The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard (1966)

It should not be too difficult to arrange my escape and then I shall return to the solitary church in that enchanted world, where by day fantastic birds fly through the petrified forest and jewelled crocodiles glitter like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers, and where by night the illuminated man races among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels and his head like a spectral crown… (p.169)

This is a novel of staggering, visionary brilliance, whose otherworldly vividness is matched only by the eerily detached and psychological flatness of all the human characters.

Ballard’s third canonical novel (he suppressed his first effort, The Wind From Nowhere) is another disaster scenario which slowly unfolds, creating an ’emergency zone’ where ordinary or rational notions of time and order and comprehensible behaviour slowly collapse.

The protagonist is another fictional doctor (Dr Kerans in The Drowned World, Dr Ransom in The Drought, Dr Edward Sanders in this one) who finds himself drawn towards the danger zone, becoming briefly entangled with an eligible young woman, but far more attracted to the area of collapse because he subconsciously knows it will release him from reason, from social relations, from his past.

And so he becomes another Ballard protagonist on a journey towards the area of decay, to an abandoned city strewn with derelict cars, empty hotels, eerie shopwindow mannequins and always, everywhere, the drained swimming pools and dried-up fountains.

And it’s another Ballard novel which references a haunting painting which in many ways seems to have been its inspiration – Isle of the Dead by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin for this novel, as Yves Tanguy’s painting Jours de Lenteur (1937) was a visual spur for The Drought.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin (1880)

Part one – The Equinox

Dr Edward Sanders is 40. For fifteen years he has been working in Africa, for the past ten at the Fort Isabelle leper hospital in the Cameroon. He has been having an affair with the wife of one of his colleagues, a microbiologist named Max Clair, the wife’s name being Suzanne Clair.

Three months ago the Clairs had, without explanation, abruptly quit the leper hospital, and gone to the town of Mont Royal, close to some jewel-mining operations. Mont Royal is upriver of the coastal town of Port Matarre. Then Sanders receives a letter from Suzanne telling him the forest is ‘full of jewels’. For obscure reasons, uncertain (like most Ballard protagonists) of his own motivation, Sanders takes a month’s leave from the hospital to go and see the Clairs.

The novel opens as the steamer Sanders is travelling on from Libreville (the modern-day capital city of Gabon) arrives at Port Matarre. On board he has struck up relations with two typically queer, aloof and puzzling characters, the Catholic priest Father Balthus, and a short intense man he is forced to share a cabin with, Ventress. He steps ashore on the day of the spring equinox – darkness and light are perfectly balanced.

Sanders quickly discovers something strange is going on. There are no river steamers up to Mont Royal. The railway is closed. The roads are closed. The telegraph is down. He visits the military chief of the area who tells him that news is being… rationed.

He notices the sky is eerily dark and the jungle across the river and surrounding the town has a sombre, colourless feel about it.

Then Sanders gets caught up in a James Bond-style shootout down at the native harbour. At the centre of it is Ventress carrying a suitcase he’s at great pains to protect from a gang of machete- and gun-toting thugs seemingly under the command of a tall blonde-haired man who directs operations from a cruiser which steers up into the docks. Ventress escapes, a dazed Sanders staggers back to his hotel.

After just a few days in town Sanders has picked up a characteristically featureless Ballardian woman, the journalist Louise Peret, who has got wind of something happening up-country and knows there’s a story in it. Down at the docks, before the fight kicked off, she had identified a body the locals were just pulling from the river. It was the assistant to an American journalist who’d gone up country before her.

The thing is – the dead man’s arm was encased in a crystalline sheath which glittered and emitted a strange light. Earlier in the day, in the local market, Sanders had come across a trader who opened a secret cache of flowers, each of which was encased in a brilliant, multi-faceted crystal, freezing cold to the touch.

The night before Sanders had looked up into the sky and seen an extraordinarily bright white object moving over the night sky. He realised it is the telecoms satellite Echo but…shining with an eerie efflorescence as if… encased in jewels...

And so, the secret of the novel leaks out. Somewhere close to Mont Royal the jungle is turning to crystal. As the story progresses, other characters tell him the same process is being reported in the Florida Everglades and the Pripet Marshes of Russia. I.e. across the world.

Sanders strikes a deal with a local, one Captain Aragon, who takes him in his river cruiser up the African river into the heart of… crystals. The comparisons with Conrad’s most famous novel are too obvious to make. After a few days’ vividly described chuntering up the jungley river they come to a pontoon blocking their way and a busy army base. Aragon docks the ship and Sanders makes himself known to the officer in charge, one Captain Radek, himself a doctor (p.63).

Sanders is surprised to see none other than Ventress coming ashore from another boat which has docked at the military base. What’s he doing here? Radek allows Sanders to join an ‘inspection party’ which is proceeding up the river towards Mont Royal. As you might expect, they soon come to stretches where the forest has been turned into crystals whose facets flash light.

Then they arrive at the abandoned city of Mont Royal (like the abandoned London of The Drowned World, the abandoned Mount Royal in The Drought). They dock and the inspection party splits up into groups of soldiers, each led by an NCO. Sanders wanders through the characteristic Ballardian landscape of the abandoned city, cars strewn around the roads, shops eerily deserted and drained swimming pools and empty fountains.

They arrive right at the edge of the crystal zone, and watch an army helicopter trying to fly over it, whose rotors suddenly start crystallising, causing it to crash.

Sanders watches fascinated as an eddy of light passes out of the forest and towards him, crystallising the vegetation all around him, including a nearby car, while his own clothes begin to grow frostings and rimes of crystal, and suddenly a man is yelling at him from the window of a nearby mansion.

The ‘scientific’ explanation

Part two opens with a pretty crude bit of explication. Ballard includes an excerpt from a letter supposedly written by Sanders to the head of the leper hospital, Dr Paul Derain, which gives a comprehensive explanation for the crystallising phenomenon (rather as the ‘scientific’ explanation for both the drought and the drowned world are delayed until we’re well into the story).

It doesn’t make complete sense but the crucial fact is the explanation is based on TIME.

The discovery of anti-matter posits the existence of anti-time. We suspect that anti-matter and matter destroy each other continuously throughout the universe. Well, in the same way, time must be meeting anti-time and annihilating itself. And as time is destroyed, the universe’s total quotient of time decreases so that – like a super-saturated solution – the remaining atoms and molecules are crystallising out ‘in an attempt to secure their foot-hold upon existence’ (p.85).

In the letter Sanders explains that the weird effects he sees around him are connected to events in distant star systems, which astronomers have been observing, of entire systems like the island galaxy M31 becoming crystal, appearing to double in size and brilliancy. Events here in the forests of Africa are intimately linked with disturbances around the universe. (In fact the letter includes a reference to the Everglades in Florida which have, by the time he writes the letter, become almost entirely crystallised with the result that some three million Americans have had to flee their homes.)

Part two – The Illuminated Man

Then the narrative reverts the ‘present’ – in fact right back to the cliffhanger moment which part one ended on – Sanders on the verge of the crystallising zone when he hears someone shout his name from a nearby mansion. He runs across the crystallising grass to find Ventress with a shotgun, hiding behind a window. The reason becomes clear when someone takes a shot at them through the window and then Sanders, venturing downstairs is attacked by the same mulatto and crew of thugs who he’d saved Ventress from back in the fight at the native docks in part one.

Ventress appears to be locked in a feud with the mine-owner Thorensen. Why? He doesn’t explain, continuing to speak in what Sanders describes as ‘his ambiguous and disjointed way’ – so Sanders can’t guess why they appear to be ready to kill each other. (All this reminds me of the inexplicable feud between Whitman and Jonas in The Drought – as if there are people who just want to kill each other, sometimes for reasons they can’t even remember.)

After the shootout in the mansion, Ventress and Sanders venture out into the open and make their way along the half-crystallised river. Then they come across the wreckage of the crashed helicopter, ‘the four twisted blades veined and frosted like the wings of a giant dragonfly’ (p.96). Under the wreckage is an almost entirely crystallised body, it is Radek, the army doctor who greeted Sanders. The latter tears him free from his crystal sheaths and then ties his body to a handy broken tree trunk with his belt and gently pushes it into the river to send downstream and hopefully out of harm’s way.

Then Sanders and Ventress come to an isolated summer house, covered in crystals like a frosted wedding cake. As they approach there are shots, confusion, Ventress is trapped in a net by Thorensen’s men, and a huge Negro approaches with a panga to finish him off, but the surface of the frozen river cracks and gives way under his weight and while he’s extricating himself, Ventress wriggles free and escapes.

Now Sanders is with Thorensen who slowly realises who he is and reluctantly takes him through into the summer house where he is introduced to Serena. Now we learn that Serena is the hapless young who Ventress bullied her poor colonialist parents into letting him marry, then took off to a remote cabin in the forest. Ventress treated her appallingly and Thorensen stole her away whereupon Ventress went mad and has spent six months in an asylum. Now he has returned to take his revenge and steal back his child bride.

So that’s the basis of Ventress and Thorensen’s endless feud. Sanders looks down at Serena lying pale and frail in bed. She’s obviously very ill. Thorensen gives her some of the gems he picked up after the fight at the white mansion. Now Sanders witnesses something amazing which is that the jewels retard the crystallising effects. It is as if concealed in their hears they have the concentrated time which can reverse the time sickness which is causing the crystallisation.

Sanders says he must get back to Port Matarre. Thorensen says he’ll send him there with two of his African trackers. So off they set but after a while, Sanders realises they’re going round in circles. In fact Thorensen is using him as bait to lure Ventress out of hiding just as Ventress used him as bait at the mansion.

The guides disappear leaving Sanders on his own but moments later he hears a firefight in the jungle and goes back to find one of the blacks dying of gunshot wounds. Terrified by all this, Sanders takes off back in the direction of the river. it is heavily crystallised but he hopes to walk along the hard surface back towards the town.

Suddenly he sees a man carrying a wooden burden and hopes it is a soldier foraging for wood but on getting closer is horrified to see that it is Radek who he tried to save. Now most of the crystals have melted in the fast-flowing river Sanders realises that when he tore Radek from from the crystallised ground he ripped half his chest and face off! The man is a bleeding wreck of a man who can’t see and can barely talk but he has just enough energy to bed Sanders – Take me… back. Take me back!’ Sanders dodges the weaving figure and runs for the river, diving into its now free-flowing shallows.

A few hours later he emerges from the river where the road leads to a white building, the Bourbon Hotel. He is back in civilisation. Soldiers greet him and radio base. Captain Aragon turns up and tells him Louise Peret is waiting for him. Not only that but Mr and Mrs Clair – his friend and the friend’s wife who he was having an affair with – are at the hotel, too.

Sanders is greeted by Max, has a shower, changes into new clothes (admittedly the washed clothes of a man who died in the crystal forest) and has civilised drinks with Max and Suzanne. When they discuss Sanders’s adventures in the forest it becomes clear that Suzanne is entranced by the forest and its world of brilliantly-coloured jewelled facets.

Max tactfully beats a retreat (by implication, knowing his wife and best friend have had an affair) and it is only when he’s let alone with her that Sanders realises that Suzanne is showing the first symptoms of leprosy! So that’s why she and Max made such a sudden exit from the Fort Isabelle leper hospital. And there was he thinking it was him and their affair. Wrong again.

Next morning Sanders is bewildered to see that, although Max and Suzanne are overseeing a fairly modern hospital with plenty of resources, the trees and undergrowth are populated by shadowy groups of native lepers. They are refugees from a Catholic leprosie where the priest did little more than pray for them, and are too frightened to come into the modern hospital.

Then Sanders ‘girlfriend’, the beautiful slender journalist Mlle Louise Peret turns up, a breath of fresh air compared to a) the complicated psychodrama playing out around Suzanne and b) the macabre figures of the black lepers hiding in the undergrowth. He takes her to the bungalow the Clairs have lent him, and they make love.

Afterwards, Sanders expands on the ideas of darkness and light, speculating that these polar opposites are coming into sharper relief as time drains away from the world and Louise and he play spot the archetype: she (Louise) is light to Suzanne the dark lady. Thorense and Ventress’s endless feud is somehow binary. Father Balthus, is he darkness and who is his opposite? Sanders? Louise reveals that an army launch is going back up the river and she wants to be on it.

That evening he goes for dinner with Max and Suzanne but instead of discreetly absenting himself afterwards, Max insists on getting out a chessboard and playing a game, while Suzanne retires. An hour or so later the game ends and Sanders walks round the grounds. He sees the outline of the white hotel in the moonlight. He catches a glimpse of Suzanne and makes his way there. He catches up with her and she takes him into the ruined corridors of the abandoned building and up to a second floor room which she has made a kind if refuge.

Here on the bed Sanders makes love to his leprous mistress. The binary black and white imagery is laid on with a trowel. In the afternoon the chalet room was filled with blazing sunlight so he and Louise had to pull down a blind to make love. Now here in the ruined white hotel in the black night he makes love to his dark lady by wan moonlight. They talk. She is suddenly super-sensitive about her disease. She pulls her nightgown around her and before he can stop her runs out the room and down the abandoned corridors

Later that night, back in his chalet, Sanders is awoken by cars being loaded up and searchlights. Max bangs on his door asking if Suzanne is with him. Sanders disclaims all knowledge. Max is almost crying: Suzanne has run off, presumably into the forest. He goes off in search. Sanders takes a group of black servants with him to the Bourbon Hotel but they quickly settle down for a smoke.

Leaving them, Sanders walks back along the road into the abandoned Mont Royal. The crystallising process is much further advanced, the crystals hang from streetlights an overhead wires. Sanders comes across a smashed-in jewellers shop and realises that where the jewels lie on the pavement, the crystals don’t work. It is as if deep within them the jewels contain concentrated time, as well as light, which fights off the time disease of the crystals. Tired, Sanders sits down in the little patch of crystal-free pavement with his back to the wall and fills his pocket with gems.

When he awakes much of the jewels’ power has worn off and he is horrified to find his entire arm up to the shoulder encased in crystals. It is very heavy and very cold. He has been woken by Ventress tugging him. At that moment there is a shot and the window above them shatters. Thorensen and his crew of blacks are upon them. Again. Round and round this feud goes with the pointless circularity of a mad obsession.

Ventress stuffs some of the remaining jewels into Sanders’s pockets and tells him to run, run for his life, keeping in motion is the only thing that will prevent the crystals progressing from his shoulder to neck and thence to his head. And so for hours and hours Sanders runs through the crystallising jungle, The Illuminated Man, windmilling his crystallised arm round and round, gaining a slight relief from the process.

Finally he comes to the crystallised summer house and hears a voice hissing his name. It is Ventress. Again. Hiding in the underside of the summer house, peeking out over the surface of the ground and between pillars at Thorensen’s riverboat which is moored in the river a hundred yards or so away. The black crew load the ship’s cannon and fire repeated volleys at the summer house, the idea being not to destroy it but to shatter the crystals enough for the boar to approach really close. But in the event, after an hour or more of firing, the boat rams hard into the crystals but rears up on its hull and becomes landlocked, the crystals slowly starting to form over it.

This leads to one of the most contrived but strangest moments which is when a vast fifteen-foot crocodile, festooned with crystals lumbers heavily towards the house. Only when it is almost upon them does Sanders realise he can see a gun barrel sticking out of its mouth and realise it is an elaborate costume. He fires point blank into the crocodile which rears up on its hind legs revealing the mulatto who has been a repeated assailant of Ventress’s and Sanders, rearing up, keeling over and dying.

Ventress tells Sanders to go, go now: now all the blacks are dead and it is just him against Thorensen. Go!

And so Sanders staggers through the all-the-time more heavily crystallising jungle until he stumbles across a clearing and discovers the Catholic church of Father Balthus. He stumbles up the aisle and holds his arm up to the enormous jewel-encrusted crucifix and, of course, his arm is freed from its crystals. All the while Father Balthus watches from the organ where he is playing baroque organ music.

For three days Sanders stays with him in their church refuge, eating frugal meals, pumping the bellows for the organ, as his arm slowly heals and Father Balthus gives him his Christina interpretation of the crystallising, namely that the risen Christ is all around them in the new light of the forest. Eventually, the jewel’s power fades and the crystals invade the church and start advancing up the aisle. Balthus pushes the enormous crucifix into Sanders’s hands and tells him to escape. Sanders’s last sight of the priest is of him standing on the verandah of the church, arms outspread in the posture of crucifixion and the crystals move in to embalm him.

through the crystal forest Sanders staggers, using the jewels’ power to melt a path through the by-now almost solid walls in each direction.

1. He comes upon the lepers he’d seen hiding in the undergrowth near the hospital. Now they are dancing in the forest, weaving a strange saraband, old and young, men and woman, children. They dance up to him then away, eerily. And Sanders realises they are led by a tall figure in a black hood and only as it turns away does he realise it is Suzanne, now thoroughly incorporated into her leprous avatar.

2. He stumbles upon the damn summer house, again, now entirely immured in crystals and goes into the bedroom where he sees the corpse of Thorensen, the feud finally over, the bloody hole in his chest from a shotgun wound turned to ornate crystal, lying beside the embalmed Serena, her chest barely moving in its carapace of light. And then sees a figure running past the building, shedding fragments of crystal as it runs, crying out over and over Serena Serena. It is mad Ventress.

Finally, Sanders blunders out of the jungle and into the arms of the troops waiting at the perimeter. Ironically, he is charged with looting the enormous crucifix, until Max and Louise intervene with the authorities.

Now, it is two months later in Port Matarre and he winds up his letter to the director of his leprosie, Dr Paul Derain. He casually mentions that he thinks he has seen an efflorescence of the sun and its surface crossed by a distinctive lattice-work, a vast portcullis which may one day reach out and crystallise the planets themselves, stopping them in their tracks.

Louise has looked after him but he has not really been there, his heart is in the crystal forest and so she has grown away from him. Max asks him to come and work at the new hospital, but Sanders isn’t interested. He finishes writing the letter and leaves it to be posted, settles his bill and walks down to the quayside. Captain Aragon and his launch putters by, the two men nodding to each other. They reach an understanding. Half an hour later the launch turns and heads upriver, taking Sanders back into the heart of the crystal forest and his destiny.

He is coolly watched by Max and Louise from the quayside, but what do they understand of what he and Suzanne discovered, that

the only resolution of the imbalance within their minds, their inclination towards the dark side of the equinox, could be found within that crystal world. (p.173)


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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 invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – 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
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

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 most sweeping 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

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

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 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
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces 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 breathless 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 a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
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
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

1960s
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
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, an 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
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 shape, 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 is 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…’
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 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 his 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 new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves 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 – ‘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, arid 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, has revived an old nuclear power station in order 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 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’
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 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 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 sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
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

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (1919)

The writer is more concerned to know than to judge. (Chapter 41)

After three volumes of short stories, I thought I’d try some of Maugham’s (shorter) novels.

This novel, very successful in its own day, is an account of a fictional English painter, ‘Charles Strickland’, who leaves his respectable job as a stockbroker and goes to seek his destiny as a painter first in Paris, then in the South Seas. It is loosely inspired by the career of French stockbroker-cum-artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). And it initially feels less appealing than the short stories because of the style.

Orotundity

In some of the short stories Maugham allows himself a page or so of meandering introduction, but generally he gets to the meat of the characters and their interaction quite quickly. In the novel, he has space for a much more leisurely approach and this results in a markedly more orotund and verbose style. He sounds pompous in a way he rarely does in the stories.

Here he is, early on, describing the impact of the war on the younger generation (bearing in mind that Maugham was 40 when the Great War broke out, 45 when this novel was published).

Now the war has come, bringing with it a new attitude. Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and it is possible to see already the direction in which those who come after us will move. The younger generation, conscious of strength and tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door; they have burst in and seated themselves in our seats. The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their elders some, by imitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade themselves that their day is not yet over; they shout with the lustiest, but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouth; they are like poor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, with shrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring. The wiser go their way with a decent grace. In their chastened smile is an indulgent mockery. They remember that they too trod down a sated generation, with just such clamor and with just such scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bearers will presently yield their place also. There is no last word. The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to those that speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundred times before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. The circle is ever travelled anew.

Pompous, isn’t it? And waffle, empty of content. And sometimes incomprehensible. ‘The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky’ – there’s nothing that pointless in any of the short stories. Later on the narrator descants on the role of the conscience.

I take it that conscience is the guardian in the individual of the rules which the community has evolved for its own preservation. It is the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws. It is the spy seated in the central stronghold of the ego. Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that he himself has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd. It will force him to place the good of society before his own. It is the very strong link that attaches the individual to the whole. And man, subservient to interests he has persuaded himself are greater than his own, makes himself a slave to his taskmaster. He sits him in a seat of honour. At last, like a courtier fawning on the royal stick that is laid about his shoulders, he prides himself on the sensitiveness of his conscience. Then he has no words hard enough for the man who does not recognise its sway; for, a member of society now, he realises accurately enough that against him he is powerless. When I saw that Strickland was really indifferent to the blame his conduct must excite, I could only draw back in horror as from a monster of hardly human shape.

This may or may not be true or interesting, But it is certainly very wordy.

That said, this fairly short novel (217 pages in the Pan paperback edition) is divided into 58 chapters, giving an average of 3.75 pages per chapter. The point being that, although there are these occasional half page digressions, by and large the narrative moves on at quite a lick, moving from one scene to the next with a speed which makes it very readable.

1. The two narrators

The novel is told in the first person by a novelist. In the early scenes he is a young novelist who has just published his first book and is shy and nervous at the high-toned parties he finds himself being invited to. Presumably he’s in his early twenties. He spends five years in Paris, and then it’s fifteen years before he finds himself in Tahiti, so at least twenty years passes, which means he’s in his early or mid-forties.

Not unlike Maugham, who was born in 1874, published his first novel in 1897, aged 23, and made his first trip to the Pacific in 1916, aged 42.

The text itself is narrated by the older narrator which means that when he looks back on the early parts of the story, there’s quite a lot of commentary on the idealism of a young man, a beginner in ‘the world of letters’, on the social awkwardness of being a beginner in the art of letters, and so on – all set in stuffy upper-middle class Victorian society, all told with the urbane wisdom of age.

So there are a lot of sections starting with or including the thought – ‘When I look back I wonder at my young self, wonder that I didn’t realise, didn’t know, was too young to understand…’ and so on.

I was very young when I wrote my first book. By a lucky chance it excited attention… (p.13)

When I reflect on all that happened later… (p.26)

I did not know then how great a part is played in women’s life by the opinion of others… (p.38)

Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve’s acuteness…

Looking back, I realise that what I have written about Charles Strickland must seem very unsatisfactory.

Maugham’s own tone and voice, his worldly wisdom, is much evident in most of the short stories too, but there he really is an old man of the world, a tone and presence which I find reassuring and charming. But for some reason, I found his harping on about the immaturity of his younger self in this novel a bit irritating. Maybe because his younger ignorant and naive self just isn’t interesting.

His depiction of high society literary suppers is alright, his portraits of Mrs Strickland and her thick army brother-in-law are fun – but the novel only really comes alight when the narrator visits Strickland in Paris and discovers him to be completely transformed into a monster of egotism and obsession. That’s when the story catches fire and becomes really compelling. Maugham writing about Maugham (about being a writer, especially a naive young writer) is dull; Maugham writing incisively and analytically about almost anyone else is riveting.

2. The plot

The first-person narrator (he’s never named; let’s call him N), as part of his social life, encounters first Strickland’s wife, then the man himself, more or less as random elements of the social whirl experienced by a bright young novelist in London. These early scenes establish the tone and mores of the period, the stuffy late-Victorian 1890s, establishing Strickland as a boring suburban stockbroker, happily married to a wife who dabbles in a small way with holding a salon, or dinner parties, for low-level artists and writers.

1. Establishing scenes in London

N is taken up by the upper-middle class ladies who like the presence of artists and writers (though generally ignoring their art or writing) – a satire on the art-loving haute bourgeoisie of the 1890s. He is regularly invited to parties by the lion-hunter Rose Waterford. She introduces him to Mrs Strickland, who also hosts parties for the literary-minded. He visits Mrs Strickland, is told about her two lovely children, meets her stiff, unimaginative brother-in-law, Colonel MacAndrew, and finally Mr Strickland himself, an ugly commonplace man with large features. All part of the thrilling new social life he is enjoying.

One day the narrator bumps into Miss Waterford in the street, who tells him with glee in her eyes, that Strickland has run away from his wife. N goes right round to find Mrs Strickland in floods of tears being comforted by the stiff-upper-lip colonel. Next day he goes round again and a more controlled Mrs Strickland tells him about the letter Strickland wrote her, saying he had left for Paris and was never coming back. She asks the narrator to go to Paris, find Strickland and beg him to return.

2. Quick trip to Paris

N travels to Paris and discovers Strickland, not wasting money in a luxury hotel with some scarlet woman, as his wife and brother-in-law suspected, but living in a shabby pension, with no woman in sight. He surprises N (and the reader, a bit) by his complete insouciance. His wife is upset? ‘Doesn’t care.’ What about his children? ‘They’ve been pampered enough; time they stood on their own two feet.’ Where’s the other woman? ‘There’s isn’t another woman, you blasted fool.’ So why on earth has he walked out on his wife? Because he wants to paint, always has, did it as a kid, had to stop to earn a crust, been doing it recently at night school; now’s the time, now or never, to make a break and fulfil his dream.

Back in London Mrs S and the Colonel at first refuse to believe it. After a few days Mrs S accepts is and becomes extremely bitter: to have left her for another woman was at least understandable, and she could have hoped to defeat a rival. But he left her for an idea. There is no hope and her anger becomes complete. After discussion with friends, Mrs Strickland she sets up as a freelance typist for she is clever and quick.

3. Living in Paris

It is five years later. Mrs Strickland has by now set up a successful agency for typists. The Narrator informs her that he is going to Paris to live for a while and might contact her husband, and she doesn’t object to the narrator passing on her news.

But her wishes turn out to be completely irrelevant to what follows. She and London are completely forgotten when N arrives in Paris and encounters Strickland. He is now a very poor, shabby figure, who’s grown an enormous red beard and become known as notoriously rude and reclusive.

We are introduced to Dirk Stroeve, an artist the narrator met in Rome, a jolly stumpy fat man with red cheeks and blue eyes, who paints lamentably obvious commercial paintings of doe-eyed Italian peasants, which he can easily sell and make a living. It is an oddity that, although he himself paints lamentably rubbish paintings, he has an unerring eye for class in other artists – and he considers Strickland a genuine genius. He is obsessed with Strickland and regularly sees him. The narrator sees them together and observes Strickland’s deliberately cruel, humiliating treatment of his fat fan.

We get to know this setting and these characters in great depth – then Strickland falls ill. Characteristically, he has told no one and the narrator and Stroeve only hear about it by accident. They immediately go round and find Strickland in bed with a high fever, no food and nobody looking after him. They get food, drink and a doctor who prescribes medicine.

Back at his studio the narrator witnesses good-natured Stroeve asking his wife, Blanche, a placid, grey, unemotional woman who keeps his apartment in perfect order, if it’s alright if they move Strickland here, so as to look after him. The Narrator observes and describes all this with Maugham’s characteristic acuity. Stroeve’s wife fiercely resists, the excuse being how rude Strickland has always been to Stroeve, but the narrator thinks there’s something excessive about her protests.

Eventually she gives in and the narrator and Stroeve get Strickland into a cab and to Stroeve’s apartment. Here both he and his wife tend Strickland night and day. Slowly Strickland recovers. Slowly he gets up and walks around. Eventually he is up and painting again. The narrator meets Stroeve in a cafe and is surprised to see him unhappy. Strickland is painting – good – but refuses to have anyone round him: he has booted Stroeve out of his own studio!

Next thing he knows Stroeve comes knocking on the narrator’s door. Strickland has seduced and run off with his wife. So timid and concerned for everyone’s happiness, Stroeve is in tears but lets him. The narrator finds it very puzzling that the woman who fought so fiercely against Strickland going to stay with them, has now thrown in her lot with him.

There is much mulling over these events before the next decisive occurrence: Stroeve arrives on the narrator’s doorstep in floods of tears to announce that his wife has tried to kill herself. Strickland abandoned her and so she swallowed a load of oxalic acid. They go to the hospital but she refuses to see them, making Stroeve distraught. The attitude of the attending doctor and nurse, the hospital environment, are all described with a grim accuracy. On repeated visits Blanche refuses to see the narrator or anyone. Finally she dies of her injuries and the Narrator and Stroeve arrange the funeral together.

A week later Stroeve takes the narrator to dinner and tells him he’s going back to his native Holland. Over and again he wonders if he did right to ever leave. His father is a carpenter, son of carpenters. Maybe he’d have been happier if he’d followed his father’s trade and married the flaxen-haired girl next door.

Then Stroeve tells him about first the night he went back to the studio where Strickland and Blanche had been living, all in perfect order by the homely Blanche. And he had come across some of the paintings Strickland had made there. When he came across a stunning nude of Blanche he was seized with rage and went to destroy it, but couldn’t: as a keen appreciator of art he realised he was in the presence of the real thing. As he listens, the narrator describes the way:

I really felt something of the emotion that had caught him. I was strangely impressed. It was as though I were suddenly transported into a world in which the values were changed. I stood by, at a loss, like a stranger in a land where the reactions of man to familiar things are all different from those he has known. Stroeve tried to talk to me about the picture, but he was incoherent, and I had to guess at what he meant. Strickland had burst the bonds that hitherto had held him. He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a new soul with unsuspected powers. It was not only the bold simplification of the drawing which showed so rich and so singular a personality; it was not only the painting, though the flesh was painted with a passionate sensuality which had in it something miraculous; it was not only the solidity, so that you felt extraordinarily the weight of the body; there was also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led the imagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim empty spaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, all naked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries. (Chapter 39)

Stroeve tells the Narrator he had gone to see Strickland and say goodbye. Amazingly, Stroeve asked Strickland if he wanted to come with him to Holland and live simply with his peasant mother and father. It was during this description of the simple homely life of his parents back in Holland that the reader feels the ghost of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s ill-fated friend, hovering closest to the Stroeve character, despite Maugham’s attempts to distance his character from the legendary Dutch artist.

Then the narrator bumps into Strickland in the street. Characteristically, Strickland behaves like a monster, completely impervious to all the narrator’s conventional reproofs. So what if Blanche killed herself; it was her choice. So what if Stroeve’s world is in ruins. He chose her. And then Strickland tells us the story behind their marriage, namely that Blanche was a servant to a posh Italian family, the son of the family made her pregnant and they kicked her out on the street, where she tried to commit suicide. Stroeve found her, saved her, and married her.

This leads the narrator on to thoughts about the strangeness of people and the unknowability of human relationships. Specifically the way, for his part, Strickland loathes and hates sex as a distraction from his mission to pain, but when it comes, it seizes him like an animal.

I do not know what there was in the way he told me this that extraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It was disconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangely divorced from material things, and it was as though his body at times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyr in him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in the grip of an instinct which had all the strength of the primitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so complete that there was no room in his soul for prudence or gratitude.

For her part, Blanche showed a complex combination of ‘female’ traits. Her degradation, her attempted suicide after being kicked out by the Italian family, were not healed by marriage to the kind, loving Stroeve, She needed to re-enact the humiliation and sexual abasement of the original trauma – in that way Strickland’s brutal sexual needs and Blanche’s wish to be humiliated met and matched – but at the same time she wanted to reclaim him, to own him. At least that’s how Strickland sees it:

‘When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife? I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks. With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me. She wanted to bring me down to her level; she cared nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted: to leave me alone.’

I fully understand that this is two men talking about the motivations of a woman who has not only killed herself but was never given any voice in the novel; and that the whole thing is the creation of a male mind (Maugham’s). But it is nonetheless a very powerful portrait of this particular woman and of this particular relationship which she got into with Strickland.

When Blanche found out that Strickland was completely unreformable or controllable, having burned her boats with Stroeve, she took the only way out. Stroeve would have willingly taken her back. But Blanche realised she didn’t want to go back to being placidly accepted by the kindly Dutchman.

When Blanche saw that, notwithstanding his moments of passion, Strickland remained aloof, she must have been filled with dismay, and even in those moments I surmise that she realised that to him she was not an individual, but an instrument of pleasure; he was a stranger still, and she tried to bind him to herself with pathetic arts. She strove to ensnare him with comfort and would not see that comfort meant nothing to him. She was at pains to get him the things to eat that he liked, and would not see that he was indifferent to food. She was afraid to leave him alone. She pursued him with attentions, and when his passion was dormant sought to excite it, for then at least she had the illusion of holding him. Perhaps she knew with her intelligence that the chains she forged only aroused his instinct of destruction, as the plate-glass window makes your fingers itch for half a brick; but her heart, incapable of reason, made her continue on a course she knew was fatal. She must have been very unhappy. But the blindness of love led her to believe what she wanted to be true, and her love was so great that it seemed impossible to her that it should not in return awake an equal love.

Having heard all this, the narrator tells Strickland to his face that he is a loathsome, hateful, sorry apology of a man. Strickland laughs as he always does, and points out that the narrator likes his company because it makes him feel so superior. Which is why, when Strickland for the first and only time, invites the narrator to come and see his paintings – he goes.

Here in Strickland’s studio he sees something he’d never seen before: the crudity of the design, the roughness of the brushstrokes, the garish colours – this sounds, up to a point, as if describing the paintings of the real Paul Gauguin. However actual description is skipped over quickly so that the narrator can get to the psychological impact of the works, always what interests him most.

When I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to the understanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merely increased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at sea than ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me—and perhaps even this was fanciful—was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.

The final impression I received was of a prodigious effort to express some state of the soul, and in this effort, I fancied, must be sought the explanation of what so utterly perplexed me. It was evident that colours and forms had a significance for Strickland that was peculiar to himself. He was under an intolerable necessity to convey something that he felt, and he created them with that intention alone. He did not hesitate to simplify or to distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought. Facts were nothing to him, for beneath the mass of irrelevant incidents he looked for something significant to himself. It was as though he had become aware of the soul of the universe and were compelled to express it.

So the narrator (and reader) is left puzzling at length over a man who behaved appallingly to all around him but was driven by a higher calling, by fanatical devotion to his art.

With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place. It was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither. He had violent passions, and on occasion desire seized his body so that he was driven to an orgy of lust, but he hated the instincts that robbed him of his self-possession. I think, even, he hated the inevitable partner in his debauchery. When he had regained command over himself, he shuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed. His thoughts floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felt towards her the horror that perhaps the painted butterfly, hovering about the flowers, feels to the filthy chrysalis from which it has triumphantly emerged. I suppose that art is a manifestation of the sexual instinct. It is the same emotion which is excited in the human heart by the sight of a lovely woman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the Entombment of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hated the normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation. It seems strange even to myself, when I have described a man who was cruel, selfish, brutal and sensual, to say that he was a great idealist. The fact remains.

And then, after several chapters of thoughts and meditation on these striking events – ‘A week later I heard by chance that Strickland had gone to Marseilles. I never saw him again.’

This concludes the lion’s share of the story. You feel that the love triangle between Strickland, Stroeve and Blanche was the dramatic core of the novel. It certainly leaves you shaken like one of  his best short stories, shaken and meditating on the behaviour and psychology of all three characters. And because they are three such strongly drawn characters the narrator’s post mortem on them and the events is interesting (unlike his thoughts on his own younger self, as mentioned earlier).

4. Marseilles

15 years later the narrator arrives in Tahiti on research for a book he’s writing. There is vivid description of the island, the air and the people. He meets one Captain Nichols who knew Strickland during the period when the latter arrived in Marseilles from Paris. Nichols is a dodgy character and he gives a lurid account of befriending Strickland on the streets of Marseilles and then their adventures cadging jobs, begging, living in flop houses. it’s quite a detailed account of the different establishments in Marseilles which give beggars, food, soup and lodging, which reminded me of the journalistic detail of George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London. Eventually, they get on the wrong side of a tough mulatto named Tough Bill. Strickland lays him out in a bar room brawl, but they hear the gang master has vowed to kill him, so Strickland wangles a job on the first ship out of Marseilles, which happens to be heading for the Pacific.

The chapters describing all this are interesting in themselves, but also because Maugham paints an amusing portrait of Nichols himself as a henpecked wastrel, at the beck and call of his starched thin-lipped wife. And in a throwaway last sentence, remarks that the whole sequence of events may be no more than a fantasy, given that Nichols is a famous liar and fantasist.

5. Tahiti

In Tahiti the narrator meets various characters who provide glimpses and views of Strickland in his final years there, including the Jewish trader Cohen, the obese hotel owner Tiaré Johnson who arranged for Strickland to marry a fifteen-year-old local girl, Captain Brunot (who tells the narrator his own story about buying and settling a small offshore atoll), and Doctor Coutras, fat and good natured, who diagnoses Strickland with the leprosy which eventually kills the painter.

Several years pass, and Coutras tells the story of his final visit to Strickland’s remote hut, to find his wife, Ata, weeping, and Strickland’s dead body on the mat. He had been blind for the final year of his life.

And inside the hut he discovers that Strickland had painted all the walls with his final masterpiece, a panorama of Tahitian landscape and life, done in terrible demonic colours, with a voodoo power and compulsion. After the doctor leaves, Ata burns it to the ground as per the painter’s final wishes.

The narrator is shaken by Coutras’s account and thinks, hopes that Strickland finally reached the perfection he was striving for, but was bloody minded to the end, burning it down indifferent whether the world ever knew of it.

6. Back in England

Eventually the narrator leaves Tahiti, after a stifling embrace and many presents from vast Tiaré Johnson, arriving back in conventional London. Out of courtesy he contacts Mrs Strickland and pays a visit to pass on what he’s discovered. He discovers her now to be a prim and proper sixty-year-old, living in some comfort, the proud mother of two sterling children, a parson in the Army and the wife of a major in the Guards. And it is the final irony in the book that he discovers she is now playing the part of ‘the wife of a genius’. For the narrator’s visit coincides with that of a Mr. Van Busche Taylor, the noted American art critic. Strickland is now a modern classic. His paintings are bought and sold for small fortunes. Many monographs have been written about him. And his wife is cultivating the image of the soulful survivor of his great genius.

The final punch of the book is in the complete transformation of Strickland’s inhuman, despicably selfish, art-haunted behaviour into polite drawing room conversation. He has been assimilated, incorporated, into the narrative of Great Art and Inspired Geniuses.

It is the genuine success of the novel that it has shown us that Strickland’s personality and driven quest was something completely different, other, strange, repellent and compelling than this. The book ends on this travesty and on the prescient insight that modern art will be bought up, tidied up and neutered by America, country of Puritan morality and narrow judgmental critics, right up to the present day when Gauguin’s art is routinely vilified and attacked for its racism, sexism, colonialism, objectification of women, exploitation of under-age girls, male gaze and general wickedness.

How Maugham would have laughed at the smug judgmentalism of modern politically correct American art critics.

The narrator

By this stage it should be obvious that he is a very fallible narrator. At numerous points he says he has had to piece together accounts of events which he didn’t witness. Even events which he personally witnessed leave him puzzled and confused and he spend entire chapters trying to figure out the real motivation and psychological prompting of the main characters. Other sequences, like the scenes set in Marseilles, might be complete fiction made up by a fantasist.

The narrator’s perfect understanding of his own fallibility and partiality inform the reader that Maugham was aware of all the developments of his time which focused on the problematics of the narrator, from Henry James and Joseph Conrad onwards.

I am in the position of a biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct not only the appearance of an extinct animal, but its habits.

By the end of the book you have read quite a few passages, not only about art and love and sex, about character and England and France and the South Seas – but about the difficulty of ever telling a coherent believable story. In its quiet understated way this is as much a meditation on the problematics of fiction as many a more showy Modernist work.

Characters

Maugham is so good at thumbnail sketches of characters, before going on to penetrate deeper into their psychology. Here’s Mrs Strickland’s older sister.

Mrs. Strickland’s sister was older than she, not unlike her, but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though she carried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives of senior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging to a superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breeding scarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not a soldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated the Guards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trust herself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling. Her gown was dowdy and expensive.

And the lengthy portrait of the obese Tahitian in the final chapters is not only wonderfully done in itself, but an indication of how far the narrator has come, in geography, in experience and in human sympathy, from the dowdy drawing rooms of Victorian England.

Tiaré Johnson was the daughter of a native and an English sea-captain settled in Tahiti. When I knew her she was a woman of fifty, who looked older, and of enormous proportions. Tall and extremely stout, she would have been of imposing presence if the great good-nature of her face had not made it impossible for her to express anything but kindliness. Her arms were like legs of mutton, her breasts like giant cabbages; her face, broad and fleshy, gave you an impression of almost indecent nakedness, and vast chin succeeded to vast chin. I do not know how many of them there were. They fell away voluminously into the capaciousness of her bosom. She was dressed usually in a pink Mother Hubbard, and she wore all day long a large straw hat. But when she let down her hair, which she did now and then, for she was vain of it, you saw that it was long and dark and curly; and her eyes had remained young and vivacious. Her laughter was the most catching I ever heard; it would begin, a low peal in her throat, and would grow louder and louder till her whole vast body shook. She loved three things – a joke, a glass of wine, and a handsome man. To have known her is a privilege. (p.177)

By the time we get to Tahiti we feel the narrator’s understanding and compassion for all types of humanity has broadened and deepened out of all recognition from its tyro beginnings.

Maugham’s philosophy

In numerous short stories and here, embedded throughout the narrative, are various expressions of Maugham’s philosophy of life, namely people are more complex than they seem; alongside charming and polite qualities can go malice, hate and envy. Thus the thrust of The Traitor in the Ashenden stories is that Caypor is a mild-mannered jovial chap who loves his dog, is a keen botanist, is in love with his wife and courteous to all around him. Shame he also spies for the Germans and so has to be handed over to the authorities to be executed for treason.

For his part, the mature Maugham depicts himself as observing and recording – detached, calm and unruffled – the absurd and unexpected behaviour of all sorts of people. Here there are early, rather clunky formulations of this indulgent, non-judgmental approach:

I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.

Or again:

I expected then people to be more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did not realise how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.

It’s not rocket science, is it? But then a writer’s philosophy doesn’t need to be. James Joyce’s ‘philosophy’ never seemed to me to amount to much, but that’s irrelevant beside his achievement, the awesomeness of his stories and novels. Same here. Saying that people are a funny old mix of good and bad is desperately banal; but showing it in stories of tremendous psychological penetration and plausibility, is a great achievement.

Who can fathom the subtleties of the human heart? Certainly not those who expect from it only decorous sentiments and normal emotions.

Style

In my reviews of the first three volumes of short stories I’ve said enough about the odd unEnglish nature of many of Maugham’s sentences and its probable origin in a) hangovers from the peculiar manneredness of Victorian phraseology which lingered on like fossils embedded in his more modern prose, b) the fact that he was brought up speaking French and English was in many ways his second language. Still, some particularly odd sentences deserve highlighting.

The nurse was pitiful to his distress… (Ch 36)

He had even a black border to his handkerchief. (Ch 38)

Best of all:

I do not suppose he had ever noticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room in which on my first visit I found him. (p.76)

Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, and he could never overcome the horror with which it filled him. He felt always the furious hatred that must seize a man condemned when he compared himself with the doctor, sane and healthy, who had the inestimable privilege of life. (p.201)

Not English, is it? It’s Maughamese.

Ole blue eyes

Its trivial but I can’t help noticing how many of Maugham’s characters have blue eyes:

[Charles Strickland] was a man of forty, not good-looking, and yet not ugly, for his features were rather good; but they were all a little larger than life-size, and the effect was ungainly. He was clean shaven, and his large face looked uncomfortably naked. His hair was reddish, cut very short, and his eyes were small, blue or grey. (Chapter 6)

The Colonel gulped down his whisky. He was a tall, lean man of fifty, with a drooping moustache and grey hair. He had pale blue eyes and a weak mouth. (Chapter 8)

[Dirk Stroeve] was a fat little man, with short legs, young still—he could not have been more than thirty—but prematurely bald. His face was perfectly round, and he had a very high colour, a white skin, red cheeks, and red lips. His eyes were blue and round too, he wore large gold-rimmed spectacles, and his eyebrows were so fair that you could not see them. He reminded you of those jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted. (Chapter 19)

‘When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail.’ (Chapter 38)

Captain Nichols… was a very lean man, of no more than average height, with grey hair cut short and a stubbly grey moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. (Chapter 46)

Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature and exceeding bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck’s egg; and his eyes, sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now and then with self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. (Chapter 55)

Why always blue, I idly wonder. Was it simply that Maugham liked blue eyes?


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (1960)

‘At the end you find you haven’t even got a self to express. I have no interest in anything any more , Doctor.’…
‘When a man comes here too late the disease has to burn itself out.’ (p.46)

‘Querry may be also a burnt-out case,’ the doctor said… [Burnt-out cases are] the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.’ (p.110)

Plot – part one

A mysterious figure trying to escape his past life has taken the river boat as far as it will go into the heart of Congo. He gets out at the end of the line, where there is a leper colony. It is Querry, a (supposedly) world-famous religious architect, whose picture was on the cover of Time, and who built a number of churches in the modern style. Now he gets permission to stay at the local Catholic seminary and gets to know the Superior, the various fathers, and Dr Colin who runs the leproserie – a clinic for the many local lepers.

It quickly emerges that Querry is at the end of his tether, having left both his mistress and his architectural practice. He no longer feels a vocation, he no longer feels desire, he feels nothing, he wants nothing. He sits around and chats about the meaning of life and how to get the generators working, with the Superior, with the various priests and with Dr Colin, who he develops a wary friendship with. They are both lapsed Catholics.

Catholicism

Of course, this being Greene, almost all the characters are Catholics who, therefore, all start talking at the drop of a hat about divine and earthly love, who worry about their rosaries or whether God is watching or whether they should or shouldn’t attend mass, etc. The immediate earnestness with which they debate these ‘Big Questions’ seems so remote and alien in the age of sexting and 50 Shades of Grey. I think of black and white TV programmes from the early 1960s with Malcolm Muggeridge and a bishop earnestly debating the Question of Faith, or some such. At one point, the exchange:

‘Remorse is a kind of belief.’
‘Oh no, it isn’t.’ (p.76)

made me laugh out loud. He’s behind you. Yah boo. Love is hate and God is pity but pity kills and man killed God but God kills man every day, but man kills God in  his image every day, blah blah blah. Along with much harping on Greene’s favourite theme that love is dangerous, it demands victims, that pity can kill, that all the supposed virtues lead to their opposites. Well – if you read Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, you see that they often did for Mr G, forever entangled in the tortuous affairs with numerous women he ‘loved’ and wounded. But not necessarily for everyone else…

‘Liking is a great deal safer than love. It doesn’t demand victims.’ (p.82)

Etc. I’ve written elsewhere about Greene the preacherman. As I read the leisurely discussions about ‘the vocation of saints’ and ‘the true meaning of love’ between Querry and the Superior, Dr Colin and Querry, and the Superior and the priests, and the priests and Querry, it occurred to me that Greene might have liked the Catholic church, apart from all the other reasons (like being saved and going to Heaven) because it gives you endless opportunities to pontificate.

The scope for preaching is vast and the system much larger and more coherent than the inadequate Anglicanism he was raised in. Much larger, much more intense, much more blood and pain and suffering and sacrifice, very appealing to a suicidal adolescent or a depressive young man. And, once you’re in, there is literally endless scope to ravel out vast skeins of verbiage and rhetoric, scores of pages, entire books, from its infinitely varied, easily disputable and garish theology.

From a purely practical point of view, if you are a writer struggling to support a family (and various mistresses and prostitutes) and are paid by the word, then having troubled characters explore the voluminous entrails of Catholic theology is an extremely attractive and practical strategy for generating copy. Is extreme humility just, in fact, an inverted form of extreme pride? Aha, good for a short story. Is the truest love the one which denies its own expression? Aha, might work up into a full novel. Repeat ad infinitum

‘You are a man of humility.’ ‘If you knew the extent of my pride…’ (p.91)

‘If you feel in pain because you doubt, it is obvious you are feeling the pain of faith…’ (p.92)

‘Perhaps a man can be judged by his rashness.’ (p.99)

‘Behind all of us in various ways lies a spoilt priest.’ (p.110)

‘We none of us really know ourselves.’ (p.111)

‘Perhaps it’s true that you can’t believe in a god without loving a human being or love a human being without believing in a god.’ (p.114)

‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition.’ (p.122)

‘Love is planted in man now… Sometimes, of course, people call it hate.’ (p.124)

Suburban

This might have blossomed into some kind of existential meditation on life and death, on the developed and undeveloped world, on psychological illness (ennui) juxtaposed with the appalling symptoms of the physical ailment, leprosy, on the nature of colonialism in Africa.

But in Greene’s hands it becomes strangely suburban. The nearest town, Luc, is meant to be hundreds of miles away along disintegrating roads and yet we are quickly introduced to small-town, gossipy colonial life there, complete with raffish Monsignor (‘you may kiss my ring’), the insufferably self-centered Rycker – owner of a palm oil factory – and his poor young wife who he alternately tyrannises and wheedles into bed with him, the short, pompous governor and his wife, fussing about drinks at their cocktail parties. Before he knows it, Querry, who had hoped to find peace and anonymity in the depths of the jungle, is the nearest thing to a ‘celebrity’, his every move reported in the tiny world of unhappy colonists.

George Orwell notoriously pointed out that the basic plot of The Heart of the Matter (police inspector has affair with younger woman) could have taken place in Surrey, not Sierra Leone. Here, also, although it is very hot and there are ‘boy’ servants (and lepers) everywhere, the plot could actually be reset in any remote part of the British Isles where a jaded man goes to escape his success but ends up becoming the subject of local gossip. Viewed from another angle, it could almost have been an Ealing comedy, starring Alec Guinness as the unassuming architect.

Comedy

In fact, there are numerous moments of quiet comedy scattered through the text. Loser Takes All and Our Man In Havana marked a new ability for comedy in Greene’s work, a new maturity – if we define maturity as the ability to laugh at the world’s absurdity rather than be adolescently tortured by it.

Father Jean was tall, pale, and concave with a beard which struggled like an unpruned hedge. He had once been a brilliant theologian before he joined the Order and now he carefully nurtured the character of a film-fan, as though it would help him to wipe out an ugly past. (p.83)

And there’s a tension in this text between the melodramatic finale Greene forces on it and the numerous small ironies he quietly records between the characters, along the way.

Descriptions

The pace of the first half of the novel is as slow as the wide, muddy river which flows past the leproserie, allowing plenty of time for some wonderful descriptions.

On the other shore the great trees, with roots above the ground like the ribs of a half-built ship, stood out over the green jungle wall, brown at the top like stale cauliflowers. The cold grey trunks, unbroken by branches, curved a little this way and a little that, giving them a kind of reptilian life Porcelain-white birds stood on the backs of coffee-coloured cows, and once for a whole hour he watched a family who sat in a pirogue by the bank doing nothing; the mother wore a bright yellow dress, the man, wrinkled like bark, sat bent over a paddle he never used, and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano. (p.27)

The plot – part two

I don’t know why critics say Greene is political when he is entirely personal. Congo, where this novel is set, achieved independence in the year the novel was published, 1960. The lead-up to this momentous achievement must have been intricate and fascinating. None of this appears in the novel, only a few passing references to ‘riots in the capital’, which could be any capital, anywhere.

No, alas, after the slow amiable conversations of part one, part two descends quickly into a bedroom farce which Greene then forces to become some kind of tragedy.

Part two (the novel is actually divided into six parts, but very clearly falls into two halves) begins with the arrival of a fatuous (and fat) journalist named Montagu Parkinson, who has been alerted to Querry’s presence by the histrionic, self-dramatising Catholic factory owner, Rycker, back in Luc. Parkinson has looked Querry up in the files of his magazine and uncovered some dirt, mainly about past affairs and mistresses. Like Greene himself.

After a week or so he departs but a month or so later Querry hears that Parkinson has published the first of a sensational series about the successful architect who gave it all up to minister to lepers in the jungle, a Saint, a Figure For Our Times etc. Disgusted, Querry drives the long distance to give Rycker a piece of his mind, in fact to thump him. But he finds him ill in bed and his pretty young wife quickly confides how unhappy she is and she fears she is pregnant. Somehow Querry finds himself driving her off into Luc that night with a view to visiting a doctor the next day to get a confirmation, or not, of the pregnancy. He gets them seperate hotel rooms. She can’t sleep so he tells her a long parable about a young man who believes in an invisible king (a transparent allegory of his own Catholic faith). Next day they bump into the ubiquitous Parkinson, but Rycker turns up, enraged, histrionically convinced his wife has run off to have an affair with Querry. This is such rubbish, Querry simply walks away.

Several days later the priests at the seminary have a little party to celebrate putting the roof-tree onto the new school building Querry has designed for them. There is a heavy rainstorm with (Gothic) thunder and lightning. In the middle of all the bangs and flashes, the priests get a call from the convent down the road that Rycker’s wife, Marie, has arrived there, exhausted, after 3 days on the road alone. She is insisting not only that Querry is her lover, but that she is pregnant by him!

Ridiculous! Querry goes to talk to her but realises she is quite ready to lie her pants off because it will get her away from the husband she hates and, ultimately, back to Europe where she longs to return.

As the thunder and lightning crash around the seminary, the priests are discussing whether Querry can be allowed to stay with them – since there will inevitably be scandal, boosted by the vile journalist Parkinson – and Querry is brushing it off and discussing divine and earthly love and which building they need to build next with Dr Colin – when the infuriated, histrionically Catholic, ‘wronged husband’ Rycker arrives, blundering about in the tropical rainstorm shouting Querry’s name and waving a gun around.

Farce or tragedy

Go on. Guess what happens next. Rycker shoots Querry dead. How did you guess? Oh yes, because it was crashingly inevitable. — Greene is so aware that a novel which could have offered fascinating insights into Congo on the eve of independence or about the treatment of leprosy and medicine in the developing world or about one man’s quest to escape the world – has turned into yet another novel about adultery, just like The Heart of the Matter and The End of The Affair, and a rather ludicrous one at that, that he has one of the priests point out that it’s all a bit like a French farce.

Rycker made for the door. He stood there for a moment as though he were on stage and had forgotten his exit line. ‘There isn’t a jury that would convict me,’ he said and went out again into the dark and rain…
[Father Jean said] ‘…It’s a little like one of those Palais Royal farces that one has read… The injured husband pops in and out.’ (p.190)

Quite. Greene visited some amazing places at just the right historical moment – London during the Blitz, Freetown 1942, Vienna 1948, Vietnam 1952, Cuba 1955, Congo 1959 – and sets novels in each of them. But novels of adventure? Novels of profound political insight? Novels which shed light on the great movement of post-colonial independence which swept the world in the decades after World War Two? Nope. Novels about unhappy upper-middle class professional men who steal other men’s women or have their women stolen by other men. The key characters are always Greene-proxy – woman – other man.

If only Greene could have devised a comic resolution to what is in so many ways a straightforward comic situation. But no. Bang bang. ‘The horror the horror,’ Querry dies quoting Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… actually he doesn’t, his dying word is the 1950s existentialist buzzword, ‘absurd’. But just quoting the buzzword of fashionable existentialism doesn’t make your entire work an existentialist novel. It is too urbane, too relaxed, right up till the end too untroubled for that.

Envoi

With crashing inevitability there is a final conversation between the Superior and sad Dr Colin designed to make us empathise even more with the tragic hero.

‘They would never have left him alone.’
‘Who do you mean by “they”?’
‘The fools, the interfering fools, they exist everywhere, don’t they? He had been cured of all but his success; but you can’t cure success, any more than I can give my mutilés back their fingers and toes. I return them to the town, and people look at them in the stores and watch them in the street and draw the attention of others to them as they pass. Success is like that too – a mutilation of the natural man.’ (p.197)

Poor Graham. Rich, successful, famous. Wives, mistresses and lovers coming out of his ears. Still so unhappy. Still such a grievance against the world.

In the end the plot boils down to a farcical joke: middle-aged philanderer is shot down by the jealous husband of the one woman he hasn’t bedded. Bitter irony. Life isn’t fair. The world is absurd. Geddit?

Style

All that said in criticism of the plot and the bucket theology, the novel is very pleasurable to read. His style, though not flashy or ostentatious, is dry and suave. Greene had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. He knows how to achieve a host of little effects by juxtaposing people’s thoughts or words with their opposite in reality or other people’s minds, sly little dramatic ironies to be found on every page.

You almost feel the bucket Catholicism is part of a contractual obligation he feels required to deliver in each novel; whereas it is the ‘wisdom’ embodied by these small verbal strategies, the sense they give of listening to a man of the world, who is alert to all the little comedies of social life, of being alive and alert to human ironies, which is the real pleasures of the text. Not even the characters, as such, but the words that create the characters, and the way they move and dance against each other.

After reading Modesty Blaise and the Quiller spy novels, it was an enormous relief to read a text which is so sophisticated, urbane, reflective, mature.

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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