Molloy by Samuel Beckett – part one (1950)

Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.
(Molloy, page 27)

Molloy is the first of a trilogy of novels which continued with Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and quickly came to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s how it’s titled in the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s.

Beckett wrote Molloy in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1955, is by Beckett and Patrick Bowles.

Molloy is in two parts of equal length. This review is of part one, the long, first-person narrative by Molloy himself.

Beckett’s prose mannerisms

Let’s look at the continuities of style and approach Molloy shares with More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and The First Love tetralogy of short stories:

Wall of solid prose The book is divided into two halves. The first half of about eighty pages has no paragraph breaks at all. It is like a wall of prose, and sometimes feels like an avalanche of concrete. It is physically difficult to read. It is challenging to know where to stop for a break, and how to mark your place so you find exactly the same place to resume at.

It has a first-person narrator who is fantastically vague about every aspect of his life:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got here. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not.

I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much…

Forgotten To say the narrator is forgetful is an understatement. His main activity is not being able to remember anything.

  • Her name? I’ve forgotten it again
  • I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.
  • I’ve forgotten the half of it. Ah yes, I too needed her, it seemed. She needed me to help her get rid of her dog, and I needed her. I’ve forgotten for what.

I don’t know The phrase ‘I don’t know’ is a real mannerism or tic, cropping up numerous times on every page.

  • Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much. For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know.
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why, my name is not Dan.
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression.

This is doubly true of the phrase I don’t know why. You just add it to the end of a common-or-garden sentence to make a Beckett phrase. ‘I’m in this room. I don’t know why.’

  • Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • It was she dug the hole, under a tree. You always bury your dog under a tree, I don’t know why.

It is the poetics of Alzheimer’s Disease, of dementia, a permanent fog of unknowing. Possibly some readers find some of this funny, but it reminds me all too much of my Dad losing his mind, and that wasn’t funny at all.

And when the narrator describes visiting his gaga old mother and devising a method of communicating with her which amounts to giving her a number of taps on the skull, up to five taps, each number meaning a different thing, despite the fact she’d ceased to be able to count beyond two… I can see that it might be designed to have a certain dark humour, but it reminded me of my mother’s state at the end of her life.

She knew it was me, by my smell. Her shrunken, hairy old face lit up, she was happy to smell me. She jabbered away with a rattle of dentures and most of the time didn’t realize what she was saying.

Perhaps Nearly as much of a mannerism is the recurrent use of ‘perhaps’:

  • Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet.
  • All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere.
  • I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.
  • Perhaps I’m inventing a little, perhaps embellishing…
  • But perhaps I’m remembering things…
  • For the wagons and carts which a little before dawn went thundering by, on their way to market with fruit, eggs,
    butter and perhaps cheese, in one of these perhaps he would have been found, overcome by fatigue or discouragement, perhaps even dead.
  • And she did not try and hold me back but she went and sat down on her dog’s grave, perhaps, which was mine too in a way…

Or The two tics above are accompanied by a less frequent but just as tell-tale mannerism, which is to make a declarative statement then tack ‘or’ and an alternative clause at the end – ‘or nearly x’, ‘or about y’. The narrator describes something, then immediately says ‘or’ it was something else. Much virtue on your ‘or’. It creates a permanent sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

  • All that left me cold, or nearly.
  • But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

It’s part of the way that more or less every declarative sentence i.e. one that appears to be conveying a piece of information, is immediately contradicted or queried or undermined by uncertainty.

A and C I never saw again. But perhaps I shall see them again. But shall I be able to recognise them? And am I sure I never saw them again? And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again?

The English language is continually crumbling away and collapsing in his hands.

They Some undefined group – ‘they’ – have done a lot of this to the narrator, like the ‘they’ that kicked the narrator out of his cosy home in the four short stories.

  • What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my good-byes, finish dying. They don’t want that. Yes,
    there is more than one, apparently.

Highfalutin In fact, one big noticeable change from Beckett’s previous prose fictions is that he has now dropped the Joycean fascination with out-of-the-way vocabulary which clotted Pricks and Murphy and to some extent Watt. There are some arcane words, but only a handful, instead of the riot of incanabula you find in the earlier books.

  • that would have allowed me, before parading in public certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss, to refer them to the first rules of a reasoned theory.
  • But not knowing exactly what I was doing or avoiding, I did it and avoided it all unsuspecting that one day, much later, I would have to go back over all these acts and omissions, dimmed and mellowed by age, and drag them into the eudemonistic slop.
  • And when I see my hands, on the sheet, which they love to floccillate already, they are not mine, less than ever mine, I have no arms

Presumably this was one major result of Beckett’s decision to start writing his texts in French and then translating them back into English: a) French doesn’t have so many words as English b) and nothing like so many weird and functabulous words c) and therefore sentences which could have been conceived around an arcane English word, can’t be reconceived around one when he translates back from the simpler French, otherwise he’d have to have rewritten the book. Instead the vocabulary is much more limited and plain.

Crudity There is, however, just as much interest in bodily functions described in vulgar words as in all his previous works. He enjoys shocking the bourgeois reader with his potty language:

  • My mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know. Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot.
  • For if they accused me of having made a balls of it…
  • What a story, God send I don’t make a balls of it.
  • I give you my word, I cannot piss, my word of honour, as a gentleman.
  • I shall have occasion to do so later perhaps. When I seek refuge there, beat to the world, all shame drunk, my prick in my rectum, who knows.
  • Unfortunately it is not of them I have to speak, but of her who brought me into the world, through the hole in her arse if my memory is correct. First taste of the shit.
  • How difficult it is to speak of the moon and not lose one’s head, the witless moon. It must be her arse she shows us always.
  • For as long as I had remained at the seaside my weak points, while admittedly increasing in weakness, as was
    only to be expected, only increased imperceptibly, in weakness I mean. So that I would have hesitated to exclaim, with my finger up my arse-hole for example, Jesus-Christ, it’s much worse than yesterday, I can hardly believe it is the same hole.

Or this pretty dithyramb about farting. People talk about Beckett’s bravery in facing the nihilism of the universe or the emptiness of existence. They shouldn’t forget about the farting.

I wrapped myself in swathes of newspaper, and did not shed them until the earth awoke, for good, in April. The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a never failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it. I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.

Summary of Beckett’s prose mannerisms

So you could argue that, on one level, the text is assembled from these seven or eight mannerisms (plus others I’ve probably missed), and which are deployed over and over and over again.

About thirty pages in the narrator appears to say that he is dead, so maybe this is a literary vision of what death is like:

But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life…

And again:

And I too am at an end, when I am there, my eyes close, my sufferings cease and I end, I wither as the living can not.

But later he appears to imply that neither of the terms living or dead are adequate to describe his situation. So, characteristically, maybe he is dead and maybe he isn’t. It hardly matters. The situation, the attitude and the prose mannerisms are so like the ones displayed in More Pricks and Murphy and First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End (except for the omission of the highfalutin terms) that any ‘factual’ claims the text makes seem secondary to the consistency of the same old same old prose style.

It isn’t what the prose says that matters – it’s what it does and this is create a kind of quite novel and distinctive kind of poetry of decreptitude.

A flow of prose

It is not quite stream of consciousness but nearly –  one apparent subject leads on to another, seamlessly, in a great mud flow of prose.

This is one of the things which makes it so hard to read – that it isn’t really ‘about’ anything, about particular events or objects or people in ‘the real world’ but flows on continuously, introducing new subjects, people and perspectives, few of them ever named or identified, just abstract de Chirico figures in a barren colourless environment, who bob up for a while – like the men he names A and C – and disappear just as inconsequentially.

Some passages have a real surrealist vibe and could be describing a Max Ernst landscape:

For what possible end to these wastes where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night.

A short example of how the intensity of his worldview, his bleak landscape, can become visionary and beautiful.

Facts as colours

There is one effect I’d like to try and define. For in the endless river of ‘perhaps, or something else, what do you call it, I can’t remember, I don’t know, well that’s one way of putting it’-type prose, just occasionally things like actual ‘facts’ surface for a moment. Nuggets of what, in another text, would be ‘information’ about the narrator or some of the other ‘characters.

For example, the narrator, remembering watching two men set off for a walk into the country, casually mentions that he is on an ‘island’.

Or suddenly mentions that he was on his crutches, hobbling, because of his bad leg (p.14).

Or that he has no teeth.

All I could see was her taut yellow nape which every now and then I set my teeth in, forgetting I had none, such is the power of instinct.

In a normal narrative, these facts might have had ‘significance’ i.e. they would have gone towards building up a picture of the narrator and maybe developing a psychological profile. But there is no psychology in Beckett, or rather there is just the one big Alzheimer Psychology – the inside of a mind which can’t remember anything or make head or tail of anything and isn’t sure whether it’s alive or dead.

Thus these ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’ in the conventional sense. They are more like sudden streaks of paint, a daub of blue here, a splat of red there, which suddenly crystallise certain ‘areas’ of the text, but don’t ‘mean’ anything, certainly don’t carry the literal meaning they would bear in a traditional novel.

Maybe it’s a kind of prose abstract expressionism. Take Blue Poles painted by Jackson Pollock in 1952, the year after Molloy was published.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock (1952)

The right-angled splash of red at the top left, what does that ‘tell’ you? Nothing. It just kind of crystallises an area of the canvas, it brings that particular area into focus. The red splash need not have gone there, but it did, and once it did, it adds another layer to an already complex composition, and it feels like a kind of finishing touch, a cherry on the icing that brings that particular area into… focus.

I’m suggesting that the ‘facts’ in Beckett’s text do something similar. On one level – because language can never escape its primary purpose of conveying meaning – on one level we learn that the narrator has a gammy leg and uses crutches. Fine. But when you actually read these nuggets embedded in the vast flow of text, moments like this don’t come over as they would in a normal novel, it’s more as if they’re moments of clarity around which the huge fog of the rest of the text arranges itself, highlights like the tip of an iceberg appearing in an Atlantic of uncertainty – or sudden splashes of red which somehow bring that area of the canvas into focus. They’re part of a design rather than pieces of information.

Words convey meanings. You can take many of the hundreds of ‘facts’ contained in the text and spin these into a meta-narrative, a literary critical interpretation. Or take my view, that the words and even their ‘meanings’ are more like colours deployed on a canvas to create an overall design or effect.

Take the ‘fact’ that the narrator appears to attempt to commit suicide at one point.

I took the vegetable knife from my pocket and set about opening my wrist. But pain soon got the better of me. First I cried out, then I gave up, closed the knife and put it back in my pocket. I wasn’t particularly disappointed, in my heart of hearts I had not hoped for anything better. So much for that.

In a ‘normal’ narrative this would be a big deal. Maybe in Molloy it is, but it doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t shed any particular light on what preceded or what follows it. It’s the apparent inconsequentiality of ‘incidents’ like this which suggests to me that they are more part of an abstract pattern or design than a catalogue of important ‘facts’ which need to be analysed and assembled into a psychological profile.

Other mannerisms

Sex

I like Leslie Fiedler’s description of Beckett ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ a) because it seems accurate b) because it conveys something of the spotty schoolboy element in Beckett. ‘Miss, Miss, Sam said a naughty word, Miss’. And indeed he enjoys writing arse, prick, piss, shit, and one four occasions, cunt. Ooh. I feel so twitted.

Now the obvious way to twit the bourgeoisie from the era of Madame Bovary or Les Fleurs du Mal (both French books which were banned for immorality in the 1850s) onwards, was to be explicit about sex. But here Sam double-twits the bourgeoisie by writing about sex but in an entirely banal, unglamorous, factual and rather sordid way.

Thus, half-way through the first half of the book, Molloy remembers an affair with a woman whose name, characteristically, he can’t remember (‘She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith.’) They have sex, fine, but the point is the entirely blunt, factual, downbeat way the narrator describes it.

She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all? She too was an eminently flat woman and she moved with short stiff steps, leaning on an ebony stick. Perhaps she was a man, yet another of them. But in that case surely our testicles would have collided, while we writhed.

So you there you have Beckettian sex. Frank and factual but treated with the same indifference and puzzlement as everything else in a Beckett narrator’s life. But, you are also aware of the deliberate crudity, designed to offend.

I would have preferred it seems to me an orifice less arid and roomy, that would have given me a higher opinion
of love it seems to me. However. Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison. But love is no doubt above such base contingencies. And not when you are comfortable, but when your frantic member casts about for a rubbing-place, and the unction of a little mucous membrane, and meeting with none does not beat in retreat, but retains its tumefaction, it is then no doubt that true love comes to pass, and wings away, high above the tight fit and the loose.

By the way, Molloy says he met Ruth or Edith or whoever in a rubbish dump, which literary critics might point out as an anticipation of the setting of the entire play Happy Days but which can equally be seen as an indication of the narrowness of Beckett’s range of settings.

Flexible style

As the text progresses it becomes more varied. Beckett deploys different registers of English. Not wildly so, this isn’t Joyce, but he creates a narrating voice which can slip easily into older locutions, invoking older English prose styles or syntax. For example in the sex passage, above, ‘Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison’ feels like a quotation or is certainly cast in the style of 18th century English to achieve that effect.

What I do know for certain is that I never sought to repeat the experience, having I suppose the intuition that it had
been unique and perfect, of its kind, achieved and inimitable, and that it behoved me to preserve its memory, pure of all pastiche, in my heart, even if it meant my resorting from time to time to the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse.

It’s easy to be distracted by the mention of self abuse in this sentence from its other elements, particularly ‘it behoved me’. My point is that his tone of voice is flexible enough to allow 18th century pastiche and more formal registers to weave in and out of the pricks and arses, or the more dully limited passages where he forgets this or that. In other words, when you really come to study it, Beckett achieves a surprisingly flexible and varied style.

So I was able to continue on my way, saying, I am going towards the sun, that is to say in theory towards the East, or perhaps the South-East, for I am no longer with Lousse, but out in the heart again of the pre-established harmony, which makes so sweet a music, which is so sweet a music, for one who has an ear for music.

Or:

But I preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall. And wheresoever you wander, within its distant limits, things will always be the same, precisely.

‘Wheresoever you wander’ sounds like Romantic poetry. ‘Saving your presence’ is a 17th century phrase:

But I am human, I fancy, and my progress suffered, from this state of affairs, and from the slow and painful progress it had always been, whatever may have been said to the contrary, was changed, saving your presence, to a veritable calvary, with no limit to its stations and no hope of crucifixion…

Or:

I apologise for having to revert to this lewd orifice, ’tis my muse will have it so.

By contrast, the first part of the following passage seems to be a parody of Communist Party rhetoric, which then, in its last clauses, carries out a characteristic Beckettian tactic of deflating into a common or garden image.

It is indeed a deplorable sight, a deplorable example, for the people, who so need to be encouraged, in their bitter toil, and to have before their eyes manifestations of strength only, of courage and of joy… without which they might collapse, at the end of the day, and roll on the ground.

Clichés

How would you describe those homely common-or-garden phrases which your old ladies or stupid people use, clichés, chatty rags and tatters of speech? Beckett likes including them, as if to undermine, throw away, banalise the endless meandering.

  • And though it is no part of my tottering intentions to treat here in full, as they deserve, these brief moments of the immemorial expiation, I shall nevertheless deal with them briefly, out of the goodness of my heart, so that my story, so clear till now, may not end in darkness,
  • And this is perhaps the moment to observe, better late than never, that when I speak of my progress being slowed down, consequent on the defection of my good leg, I express only an infinitesimal part of the truth
  • The idea of strangulation in particular, however tempting, I always overcame, after a short struggle. And between you and me there was never anything wrong with my respiratory tracts.
  • You can’t have everything, I’ve noticed…

Humour

Some of it clearly is intended to be funny, and is funny. Especially if you say it out loud in an Irish accent.

Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against [a woman]. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this.

Maybe it’s an optical illusion created by growing familiarity with the text and its mannerisms, but as I became more familiar with the tone and voice, it seemed to me that, as it went on, there were more funny moments. Or turns of phrase which are humorous, especially if said aloud.

…for I knew I was bound to be stopped by the first policeman and asked what I was doing, a question to which I have never been able to find the correct reply.

Molloy contains a celebrated sequence where the narrator debates with himself how to keep the 16 ‘sucking stones’ he has found on the seashore distributed equally between his four pockets. (He sucks stones to keep off hunger and thirst.)

I’ve just come across this sequence being performed by Jack MacGowran on YouTube, and it seems to me the two important things about this are that a) Jack was Irish and so delivered the English text with a noticeable Irish certain lilt from which it hugely benefits, and b) MacGowran was a character actor i.e. used to playing parts which are a bit cartoony, almost caricatures of the humble and downtrodden, for example his performance as the everso ‘umble servant, Petya, in the movie version of Dr Zhivago. Beckett liked MacGowran’s performances of his works. He wrote the solo monologue Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. Here he is bringing Molloy to life.

Maybe you just have to imagine Molloy as a derelict, half-senile, Irish tramp and then the highfalutin’ words and occasionally ornate phraseology become that of a gentleman beggar, down on his luck.

Maybe. It would be nice to think so. An easy solution to the problems of the text. But I don’t think it solves everything – meaning there are sentences and passages I don’t think fit even the most flexible notion of the erudite tramp, passages which speak with a different voice altogether:

There are things from time to time, in spite of everything, that impose themselves on the understanding with the force of axioms, for unknown reasons.

Kafka’s presence

Kafka’s very short story, A Messenger from the Emperor, is only 388 words long in Ian Johnston’s translation but it is a great example of the way Kafka takes a factual premise and turns it into a kind of surreal vision which piles up obstacles which make every effort to escape or progress more and more impossible in order to convey to readers a claustrophobic sense of the hysteria and panic Kafka felt, according to his letters and diaries, almost all the time.

Beckett does something similar, takes a common or garden object or incident and then quickly extrapolates it beyond all normal limits. Thus, upon escaping from Ruth’s house and hiding out down a dark alley, as day breaks, the narrator suddenly starts talking about the threat from ‘them’, and before we know it, has amplified this trope into a state of Kafkaesque paranoia.

They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty and justice baying for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time. But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors, but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats. It may begin again in the early afternoon, after the banquet, the celebrations, the congratulations, the orations, but it’s nothing compared to the morning, mere fun. Coming up to four or five of course there is the night-shift, the watchmen, beginning to bestir themselves. But already the day is over, the shadows lengthen, the walls multiply, you hug the walls, bowed down like a good boy, oozing with obsequiousness, having nothing to hide, hiding from mere terror, looking neither right nor left, hiding but not provocatively, ready to come out, to smile, to listen, to crawl, nauseating but not pestilent, less rat than toad. Then the true night, perilous too, but sweet to him who knows it, who can open to it like the flower to the sun, who himself is night, day and night. No there is not much to be said for the night either, but compared to the day there is much to be said for it, and notably compared to the morning there is everything to be said for it. For the night purge is in the hands of technicians, for the most part. They do nothing else, the bulk of the population have no part in it, preferring their warm beds, all things considered.

Does this scary vision of a city monitored by watchmen and technicians, whose work leaves only ‘a few survivors’ and frightens the narrator into ‘hiding from mere terror’, does this mean anything? Or is it colour? Or can the text be seen as a collage of snippets like this – the sex descriptions with Ruth, the hymn to his bicycle, the description of sucking stones or knocking on his mother’s skull – are they not intended in any way to be a continuous narrative (despite appearing on one seamless chunk of prose) but more like picture-scenes cut out and pasted onto a vast canvas, not following each other in sequence, but placed just so, to counterpoise each other. Perhaps.

At moments like this the text ceases to be a hymn to collapse and decay and becomes something more feverish and excitable:

Oh they weren’t notions like yours, they were notions like mine, all spasm, sweat and trembling, without an atom of common sense or lucidity.

Sequence of incidents

It can’t be called a plot but ‘notable incidents’ occur in this order:

  • the narrator is in his mother’s room and has scattered memories of her
  • he sees two men leave the town and walk into the country, who he names A and C, one walking an orange pomeranian dog (p.10)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman
  • he gets on his bicycle which he loves (p.17)
  • maybe his father’s name was Dan, he communicates with his mother by rapping on her skull (pp.18-19)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman who takes him to the station (p.20)
  • under questioning he remembers his name is Molloy (p.23)
  • the police release him and next thing he knows he’s walking along a canal (p.26)
  • he ponders how much he farts (p.29)
  • he’s back inside the town and obsessed with asking someone whether it is the town he was born in, he can’t tell (p.30)
  • he’s cycling along when he runs over and kills the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady referred to as Mrs Loy or Sophie or Lousse (p.31)
  • she owns a parrot who can only say ‘Fuck the son of a bitch’ (p.36)
  • he wakes to find himself imprisoned in a locked room, stripped and his beard shaved off (p.37)
  • a complex obsessively detailed description of the moon moving across the barred window (p.38)
  • the valet brings him new clothes and he pushes over all the furniture in the room with his crutches (p.41)
  • they return his clothes but without some of his belongings which he enumerates (p.43)
  • the door is open now so he goes downstairs and out into the garden where he sees Loose scattering seeds on the grave of her dead dog (p.44)
  • Lousse seduces him into staying with her, he can do anything he wants but she likes to watch him (p.46)
  • he remembers living with and having regular sex with Edith (p.53)
  • Edith dies while taking a bath in a warm tub which overflows, flooding the lodger below (p.54)
  • one warm airless night he walks out on Lousse, taking his crutches (p.55)
  • he stays in a shelter but is kicked out, then on the steps of a boarding house (p.56)
  • then in the filthy alcove of a back alley where he makes a very half-hearted attempt to slit his wrist with a blunt vegetable knife (p.57)
  • he describes in minute detail a silver toy he stole from Lousse (p.59)
  • he cycles clear of the town and gives the Kafkaesque description of the terror of ‘them’ (p.62)
  • he crawls into a hole and doesn’t know what happened to him for months or years afterwards (p.63)
  • suddenly he’s describing the period he spent by the seaside, living on a beach and a detailed account of his method of sucking stones and trying to keep track of 16 stones divided between four pockets; this goes on for a very long time (p.64)
  • sometimes women come to gawp at him, the strange old joxer on the beach
  • eventually he decides to return to his town, though it requires crossing a great marsh which is being drained in a major public work (p.70)
  • he tells us his stiff leg started growing shorter (p.71) an extended description of how difficult that makes walking, and his attempts to compensate
  • a review of his physical frailties including his big knees, weak legs, silly toes, asthma and arsehole (p.74)
  • he repeats several times that he’s reached an astonishing old age (p.76)
  • he is suddenly in a forest where he encounters a charcoal burner (p.77)
  • when the charcoal burner tries to keep him there by grabbing his sleeve, Molloy hits him over the head with a crutch then kicks him in the ribs (p.78)
  • wandering in the forest, with one of his typical nonsense discussions of how the best way to go in a straight line is plan to walk in a circle (cf the discussions about which direction the moon was heading relative to the window bars, and the very long discussion of how to keep his 16 sucking stones distributed equally between his four pockets) (p.79)
  • out of nowhere comes some kind of ‘solemn warning’ in Latin
  • a meditation what exactly he means when he says ‘I said’, he is obeying the convention of fiction whereas what really happens is more like a feeling bubbling up from inside his body (p.81)
  • he wonders how to get out of the forest and considers crawling, when he hears a gong (p.82)
  • it is deep mid-winter, perhaps, or maybe autumn, when he commences to crawl out of the forest, sometimes on his belly, sometimes on his back (p.83)
  • he reaches the edge of the forest and tumbles into a ditch from where he sees a huge plain extending into the distance and faraway the turrets of a town, is it the town of his birth, where his mother lives, who he still wants to visit – the main motor of the narrative? he doesn’t know, but at that moment hears a voice saying: ‘Don’t fret, Molloy, we’re coming.’

So there’s a variety of locations, namely the unnamed town of his birth, the house of Lousse where he is prisoner for some time, the seaside where he sucks stones and is gawped at by visiting women, and the forest where he kicks the old charcoal burner.

Above all, the text is drenched in negativity, phrases describing failing, collapsing, dying or decaying, the end, end of all etc.

And once again I am, I will not say alone, no, that’s not like me, but, how shall I say, I don’t know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don’t know what that means, but it’s the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.

Biographical snippets

Biographical or factual snippets about the narrator do occasionally surface amid the mud. His name is Molloy. He has a mother he called Mag. She called him Dan, though it’s not his name, maybe his father’s name was Dan. His legs are infirm so he needs crutches. Despite this he loves cycling. He’s cycling on his way to visit his ailing mother when he runs over the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady named Mrs Loy, or Sophie or Lousse, who takes him in. He has a beard.

Literary significance

I can see that it is a masterful experiment in prose content and prose style. Presumably it was radical for the time, just after the war. And yet, certainly in the visual arts, it was an era of year zero painting depicting devastated worlds, post-nuclear worlds. I’m not saying this is that, but Molloy’s extended minimalism falls in with that mood. There are no colours. Everything is grey, the grey of a brain-damaged Alzheimer’s patient unable to make any sense of the constantly shifting pattern of memories and half memories.

And many, many passages just seem like inconsequential gibberish.

The Aegean, ‘thirsting for heat and light, him I killed, he killed himself, early on, in me. The pale gloom of rainy days was better fitted to my taste, no, that’s not it, to my humour, no, that’s not it either, I had neither taste nor humour, I lost them early on. Perhaps what I mean is that the pale gloom, etc., hid me better, without its being on that account particularly pleasing to me. (p.29)

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe up. Maybe down. Maybe nothing. More varied and strange mixing learned references and crudity and Alzheimer’s tramp with something larger than that, a strange voided narrative voice, perhaps without it maybe moving forward, forward, me, not me, speechless talking. It has a strange and brooding and puzzling and confusing magnificence.


Credit

Molloy by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1950. The English translation by Patrick Bowles was published in 1955. Page references are to the Picador paperback edition of the Beckett TrilogyMolloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Every Man In His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)

‘O, manners! that this age should bring forth such creatures! that nature should be at leisure to make them!’
(Ned Knowell, Every Man In His Humour, Act 4, scene 5)

When he came to oversee the collection of all the poetry and plays he wished to preserve in a Folio edition of his Works in 1616, Jonson chose to open the volume with Every Man In His Humour, ignoring all the earlier plays he’d written or had a hand in and asserting that this was his first mature play.

He didn’t just tweak the play, but subjected it to a major overhaul, changing the setting from an unconvincing Florence to a vividly depicted contemporary London, anglicising the names of all the characters, cutting speeches, making the thing more focused. Since the earlier version of the play had been published in a Quarto version in 1601, students of the play are quickly introduced to the existence of these two versions and invited to play a game of ‘Compare The Versions’.

The other issue you’re quickly made aware of as you read any introduction to the play, is the issue of ‘humours’. This seems to be simpler than it first appears. The ancient Greeks (starting with Hippocrates, then Galen) developed a theory that the human body consisted of four elements or humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These were quickly associated with the four elements which make up the world, as posited by Empedocles, namely earth, air, fire and water – and over the next 1,500 years the theory was elaborated into a system of vast complexity, drawing in the star signs of astrology and much more.

The basic idea is that the ‘humours’ must be in balance for the body to be healthy. All illnesses can be attributed to an imbalance or excess of one or other ‘humour’. If you were ill, doctors would diagnose the imbalance of your ‘humours’ and submit you to any one of hundreds of useless treatments, the most florid being the ‘purges’, or bleeding, which poor King Charles II was repeatedly subjected to on his death bed.

But it wasn’t just illness – human character could be attributed to the excess of a particular humour. Thus blood was associated with a sanguine nature (enthusiastic, active, and social); an excess of yellow bile was thought to produce aggression; black bile was associated with depression or ‘melancholy’, in fact the word melancholy derives from the Greek μέλαινα χολή (melaina kholé) which literally means ‘black bile’. And an excess of phlegm was thought to be associated with apathetic behavior, as preserved in the word ‘phlegmatic’ i.e. unmoved by events.

Jonson applies the theory to comedy by making the theory of humours into the basis of psychology. The idea is that every person has a hobby horse or leading passion or quirk or obsession. He explains the idea at length in a speech given to a character in the play’s sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour:

ASPER: So in every human body,
The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood,
By reason that they flow continually
In some one part, and are not continent,
Receive the name of humours. Now thus far
It may, by metaphor, apply itself
Unto the general disposition:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way,
This may be truly said to be a humour
CORDATUS: He speaks pure truth; now if an idiot
Have but an apish or fantastic strain,
It is his humour.
ASPER: Well, I will scourge those apes,
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
As large as is the stage whereon we act;
Where they shall see the time’s deformity
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.

So the title of the play means something like ‘Every man looked at in the context of his guiding passion or eccentricity’. A really blunt translation might be ‘People as obsessives’.

It is really just a variation on the idea of comic stereotypes or types, which flourished in Roman comedy and has formed the basis of comedy down to the present. Dad’s Army springs to mind with its collection of comic types – the pompous bank manager, the lugubrious public schoolboy, the shady spiv, the weedy mummy’s boy, the excitable veteran, the gloomy Scot and so on.

But for Jonson, as for other Renaissance theorists, mere entertainment wasn’t enough, and his criticism and the plays themselves are full of snarling animosity at poets who churned out haphazard entertainments. In Jonson’s view, the comic portrayal of characters dominated by their humours or obsessions serves a purpose: by showing people behaving ridiculously on stage, comedy should make the audience reflect on their own obsessions, on their own quirky and irrational behaviour, and thus teach them to behave more rationally and charitably.

Hence the hundreds of references to the same basic idea, which is that comedy ‘scourges the follies of the time’ or ‘laughs people out of their follies’, and so on.

I, for one, don’t believe for a minute that watching a comic play for a few hours will change anyone’s behaviour. If so, if satire did change anything, how come there has always been an endless need and market for it? People are people and human nature goes very deep and laughing at a handful of caricatures for a couple of hours is not going to change anyone’s personality or behaviour.

Also there’s a subtler reason. There’s a case for saying that Jonson’s own practice undermines his theories, in the sense that all the prologues and prefaces and dedicatory letters and even characters within his plays certainly repeat ad nauseam variations on the same idea the ‘Comedy Laughs The Age Out of Its Follies’. And yet, when you actually experience the plays onstage, as dramatic experiences, it becomes vividly clear that Jonson loves the follies of the age. They’re what energise and inspire him.

Cast

KNOWELL, an old Gentleman, laments the old days and jealous of his son’s debauchery
EDWARD KNOWELL, his Son
BRAINWORM, the Father’s Man, looking to curry favour with the son and heir
MASTER STEPHEN, a Country Gull (‘he is stupidity itself’)
MASTER MATHEW, the Town Gull
GEORGE DOWNRIGHT, a plain Squire
WELLBRED, Kitely’s half-Brother, suave and sophisticated friend of Ed Knowell
CAPTAIN BOBADILL, a Paul’s Man, a bragging liar, close relative of Shakespeare’s Pistol in Henry IV
JUSTICE CLEMENT, an old merry
KITELY, a merchant driven out of his mind by obsessive jealousy of his wife
THOMAS CASH, KITELY’S Cashier
DAME KITELY, KITELY’S Wife
MRS. BRIDGET his Sister.
OLIVER COB, a simple water-bearer
TIB Cob’s Wife

Every Man In His Humour

Act one

Old Knowell dotes on his scholar son Edward until he intercepts a letter to him (Edward) from his student buddy, Master Wellbred, inviting him to debauchery. More specifically, the letter is sent from Wellbred who lives in Old Jewry (a street in the City of London) to Ned Knowell who lives in Hoxton, a few miles to the north, telling him not to be a stranger, to evade his controlling father, to pop down and see him because he is being visited by a couple of pompous idiots who will be worth his entertainment.

Scandalised, Old Knowell tells his servant, Brainworm, to pass the letter on to his son, not mentioning that he (the father) has read it. Brainworm delivers it to young Ned alright, but fully mentions that his father has read it and we begin to

During the whole act both Knowells and Brainworm are plagued by Ned’s cousin, the blowhard Stephen who combines idiocy – he has splashed out on an expensive hawk without knowing anything about hawking, and now feebly asks old Knowell if he has a book on the subject – with untimely belligerence e.g. he threatens to get into a duel with the delivery boy who brings the letter from Wellbred and is quick to imagine anyone turning their back on him or muttering is slighting him – but when faced up, quickly and feebly backs down.

Master Matthew pays a visit to the very humble abode of Cob the water carrier to see the braggart soldier, Bobbadil who is lodging with him. All three characters are played for laughs, I like the passage where the captain asks Matthew not to tell anyone where he’s staying, not because it’s too humble and squalid but because he doesn’t want to be inundated with visitors 🙂 And when Bobbadil offers to defend Matthew against the foul insults of Squire Downright, Wellbred’s elder brother, it is very funny the way Matthew praises the captain’s immense martial skill and the captain poo-poohs him while enjoying the praise, before putting him through a farcical rehearsal of sword fighting.

Act 2

At Kitely’s house. Kitely tells Squire Downward he took in a foundling and has made him his cashier and runner and named him Cash. Then he gets on to his main point which is lamenting that he ever allowed Wellbred to come and lodge with him, for he has turned the house into a tavern and brothel with loose company at all hours. Kitely now asks Downward – as Wellbred’s older brother – if he can politely ask Wellbred to leave.

During this dialogue both characters reveal their ‘humours’. Downward is quick to anger and expresses it in a volley of cliches and oldd proverbs. Kitely, for his part, reveals that the real root reason for wanting Wellbred to leave is he is consumed with jealousy about his recently-married wife.

Bobadill and Matthew briefly intrude on the scene looking for Wellbred, giving Matthew just enough time to insult Downward, who goes to draw his sword while Kitely restrains him and the others quickly exit.

Kitely has a long speech about how his doubts about his wife’s infidelity have slowly become his obsession. Two points: 1. It is (arguably) part of Jonson’s didactic strategy to have his humour-ridden characters soliloquise about them – in the sense that their description of their symptoms helps the audience identify (and counter?) them. Here is Kitely giving a vivid description of Jealousy:

But it may well be call’d poor mortals’ plague;
For, like a pestilence, it doth infect
The houses of the brain. First it begins
Solely to work upon the phantasy,
Filling her seat with such pestiferous air,
As soon corrupts the judgment; and from thence,
Sends like contagion to the memory:
Still each to other giving the infection.
Which as a subtle vapour spreads itself
Confusedly through every sensive part,
Till not a thought or motion in the mind
Be free from the black poison of suspect.

2. Martin Seymour-Smith, editor of the edition I read, suggests that Kitely’s envisioning of his wife being debauched is so vivid because, not very far from the surface, Kitely wants his wife to be ravished and wants to watch. Obviously Dame Kitely is oblivious of her husband’s feverish imaginings.

Scene 2 Moorfields, Brainworm is disguised as an army veteran and bumps into Ned Knowell and the idiot Stephen heading south to visit Wellbred. There is comedy when Brainworm tells whopping lies about his army record (mentioning battles which are nearly 100 years old) tries to sell Stephen his rapier and Knowell tries to stop stupid Stephen buying the rusty bit of trash.

Cut to Knowell making his way south to spy on his son. A soliloquy lamenting how corrupt the times are and how fathers corrupt their sons – the timelessness of this kind of sentiment confirmed when you learn that a lot of it is copied from the satires of Juvenal, written in the second century BC.

He encounters Brainworm in his disguise as a disabled soldier. Brainworm wheedles on and on begging for some alms, Knowell disapproves and asks him if he is not ashamed to be a beggar, and finally tells him to follow him and do him honest service in return for money.

Brainworm soliloquises. His ultimate aim is to ingratiate himself with young Knowell who will be his future. But meanwhile he gleefully tells the audience he will have fun doing his master mischief.

Act 3

Scene 1 Ned Knowell and his gull Stephen finally meet Wellbred, who is with Bobadill, and there is a festival of stupidity. Basically, Knowell and Wellbred are the clever ones, the ones who egg on the stupid gulls – boasting Bobadill, Matthew and Stephen who pretends to have fashionable melancholy – to display their foibles and follies in dialogue while the two smart or superior ones give a running commentary in asides to each other, and to the audience.

They are just discussing the sword Matthew bought off Brainworm, when the latter arrives onstage, still in disguise as the begging soldier. They argue about the sword he sold Matthew, more importantly Brainworm takes Ned Knowell aside and reveals his true identity, explaining that his father has tracked him and is even now putting up at Justice Clement’s house, a little further down Old Jewry, where it turns into Coleman Street.

Scene 2 At Kitely’s house. He has business to attend to but us seized with jealousy, at the thought of what Wellbred and his friends will do to his wife if he leaves the house i.e. rape her. He calls his servant, Cash, and spends a couple of pages telling him he’s going to tell him a secret, but then repeatedly pulling back at the last minute, from extreme paranoid fear, and then ultimately leaves on business for the Exchange, leaving orders to have a message sent if Wellbred shows up.

Cash realises something is up and wonders how he can exploit it. In rolls Cob the water carrier for a scene designed to showcase his dimness and allow a little aside about the nature of ‘humour’:

Cob. Humour! mack, I think it be so indeed; what is that humour? some rare thing, I warrant.
Cash. Marry I’ll tell thee, Cob: it is a gentlemanlike monster, bred in the special gallantry of our time, by affectation; and fed by folly.

‘Affectation fed by folly’, there’s a working definition of the the kind of ‘humour’ Jonson sets out to lambast.

Then enter Knowell and Wellbred marvelling at and congratulating Brainworm for his splendid disguise as the begging soldier. This leads into a complicated scene featuring Cash, Cob, Matthew, Stephen, Brainworm, Knowell and Wellbred, in which the fools interact in various comic ways, Bobadill at one point cudgelling poor Cob, apparently because he speaks ill of tobacco after Bobadillo has made a long speech in praise of it (Cob, if you remember, currently being Bobadill’s very humble landlord).

Quite a comic aspect is the way Stephen the fool is impressed by Bobadill’s big oaths but completely garbles them when he tries to repeat them.

Scene 3 At Justice Clement’s house, Cob enters to tell Kitely that a crowd (the gang of lads we have just watched) is arriving at his house, Kitely immediately begins feverishly imagining them kissing his wife and sister and worse, much worse, which puzzles Cob who last saw them all bickering about tobacco in the street.

Kitely exits leaving Cob to vow vengeance on Bobadill for beating him up at which point enter Knowell, Judge Clement and his man Roger Formal. Cob tries to get his attention to punish Bobadill for beating him, but when he explains the reason for the beating, that Cob spoke against tobacco – in a humorous twist, Clement loses his temper and tells Formal to condemn Cob to prison because he, also, immoderately worships the fine pleasures of tobacco and won’t have anyone talking against it.

Act 4

Scene 1 Squire Downright discussing with his sister, Dame Kitely i.e. Kitely’s wife. Kitely’s unhappiness at having gangs of loose livers visiting the house. And at that moment the gang enter, being Matthew, Bobadill, Wellbred and Ned Knowell, Stephen and Brainworm. The two clever ones encourage Matthew to take out some of his verses and read them to Bridget (Kitely’s sister) while they take the mickey, it appears most of them are cribbed from Christopher Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander.

Downright disapproves of all this and finally bursts out angrily at Wellbred for keeping such rowdy company, for encouraging braggart soldiers and simpletons, and takes out his sword, at which point Wellbred takes out his and the others start screaming and/or intervening.

At which point Kitely arrives home and his servants force them all to put down their swords. Wellbred, Knowell et al all leave the stage to Downright who explains why he was so angry to his brother. The women i.e. Dame Kitely and his sister, Bridget, swear there was one among them who was a true gentleman and showed his parts. They use the word to mean honour and good nature, Kitely takes it to mean sexual parts and is immediately stricken with his morbid jealousy.

Scene 2 Cob bangs on his own front door till his wife answers it. He shows her the bruises he got from Bobadill, briefly describes his encounter with Justice Clement, then makes her swear to lick the door and not let Bobadill in the house.

Scene 3 In the Windmill tavern Knowell and Wellbred agree with Brainworm some cunning plan which the audience does not hear explained, he exits, then  Wellbred teases Knowell that he fancies Wellbred’s sister, i.e. Bridget, and promises he will make her his.

Scene 4 In Old Jewry, the London street, Brainworm in his disguise of the old soldier rejoins Knowell senior, who asks where the devil he’s been – good question, since Brainworm hasn’t exactly been much at his service since their first encounter. Anyway, now we get to hear of the boys’ cunning plan as Brainworm tells old Knowell that his son, Ned Knowell, has discovered that he – Old Knowell – read the famous letter. Anyway, Brainworm spins a florid story about how the gang of them kidnapped him but he managed to escape and overheard young Ned’s plan to go to the house of one Cob the Water Drawer for a rendezvous with a Mistress Bridget. Ha! says Old Knowell, I will go there and catch him red-handed and exits, leaving Brainworm chuckling.

Brainworm then chats to Justice Clement’s servant, a simpleton named Formal who invites him for a beer and to tell him stories about the wars.

Scene 5 In Moorfields, Bobadill swells monstrously and brags to Knowell that he and nineteen hand-picked fellows could hold at bay an army of 40,000. And he swears he will cudgel the rascal Downright next time he sees him – at which point Downright strolls onstage and, when confronted with a real threat, Bobadill piteously says he’s just remembered he had a notice of peace served on him so is not allowed to draw. Downright calls him coward and beats and disarms him, before storming off in disgust. Bobadill makes a further, hilarious excuse, that it was astrology, sure he was struck by an unlucky star that paralysed his sword arm.

In his fury Downright has stormed off leaving his cloak behind. Knowell’s companion, Stephen, picks it up, says finders keepers. Knowell warns him that wearing it might carry a cost.

Scene 6 At Kitely’s house, where he is berating brother Wellbred for egging on the fight, as Dame Kitely and sister Bridget look on. Wellbred makes a throwaway remark to the effect that Kitely’s suit of clothes might as well be poisoned which sets Kitely off in a hysterical terror that his clothes are poisoned – and the other three are all astonished at the power of his imagination, that his thoughts can make him ill. It is this scene which underpins Martin Seymour-Smith’s assertion that Jonson anticipates Freud by 300 years in attributing illnesses of the body to humours (obsessions, neuroses) of the mind.

KNOWELL: Am I not sick? how am I then not poison’d? Am I not poison’d? how am I then so sick?
DAME KNOWELL: If you be sick, your own thoughts make you sick.
WELLBRED: His jealousy is the poison he has taken.

Enter Brainworm disguised as Justice Clement’s man, Formal, who says the Justice wants to see Kitely straightaway. Reluctantly the latter exits. Wellbred sees it is Brainworm and asks how he got the disguise, viz he got the real Formal dead drunk and stole his clothes. Now Wellbred instructs him to go tell Ned Knowell to go to the Tower. He (Wellbred) will bring along Bridget and the pair will get married.

Re-enter Kitely who at some length gets his servant, Tom Cash, to promise to guard Dame Kitely, to note everyone who enters the house and, if it looks like they’re going to a bedroom, to intervene. OK? Got that? He departs.

Wellbred determines to stir up trouble and now tells Dame Kitely, his sister, that Dame Cob keeps a bawdy house and that her husband, Kitely, is often hanging round it. Well, she cries in dudgeon, she will off to catch him in the act and exits, Wellbeing watching her, chuckling at the mischief he’s stirring up.

Then he turns to his sister Bridget and tells her that Ned Knowell loves her and wants to marry her at the Tower. Not surprisingly, she points out this is all a bit sudden, and is surprised that her brother has turned pimp.

At which point Kitely returns, asking after his wife, and is horrified to learn that she’s set off for Cob’s house? What? To cuckold him? And he runs off after her. Come sister, says Wellbred, let’s go meet Ned Knowell. It’s all getting very complicated.

Scene 7 Matthew and Bobadill are in the street, Bob still explaining why he refused to fight and ran away. They bump into Brainworm, still in the disguise of Justice Clement’s man and ask him to petition the Justice for a warrant for the arrest of Downright. Brainworm/Formal says, Alright, but it’ll cost them ‘a brace of angels’, about a £1. They have no money but Bobbadil takes off and gives him his silk stockings and Matthew gives him a jewel from  his ear. Brainworm comes up with another snag which is that they will need someone to serve the warrant, them both being too scared to give it to Downright directly. So Brainworm says he’ll procure a varlet, a sergeant for them and they approve and leave.

Brainworm cackles with glee. He now has the stockings and jewel which he will pawn, along with Formal’s clothes that he’s wearing, then procure a new suit and pretend to Matthew and Bobadill to be said varlet. Money and fun!

Scene 8 Cob’s house Old Knowell arrives. Now he’s been told this is where his ne’er-do-well son is. Tib opens the door, says she’s never heard of no Knowell, and slams it in his face. Dame Kitely arrives, brought here by Wellbred’s lie that her husband attends this brothel. Knowell sees her arrive and thinks she is his son’s mistress.

Dame Kitely knocks, Tib opens and denies any knowledge of her husband. At that moment Kitely enters, muffled up in his cloak. Knowell, observing, jumps to the conclusion that it is his son, Ned, come to meet his mistress. Dame Kitely recognises her husband and accuses him to his face of coming here to meet his mistress.

Replying furiously to her accusations, Kitely accuses his wife of being a bawd and making him a cuckold with him, and indicated Knowell and accuses him directly of being a shameful old goat for debauching his wife. Knowell of course denies it all and begins to suspect someone has pulled a prank on him. Kitely says he’ll take his wife to find a justice.

At this point Cob comes home and asks his wife what all this fuss is. When Kitely accuses her of being a bawd and permitting adulterous meetings on the premises Cob starts berating and beating his wife. Knowell intervenes and says, ‘let’s all go before a justice comes to sort it out’.

Scene 9 A street Brainworm soliloquises explaining why he is wearing the costume of a city-sergeant. Enter Matthew and Bobadill, and Brainworm tells them that he is the arresting officer hired by Formal. They are pleased to point out Downright as he walks onstage.

Except that it isn’t Downright. Remember how, in scene 5, Stephen picked up Downright’s abandoned cloak? Well, the figure they all think is Downright is in fact Stephen in Downright’s cloak. So there is a moment of mild comedy when Brainworm goes to present his warrant to the wrong man. But fortunately the real Downright enters at that moment. Brainworm serves the warrant on Downright but things start to go wrong. Downright really is downright. He goes to attack Bobadill and Matthew with his cudgel till Brainworm tells him to desist. OK.

At which point Downright spots Stephen and demands his cloak back. Stephen claims he bought it at a market but Downright contemptuously dismisses this as an obvious lie and gives money to Brainworm-as-city sergeant to arrest Stephen and bring him before the justice.

This is getting a bit much for Brainworm who now tries to wriggle out of it by saying Stephen has offered to give the cloak back, all’s well etc. But Downright will have none of it and raises his cudgel, threatening Brainworm, who is now trapped into going reluctantly with the others before the justice.

Act 5

Scene 1 Justice Clement’s house. Enter the first group of miscreants, namely the people involved in the brawl at Cob’s house – Cob and his wife who he beat, Dame Kitely who thinks her husband is being unfaithful, Kitely who thinks his wife is being unfaithful, and Knowell who he thought was her lover.

When they all tell him that one person, Wellbred, told them all to go there, Justice Clement immediately realises they’ve all been had.

Next a servant enters to Clement that a soldier is waiting for him. There’s some comic business as Justice Clement insists on getting into soldier’s armour himself and going down to meet Matthew and Bobbadil, who piteously pleads that he was set upon and beaten in the street. Clements pooh-poohs him for a sorry apology for a soldier.

Next arrive Downright and Stephen and Brainworm in disguise as a city-sergeant. Clement listens to them bickering about whose cloak it is, but more to the point, quickly establishes that the first two, Bobbadil and Matthew, had got his man Formal to raise a warrant against Downright. So where is it?

Realising this is the dangerous moment for him, Brainworm says there never was a written warrant but he was ordered to do it by Clement’s man, Formal. It now emerges that this was all done on Brainworm’s say-so with no authority. Clement terrifies him by brandishing his enormous sword over his head and threatening to cut off his ears. Then tells his servant to take Brainworm to prison.

At which point Brainworm throws off his disguise (as the city-sergeant) and reveals himself as Brainworm, and is immediately recognised by his master, Old Knowell. Clement is amused by this and asks for a bowl of sack to drink while Brainworm tells his story. Brainworm explains to Knowell how he dressed up as the veteran soldier.

As well as explaining how he told Kitely to go to Cob’s, Brainworm now reveals how both Kitely and Dame Kitely were sent there to get them out the way, so Mistress Bridget could be taken by Wellbred to meet young Knowell.

Clement is so impressed by the elaborateness of the scam, that he sends a man to invite the newly married couple back to his house. But what’s become of Formal? Brainworm explains how he got him dead drunk and borrowed his clothes.

Rather improbably, Justice Clements forgives him and tells all masters present to forgive him also. At that moment Formal arrives dressed in a suit of armour. It was all they had in the bar where he woke up from being dead drunk and almost naked, so he asked the bar staff if he could wear it home! Clements forgives him his folly, also.

Enter the happy couple and friend i.e. New Knowell and his newly married wife, Bridget, and friend Wellbred. Clement welcomes them and toasts them. All are welcome – except for Bobadill and Matthew. Wellbred intervenes for Matthew, saying he is an amusing poet, if packed with prompts.

They rifle Matthew’s pockets and bring out piles of pre-written poetry, Clement is appalled and commands that they make a big pile of it and set it on fire. It blazes up, reaches a peak, then dies down – Sic transit gloria mundi.

Clement says everyone is welcome to the big wedding feast, except these two, the sign of a soldier and the picture of a poet i.e. the two pretenders Bobadill and Matthew. They will be set in the courtyard to meditate on their sins. And Formal in his suit of armour will watch over them.

As to Stephen, the cloak-stealer, Clement says he will have dinner in the kitchen with Cob and his wife who he orders to be reconciled. As must everyone. Clement tells the lead offenders to put off their humours, Downright his anger, Kitely his jealousy and Kitely does indeed give it up, recite some verse about letting it fly away into the air.

So the play ends with three happy newly-made or remade couples: Kitely and Mrs Knowell and Bridget; Cob and Tib.

Jonson’s split morality

The conclusion is fairly brief – the fifth act is by far the shortest – and its judgements seem harsh. Well, not harsh, but unfair. Bobadill and Matthew are only idiots, who boast and brag a bit, and yet they are harshly punished – whereas Brainworm is a cunning trickster, a thief and mocker of the Queen’s justice, impersonator of an officer – you’d have thought he’d be hanged by the law of the day. While Wellbred deceived Kitely and his wife, setting them at loggerheads and almost ruining their marriage.

Surely all of that is worse than being a bad poet and a pretend soldier?

Taking the theory of humours literally for a moment, Justice Clement’s final speeches claim to ‘purge’ the most humour-ridden of the characters, namely Kitely and Downright. But in my opinion, there’s quite a big gap between this purging idea and actual justice for wrong-doing, either moral or legal, according to which, as I’ve said, a different set of crooks should surely have been punished.

That play reveals that the psychological basis of the humour theory – that Jonson’s concern is to purge hobby horses and obsessions – is strangely at odds with conventional legal or moral values. There seems to be a big contradiction here and I’m not the only one to notice it. Seymour-Smith quotes the critic A. Sale as saying that Jonson: ‘is a thoroughly unorthodox moralist; it is the morality of the enemies, not the pillars, of society’.

That seems spot-on to me. The more you consider the way that the fierce Justice, Clement, takes to the crook and impersonator Brainworm as to a lost brother, pardons him his multiple crimes and toasts his health, the weirder it seems. Jonson appears to be celebrating a massive subverter of law and order.

It’s odd. Jonson’s prefaces and prologues ding on about justice and society – and yet his actual fictions are wildly anarchic and throw all their sympathy behind the biggest anarchists.

Seymour-Smith quotes the critic Elizabeth Woodbridge who long ago commented that the demarcation line in the play isn’t drawn between the good and the bad, but between the witty and the dull, and that it celebrates rogues and crooks simply because they’re quick-witted and sympathetic. The witty prevail and the stupid are punished. ‘Such a play can scarcely be called moral.’

This wonky view of justice prepares us for the imaginative thrust of his two most famous plays, Volpone and The Alchemist, in which all the best poetry and imaginative force is given to the topsy-turvy subverters of established order and morality.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Elizabethan art

Restoration comedies

Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

Introduction to The Plays of William Wycherley by W.C. Ward (1893)

Old literary criticism is often valuable because it sees works of literature in the round, as a whole. Its judgements are often mature, made by people who have seen a lot of life and often had other full-time careers, as lawyers, politician and so on. So their opinions are aware of and take into account a range of audiences and their essays are written in a language designed to be accessible to all literate readers.

All this contrasts with the highly professionalised nature of contemporary literary criticism, generally written by people who have little or no experience of life beyond the academy; written in fierce competition with other academics and so often focusing on narrow and highly specific aspects of works or genres where the author desires to carve out a niche; and written in a jargon which has become steadily more arcane and removed from everyday English over the past forty years or so.

This kind of modern literary criticism is contained in expensive books destined to be bought only by university libraries, or in remote articles in any one of hundreds of subscription-only specialist journals. It is not, in other words, designed for the average reader. Nowadays, literary criticism is an elite discourse.

Older criticism can also be humane and funny, and can afford to be scathingly critical of its authors, in a way modern po-faced and ‘professional’ criticism often daren’t.

The 1893 edition of The Plays of William Wycherley which Project Gutenberg chose for their online library includes an introduction to Wycherley’s plays by the edition’s editor, W.C. Ward, followed by an extended biographical essay by Thomas Babington Macauley which dates from even earlier, from the 1850s.

(If this appears very old fashioned a) it is, and b) several of the Wikipedia articles about Wycherley appear to be cut and pastes of the relevant articles from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Introduction by WC Ward

Comedies of Manners Ward describes the Restoration comedies as Comedies of Manners, contrasting them with Shakespeare’s plays which he calls Comedies of Life.

Aristocratic audiences Restoration comedies only illustrate one aspect of life, and that the most superficial – the courtly badinage of aristocrats having affairs. They were initially designed for a tiny, upper-class clientele, and kept that sense of targeting a select audience which ‘gets’ its attitude and in-jokes.

Displays of wit The plays were designed to display Wit and Ingenuity – all other human activities, all other human emotions and psychology, are simply omitted in pursuit of these goals. Their dialogue is not intended to reveal the characters’ psychology or development. It exists solely to display the author’s Wit and to further the ‘Plot’, which also exists solely to demonstrate the author’s ingenuity.

Robot characters The characters are not people, they are ‘simulacra… puppet semblances of humanity’. They only copy human behaviour insofar as is required to further the clockwork plots.

This narrow mechanical aspect of the characterisation is, in Ward’s view, paradoxically a redeeming factor when we come to consider the plays’ indecency and immorality.

Licentiousness always superficial The very fact that the characters are barely human, are really flashy automata, means that their licentiousness and cynicism has no real depth. It doesn’t affect us in the way the same speeches put into the mouths of real characters would affect us, because we know they are the baseless vapourings of toys.

Designed to amuse Ward also defends the plays against the frequent charge of licentiousness by pointing out that they are designed solely to amuse and make us laugh – they don’t even have the deeper ambition of Ben Jonson’s comedies, ‘to laugh us out of vice’.

Antidote to lust And, Ward says, the kind of superficial laughter they prompt on every page is in fact an antidote to lustful thoughts. The plays do not inflame the audience with genuinely licentious and immoral thoughts because the characters are so one-dimensional and the plots are so extravagantly ludicrous that real sexual thoughts never enter our heads.

Virtue triumphs Other critics charge that Restoration comedies only being Virtue on stage to be mocked and ridiculed, which is a bad thing. Ward admits that most of the characters lose no opportunity to mock honesty, hard work, sobriety, the law, business, chasteness and loyalty and fidelity and love. All true. But at the same time, love does eventually triumph (after a superficial fashion) the qualities of loyalty and virtue do, in the end, triumph.

Women of virtue And each play contains at least one female character, and sometimes a man, who is significantly less cynical than the other characters and becomes almost a defender of virtue. For example, Alithea in The Country Wife and Fidelia in The Plain Dealer are unironic emblems of Goodness and Virtue – and they and their values do, eventually, win the day.

Marriage mocked Other critics lament the way the sanctity of Marriage is routinely mocked, at length, continuously, throughout all the plays. Ward puts the defence that when you look closely, the specific examples of marriage being mocked are the marriages of ludicrous characters such as Pinchwife or Vernish. (This defence, in my opinion, is nowhere near adequate; all the characters mock marriage as a school for adulterers and cuckolds far more powerfully and continuously than Ward acknowledges.)

Wycherley’s poetry Ward goes on from Wycherley’s plays to discuss Wycherley’s poetry, which was published in two volumes late in his life and about which he is entertainingly rude. The poems are, in Ward’s opinion (and everyone else’s – he quotes Wycherley’s contemporaries) utterly worthless, beneath criticism. ‘Wycherley had no spark of poetry in his whole composition’.

It’s good to have this confirmed, as I thought the short poems which appear scattered through Wycherley’s plays were utterly lifeless.

Wycherley’s character As to his character:

It is not to be doubted that Wycherley participated in the fashionable follies and vices of the age in which he lived. His early intrigue with the Duchess of Cleveland was notorious.

The success of his plays drew him into aristocratic court circles which really did value the behaviour he describes.

Alexander Pope Late in life, Wycherley became a kind of mentor to the very young Alexander Pope, when the later was only 16 or 17 years old, and their correspondence, and also memoirs written about the great John Dryden, show that Wycherley was loved as a good friend by many of his contemporaries.

Essay by Thomas Babington Macauley

According to Joseph E. Riehl’s book about Charles Lamb and his critics, Macauley wrote his criticism of the Restoration dramatists at least in part as an attack or counter to Charles Lamb’s strong defence of them. Macauley argued that Restoration comedy is degrading to human relationships, and that it promoted ‘evil, perverted or shameful conduct’. I sympathise.

In the 22-page essay on the Gutenberg website, Macauley describes Wycherley’s life and character in some detail, with comments on the plays. Key points are:

Early life Wycherley was born in 1640. Young Wycherley was sent to France as a teenager, where he converted to Catholicism. After the Restoration of 1660, he went to Oxford, left without a degree, studied law at the Inns of Court just long enough to be able to make comic butts of lawyers and their hangers-on, as in The Plain Dealer.

Religious conversion Shrewdly, Wycherley converted back from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Macauley has a droll sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase:

The somewhat equivocal glory of turning, for a short time, a good-for-nothing Papist into a very good-for-nothing Protestant is ascribed to Bishop Barlow.

The Restoration court He gives a vivid sense of the promiscuity of Charles’s court:

The Duchess of Cleveland cast her eyes upon [Wycherley] and was pleased with his appearance. This abandoned woman, not content with her complaisant husband and her royal keeper, lavished her fondness on a crowd of paramours of all ranks, from dukes to rope-dancers.

The Dutch Wars He comments scornfully on the Dutch Wars:

The second Dutch war, the most disgraceful war in the whole history of England, was now raging. It was not in that age considered as by any means necessary that a naval officer should receive a professional education. Young men of rank, who were hardly able to keep their feet in a breeze, served on board the King’s ships, sometimes with commissions and sometimes as volunteers.

The Royal Navy There’s debate about whether Wycherley – like many other completely unqualified ‘gentleman’ – volunteered for the navy, but it would be nice to think so and that it gave verisimilitude to his depiction of Captain Manly and the sailors in The Plain Dealer.

The Country Wife he describes as:

one of the most profligate and heartless of human compositions… the elaborate production of a mind, not indeed rich, original or imaginative, but ingenious, observant, quick to seize hints, and patient of the toil of polishing.

Marriage and prison Wycherley was such a royal favourite that Charles appointed him tutor to his illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. However, Wycherley ruined his reputation with the king and swiftly lost the post of tutor by unwisely marrying the Countess of Drogheda, ‘a gay young widow’ in 1679. She was jealous and kept a close eye on him till she died young in 1685. He hoped he would leave her a fortune, but she left him a long and ruinous legal case. Possibly as a result of this, Wycherley was thrown into the Fleet prison where he languished for seven long years. The story goes that the newly crowned King James II (ascended the throne 1685) happened to see a performance of The Plain Dealer, asked about the author, was shocked to discover he was in gaol, paid his debts and settled an annuity on him.

Released, he was nonetheless impoverished, unable to sustain his old lifestyle, and unable to write another play. In 1704, after 27 years of silence, a volume of poetry appeared – ‘a bulky volume of obscene doggerel’.

Alexander Pope It was in the same year he formed the friendship with the young sickly hunchback Alexander Pope, who he mentored, took about town, and who in turn offered to rewrite and ‘improve’ the older man’s verse. Quite quickly Pope realised how dire Wycherley’s poetry was and that nothing could save it. Quite a few of their letters survive which shed light on both men.

Literary reputation Rests entirely on his last two plays, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. His characters are often little more than mouthpieces for the contrived wit of the time.

It was alleged he was a slow and painstaking author, but Pope claims he wrote The Plain Dealer in three weeks! Having just read both his hit plays, I am inclined to believe the slow and painstaking version. They both feel slow and laboured.

In truth, his mind, unless we are greatly mistaken, was naturally a very meagre soil, and was forced only by great labour and outlay to bear fruit which, after all, was not of the highest flavour.

Widow Blackacre Macauley is correct to say:

The widow Blackacre [is] beyond comparison Wycherley’s best comic character

In full flood she struck me as being almost a female Falstaff. But these few words of praise don’t stop Macauley taking every opportunity to damn Wycherley:

The only thing original about Wycherley, the only thing which he could furnish from his own mind in inexhaustible abundance, was profligacy.

Degrading French originals By which he means his low, mean, degraded subject matter. Macauley accuses him of taking the fine and graceful character of Agnes in the French play L’Ecole des Femmes and turning her into the degraded imbecile Mrs Pinchwife in The Country Wife.

Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach.

Similarly, Macauley accuses him of taking the light and chaste character of Viola in Twelfth Night and turning her into the much narrower and lewder Fidelia, an attempt at loyalty and fidelity who in fact acts as a pimp for her master; and of taking the misanthropic but essentially noble character Alceste in Moliere’s Le Misanthrope and turning him into the much cruder and more vengeful Manly.

So depraved was his moral taste, that, while he firmly believed that he was producing a picture of virtue too exalted for the commerce of this world, he was really delineating the greatest rascal that is to be found even in his own writings.

Wow. Not the kind of unashamed contempt a modern literary critic would allow themselves. These two pretty old essays bring Wycherely’s life and times and character and works to life far more vividly than anything else I’ve read about him. And hence the value of older literary criticism. It tends to paint a fuller picture of the man, the times and the works. And not be afraid to give pungent judgements.


Related links

Reviews of Wycherley’s plays

Other Restoration comedies

J.G. Ballard: poet or prophet?

I’ll give the game away right at the start by stating that I think Ballard is much more obviously and convincingly a prose poet than he is a social ‘prophet’.

The argument

Ballard is routinely and predictably described as a ‘prophet’, by reviewers, critics, fans and academics. The Atrocity Exhibition is described on the back as:

One of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s most concentrated book – a prophetic masterpiece. (Introduction by V. Vale & Andrea Juno)

But was he, though? There are several reasons for thinking not:

1. A prophet of what, exactly?

Ballard’s work divides pretty neatly into two types: there’s the science fiction which includes his early disaster novels and most of his short stories, many of which are wildly speculative and set in catastrophic futures – and then the later novels, from around 1970 onwards, which are increasingly rooted in the reality of the present day with its motorways, high rise buildings, advertising billboards and gated communities in the South of France., although weird futures continue to crop up in his short stories…

When people say ‘prophetic’ they’re generally talking about the latter works. And what do they mean? They mean that Ballard described in searing, super-vivid prose the feeling of being overloaded by media stimuli, the alienating experience of inhabiting bleak modern concrete urban environments, the terror which sometimes comes over you when you find yourself trapped in an eight-lane highway packed with sleek metal boxes hurtling past at inhuman speeds.

He captured and conveyed that sense of nervous breakdown in a series of mind-blowing semi-experimental novels from 1970 to 75, being The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. Each of these deals very intensely with nervous breakdown, physical and moral collapse which derives directly from the inhumane modern built environment.

And yet… forty years later, society hasn’t broken down, has it? People now accept modern architecture and the great sweep of motorway flyovers carving through their cities. It can still be painted as a dehumanising environment by artists and film-makers. But most people, most of the time, are not having nervous breakdowns and reverting to the primeval savagery depicted in High Rise.

And many of the specific aspects of his urban fiction feel very dated now.

Take the images of Vietnam which thread through The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Vietnam was the first TV war and in all probability the last, as every Western government saw what giving unfettered access to reporters and TV journalists did i.e. eroded domestic support. In my reviews of the career of Don McCullin I note that he several times says how disappointed he was not to be allowed to accompany the Falkland Islands task force: the government had learned its lesson; only tame journalists whose access could be controlled and monitored were allowed along.

The British have been involved in a number of conflicts since – Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq twice, Afghanistan –  but they have been completely controlled and packaged by governments and willing broadcasters. The really bad craziness which spilled into the living rooms of the average suburbanite, and was an important component in the hysterical mood of those novels, is long, long gone.

TV itself has also been utterly internalised and neutralised. In his experimental books, television is new enough to prompt paragraphs of media studies-style shock and astonishment at the bizarreness of the medium itself interrupting footage of burning villages to bring us commercials about bath cleaner.

But both ends of this spectrum have been blunted. We rarely if ever see the kind of war scenes Ballard is invoking; and everybody has learned to tune out the ads. The advent of the internet means that you can binge watch entire series of dramas or soaps without ever seeing an ad. there are a lot of aspects to this, but one is that the average punter is much more in control, instead of being bombarded with shocking images like the subjects of some extreme social experiment, which is how people appear in those novels.

Similarly, huge roadside billboards were relatively new in the 1960s but, again, old hat by now. Even the TV-style moving ads on the Tube are easy to blank out and ignore.

In other words, a lot of the elements Ballard described with such fantastically super-charged prose poetry from 1966 to 1973 are now almost over-familiar and bereft of threat. Ask my kids if they feel the saturated mediascape is giving them a nervous breakdown and (if you can get them to lift their eyes from the latest Netflix binge-watch) they’ll laugh in your face.

But his fans – and others who plough the same kind of furrow, either as media studies-type academics or contemporary writers – persist in focusing on these aspects of his work.

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, the novelist Hari Kunzru doggedly repeats this idea, that Ballard’s books are mind-expanding, shock revelations which still ‘disturb’ and ‘interrogate’ and ‘undermine’ reality or modern society and all the other tired, familiar art house, would-be ‘radical’, art-curator terminology.

Kunzru slots Ballard into the same, tired old lineage, the same dusty avant-garde genealogy which reaches back to the French bourgeoisie-shockers, via Dada and the Surrealists, to the Beats in the 1950s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and so tiredly on.

But how can something be avant-garde if it’s 50 years behind the times?

I keep reading political commentators saying Labour lost the 2019 election because they were still talking the language of the 1960s, or even of the Victorian era – trapped in the delusion that there is one, homogeneous, cloth-capped, Northern working class which will always give them their vote, come what may. Wrong. The world has changed.

I can’t help feeling the same about the so-called avant-garde tradition. Nowadays talk of Dada and the Situationists feels like the treasured possession of old and out-of-date intellectuals, solemnly showing you a box of faded newspaper cuttings from the mid-1960s as if they bear any relation to the situation and experiences of the present day.

‘Look at the taboo-busting way his characters arrange prostitutes in the posture of car crash victims’, the ageing college lecturer tells us, everso proud of his yoof credentials.

The reality is that the future hasn’t shocked, disturbed, unsettled or traumatised the human spirit anywhere near as much as the solemn talk of transgressive avant-gardes would have us believe. The Archers is still running, as is Coronation Street. They still wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms. Top of the bill at this year’s Glastonbury? Paul McCartney and Diana Ross.

The future is now and people are loving it, streaming their favourite shows, chatting away to Alexa, listening to any music from anywhere at the click of a button, ordering up tasty Deliveroo meals, ordering an Uber to go home after a great night out, and generally living it up.

Compared to the wholesale way the vast majority of the population owns and revels in our technological present, Kunzru proudly telling us how excited Michael Moorcock was in 1966 when he found that the front room of Ballard’s flat was covered in a collage of pages cut out from Chemistry News seems ridiculous. Yes, granddad. We’ve seen your collection of 1960s literary magazines before, granddad. Yes, they’re very interesting, granddad. But now it’s time for your medication and your nap.

2. Two specific ways Ballard was not prophetic

Prophetic means: ‘accurately predicting what will happen in the future’. I’m now looking at the other strand in Ballard’s work, the overtly science fiction strand. Rereading these stories, mostly about dystopian futures, kept making me thing two obvious points.

1. Population boom In all of Ballard’s futures, the population has vanished. In the Ultimate City the population of the world has collapsed, in Low-Flying Aircraft humanity is dying out, in Cage of Sand whole areas of the world have been abandoned, in Chronopolis the big cities have been abandoned. Abandoned cities and terminal beaches, those are the familar zones of Ballard’s imaginarium.

But it’s simple. The world hasn’t emptied. the human population hasn’t plummeted. the exact opposite has happened. In 1970 when the Atrocity Exhibition was published the global population was 3.7 billion. Fifty years later it has doubled to 7.5 billion and counting.

Insofar as Ballard’s imaginary futures depict a world emptied of humans it is not only not prophetic, it is diametrically wrong. A truly avant-garde prose would be trying to grapple, not with what it is to live in abandoned cities occupied by a handful of dazed inhabitants – but what it’s like to live in mega-cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai. Something more like William Gibson’s well-named ‘Sprawl’ trilogy.

2. Posh characters To the end of his writing carer Ballard described posh, middle or upper-middle-class characters, typified by the large number of educated, open-minded doctors who litter his stories. In a way the typical thing about High Rise is not that the characters end up descending to the depths of bestial depravity, but that they are all such pukka, posh English chaps and chapesses.

This is indicated throughout by his rather haphazard way with names so that lots of the characters have very run-of-the-mill and very English names (Talbot, Vaughan, Clifton and Ransom spring to mind).

I’m not criticising him for describing an almost 100% white middle class milieu, not at all. I’m just pointing out that it is the other, large element of his writing which was diametrically wrong. Society hasn’t carried on consisting of pukka white chaps and chapesses. The exact opposite has happened. Britain has been inundated with immigrants (and I don’t mean just ones with different colour skins, but nearly a million Poles, for example). Our society, and most Western societies have become chaotically multicultural and multilingual and show every sign of continuing in this direction.

I am not criticising Ballard for writing about the social class and kind of people he knew best, not at all. I’m just saying that those of his private and academic fans who try to hold him up as a prophet, a predictor of the future, have to take account of the fact that two of the central imaginative pillars of his fiction didn’t only not come true, but the diametric opposite took place.

3. An argument against deifying writers

Anyway, in my opinion the deifying or worshipping of writers is to be resisted. It is a primitive psychological tendency, it is a way of abdicating our own responsibility to think for ourselves.

Writers should be credited as writers, but not necessarily as thinkers. As thinkers, writers are often very charismatic, but almost always wrong. Morally wrong, yes, though that’s open to endless debate. But more often plain, factually wrong.

Dickens thought that universal free education would eradicate poverty. Wrong. Morris thought a Marxist revolution would liberate the working classes. Wrong. Dostoyevsky though Russia must turn its back on the decadent West to assert its Slavic identity. Wrong. Tolstoy thought we should relinquish all our belongings and live like peasants. Wrong. Gorky thought Lenin was the saviour of the poor. Wrong. Pound thought Mussolini would be a patron of the arts like a Renaissance prince. Kipling thought the British Empire was vital to raise the lesser breeds in our countless colonies. Wrong. Eliot thought Britain would be better off as a religious and ethnically homogeneous kingdom, preferably with few if any Jews. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my opinion:

  1. Beware of taking any writer as a moral or political inspiration
  2. Judge writers by the quality of their writing, not by their beliefs or pontificating – their beliefs will soon become out of date or controversial or come to seem ludicrous: but their writing, if it genuinely contributes to the life of the language, will live

As Oscar Wilde said, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral writing, there is only good or bad writing.

Ballard the prose poet

So for me, the thing to do is leave these political and ‘moral’ squabbles behind and focus on what Ballard undoubtedly is, which is a creator of some of the most astonishing prose poetry ever written.

What links every element of his career – the disaster novels, the sci-fi stories and the urban nightmare series – is his extraordinary ability to make the English language sit up and beg, dance to his tune, perform extreme sports, coasteer and freebase.

Somewhere Ezra Pound says you ultimately judge a poet by the integrity of his lines, and there are hundreds of breath-taking lines in Ballard, lines no-one else could have written and which take you into wonderful, liberating new realms of language and imagination.

All day he had been building his bizarre antenna on the roof of the apartment block, staring into the sky as if trying to force a corridor to the sun.

Meanwhile the quasars burned dimly from the dark peaks of the universe, sections of his brain reborn in the island galaxies.

Bonfires of Jackie’s face burn among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. With luck he finds a job on one of the municipal disposal teams, warms his hands at a brazier of enigmatic eyes. At night he sleeps beneath an unlit bonfire of breasts.

An airliner rose from the runway four hundred yards to our left, wired by its nervous engines to the dark air.

Catherine peered into my face, as if squinting through the window of a diving helmet.

The nodes of glass scattered on the ground glinted like pieces of discredited coinage.

Laing remembered the stale air in his apartment, tepid with the smell of his own body. By comparison, the brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of the hundreds of cars filled the air with knives.

The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.

He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.

On page after page Ballard is capable of writing sentences which zing with linguistic verve but also push, exercise and stretch your imagination. Maybe he was a ‘prophet’, you can make a case for or against. but without doubt he was one of the most poetic writers of English prose who ever lived, so plain and factual in appearance, and yet so glitteringly brilliant.


Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Some style features of the early novels of J.G. Ballard

This blog post is about two aspects of the prose style of Ballard’s three early novels:

  1. widespread use of similes
  2. long, lush descriptions

Common features

J.G. Ballard’s first three novels are ‘disaster’ stories – The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World. All three share obvious common features:

  • the plots – they are set in versions of our world, just a little in the future, which are beset by massive environmental disasters
  • the people – they feature relatively small groups of disparate characters who start off by being odd and progress into stranger and stranger mental states of detachment and psychosis
  • the doctors – the main protagonists of all three novels are doctors – Dr Kerans, Dr Ransom and Dr Sanders, respectively
  • the style – all three novels contain extended passages of outstanding and visionary intensity, sensual descriptions of the tropical foliage in The Drowned World, the terrifying vision of the bleak salt flats in The Drought, extraordinary descriptions of jungle plants and animals turning into multi-faceted jewels in The Crystal World

1. Ballard’s similes

There’s a lot to be said about all these and many other aspects of his style, but I was particularly struck by Ballard’s extensive use in all three books of similes. It strikes me that similes do (at least) three things:

  1. they compare one thing with another
  2. thus they take the reader’s imagination away from the reality of an object or situation
  3. and, given that they can compare the real world to anything the author fancies, they expand a text’s imaginative realm in potentially any direction

This continual movement of the text away from reality very much reflects the physical and psychological journeys of Ballard’s characters.

Physical journeys In The Drowned World Dr Kerans gives in to the irrational urge to head away from safety and sets off south towards the radioactive sun. In The Drought Dr Ransom’s trek to the coast is mirrored by his return to the abandoned city ten years later, but both are only preliminaries for the psychotic pilgrimage he sets off on at the end of the book. Similarly, in The Crystal World, Dr Sanders’ journey to the disaster zone to seek his mistress makes some sense, unlike his decision right at the end of the book to leave safety behind and journey back into the heart of the crystal forest presumably to die.

Psychological journeys As the outlines above suggest, all three doctors start as reasonably rational beings but then slowly shed all rationality as they become steadily more detached from reality and obsessed by their respective quests.

During their journey to the south he had felt an increasing sense of vacuum, as if he was pointlessly following a vestigial instinct that no longer had any real meaning for him. The four people with him were becoming more and more shadowy, residues of themselves as notional as the empty river. (The Drought p. 92)

So the movement of similes away from reality, away from the actual thing being described in the text, and out into exotic or unexpected comparisons, is a kind of textual mirror of the physical and mental journeys undertaken by the chief protagonists.

Categorising Ballard’s similes

We can attempt an elementary categorisation of Ballard’s similes, from simple via increasing complexity, to ‘ornate’ and on to a ‘gateway’ category (I’ll explain).

Banal Plenty of Ballard’s similes are obvious enough, functional, meat-and-potatoes work you might find in run-of-the-mill fiction. They provide simple comparisons but don’t really take you very far.

  • The lions’ roars sounded like the slamming of a steel mill. (TD 54)
  • The heat of the waterfront fires drove across the river like a burning sirocco. (TD 88)
  • Stretching along the entire extent of the coastal shelf were tens of thousands of cars and trailers, jammed together like vehicles in an immense parking lot. (TD 94)
  • The water ceased to move, and for a moment the great lagoon, and the long arms of brine seeping away northwards through the grey light, were like immense sheets of polished ice. (TD 111)
  • Ransom looked round to see Jordan watching him in the half light, his dark face like an intelligent savage’s, filled with a strange child-like hope. (TD 140)
  • Like a bleached white bone, the flat deck of the river stretched away to the north. (TD 145)
  • He sat down by a gap in the balustrade, surrounded by the empty cans and litter, like an exhausted mendicant. (TD 161)
  • During the journey from Libreville he had roamed about the steamer like an impatient tiger… (CW 15)
  • The dark image of her face floated like a dim lantern before his eyes (CW 38)
  • In the darkness the worn columns of the arcade receded towards the eastern fringes of the town like pale ghosts… (CW 40)
  • The youth kicked at the knives and leapt sideways through the catwalk like a fish about to be gutted (CW 44)
  • The Negro picked himself up and raced like a wounded animal through the entrance (CW 94)

They colour and distract a little but don’t add that much to the object, view or situation being described.

Contrived Many betray that strand in Ballard which is always seeking out culturally obvious references – Ballard has a non-humanities student’s airy insouciance when it comes to invoking Great Cultural Landmarks, e.g. the Bible, Michelangelo, the ancient Greeks and so on. These sometimes feel a bit pretentious. Into this category come other similes which just feel over-elaborate and contrived.

  • Over his shoulder he could see Catherine Austen resting on the tiller in the sunlight, her hair lifting like the fleece of some Homeric ram. (TD 86)
  • His pomaded hair and cherubic face, and the two jewelled clasps pinning his tied inside his double-breasted waistcoat, made him look like some kind of hallucinatory clown, the master of ceremonies at a lunatic carnival. (TD 77)
  • Grady stared at them, his little face for a moment like an insane sparrow’s (TD 105)
  • Louise’s hands strayed to the sunglasses beside her plate, safely within reach lie some potent talisman (CW 36)
  • The huge jewelled gauntlet like the coronation armour of a Spanish conquistador… (CW 51)
  • Several plate glass windows appeared to have fractured and then fused together above the carpet, and the ornate Persian patterns swam below the surface like the floor of some perfumed pool in the Arabian Nights. (CW 86)
  • Sanders stumbled ahead, like an onlooker driven towards some bloody Golgotha by its intended victim. (CW 118)

Mild incongruity Then there are similes which definitely contain the surprise and imaginative lift of unexpectedness, the sense of your imagination momentarily expanding.

  • The cheetah flicked an eye at him like a referee noticing an almost imperceptible infringement of the rules. (TD 76)
  • The negro smiled, his great domed head veined like a teak globe of the earth. (TD 86)
  • The windows of the Hotel Europe hung listlessly in the dark air, the narrow shutters like coffin lids (CW 21)

Inspired Some strike a real chord, giving you the strong sense of new mental associations, a flash of insight into the world hidden behind this world.

  • The steel spans of the bridge rose above the stalled cars and trucks, which were carried over the hump like scrap metal on a conveyor. (TD 91)
  • His eyes hovered below his swollen forehead like shy dragonflies. (TD 180)
  • The wrecked catwalks lay on the water like the skeletons of half-drowned lizards. (CW 48)
  • They passed the aircraft lying like an emblazoned fossil in a small hollow to the left of their path… (CW 97)
  • Sanders was about to protest but the young woman turned away from them and seemed to subside into sleep, the jewels lying like scarabs on the white skin of her breast. (CW 109)
  • He stood up and looked down at the table, his stooped figure with its blond hair like a gallows in the dusk. (CW 111)
  • Around him in the vitreous walls, the reflected stars glittered like fireflies. (CW 114)

Lots of animal comparisons – dragonflies, lizards, scarabs, fireflies… hmmm.

Exotic Then there are similes which are deliberately incongruous, connecting the like with the unlike in a way designed to jolt you into a new fragment of perception.

  • The shadows of the torn deck braces danced like ragged spears. (TD 130)
  • In the face of the quarry were the half-excavated shells of a dozen cars and trailers, embedded in the gritty sand like the intact bodies of armoured saurians. (TD 134)
  • In the sunlight the gilded edifice gleamed among the dust and sand like a Fabergé gem. (TD 173)
  • Lomax postured among the low dunes, his small powdered face puckered like a shrivelled fig. (TD 18)
  • The forest canopy rose high in the air like an immense wave ready to fall across the empty town. (CW 27)
  • Louise’s body had lain beside him like a piece of the sun, a golden odalisque trapped for Pharaoh in his tomb. (CW 141)

Gateway What I mean by ‘gateway similes’ is ones which open a doorway into the grand visionary otherworld of Ballard’s imagination at its most intense.

  • He felt now that the white deck of the river was carrying them all in the opposite direction, forward into zones of time future where the unresolved residues of the past would appear smoothed and rounded, muffled by the detritus of time, like images in a clouded mirror. (TD 152)
  • Philip Jordan and Ransom climbed onto the bank and looked out at the causeways of rubble that stretched away like the unused foundation stones of a city still waiting to be built. (TD 157)
  • As he lay half-stunned in the sunlight he was aware of Mrs Quilter jabbering away on one of the dunes a few yards from him, the silent figure of her son, like an immense cuckoo, squatting beneath his furs in the sand. (TD 164)
  • The imitation Louis XV pieces had been transformed into huge fragments of opalescent candy, whose multiple reflections glowed like giant chimeras in the cut-glass walls. (CW86)

Rereading these examples I realise that:

  1. The most obvious and banal similes describe actions – running off like a hare, roaring like a lion etc – whereas the most powerful ones describe completely static scenery.
  2. As these final examples indicate, what characterises the most visionary similes is that they are embedded in long flowing sentences, are merely building blocks in larger visionary descriptions.

So:

  1. It’s a subjective judgement call which similes you allot to which category – I am just sketching out a possible taxonomy…
  2. but in doing so am drawing attention to the prevalence of similes in Ballard’s style and the role they play in helping to transport the reader away from the real, concrete world of socially shared perceptions, and into a more intense and personal world of eccentric, powerful and sometimes hallucinatory visions – and so play their part in creating the weird, obsessive mindsets of the various protagonists

2. Lush descriptions

The situations in each of the three disaster novels are extreme and offer Ballard plenty of opportunity for extended passages describing the novel landscapes created by a) the super-hot flooded world b) a world stricken by drought and c) a world turning into crystal.

Probably the most vivid, extended and lush descriptions are in the first novel, The Drowned World, suggesting the original rich, over-ripe soil from which Ballard’s mature style would eventually evolve.

Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o’clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon. Even through the massive olive-green fronds the relentless power of the sun was plainly tangible. The blunt refracted rays drummed against his bare chest and shoulders, drawing out the first sweat, and he put on a pair of heavy sunglasses to protect his eyes. The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball, its reflection turning the dead leaden surface of the lagoon into a brilliant copper shield. By noon, less than four hours away, the water would seem to burn. (First paragraph)

Passages of heat-stunned grandeur like this occur throughout The Drowned World making it a tremendous sensual pleasure to read.

Similarly, The Crystal World announces its heavy, symbolist, late-Victorian atmosphere long before we’ve got to the actual disaster zone. Right from the start the prose is heavy with long elaborate sentences and a sense of brooding menace.

At intervals, when the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye. By contrast, the straggle of warehouses and small hotels that constituted Port Matarre gleamed across the dark swells with a spectral brightness, as if lit less by solar light than by some interior lantern, like the pavilions of an abandoned necropolis built out on a series of piers from the edges of the jungle. (Second paragraph)

The Drought, sitting between the two lush novels is, by definition, altogether a dryer reading experience, but it too has extended passages which convey a tremendous sensual immediacy, especially in the second section, about life on the wide, bleak, windswept salt flats which have been created along the sea shore after ten years of distilling seawater to create drinking water.

Shortly after dawn, as the tide extended across the margins of the coastal flats, the narrow creeks and channels began to fill with water. The long salt-dunes darkened with the moisture seeping through them, and sheets of open water spread outwards among the channels, carrying with them a few fish and nautiloids. Reaching towards the firmer shore, the cold water infiltrated among the saddles and culverts like the advance front of an invading army, its approach almost unnoticed. A cold wind blew overhead and dissolved in the dawn mists, lifting a few uneager gulls across the banks.

Less sensually pleasurable than the warm fantasies of the other two books, nonetheless these scenes from The Drought have just the same skilled immediacy, and use the same kind of long, multi-claused sentences to create very vivid pictures in the mind.

Conclusion

The long, super-lush descriptions which characterise his first three novels were burnt off in the mid-1960s by Ballard’s growing obsession with the science fiction of the present day, epitomised by The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.

As the settings for his characters’ mental decline and obsessions changed from tropical forests and giant iguanas to motorway flyovers and concrete high rises, so Ballard’s style became more clipped, factual and a lot more sensually restrained.

Scientific jargon, the language of experiments, an argot of angles and geometry, obsessive imagery of nuclear test bunkers and perverse pornography, come to dominate Ballard’s fiction of the later 1960s, and a reader who came to Ballard through The Atrocity Exhibition would never suspect him capable of the long, rolling lush descriptions which are such an enjoyable and distinctive aspect of the first three disaster novels, and in which the inspired use of similes plays a small but significant role.

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)


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 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, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as 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 suppressedses and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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