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

Miserabilism

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobel Prize

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

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

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

Not I

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

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

Ohio Impromptu

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

O’Toole, Peter

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

Painting

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

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

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

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

Decollation of St John The Baptist

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

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

Paris

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

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

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

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

Poetry

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

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

And a few years later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychotherapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quietism

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

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

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

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

Radio

Beckett wrote seven plays for radio, being

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

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

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

Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation (pages 351 to 353)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sentiments echoed at page 492).

St-Lô (pages 345 to 350)

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

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

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

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

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

Skullscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stabbing in Paris (pages 281 to 284)

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

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

Suicide, against

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

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

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (1900 to 1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swearwords, prolific use of

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

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

Telegraphese, use of

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

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

Television

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

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

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

Theatre

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

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

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

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

Themes

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

1930s

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

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

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

Tonelessness

Voices toneless except where indicated (stage directions for Play)

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

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

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

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

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

Translation

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

Trilogy, the Beckett

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

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

Ussy

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

Waiting for Godot (pages 379 to 381)

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

Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon

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

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

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

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

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

Billie Whitelaw (1932 to 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

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

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

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

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

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

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

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

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

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

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

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

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

Beckett was very sporty

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

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

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

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

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

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

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

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

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

Beckett was solitary and aloof

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

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

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

The problem of pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris

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

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

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

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

James Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beckett’s women

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

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

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

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

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

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

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

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

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakdown and psychotherapy

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

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

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

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

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

Beckett had to learn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Company by Samuel Beckett (1980)

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past.

For someone whose life’s work is about loss, abandonment, futility, decay, entropy, collapse and failure, Beckett not only wrote a devil of a lot of works, but carried on writing them into deep old age. He was 74 when he published Company, a short story (well, the critics call it a novella) of only 30 pages or so on the modern Faber paperback edition. You can read it online:

Someone is lying in the dark…

Although written in the late 1970s, Company feels like a direct extension of The Beckett Trilogy, in particular of Malone Dies, written thirty years earlier in 1948. In the early piece Malone lies in bed in either a hospital or asylum, dying and describing his immediate surroundings and the stream of inconsequential thoughts which flow through his head, to ‘the voice’ which tells him stories, in an effort to pass the time till he expires.

Well, the character in Company is also lying on his back in the dark, also apparently letting memories drift through his mind to pass the time, many memories deriving fairly transparently from Beckett’s own boyhood in semi-rural Ireland. But at least two things have changed:

1. The prose style seems much more rarefied. It is sparer, more colourless.

2. In this tauter or bleaker prose, the text seems to spend much more time exploring notions around exactly who is telling the stories, where they come from, who is ‘telling’ them and who is ‘listening’. There are certainly the memories I mentioned above, but they are like oases of colour in the otherwise colourless prose devoted to discussing truth and narrative, philosophical conjectures whether anything can be true or known.

Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified

The word ‘verification’ recalls the Logical Positivists and their Verification Principle, namely: ‘a set of criteria that determined what constitutes meaningful language’. But this is literature not philosophy. If it includes references to philosophy it is only to play with it or arrange it for literary ends. Although it is written in a deliberately clinical style, as of a philosophy textbook.

That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional
allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company.

Is the ‘another’ in the dark a reference to the author, to the writer who ‘devises it all’ ‘for company‘? Well, there’s the title of your piece and slowly, through repetition, the idea emerges of this ‘another’, also in the dark, and of a ‘company’ of voices or memories, which the text creates as it proceeds.

And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his creature or in another. For company… Another devising it all for company. In the same dark as his creature or in another…

This may seem strikingly anti-literary – for the author or the narrator to open by discussing the status and verifiability of the text we’re reading, but it isn’t new. Malone and then The Unnamable, written back in the late 1940s, were both explicit about how the texts were telling themselves stories in order to pass the time, as this one is telling itself stories, for company.

And Company is much more aggressively theoretical throughout, playing with grammar, , shifting pronouns, messing with its categories:

Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that cankerous other. Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You shall not.

Who hears a voice…

The subject appears to be visited by a Voice. This visitation of a voice, so far from being new is a very well-established Beckett strategy. His prose pieces and some of the plays are infested with Voices (often named, simply, VOICE) whose precise source is mysterious but who dominate the entire proceedings – as, for example, the disembodied woman’s voice who haunts and accuses Joe in Eh Joe or the voice of the non-appearing mother in Footfalls.

The Voice comes in many forms:

The voice comes to him now from one quarter and now from another. Now faint from afar and now a murmur in his ear. In the course of a single sentence it may change place and tone. Thus for example clear from above his upturned face, You first saw the light at Easter and now. Then a murmur in his ear…

The categories Voice and Company are combined or weighed against each other. The Voice is a sort of company ‘but not enough’. Whose is the voice, where does it come from, what authority does it have, is it meant for him, the listener, the person lying on his back in the dark – or is he overhearing it by mistake? The text examines the voice, turning it over for our inspection.

Another trait its long silences when he dare almost hope it is at an end…

Exactly as Joe waits for the woman’s punishing vengeful voice to finally cease tormenting him.

Another trait its repetitiousness…

In Company as in all Beckett, repetition, repetition with slight variations, slightly varied repetitions, is one of the most fundamental of his prose strategies.

Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more. To darkness visible to close the eyes and hear if only that. Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more.

And the tone is flat, monotone, monochrome – exactly as Beckett told so many of his actors to recite his words, without any ‘acting’ or colour, drab and grey as the set in Ghost Trio.

Another trait the flat tone. No life. Same flat tone at all times. For its affirmations. For its negations. For its interrogations. For its exclamations. For its imperations. Same flat tone.

We learn that another rather magical, or eerie, quality of the Voice is that it lightens the darkness, makes the darkness less dark. This voice. Whose voice? Talking to someone lying in the dark. Who is lying in the dark? And is the voice made up by ‘another’, by ‘another’ lying in the dark. Making up voices. For ‘company’.

And experiences boyhood memories…

Just when I thought the entire text was going to be an extended and repetitive incantation on this theme of Voice, it is suddenly punctuated by a memory, a vignette. From now on the abstract and abstruse reflections made by the text about its own provisionality and contingency are punctuated by vivid and sharp and above all entirely naturalistic memories of boyhood. These memories include:

  • walking with his mother out of a shop, Connolly’s Stores, and asking why the sky is so far away
  • the day of his own birth, at home in the room with the big bay window, and the story that his father went for a long walk in the mountains only to be told when he returned, ten hours later, that the labour was still continuing, so he went to sit in his De Dion Bouton motor car in the coachhouse to sit it out
  • he imagines himself an old man out trudging the country roads, and computes how many yards, how many miles he was walked since in all his life, walking the back roads like the protagonist of …but the clouds…
  • memory of being very small and helping an old mad beggarwoman scrabbling to open a gate
  • standing on the top diving board at a swimming pool looking down on his father encouraging him to jump
  • watching as a boy from the garden as thin sour old Mrs Coote arrives on a visit to his mother and playing his favourite game of jumping off the top of the tall fir trees and letting the branches beneath cushion his fall
  • walking the Ballyogan road, one time out of thousands, the long backroads, before dodging between a hedge and away across the fields
  • as a boy heading off for his favourite hiding place in the gorse and staring east out over the Irish Sea, convinced he can see mountains in England
  • as a boy he finds a hedgehog, carries it home, puts it in a cardboard box with worms for food, then returning weeks later to find the poor thing dead and rotting

Is maybe in a cramped physical posture…

Beckett’s texts are obsessed with the physical positioning of the human protagonists, with imagining them in all manner of uncomfortable bent and contorted postures. Company is no exception:

Whether standing or sitting or lying or in some other position in the dark…Which of all imaginable positions has the most to offer in the way of company…Let him for example after due imagination decide in favour of the supine position or prone and this in practice prove less companionable than anticipated. May he then or may he not replace it by another? Such as huddled with his legs drawn up within the semicircle of his arms and his head on his knees. Or in motion. Crawling on all fours. Another in another dark or in the same crawling on all fours devising it all for company. Or some other form of motion…

Much as he imagined the cramped contorted figure in All Strange Away, the bent double figure in Enough. So many Beckett characters, cramped and contorted, bent and folded.

Head resting mainly on occipital bump aforesaid. Legs joined at attention. Feet splayed ninety degrees. Hands invisibly manacled crossed on pubis. Other details as need felt. Leave him at that for the moment.

Expressed in paragraph blocks…

It was obvious from first turning to the text, that its paragraphs are not printed close together in the manner of a consecutive story, but are spaced out, as if each one is conveying a distinct message – approaching the problem of narrative, of the voice, of the many voices and the many memories and the way they create a host, a throng, a company via a series of what are so separated and distinct as almost to be prose poems. Poem paragraphs.

Half-way through the text considers giving ‘him’, the person lying in the dark, a name. Call him H. This initially seems like a good idea, but then the text, the narrative,m has second thoughts. Changes its mind. Rows back. Rejects.

Is it desirable? No. Would he gain thereby in companionability? No. Then let him not be named H. Let him be again as he was. The hearer. Unnamable. You.

You doesn’t refer to the reader, but to the floating pronoun of the subject of the text, sometimes referred to as ‘he’, in the third person, sometimes as ‘you’

The voice maybe comes from a hemispherical chamber…

Remember the tremendous detail Beckett went into in describing the interior of the cell in All Strange Away and the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine and the cylinder of the dead in The Lost Ones? Same here. One odd paragraph abruptly imagines these events, this lying in the dark, is taking place in a kind of science fiction interior. The tone of the Voice has a certain quality,

Suggesting one lying on the floor of a hemispherical chamber of generous diameter with ear dead centre. How generous? Given faintness of voice at its least faint some sixty feet should suffice or thirty from ear to any given point of encompassing surface. So much for form and dimensions. And composition? What and where clue to that if any anywhere. Reserve for the moment. Basalt is tempting. Black basalt. But reserve for the moment…

It’s a detailed diagram, for sure, but provisional. Invented, as it is all invented, as it is all made up, to suit, to fit, to match, to provide more company.

  • he has an extended memory of one day setting off for a walk across the snowy fields near his home, the point of the story being he knows the route by heart but on this one occasion, expecting to see the usual straight line in the snow, looking back he is surprised that his footprints describe a great arc, ‘as if all at once the heart too heavy. In
    the end too heavy.’ (This short passage was excerpted and published separately as Heard In The Dark 1)
  • he remembers being a boy in the family summerhouse one summer and being visited by a girl his age, a scene Beckett characteristically drains of all emotional or psychological significance and reduces to a set of queries about the dimensions of the summerhouse and envisioning her body as a set of parts or components. (This short passage was excerpted and published separately as Heard In The Dark 2)

Shall we name these ‘people’?

The memories exhaust him. He will give them new names. Name the hearer M and himself (the deviser, the writer) W. Yes, he names them, out of the need for company.

Devised deviser devising it all for company…

But these, too, are figments. The man, M, obviously so. But so also I, W, who writes the text. there is no way to escape the endless self-reflexiveness of consciousness, always able to watch itself watching itself watching itself write something.

What visions in the dark of light! Who exclaims thus? Who asks who exclaims, What visions in the shadeless dark of light and shade! Yet another still? Devising it all for company. What a further addition to company that would be! Yet another still devising it all for company…

Or make them crawl…

It is characteristic – you might almost say it is THE Beckett prose manoeuvre – that these passages about narrative are barely expressed before Beckett reconceives them in terms of physical postures. Beckett invokes plenty of philosophers and philosophical ideas about consciousness, for example the Verification Principle which is alluded to on the first page, but he rarely if ever follows them up, explains or explores them.

His habit is to invoke this or that grand philosophical notion but, barely has he done so before he throws himself into conceiving a physical posture for the product of the thinking subject. And that that posture is invariably one of humiliation and abasement. Abstract discourse > cultural reference > bent and contorted body.

Thus, within seconds of a teasing passage about consciousness, Beckett switches to imagining what it would be like if he let his creature, the personage lying in the dark, actually move.

Then let him move. Within reason. On all fours. A moderate crawl torso well clear of the ground eyes front alert. If this no better than nothing cancel. If possible. And in the void regained another motion. Or none. Leaving only the most helpful posture to be devised. But to be going on with let him crawl. Crawl and fall. Crawl again and fall again. In the same figment dark as his other figments.

So many Beckett texts hint at philosophical ideas about perception, consciousness and the mind but, in the place where some actual statement about them, some actual thinking ought to then take place… there are only immiserated creatures crawling through the mud, as in the unforgettable vision of How It Is.

That said, the text now digresses off to more memories, which prompt the thought that these later texts, as Beckett got well into his 70s, are full of an old man’s memories, many unavoidably poignant, no matter how hard he tries to transmute them via his strange post-modernist apparatus into mechanised and drained snapshots.

  • he has a memory of father stooping over his cradle
  • he remember in his young manhood, leaning back against an aspen tree with his true love who tells him to listen to the leaves

Or cramp them into postures and measure and count…

The text cuts back suddenly from the rather halcyon memories to this image he has just conjured from nothing of a man crawling and falling. With super-predictable Beckettness, it’s not the oddity or incongruity or horror of the imagined crawling man which strikes him; what strikes Beckett is calculating the exact dimensions of his crawl.

First what is the unit of crawl? Corresponding to the footstep of erect locomotion. He rises to all fours and makes ready to set out. Hands and knees angles of an oblong two foot long width irrelevant. Finally say left knee moves forward six inches thus half halving distance between it and homologous hand. Which then in due course in its turn moves forward by as much. Oblong now rhomboid. But for no longer than it takes right knee and hand to follow suit. Oblong restored. So on till he drops.

Very similar to the large amount of text devoted to describing exactly the length and dimension and regularity of movement of arms and legs of the protagonist of How It Is crawling endlessly through the mud. And the obsession with arranging body parts in geometric shapes is matched by the large amount of text devoted to counting and measuring. The world changes but Beckett’s obsession with the precise measurement of the misery he puts his invented figures through never changes.

So as he crawls the mute count. Grain by grain in the mind. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. One foot. Till say after five he falls. Then sooner or later on from nought anew. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. Six. So on. In what he wills a beeline. Till having encountered no obstacle discouraged he heads back the way he came. From nought anew. Or in some quite different direction. In what he hopes a beeline. Till again with no dead end for his pains he renounces and embarks on yet another course.

The changing meaning of the word ‘company’

All this and other macabre imaginings have been done in the name of creating ‘company’. By this stage the common English word ‘company’ has lost a lot of its everyday meaning and come to mean something more like motivation, the creator’s motivation not just to create for company, but for a kind of higher purpose named Company, the bizarre motivation for this twisted flight – or crawl – of fantasy.

One phrase is repeated over and over, in that compulsive way of Beckett’s, till it becomes a talisman:

What an addition to company that would be!

Not ‘to the‘ company; just ‘to company’, as if ‘company’ isn’t a number of human beings but more an abstract quality. Confirmed when the narrator ponders the different ways M could crawl and fall, wondering aloud which one would provide better ‘company’, where company has ceased to mean other human beings but become an abstract quality like karma or virtù.

But at other moments ‘company’ can be reduced to mean just the voice. It is better to suffer the voice than have nothing, to be a nothingness lying in the darkness. The voice adds… something. Light, of a sort, tone, albeit flat, images, albe they drained and mechanical. The voice is some kind of company. Better than none. Hence the need to hear the voice again. The creator, or his creature, or both, are voice addicts.

  • he has a memory of standing on the beach wearing boots and greatcoat on a starless moonless night

The clock is always ticking

The text draws to a close with a spectacular example of Beckett’s Asperger’s Syndrome-like obsession with numbers and geometry, as he describes in mind-numbing detail the visual aspect of watching the second hand tick round on his pocket watch, something a million authors must have looked at before but none had ever considered describing, in detail, as a subject in itself.

At 60 seconds and 30 seconds shadow hidden by hand. From 60 to 30 shadow precedes hand at a distance increasing from zero at 60 to maximum at 15 and thence decreasing to new zero at 30. From 30 to 60 shadow follows hand at a distance increasing from zero at 30 to maximum at 45 and thence decreasing to new zero at 60. Slant light now to dial by moving either to either side and hand hides shadow at two quite different points as for example 50 and 20. Indeed at any two quite different points whatever depending on degree of slant. But however great or small the slant and more or less remote from initial 60 and 30 the new points of zero shadow the space between the two remains one of 30 seconds. The shadow emerges from under hand at any point whatever of its
circuit to follow or precede it for the space of 30 seconds. Then disappears infinitely briefly before emerging again to precede or follow it for the space of 30 seconds again. And so on and on…

The end

And then a long and winding paragraph which sort of summarises much of what has gone before, which manages to mention his father, Dante, give a great deal more description of the precise angle and posture of the body when placed in two different positions, one ‘supine’, how it shifts from one to the other, how it gets used tom shifting from one to the other, and:

So in the dark now huddled and now supine you toil in vain. And just as from the former position to the latter the shift grows easier in time and more alacrious so from the latter to the former the reverse is true. Till from the occasional relief it was supineness becomes habitual and finally the rule. You now on your back in the dark shall not rise to your arse again to clasp your legs in your arms and bow down your head till it can bow down no further. But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable.

(Note the characteristic Beckett achievement of smuggling at least one potty-mouthed swearword into this text). Sometimes just imagining your body into the postures Beckett describes gets quite exhausting. I find myself half adopting these impossible postures, in my mind at any rate, and feeling slightly hysterical.

And then the piece ends with a kind of flourish of the great man’s trademark nihilism, in its final bleak, one-word sentence.

Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.

Alone.

Thoughts

A climax of heart-breaking bleakness – if you are an alienated teenager. It you take a rather more detached view, Company is clearly a late exercise in a number of familiar Beckett themes, but with the distinction that the two main strands – the mulling over the nature of writing and narration, and the rather sentimental boyhood memories – oddly fail to gel. And you can possibly define a third category, the familiar obsessions with bent and contorted bodies and the obsessive enumeration of simple iterative processes. For me, these elements don’t meld together but sit obstinately separate.

Something else, the boyhood memories are told in a disconcertingly straightforward, easy accessible way, and I found that this profoundly undermined the narrative analytical parts. What I mean is, the passages where he mulls over who is saying what to whom and why are often written in sentences which themselves become rarefied and barely graspable and reading them takes you to a delicate, otherworldly place in your mind which feels genuinely strange and new.

Unfortunately, if the next passage is about old Mrs Coote and his mother yacking on while young Sam hides up a tree, the banality brings your mind right back down to earth with a thump. So, in my opinion, the weakness of Company is not only that the different types of discourse, of subject matter and register, don’t hang together – it’s that the sentimental memories, in their great big obviousness, severely undermine the experimental narrative sections, which require a kind of delicacy of mind to entertain, to follow into their strange ghostly mindscape.

I much preferred a work like How It Is which is completely homogenous, tonally consistent, and transports you to a weird and eerie otherplace.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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