Some Norfolk churches

St Nicholas’ Church, Blakeney (notable feature: beacon tower)

The village of Blakeney is on the North Norfolk coast. It is built around a couple of streets which slope down towards the tidal frontage of the river Glaven, which loops round the mud flats to form Blakeney Haven. Nowadays the haven is a narrow, shallow, muddy channel with a small road running parallel to it and wooden jetties which children catch crabs from, overlooked by the quietly opulent Blakeney Hotel.

The haven leads round to a flat open gravel and mud area where cars can park (unless there’s a high tide) so that visitors can stroll round the little town’s roads, climb the grassy mound which overlooks the sea, take the kids crabbing or set off for a walk along the North Norfolk Coastal Path which runs along the frontage here, heading off west towards Morston Quay or east along a grassy causeway round to the village of Cley.

So nowadays Blakeney is a small but (in the summer) bustling tourist village, but from the high Middle Ages (1400) through to the 17th century it was a thriving fishing port and it could afford to pay for the building of a massive church in the Perpendicular style dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, St Nicholas.

The Perpendicular style (1380 to 1500) was the last of the three main Gothic styles of churches in England and is easily spotted because by the 1400s architects had perfected the technique of making big windows. The fact that the 4-light windows along the ground floor of Blakeney church are wider than the wall between them instantly tells you this is a Perpendicular or ‘Perp’ church.

St Nicholas church, Blakeney (Source: Visit East of England website)

Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that although the church was founded in the 13th century, most of the structure dates from the 15th century when Blakeney was at the height of its importance as a seaport.

An unusual architectural feature is a second tower at the far end of the chancel, on the left in this photo. It was used as a beacon for ships entering the haven at dusk or night and was helped by the fact the church stands on a low bluff about 30 metres above sea level. It has many interesting features inside including a vaulted chancel with a big stepped seven-light lancet window and the hammerbeam roof of the nave. Above all it feels spacious, clean and very well maintained. It feels used and loved and some of that love rubs off on the visitor.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul church, Fakenham

Fakenham is a market town about ten miles inland from the North Norfolk coast. It sits on the River Wensum although in an hour or so wandering round I never saw the river. Fakenham has a population of about 7,500 i.e. it’s a small sleepy place. It’s surrounded by a ring road and some modern superstores, a Tescos and an Argos and their big car parks. But if you walk the short distance into the town centre you arrive at an attractive wide medieval street lined with Georgian houses, although admittedly many of them now house charity shops or takeaway food joints. And off to the north, on the highest piece of land, is the grassy graveyard and imposing parish church.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul church, Fakenham (Source: A Church Near You website)

The chancel and nave were built between 1300 and 1375 in the middle of the three Gothic styles, the Decorated style (1280 to 1380). The west tower was added between 1400 and 1450 and is 115 feet tall. Note the clerestory of windows along the main body above the ground floor aisle. One way of distinguishing Fakenham’s Decorated from Blakeney’s Perpendicular style is by looking at the windows along the aisle. The decorated ones have three lights and are still round-headed. The Perpendicular ones are that bit more sophisticated, with four lights, wider and flatter.

St Andrew’s Church, Wellingham (notable feature: painted panels)

Wellingham is a tiny hamlet 8 miles south of Fakenham. There’s no pub, no shops, just a handful of farm buildings, a manor house, some holiday cottages, hardly anything. Except this lovely unspoilt church, which doesn’t even have a wall dividing it from the single-track road, just a bluff of grass you climb up onto the grassy churchyard. St Andrew’s has a classic village church shape: a rectangular chancel then a step up to the roof of the nave, a south porch and a square two-storeyed tower with battlement, no aisles (i.e. extensions either side of the nave), no transepts (i.e. extensions north and south of the tower. Inside it feels dark and magical.

Scholars believe the nave was built by the Normans and the chancel was added in the 13th century. The earliest firm date is 1304 when its first rector is recorded. The two 2-light windows and single lancet window in the chancel probably date from the 13th century. The consistent ‘look’ of the exterior walls and tower indicate that the entire church was given a thorough restoration by the Victorians. That explains why it feels so neat and pointed and clean.

St Andrew’s church, Wellingham. Note the abundance of grass

But all these details pale into insignificance when you go inside and discover the great treasure the church contains – an early 16th century roodscreen complete with original paintings! The screen was the gift of one Robert Dorant and a half-legible inscription on the right hand pane dates it to 1532, during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 to 1547). This explains why some of the figures have distinctly Tudor clothing and hats.

Tudor painted panels in Wellingham church showing left: St George slaying the dragon, right: St Michael balancing souls and Christ rising from his tomb (source: Vitrearum’s Medieval Art)

The three panels on the left (north) side are:

  1. Saint Sebastian transfixed with arrows
  2. Saint Maurice with sword and lance
  3. Saint George killing a dragon: a damsel is standing at top right waiting to be rescued, a cartoon king and queen watch from the battlements of a nearby castle at top left, and a few dogs frolic around in the joyful manner of the Middle Ages.

The panels on the right (south) side are:

  1. St Michael with vertical golden wings weighing souls in a balance: in one pan are a pair of tiny naked Christians who are being helped into Paradise by the Blessed Virgin who is hanging her rosary on the scales; in the other pan are a couple of black little devils, with a third hanging on the edge of the pan trying to weigh it down.
  2. Christ depicted as the Man of Sorrows rising from a white sepulchre: he is surrounded by the images of the sacred objects associated with the Passion, namely the spear, the pliers and nails, the sponge, the crown of thorns, even the dice the soldiers used to gamble for his clothes. A scroll over his head reads Ecce Homo or ‘this is the man’, the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John, when he presents a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his crucifixion.
  3. the third panel is now blank although Walter Rye, who recorded his visit in the 1870s, wrote that you could make out the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury (subject of the current exhibition at the British Museum).

It’s absolutely astonishing that you or I can just walk in off a country lane, stroll right up to these priceless paintings and kiss them, touch them or admire them as we wish.

St Mary’s church, East Raynham (terrible condition)

The solid grey flint appearance of the church and the fussiness of the details all point to the fact that this is a Victorian church, rebuilt by 5th Marquis of Townshend in 1866 to 1868 by Clark and Holland of Newmarket at a cost of £5,000. The walls are flint with stone dressings and it has slated roofs except for the leaded chancel, not that you really notice, it’s all a rather sombre grey colour. Despite the date of the build it is not ‘High Victorian’ in style but an attempt to recreate the Decorated-Perpendicular detail of the church it replaced although with a kind of Disney extravagance, including as many Gothic tricks and features as they could cram in, from the buttresses and fiddly machicolations to the octagonal stairway against the tower.

St Mary’s church, East Raynham (photo by the author)

But the really striking thing about this church was the appalling dereliction and neglect of the interior. Large areas of plaster had fallen off the walls and shattered on the tiles. All the pews were laced with cobwebs and bird poo littered the carpet between the pews. I’ve rarely seen a church in such a shabby state. It was like it had been utterly abandoned and left to rot for years. It was symptomatic that there was no guide or leaflet telling the visitor anything about the church. I’m reluctant to be moralistic but I thought the condition of this church was a scandal, especially as it is only a few hundred yards from grand Raynham Hall, country seat of the Marquesses Townshend, who you would have thought have some kind of obligation to keep it in a decent state.

All Saints Church, Helhoughton

Helhoughton is a small village 4 miles west-south-west of the town of Fakenham, population in 2011 was 346. There is no pub and no shop. I know because I asked. The church is built in the curve of the small road through the village. I was doing a circular walk around the three villages which surround the grand Raynham estate, East Raynham, West Raynham and South Raynham. Helhoughton is a half mile detour to the north and so can be considered a kind of honorary Raynham.

All Saints church, Helhoughton

The nave and chancel, constructed from flint and stone with some brick dressings, combine to make it appear a very long church. The chancel dates from the 14th century and has two bays. The tower dates from the 15th century but the nave which connects them dates from the late 18th century which explains the visibility of red brick around the building (during the Tudor period builders shifted from using flint or stone to the much cheaper and flexible new material of brick, signalling the end of the great medieval period of church building).

The chancel needs those two brick buttresses you can see in this photo. When you walk round the outside you can see the south wall is bulging outwards.

Inside you are struck by the fact that the nave doesn’t have a vaulted, arched or barrel roof, like most churches, but during a restoration of the 1980s was given a completely flat white plaster ceiling with spotlights embedded in it, like in a modern bedroom or fashionable kitchen. Which creates a pleasingly incongruous effect.

But this feature aside, I found the interior was in poor shape, with broken plaster strewn across the floor, cobwebs between the pews and the ancient font green with mould. I chatted to a local lady who was outside her nearby house, gardening, and she explained that the congregation has dwindled to about 7, whereas the total estimated costs of a complete restoration to stop the church collapsing are in the order of £140,000. Where is the money going to come from to stop thousands and thousands of historic old churches like this mouldering and collapsing?

  • All Saints Church, Helhoughton on the Churches of Norfolk website

St Margaret’s Church, West Raynham (ruined)

It’s tempting to say St Margaret’s was the most spiritual of all the churches I visited because it is in ruins. The church was abandoned in the 18th century when the parish was consolidated with East Raynham and left to collapse. It now consists of fragments of the west tower, nave and chancel. For the rest, it is open to the sky and the elements.

Remnants of the tower and north doorway of St Margaret’s church, West Raynham, (Source: Geograph)

These ruins stand in a small churchyard which has been allowed to go wild except for a handful of tastefully and mown paths through long summer grass. This care and taste set a tone of respect for the old ruins’ natural environment which is very calming and rather wonderful. Wild flowers push up among the long grass hiding the ancient gravestones. In what remains of the nave there is a carved wooden Madonna and in what was once the chancel, three solid, geometrical, unadorned slabs of stone make an altar which is powerful and dignified. All rather wonderful.

St Martin’s church, South Raynham (tranquil)

St Martin’s feels like a really rural church, located at the end of Church Lane and amid open fields, I arrived after walking country paths from St Margaret’s West Raynham a mile to the north. It is another ‘long’ church, with the tower at the west end then a long nave, and chancel. Compare and contrast with the shorter, more compact church at Wellingham. It is probably a rebuilding of the 14th century, embellished in the late 15th. The squareness of the windows suggests they are later, Decorated additions, cut into earlier walls. All the guides mention its ancient mensa or altar stone but to be honest I didn’t notice this. I just enjoyed the quiet beauty of the location and the air of calm sanctity of the interior.

St Martin’s church, South Raynham (source: Geograph)

All Saints church, Litcham (magnificent rood screen)

Sometimes the graveyard sets the tone for a church before you’ve properly looked at it let alone gone inside. Litcham is a charming little village built on the slope of a hill with a pub facing a tiny village green then a minor road sloping down, presumably to a small river or stream, and on the left is the churchyard buttressed by a brick wall. There’s hardly any traffic and nobody on the street. It’s feels quiet and sheltered.

All Saints church, Litcham (source: Norfolk Churches)

From the outside the most striking thing is the tower which is built in brick and your hunch that it is a later addition is confirmed by a stone plaque embedded in it with the date 1669 and the name of the donor Matthew Halcott. Inside the guide explains that Halcott was a Royalist who paid for the erection of a new tower to celebrate the Restoration of Charles II (in 1660).

Anyway all this is swept away when you walk inside to the calm, cool, shady interior, look around and see an awesome treasure, the church’s magnificent rood screen, not only the painted panels along the bottom but the slender decorated pillars supporting the extraordinarily ornate and beautifully coloured tracery within its five arches. It takes your breath away.

The painted rood screen at All Saints church, Litcham

There are two sets of four painted panels on either side of the gates which open into the chancel and themselves contain 3 painted panels, so that’s a total of 22 in all. Some are better preserved than others, and the church guide mentions St Cecilia, St Dorothy, St Agnes with her lamb, St Petronilla with her large key and book, St Helena with her cross, and St Ursula holding arrows while some of her eleven thousand virgins hide amid her skirts. All women.

Figures on the south side, to the right, include St Gregory in a papal tiara, St Edmund holding three arrows, a figure leading a dragon on a halter, St Walstan, St Hubert, St William of Norwich, and St Louis of France. All chaps.

Interesting as these are as examples of medieval iconography, the real impact is made by the entire shape, design and colouring of the screen as a whole, with the intricacy of the painted decoration echoing the fine filigree carving of the wood into the five decorated ogee arches and the complex window-style arches above them, echoing the shapes of windows, sedilia and other features of Gothic architecture. A little like Islamic religious decoration, it invites the visitor to be transported into its world of patterns and decorations, rapt away from the humdrum and everyday into a world of gorgeous shapes and colours, symbolic of the medieval heaven with its elaborate hierarchies of angels, symbolic colours, and endless  joy of eternal adoration.

St Andrews Church, East Lexham (ancient round tower, modern paintings)

The village of East Lexham, 7 miles north of Swaffham, has almost entirely disappeared. The church stands in a grassy graveyard with a large modernised barn complex to the west, a wood to the east and farm buildings to the south. The church has two notable features.

The round tower is thought to be the oldest in England, built around 900, i.e. in the reign of Edward the Elder, King of the Saxons from 899 to 924. There are some 180 churches with round towers in England: 124 in Norfolk, 38 in Suffolk, 7 in  Essex and 2 in Cambridgeshire, and there is, you will be please to know, a Round Towers Churches Society which needs your support.

St Andrew’s church, East Lexham (Photo by the author)

The second notable feature is that, inside the church are three very striking modern paintings by contemporary artist Richard Foster. I’ve seen many modern sculptures, tapestries, stained glass, altar covers and so on, but hardly any straight paintings. they are in a pleasingly realistic style and depict The Rising from the Dead set in a nice looking English graveyard, a tall modern fisherman representing the church’s name saint, St Andrew, and The Nativity featuring a modern-dress Mary, contemporary looking ‘shepherds’ and a very modern looking angel.

The Nativity by Richard Foster in East Lexham church (photo by the author)

St Nicholas Church, West Lexham (round tower)

Only a mile off the A1065 is the very quiet hamlet of West Lexham. As you wangle through the village’s curved road it’s easy to miss the turnoff up a steep track to the car park for this church which also serves what appears to be a professional vegetable garden with rows of polytunnels. Anyway this is another very old round tower church.

The tower itself is probably Saxon, and crudely constructed of flint and mortar with a couple of small high windows. It was recently restored which explains it whitewashed appearance. By contrast the main body of the church was almost entirely derelict by the early 19th century and was rebuilt in the early 1880s as the solid buttresses and the uniform flint walling suggest. So you have the oddity of a solid Victorian church propping up a Saxon tower.

Exterior of St Nicholas’ church, West Lexham (photo by the author)

St Mary and All Saints Church, Newton-by-Castle Acre (Saxon tower)

This church is right by the busy A1065 Mildenhall to Fakenham road, about 4 miles north of Swaffham. The car park is easily mistaken for a layby. The village of Newton-by-Castle Acre barely exists (it has a population of 37) and gets its name because it is half a mile south of the more famous village of Castle Acre, itself home to the large grassy mound at the centre of a ruined castle and the nearby ruins of a priory.

The prosperity which lifted so many communities in 14th and 15th century East Anglia passed newton by and so the church was not rebuilt in the high Gothic style and so is not very different from the Saxon church built here in the 11th century. So although the two windows in the west of the nave are Victorian restorations of 15th century enlargements, the slender lancet window at the bottom of the tower is more indicative of what the earliest English churches looked like.

In fact the tower is the most interesting and important feature. It’s almost entirely Saxon workmanship with crude flint and mason work with large irregularly carved blocks of local car-stone as the quins or corners. The windows on each of the tower’s four sides are different in design, though all small and cramped in the Saxon style.

The line sloping across the tower at roof level indicates that there was once a south transept, long since disappeared. Originally the nave and chancel roof would have been thatched. The terracotta tiling was added during extensive restoration in 1929.

Exterior of St Mary and All Saints Church, Newton-by-Castle Acre (photo by the author)

Several things are notable about the interior. One is that the nave, tower and chancel are all the same width, with the opening into the chancel the original Anglo-Saxon one, very narrow, giving a pleasantly claustrophobic, coffin-like feeling, indicative of its great age.

There are a couple of modern wooden features, a pulpit and vicar’s stall which were made in 1959. But what really got me about this church was it is another one which is in a terrible state. The entire length of the tiled floor is green with mould and algae, particularly bad in the tower floor which isn’t just damp but wet, and in the chancel large sections of plain whitewash are bubbling or have fallen off the wall onto the floor.

Interior of St Mary and All Saints Church, Newton-by-Castle Acre (photo by the author)

St Peter and St Paul Church, Swaffham (impressive hammerhead angel roof)

Swaffham is a small market town on the A1065, 12 miles east of King’s Lynn and 31 miles west of Norwich. It has a population of 7,000. It’s big parish church is set back a few yards from the main market square, in fact a narrow triangle formed by the fork of two roads, along the sides of which and in the central space there’s still a daily market.

It’s a big, impressive, well-maintained church dating from 1454, at the height of East Anglia’s prosperity. There are aisles with 3-light Perpendicular windows, and clerestories to north and south, as well as a large transept chapel on the south side, and a tall, 2-stage tower (1485 to 1510) which you can see for miles around. It is made of rugged Barnack stone, and is fabulously decorated with symbols, most notably the large wheels containing the crossed keys of St Peter and the crossed swords of St Paul, which appear around the base course.

Instead of entering through a south porch you enter directly through the west doorway which means you are immediately struck by the immense size of the interior and the high height of the wooden ceiling. It’s only after a few moments, when your eyes have adjusted that you realise just how awesome this roof is.

It is long, with 14 ‘bays’ and an awesome early 16th century double hammerbeam wooden roof. Double hammerbeam means there are two separate beam ends to each arch and each one has a carved wooden angel with outspread wings bearing a shield at the end. Not at first obvious is that the panels above each window also contain four carved wooden angels. In total the rof, symbolic of heaven above us, contains almost 200 stately guardian angels guarding our destinies and protecting us from sin. It’s an awesome sight and feeling.

Hammerhead roof of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Swaffham (photo by the author)

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ…

‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ (John 3:16)

The risen Christ at Wellingham surrounded by the impedimenta of the crucifixion, the ‘instruments of the Passion’, watched by the king, left, and a red-capped cardinal c.1532

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

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

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

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

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

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

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

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

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

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

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

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

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

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

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

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

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

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

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

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

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

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

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

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

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

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

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

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

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

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

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

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

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

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

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

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

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

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

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

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

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

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

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

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

13. The Book of Sand

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

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

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

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

Late style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1965)

Twelve years and 28 novels into his career as a prolific author of science fiction and miscellaneous adult novels, Christopher’s publisher suggested he try writing novels for teenagers. I wonder if it had anything to do with the way one of his most recent novels, A Wrinkle In The Skin, rather movingly captures the close relationship between a man and an orphaned 11-year-old boy.

Anyway, the first fruit of this new direction in Christopher’s writing was The White Mountain, the first novel in what turned into a science fiction trilogy for teenagers, titled The Tripods.

The future

It is some time in the future and the mysterious tripods, metal hubs standing on three 60-foot-high legs, have conquered the earth. Humans have been reduced to serfs in a recreation of the medieval feudal system. There is no technology beyond carthorses and horse-drawn agriculture. Some people have travelled a bit and seen the ruins of the big cities which ‘the ancients’ lived in in the Old Times, but everyone is taught they were the Dark Times, the world was overpopulated, people starved and dropped like flies due to diseases. People don’t talk about it, or the ruins, or anything else controversial.

Children run free till they turn 14 at which age they are ‘capped’ – they are scooped up by a tripod, their head shaved and a metal device implanted in their skulls which neutralises any attempts to rebel. The day of a child’s capping is a feast day in their village amid much celebration: it means they officially become a man or woman, can do an adult’s work and get an adult’s pay.

The novel is told in the first person by 13-year-old Will Parker who lives in the village of Wherton (page 22). There are other boys his own age, some of whom he fights with (such as his bully cousin, Henry), some of whom are his best mates. One is Jack, another cousin, who has made a secret den in one of the ruins of the Old People outside the village. Jack drops a couple of hints about the Old Days and the Old People. The official story is all was darkness and chaos till the Tripods came, but Jack asks how, if that is true, the Old People could have made complex and impressive devices like the pocket watch from the Old Times, which Will’s father is so proud of?

Capping and a vagrant

But then Jack turns 14 and is himself capped. Will witnesses the big village feast and the moment Jack is snatched up by the long looping tentacles of a tripod and taken up inside its hemispherical ‘head’, reappearing half an hour later with his head shaved and what looks like a web of wires (the ‘darker metal tracery of the cap…like a spider’s web’) embedded under his scalp. There’s a big feast to celebrate Jack’s capping, hosted by the lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey. Next time he gets Jack on his own, a few days later, Jack dismisses all his former talk about the Old Days as nonsense. The capping has eliminated his rebellious and sceptical spirit.

Sometimes the capping process goes wrong and the cappees become brain damaged, mentally unhinged. They are booted out of their own communities and wander the country and are called Vagrants. Each village has a Vagrant House where vagrants can stay for a while and be fed before moving on.

Around this time a vagrant appears bumbling round the village. Will gets into conversation with him. He quotes the Bible a lot and says his name is Ozymandias. Will finds him interesting and, even though his father tells him to stop hanging round the vagrant house, Will meets Ozymandias a few more times. At one of these meetings, Ozymandias reveals that he has not been capped at all. The vagrant tells him about free, uncapped men living in the White Mountains over the sea and far to the South (by which the reader imagines he must mean the Alps).

Ozymandias swears Will to secrecy then explains how he can make his way south to the port of Rumney (presumably a corruption of Romney, a former port on the Kent coast), find a ship across the sea captained by one Captain Curtis, and then head for the White Mountains. He takes out of a secret seam in his jacket a map which he gets Will to promise to hide.

Escape

All these revelations from Ozymandias have crystallised his sense of unease about his own future capping, especially when he saw what it did to his best friend, Jack i.e. stopped him from thinking.

So Will builds up a stash of food secreted a bit of a time, with a view to running away. But then disaster strikes. His cousin Henry’s mother dies. Henry comes to stay for a bit, which is OK, but then his mother announces it’s going to be permanent and the boys are going to share the same room.

Nonetheless, one dark night Will gets up, sneaks out of bed, puts his clothes on, slips out of the house and along to the den Jack used. He is getting his stash of food and equipment out when hears a voice behind him. Henry woke as he got up to leave and has followed him. They have a brief fight which Henry wins, ending up on top pinning Will down. But instead of turning him in… he wants to come too! Will can’t think of any alternative and so reluctantly agrees.

They set off and their journey south is described in detail. One night they hear someone riding towards them and run for it but Will falls twisting his ankle. They have to rest up in a ruined cottage. Waking to find his pack gone, Will thinks Henry has deserted him. But he soon turns up, with fresh food he’s pinched from a far, and it turns out he’d hidden the pack for safety. After three days hiding out, Will’s ankle has healed and they continue south.

Rumney

They come down into Rumney and find a likely sailors’ inn. But Will has barely bought a drink before he is seized by a yellow-bearded sailor who is about to press gang him, when (luckily) Captain Curtis arrives and takes Will and Henry off Yellowbeard’s hands.

The pair are quickly smuggled aboard Curtis’s ship, the Orion, where they have to hide as most of the crew are capped. Half way across the Channel there is an incident, where six tripods appear and careen and swish around the ship their long legs ending in floats, giving out long booming calls. They playfully raise big waves which threaten to overturn the ship. Captain Curtis explains they often do this, it appears to be for fun, some ships actually sink but that’s not the purpose.

They dock in a port in France and Captain Curtis rows them ashore in a dinghy then wishes them good luck. However they’ve hardly gone any distance down the road before doors open, men appear and they are seized. Turns out someone’s been vandalising local boats and the inhabitants think they’ve caught them red-handed.

Now Captain Curtis had emphasised that they were under no circumstances to talk, as this would instantly reveal them as foreigners. Refusing to talk, Will and Harry are thrown into the cellar of a tavern, not before they’ve glimpsed an odd-looking lanky boy with glass over his eyes. The reader realises that Will has never seen glasses before.

They make a few half-baked attempts to loosen the bars of the cellar but then the door is unlocked and opened. It is the lanky kid. He can speak English and offers to take them back to a boat. When they explain they are heading south, he says he can help with that, too. Why? It’s never really explained although he immediately warms to the idea of a place where there are no tripods and no capping.

He introduces himself as Zhan-pole which we realise is Will’s phonetic spelling of Zhan-pole. Henry immediately nicknames him Beanpole and it sticks. They set off south and Beanpole reveals that he also is fascinated by ‘the ancients’, reckons they were strong and powerful, reckons they had machines driven by power of steam. He reckons people could fly by building big balloons filled with steam not air. He read about sailors’ telescopes and found some discarded lenses from which he constructed his home-made spectacles. Henry ridicules these ideas but Will is fascinated.

Shmand-Fair

Beanpole says they can use the shmand-fair to travel south. Those of us with basic French realise he means the chemin de fer or railroad or railway. And sure enough he leads him to a place where long curving metal rails are supported on wooden sleeper, and box-like carriages are pulled by horses. They stow away on one of a set of carriages and are merrily pulled south by the horses for a full day, as the shmand-fair passes through villages and stops to have goods loaded or unloaded.

Towards evening they slip out unnoticed at a stop, then head steadily south-east towards what Will’s map indicates are the ruins of a great city.

Paris

They travel across Paris which is in ruins and utterly deserted. The main streets are pocked with trees and shrubs. There are cuboid rusting metal objects with metal wheels and white skeletons inside. Beanpole reckons they were vehicles which made their way under their own steam without horses.

They come across vast shops with mannekins in the windows. They find old, old tinned food. There’s steps going down underground beneath a rusted sign reading METRO. Down into dark tunnels which wind on and descend even further till they come to a Metro train, a row of carriages on the rails. Inside the carriage they find what are obviously old rifles and sacks of round things with corrugated surfaces. These are grenades. Beanpole pulls the pin out of one but the effort makes him drop it and it rolls under the carriage, which is just as well for all concerned – before it explodes. It dawns on all of them that this must have been a last hideout for men trying to resist the tripods. Everything Will sees reinforces his sense that his society is not natural; it is an imposition and a tyranny. They decide to put some of the ‘eggs’ in their packs.

They continue onto the Île de la Cité past Notre Dame de Paris, but the bridges on the other side are down so they have to retrace their steps till they find a damaged bridge which still has a full span. They trek across a massive Paris cemetery and finally emerge into country on the other side.

The Castle of the Red Tower

They head south for several days into what I suppose is the valley of the River Loire, famous for its castles. A fever has been creeping up on Will and he collapses into a feverish state. They hide him in a shed, but next thing he remembers is faces looking over him and then waking up…. in a wonderfully comfortable feather bed!

This is maybe the longest and central section of the book. They have been taken into The Castle of the Red Tower and its courteous aristocratic owners, Sir Geoffrey and Lady May and their daughter Eloise, along with umpteen knights and fine ladies and then a host of servants. It is part of their noblesse to help wayfarers, hence the hospitality they extend to these two foreigners and a gawky native.

The womenfolk take a shine to Will partly because their sons have been sent away on service. Lady May enjoys mothering him and Eloise likes talking to him in a sweet and soulful way. His two friends remain outside this magic circle. When they meet they discuss what to do and the idea recurs that the other two should go on ahead (they won’t be so missed) and Will catch them up.

Meanwhile the days turn into weeks, Will recovers and the family show him the full gamut of hospitality, favours and training. Will learns to speak French and to ride a horse well, well enough to go hunting. Will thinks he might be sort of falling in love with Eloise till one fateful incident. Eloise always wears a turban. One day, walking along the battlements of the castle, Will playfully pulls it off. This subtly wrecks their friendship for Will is shocked to see beneath her shorn skull, the tell-tale signs of a cap. He hadn’t realised she was that old. He hadn’t realised she was capped. He had been hoping somehow to take her along with them to freedom. Now that idea evaporates. For Eloise, Will pulling her turban off like that was rude, the act of a barbarian without manners. Ordinarily any man who did that to a recently capped young woman would be flogged.

Despite this Will is totally incorporated into the aristocratic lifestyle, visiting poor villagers to dispense charity, socialising with neighbouring wealthy families, and Lady May says she has influence with the king and can have Will formally granted the tank of gentleman. Of course, this would require being capped and giving up his ability to think freely. That is what this long central section dramatises: Will’s temptation to give in, to conform, to acquiesce in a life of ease and privilege – at the price of his mental freedom. Sure, all the people around him in the castle are capped, but they are happy.

Is it worth forfeiting the free life of the mind in exchange for security and happiness?

The castle is due to host a big tournament stretching over many days. It brings all these conflicts to a head. On the second day Henry and Beanpole come to see Will and announce they will be slipping away to continue their journey south under cover of the general confusion caused by the hundreds of knights and servants who have arrived for the tournament. Will promises he will follow them, in a day or two, a week at the latest. They look at him and imperceptibly shake their heads. Basically, they think he is lost to the cause and don’t expect to ever see him again. They walk away with their backpacks filled with food nicked from the castle kitchens, various tools and buried at the bottom, those hand grenades from Paris.

Back at the tournament, a young woman is always crowned Queen of the Tournament and to nobody’s surprise this year the Queen is young Eloise. Willis disconcerted when a huge tripod clumps up to the tournament grounds and parks itself, unmoving, monitoring everything. Will is convinced it is watching him.

That evening Eloise comes to see Will in his bedroom and is full of excitement. She says she’s come to say goodbye but Will doesn’t understand. Then she explains that whoever is crowned Queen of the Tournament is then sent away to serve the tripods. He is shocked not only at this news, but at the joyful look on her face. Any lingering fantasies he had about building some kind of future with her come tumbling down. That decides him.

In the middle of the night he gets up, dresses, takes a pillowslip down to the kitchen and fills it with cold food, slips over to the stables and saddles the chestnut gelding he’s been used to riding, named Aristide (page 134). He heads south on the horse with a view to catching up with Beanpole and Henry but then becomes aware of a powerful thumping sound. It is the tripod which had loomed over the tournament. Before he has time to bolt, the tripod’s long tentacle loops down and scoops him off the horse and up into the gaping hole which has appeared in its ‘head’.

He regains consciousness lying on the bank of the river with Aristide grazing quietly nearby. In a sudden panic Will reaches for his head and gasps with relief when he feels all his hair, still there, unshaven. He has not been capped. Dazed and confused he mounts up onto Aristide and hastens away: the castle will be waking up, they will come looking for him.

Three boys in flight

Later that day he sees two figures toiling up a field in the distance, canters over and it is Beanpole and Henry. He dismounts, spanks Aristide on the bottom so he’ll wander off to be found by locals. Now the three are reunited. The other two are surprised and Henry in particular drops barbed comments about Will abandoning his ‘life of luxury’ but Will makes it sound like all part of a carefully crafted plan instead of, what the reader has actually seen, a turmoil of confused impulses.

They have the map and head south aiming for a pass in the hills. There is a river and this is joined by another one which is dead straight and has locks when the level changes. None of them know about canals but, again Beanpole shows he is the intellectual by speculating that it was built to carry boats on and carry goods.

It is a long journey south. Days pass in endless tramping and detailed notes on the changing weather. They go hungry, eat what they can forage and occasionally burglarise a cottage pantry of some cooked food and have a feast.

Tailed by a tripod

However it soon becomes clear that they’re being trailed by a tripod. No matter where they go and whatever direction they take, after a while it (or one like it; they all look the same) hoves up behind them. The land slowly climbs, there are pastures of cows and goats and alpine valleys. Days pass. They become more and more tired and hungry. Soon they are tearing up roots, foraging for berries. Cold nights sleeping on the bare earth in pine forests. They discuss whether they could catch a snake and what it would taste like raw.

One morning Will is lying on his back with his torn shirt and Beanpole sees something. In his armpit is a circular shape. On closer examination they realise it is some kind of metal implant. Obviously a tracking device. Henry leaps to the conclusion that Will is a traitor who acquiesced in having the tracker implanted. They must knock him out and leave him. Beanpole points out that Will voluntarily told them about being scooped up by the tripod, but remembering nothing. As a solution Will says they must split up and he’ll make his own way to the mountain refuge. Yes, says Beanpole, but it will still track him there. OK, replies Will, he’ll head back north to decoy the tripods. But that way he will almost certainly end up being capped and the memory of being scooped up into the tripod’s innards makes him go pale with fear.

Beanpole says there’s only one way: to cut it out. And so Henry holds Will down, they give him a leather strap to bite on and Beanpole uses a knife they found in Paris to cut it out. It involves quite a bit of gouging and Will is in agony, but eventually it comes free, a coin-sized metal button. They throw it away and press on. But then they hear a terrible sound, a booming ululation across the hills – it is the hunting call of the tripods. They know what the boys have done, and they’re coming to get them.

Killing a tripod

The chase really is on now, as the three boys hurry up the exposed hillside hearing the thump of tripod feet behind them. There’s only one bit of cover, a copse of bushes so they head for those and throw themselves into the middle. Moments later the tripod is above them, ripping up bushes with its tentacles getting closer and closer. Suddenly they remember the ‘eggs’ (the grenades) they found in the Paris Metro.

As the tripod rips up the bushes Beanpole and Henry get to their feet, pull out pins and throw their grenades at the tripod’s leg. They both explode but leave the leg completely unharmed. Will gets ready to throw but next thing he knows is in mid-air as a tentacle has grabbed him and is lifting him towards the grim opening in the tripod hub. At the last minute he pulls the pin from his grenade and chucks it into the opening. A few seconds later there is a dull thump and the tentacle goes limp, relaxing back down to ground level, loose enough for Will to wriggle free. The three boys stare up at the tripod, leaning to one side and completely inanimate. They’ve killed it.

Hunted by tripods

They unleash a storm of angry tripods. As they run run run as quick as they can, uphill away from the dead one, they suddenly see a silhouette on a western hill, then another from another direction. They chop and change routes but realise more and more tripods are approaching. Where to hide, it’s all barren hillside, only heather. Eventually they spot a large rock by a stream. Periodic floods must have worn away a groove at its base. The three boys throw themselves down into this runnel, squeezing in, head to foot, hidden by the overhang of the rock. And there they lie hiding for all of one long night, all the next day and into dusk and the night of the next day, and then all of the next day after that till they are dizzy with dehydration and hunger.

When hours have passed without any tripod activity they eventually stumble out of the crevice, drink some water and head stumbling up the hillside. There follow more days and nights of complete exposure and hunger, struggling through wind and rain. Will’s wound festers and Beanpole has to cut out the infected part and then treat it with herbs he knows about.

We are nearly at the end of the story and this reader felt absolutely shattered. They come down out of the hills into a lovely plain with a vast lake. Maybe it’s meant to be Lake Geneva. They steal food from a farmhouse and sleep in the hay of a barn. Next day they’re making their way across open fields of crops when two tripods come up behind them at speed. At first they and the reader think it’s all over, but the tripods are playing some kind of elaborate game, tossing something gold and flashing between their intermingling tentacles and run straight over the three boys.

And beyond the lake, and beyond the hills on the other side, for the first time they see the outline of the mighty white mountains, the Alps, rising in the distance.

Sudden ending

And then the novel ends, very abruptly. There are no more gruelling descriptions of their endless starving trek, thank goodness. Instead the narrative jumps ahead to a point where their journey is complete. In barely a page and a half we learn that  to , with barely two pages the boys found their way unhindered up to the peaks of the Alps where they discovered that free men have carved a network of tunnels into the rock, where they live, and from which they are planning some day to re-emerge, to fight the tripods and take back the earth for a free humanity. THE END.

Christopher versus Wyndham

Comparisons are odious but it highlights their respective strengths and weaknesses to compare Christopher’s novels with John Wyndham’s. Basically, Wyndham’s are in a different league, for several reasons:

I think the most important is the lack of thinking in Christopher. Characters have a few thoughts and ideas, sort of. But Wyndham’s books are packed with ideas, with characters who spend most of their time pondering the situation, thinking things through, having long thoughtful conversations, arguing interpretations.

You can’t help thinking that the entire situation, the world conquered by aliens and humans effectively neutered, could have prompted a vastly more thought-provoking novel than Christopher’s. For example, Will’s conversion from being a totally obedient conformist to suddenly realising the tripods are evil and that he doesn’t want to be capped, happens very lightly and easily. I didn’t feel any dramatic tension or depth.

Similarly, there really was scope to have some very interesting thoughts in the Castle of the Red Tower section about whether human beings might not, in fact, be a lot better off being capped and obedient. The life the book describes actually seems a lot better than the life of the poor in our own day and age. What’s not to like? Will eventually rejects it with a few feeble sentences about wanting to be ‘free’. You know for a fact that John Wyndham would have spent pages working this through and presenting the choice in much more thought-provoking way.

And because Wyndham’s characters have much larger and more complex mental lives and psychological range, this means when they get scared you get scared too. His books are much more thrilling because you experience them in a much fuller, psychologically deeper way.

Instead what you get in Christopher is a relentless focus on physical slog. I say this because a lot of The White Mountains reads eerily similar to the majority of A Wrinkle In The Skin in that both are relentlessly detailed descriptions of long and gruelling journeys made on foot with not enough food and the characters sleeping in the open, battered by the elements of wind and rain and cold.

These journeys are told in an extremely simple, straightforward chronological order, one day following the next, followed by the next followed by the next, and after a while it feels like a series of weather forecasts, with characters endlessly noting the state of the sky, clouds or mist or rain or drizzle or fog and so on and so on.

Any kind of mental activity comes a very poor second to this exhausting focus on the physical. If you are in the target age range for this book, of maybe 11 or younger, and if you hadn’t read many science fiction stories, I think the book invokes powerful tropes, mixes up a number of interesting settings (abandoned Paris, a medieval castle complete with tournaments) and, in the final close pursuit by the tripods, probably conveys enough jeopardy to keep you gripped and thrilled.

But hopefully any teenager who read this good primer would then go on to read much better, deeper, more skilfully described and psychologically stretching science fiction novels, for example the stories of H.G. Wells, not least The War of The Worlds which the tripods so obviously rip off, or those of John Wyndham, which would represent an obvious step up in quality and depth.

Kindling wonder

I suppose one the major things to say in the book’s favour is that it ably creates a sense of wonder on all levels. Obviously all the details about the tripods and the capping and the hints about slave mines and the mysterious cities of the tripods are designed to spark your young teen awe. But there is another payoff from setting it in a future where people have been separated from the past and knowledge of the wider world which is that… the world seems a much larger, more mysterious and marvellous place than it in fact, shows itself to be to most adults. Vast storm-tossed oceans, enormous ruined cities, mysterious machines, puzzling lines of metal rails, eerily straight rivers… almost every element in the book is strange and mysterious, in a way that a novel dealing with the same topics set in the present would take for granted.

Setting the story in this imagined future where lots of human knowledge has been so completely lost has the effect of making the world appear strange and wonderful. Putting to one side the other two dominant themes – fear about the tripods and the sheer bone-aching exhaustion of the hungry trek – this sense of wonder and dazzlement at a world full of mysteries may be the lasting impression the book leaves on younger readers. Which would be a good thing.


Credit

The White Mountains by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1967. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Realist (1918) by Hermann Broch (1931)

Incapable of communicating himself to others, incapable of breaking out of his isolation, doomed to remain the mere actor of his life, the deputy of his own ego – all that any human being can know of another is a mere symbol, the symbol of an ego that remains beyond our grasp, possessing no more value than that of a symbol; and all that can be told is the symbol of a symbol, a symbol at a second, third, nth remove, asking for representation in the true double sense of the word. (p.497)

1. The cast
2. A more accessible layout
3. The plot
4. ‘Modernist’ techniques
5. Broch’s pseudo-philosophy
6. Humourless hysteria
7. Drawing strands together

The Realist (1918) is the third in Austrian writer Hermann Broch’s trilogy, The Sleepwalkers. At nearly 300 pages in the Vintage paperback edition it is almost twice as long as the first two novels put together.

The first two novels started out as realistic accounts of a handful of characters, featuring very vividly drawn settings and events, which slowly became more long-winded and hysterical, bloated with the religio-philosophical speculations of their chief protagonists which are mingled with their psychological obsessions and idées fixes into a complicated and sometimes confusing brew.

The Realist has more characters than the previous books, and more systematically deploys the different styles or registers of Broch’s writing, from the purely descriptive, through the psychological delineation of character, to – at the highbrow end – sections of pure philosophy and cultural critique. First, a look at the characters.

1. The cast

1. The Realist is Wilhelm Huguenau. He was approaching his thirtieth birthday when the Great War broke out. Quickly we skim over the years Huguenau spent waiting to be called up, then his conscription and training in 1917 and his first experiences in the trenches on the Western Front, lined with human excrement and flooded with rain and urine.

This is all dealt with briskly because the point is that on his first evening Huguenau promptly climbs over the lip of the trench and goes absent without leave. He is a handsome, smooth-talking man who grew up in Alsace on the border between Germany and Belgium and so is able to present himself to suspicious peasants and to a devout pastor who puts him up for a while, as an innocent man reluctantly dragooned into the army. He is a chancer with a beaming, friendly face and a ready smile on his lips (p.346). Surprisingly, though, he is stout and short (p.513), ‘a round, thickset figure’ (p.535). Possibly because Broch intends us to despise him as a symbol of the self-centred, go-getting corruption of the modern age.

2. Ludwig Gödicke is 40. He was a bricklayer before he was called up to the Landwehr. He was buried alive in a front line trench by shellfire. When the ambulancemen dug him out they couldn’t tell whether he was alive or dead and so had a bet on the matter, it’s only because of the random decision to have a bet that they didn’t fling him back in the hole but instead take him to a field hospital where he hovers between life and death as his soul slowly reconstitutes itself in anguish (p.351). (If this were an English novel he would recover from his ordeal; because it is a German novel by a German author, Ludwig has to reconstitute a soul which was atomised by his near-death experience and rebuild it fragment by fragment, a process described in immense detail.) For even though his body is repaired, it turns out that Ludwig’s soul is an unbuilt house which he must reconstruct one brick at a time. Meanwhile, in total silence he hobbles on crutches around the hospital grounds (p.383).

3. Lieutenant Jaretzki is in military hospital, almost the whole of his left arm swollen and infected by gas. The doctors discuss the need to amputate the arm before the infection reaches his torso, and then go ahead. Jaretski takes it pretty philosophically and discusses with one of the doctors whether to try and get a job in an engineering firm or simply volunteer to return to the front where he can be shot and get it over with.

4. Huguenau has by now travelled south away from the front and arrived at a sleepy little town in the valley of a tributary of the Moselle. He has spent the last of his money on smart clothes and a haircut and sets about coming up with money-making schemes. He visits the ramshackle office of the local newspaper, the Kur-Trier Herald, where the seasoned Broch reader has a surprise. For this ailing local paper is edited by none other August Esch, the former book-keeper who was the protagonist of this book’s prequel, The Anarchist (p.356). Esch inherited the newspaper and the buildings it occupies in a legacy, and it is 15 years since we last saw him (in 1903). But he is just as short-tempered and irascible, blaming the military censorship for preventing him publishing the truth, quick to take offence at anyone or anything. We meet his wife, one-time Mother Hentjen, who we last saw on the eve of their marriage, being joylessly ravaged every evening and who Esch occasionally beat when his anger got the better of him. He is tall and lean, with ‘long lank legs’ (p.513).

5. Later, at dinner in the hotel he’s staying in, Huguenau is promoted by devilry to approach the old, grey-haired Major dining nearby, who (he is informed) has authority for the region. For no particular reason, Huguenau finds himself denouncing Esch to the Major, accusing Esch of unpatriotic activities, and claims he’s been sent by higher authorities to carry out an investigation. Intimidated by this smart and confident young man, the old Major blusters and says he’ll introduce Huguenau to some of the local worthies who foregather in the hotel bar on Friday nights. Since Broch is obviously partial to reviving characters from the earlier novels, I immediately suspected that this white-haired and dim old military man might turn out to be Joachim von Pasenow from the first novel, thirty years later… And indeed this suspicion is confirmed in chapter 33 (p.418). Welcome back dim and confused old friend.

6. Hanna Wendler lazily wakes up in ‘Rose Cottage’, stroking her breast under her silk nightclothes before drifting off to sleep again and waking later. She imagines herself as the subject of a rococo painting, or like Goya’s painting of Maja. Presumably these references indicate her social class i.e. educated, upper middle-class. She has a son and several servants. We then learn that her husband, Dr Heinrich Wendling, is a lawyer, and that her listlessness is explained by the fact that he has been absent on the Eastern Front for two years (p.363).

7. Marie is a young Salvation Army girl in Berlin. Her sections are narrated by a first-person narrator who gives eye-witness descriptions of Marie’s life in Berlin in the final months of the war. In chapter 27 we learn that this narrator is Bertrand Müller, Doctor of Philosophy (p.403). That bodes badly. More philosophy, that’s the last thing we need.

8. Disintegration of Values And there’s a recurring section told by another first-person narrator which does nothing but lament the decline and fall of ‘our times’ and ‘the horror of this age’ (p.389) in an irritatingly ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ sort of way. For this moany old devil ‘this age’ is ‘softer and more cowardly than any preceding age’ (p.373) and don’t get him started on ‘modern architecture’, surely no former age ever greeted its contemporary architecture with such dislike and repugnance (p.389), the architecture of ‘our time’ reveals ‘the non-soul of our non-age’ (p.390).

I got the sense that this narrator or voice is not intended to be Broch’s, it is more self-consciously preening, exaggeratedly that of an aesthete who is happy rattling on about how this or that architectural style reveals ‘the spirit of the age’ etc. These passages might have been immensely useful if they had actually referred to specific buildings or types of architecture current either when the novel is set (1918) or when Broch was writing it (late 1920s). But they don’t. They are very long and curiously empty.

Anyway, we eventually learn that these passages are written by the character Bertrand Müller, and are part of an extended thesis he’s writing (p.439). That explains their über-academic style.

2. A more accessible layout

So that’s the main cast of eight or so characters who are each introduced in the first 20 or so pages, and the next 200+ pages tell us their stories as their lives unfold and, occasionally, intersect.

Apart from being double the length of its predecessor novels, the other immediately distinctive physical thing about The Realist is that it has chapters – lots of them, about 90 chapters, often only a few pages long.

This is in striking contrast to the previous books which were divided into just a handful (4 or 5) of very long acts or divisions. Admittedly these were then broken up into ‘sections’ indicated by breaks in the text, but The Realist is something new. The chapters consciously cut between the characters with each chapter focusing on a different character and on a specific action (or specific topic of waffling burble, in the case of the Disintegration of Values chapters) and is short and focused.

This makes The Realist infinitely more readable than its predecessors with their pages after pages after pages of solid text, sometimes disappearing into such extended passages of religio-philosophy that the reader gets lost and confused.

By contrast, in this book you are never more than a page away from a new chapter and, because they mostly focus on short sharp scenes, the result is much more vivid.

Also, whereas in the previous two novels almost all the dialogue was buried in huge blocks of undifferentiated prose, here the passages of dialogue are broken up so that each new bit of the dialogue, even if it’s only a sentence long, has a new paragraph – the standard way of laying out dialogue in most novels.

Sounds trivial but just these two typographic changes make The Realist look and feel much, much closer to the ‘normal’ type of novel you and I are used to reading.

3. The plot

Huguenau inveigles himself with Esch and gets the local worthies to form a business consortium which partly buys Esch out of the newspaper, installing Huguenau as editor and giving him accommodation in Esch’s house where is daily fed by Esch’s wife, the shapeless, silent hausfrau Gertrud (Mother Hentjen of The Anarchist, 15 years on).

Despite this Huguenau also wants to suck up the local military authority, Major von Pasenow. Now we know, from having followed him for 150 pages in The Romantic that von Pasenow is a moron who consistently fails to understand everything around him and this is what happens when Huguenau writes a cunning clever letter to the Major accusing Esch of consorting with traitorous types i.e. going to a beer cellar with a few mates and discussing how the war is going badly and whether it’s likely to end. Huguenau miscalculates because von Pasenow is too dim to be suspicious of Esch but instead is (rightly) suspicious of Huguenau’s motives in sending the letter.

Ludwig Gödicke attends the funeral of a well-liked young soldier who’d been in the hospital as Gödicke. the funeral prompts Gödicke to utter his first words and he tries to climb down into the open grave. Huguenau attends the funeral so the reader begins to realise that all these characters are in the same town.

Huguenau is bored of editing the newspaper which, after all has little or nothing to put in it. He has a brainwave, which is to set up a patriotic charity. That Friday he corrals the local worthies into setting it up, naming it the Moselle Memorial Association. He also has the idea of setting up an ‘Iron Bismarck’ in the town square, the name Germans gave to blocks of wood they set up and then citizens hammered nails into, whilst making a contribution to the fund/charity.

Sucking up to the Major, Huguenau had invited him to contribute an article to the Kur-Trier Herald, so the Major wrote an extended sermon with many quotes from the Bible. This has a powerful impact on Esch, who sets up a Bible Study group and asks the Major to lead it. Here, as everywhere else in the trilogy, there is a complete absence of irony or wit or self-awareness or charity or sympathy or kindness. Esch and von Pasenow bark at each other like dogs.

The young soldier who died in the hospital, his brother is the meek and mild watch-repairer Samwald, who takes to visiting the hospital, repairing watches for the staff and inmates, and strangely drawn to the silent Gödicke. They often sit on a bench in the sun in silence. One day Samwald takes Gödicke by the hand into the town and to the editorial offices of the Kur-Trier Herald, up a ladder in a sort of farm courtyard. Samwald, it turns out, is part of Esch’s Bible Studies group.

A strange scene where the Major, Esch, Frau Esch and Huguenau sit round chatting, described in the format of a play script, in which the Major and Esch talk nothing but religious salvationism / theology, and all four end up singing a Salvation Army hymn.

A Celebration drink and dance in a biergarden, where many of the characters, plus the three or four named doctors who are treating Gödicke (doctors Kessel, Kühlenbeck, Flurschütz) and the nurses (Sister Mathilde, Sister Clara) mix and mingle. I wish I could say there was one shred of humour, banter, repartee or warmth in this scene, but there isn’t.

Major von Pasenow attends the Bible Group led by Esch. Like all the other religious meetings, it is hysteria-ridden, dominated by imagery of death, the grave, the Evil One and so on. Broch’s depiction of German religious believers is terrifying because they are constantly at an extremity of horror and terror.

Basically, Huguenau tries a variety of tactics to incriminate Esch in the eyes of the Major in order, I think, to have him locked up as a traitor so Huguenau can inherit the whole of the newspaper, printing press and buildings. However, this is never going to happen because Esch and von Pasenow share the same morbid, over-excitable morbid Christian hysteria. Here’s a brief look inside Major von Pasenow’s mind.

Yet strong as was the effort he made to bring his thoughts under control, it was not strong enough to master the contradictory orders and service instructions before him; he was incapable of resolving the contradictions. Chaos was invading the world on every side and chaos was spreading over his thoughts and over the world, darkness was spreading, and the advance of darkness sounded like the agony of a painful death, like a death-rattle in which only one thing was audible, only one thing certain, the downfall of the Fatherland – oh, how the darkness was rising and the chaos, and out of that chaos, as if from a sink of poisonous gases, there grinned the visage of Huguenau, the visage of the traitor, the instrument of divine wrath, the author of all the encroaching evil. (p.582)

Meanwhile, the stories of other characters advance. I found it hard to understand the Berlin scenes. The first-person narrator, Bertrand Müller, appears to be living in a boarding house with various Jews, old and young. He has an antagonistic relationship (as far as I can tell every single relationship in all three books is antagonistic; nobody seems to just get on with each other) with an elderly scholarly Jew, Dr Samson Litwak and also, in some obscure way, appears to be supervising or looking over a burgeoning relationship between the Salvation Army girl, Marie, and a young Jewish man Nuchem Sussin.

And Hanna Wendler’s husband, the long-absent lawyer and lieutenant in the army, Heinrich, turns up on leave. Here Broch is on form, describing the strangeness of her attitude to him, her sense of distance from herself, her sense that everything she experiences is somehow secondary. Plus, they appear to have a classy and erotic sex life (p.539).

History has been ticking along in the background. As in the other novels Broch has subtly indicated the passage of the seasons from spring through a glorious high summer and into autumn. Except this time the year in question is 1918 so we know that the year is not going to end well for the German side and the German characters.

In October Huguenau is finally caught out. His name appears on a long list of deserters distributed to local authorities which ends up on Major von Pasenow’s desk. Pasenow is dim and dense, which is why he is scared and overcome with horror much of the time – he just doesn’t understand the world. So it is characteristic that a) he’s not sure he’s read the list properly b) he is then crushed by indecision as to what to do about it during which – instead of acting decisively, he characteristically invokes the horrors of the universe and the terror of the Antichrist and sees Huguenau as a great devil and traitor who is responsible for Germany’s defeat – in other words exactly the kind of hysterical over-reaction we’ve come to expect from a Broch character.

When the Major finally calls Huguenau in to explain himself, the portly little man immediately goes on the offensive, making up a story that his papers were taken off him when he was chosen for intelligence work in this town and he’s been waiting ever since for them to catch up with him, you know what army bureaucracy is like.

The Major doesn’t really believe this brazen bluff, but he is so ineffectual that he doesn’t know what to do next. After Huguenau has strolled out, bold as brass, Major von Pasenow is so overcome with despair at his role in consorting with a traitor etc, that he gets his service revolver out of a drawer, with thoughts of shooting himself there and then.

This is the kind of hysterical over-reaction which is so typical of Broch’s characters throughout the trilogy.

Meanwhile, back at the printing press some of the workmen Huguenau employs to work the press are a bit surly and mumbling about the low wages he gives them. News of the Bolshevik revolution has of course been in the press for over a year, but now there’s talk of class war spreading among German workers. So that evening Huguenau makes the strategic move of going along to the local bierkellar and tries to ingratiate himself into the workers’ (Lindner, Liebel) good graces.

I think Huguenau is intended to be a cynical, amoralist whose ruthless concern for number one and paring away of all unnecessary moral restrictions is strongly to be deprecated, but I admire his inventiveness and his chutzpah.

Then the war ends and there is anarchy. Broch describes ‘the events’ of 2, 3 and 4 November in the little town, namely attacks by armed workers on the barracks and the prison. Huguenau had been deputised by the military authorities, handed a gun and told to defend a bridge but when a crowd of armed workers approaches, he quickly joins them and leads the attack on the prison. His euphoria turns to nausea when he sees one of the prison warders dragged out of hiding by the mob and set upon, pinned to the ground and beaten with an iron bar. He flees.

Down the pub the workers had mentioned a new lung disease which has carried off several friends. They joke about it being the Apocalypse. We, the readers, know it is the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Now we see sexy and semi-detached Hanna Wendler in bed with a fever. The explosion in the barracks blows in the windows of her house and she takes shelter in the kitchen with the servants and her son.

Esch sets off with his gun towards the prison but sees the mob coming and hides. Then he hears a crash and returns to find the mob have made the Major’s car crash into a ditch, rolling on its side, killing the driver and a soldier. With another soldier he manages to lift the car and extract the body of the Major, still breathing but unconscious. When he comes too, he can’t move but babbles something about a horse which has fallen, broken its leg and needs to be shot. The reader remembers that this refers to an incident from von Pasenow’s boyhood when he had an accident with his brother Helmuth’s horse, which had to be put down (p.611).

Huguenau rushes back to the buildings with his precious printing press and finds it is solid and untouched, but the living quarters he shares with Herr and Frau Esch have been wrecked by the mob. She emerges weeping from the wreckage, they are both unsettled by the chaos around them and before they know it she is unbuckling her corsets and they fall onto the sofa and have sex.

Meanwhile Eash tends the semi-conscious Major, gets one of the soldiers who’d been in the car to help carry him back to his house, the printworks and his rooms in the courtyard. Here Esch carefully carries the Major into a basement, lays him on a rug, quietly closes the trapdoor and sets off back to the scene of the crash to help the other wounded soldier.

He doesn’t know that Huguenau has spied him from up in the house and now follows him silently through the streets of the town, garishly lit by flames from the Town Hall which the rioters have set on fire. Beaten survivors stagger past them. In a dark street Huguenau leaps forward and bayonets Esch in the back. The stricken man falls without a sound and dies face down in the mud.

Oh. Maybe I don’t admire Huguenau’s cheek and chutzpah. He was more sterotypically German than I had realised. He is a brute. He has turned into Mack the Knife.

A looter climbs the wall to break into Rose Cottage but is repelled by the ghostly sight of Hanna Wendler sleepwalking towards him. She is helped back into the house by the servants. Next day she dies of flu complicated by pneumonia (p.616).

Huguenau saw Esch place the Major in the potato cellar. Now Huguenau goes down into it and tends the Major. The latter can’t speak or move, but this doesn’t stop Huguenau delivering a lengthy diatribe about how badly he’s been treated, and tenderly caring for him by fetching milk from a distraught Frau Esch. The tender care of a psychopath.

The final Disintegration of Values chapter asserts that cultures are created out of a synthesis or balance of the Rational and the Irrational. When a balance is achieved, you have art and style (I think he thinks the Middle Ages was just such a period; the author of the Disintegration chapters appears to think the Middle Ages was the high point of integrated belief system and society, and the Renaissance inaugurated the rise of the Individual, individuals who tend to develop their own ‘private theologies’, and it’s been downhill ever since).

Then the two elements expand, over-reach themselves. The triumph of the Irrational is marked by the dwindling of common shared culture, everyone becomes an atom. This three-page excursus leads up to presenting Huguenau as an epitome, an embodiment of the Disintegration of Values of Our Time.

As if to ram home the Author’s Message, the narrator then goes on to quote a letter Huguenau wrote some time later from his home town, in his ornate, correct and formal way bullying Frau Esch (whose husband he murdered, and who he raped) into buying the shares in the newspaper company which Huguenau had fraudulently acquired off Esch at the start of the novel. He is, in other words, a heartless swine.

And Broch rams home his Author’s Message by pointing out that none of his colleagues in the business community would have seen anything wrong with the letter or the scheming way Huguenau ran his business or married for convenience an heiress and promptly adopted her family’s Protestant beliefs.

Broch appears to think the worst thing about late 1920s Germany was slippery businessmen. Wrong, wasn’t he? Less than a year after this book was published, Hitler came to power.

And the book ends with a kind of 16-page philosophical sermon which, as far as I can tell, extensively uses Hegel’s idea of the Dialectic, the opposition of thesis and antithesis – in this case, the Rational and the Irrational – to mount a sustained attack on Protestantism, communism and business ethics as all fallings-away from the true teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the One True Church, the home of all true values, from which man has fallen into a wilderness of alienation.

In other words, Broch appears to have been as Roman Catholic a novelist as Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, only – being German – his characters are much more brutish, angry and violent and – being German – his philosophical moments are couched in the extraordinarily bombastic and impenetrably pretentious verbosity of German Idealist philosophy.

In the last pages we don’t hear anything more about the various characters – Frau Esch, the Major, Ludwig Gödicke, Lieutenant Jaretzki, the doctors or nurses and so on. The novel ends on a sustained hymn to a kind of Hegelian Catholicism.


4. ‘Modernist’ techniques

All the commentaries on Broch associate him with the high Modernism of James Joyce, and emphasise that The Realist uses funky ‘modernist’ techniques such as having more than one narrative voice i.e. a few of the chapters feature a character speaking in the first person – and that in the classic modernist style it’s a collage including other ‘types’ of texts, including a newspaper article, a letter, all the Disintegrated Values chapters which are, in effect, excerpts from a work of philosophy, and excerpts from a long poem in rhyming couplets which pop up in the Marie in Berlin chapters, and at one point turns into a script with stage directions and only dialogue (pp.497-505).

This sort of thing happens a dozen times but, frankly, it’s chickenfeed compared to Ulysses, it’s barely noticeable as experimentation, since all these techniques were incorporated into novels generations ago – incorporating letters and journal entries was done by Daniel Defoe in the 1720s – a lot of the earliest novels were written entirely in the forms of letters – so we have read hundreds of novels which are at least if not more ‘hypertextual’ without any song and dance. Put another way, the reader barely notices these supposedly ‘modernist’ aspects of the text.

By far the more salient aspect of the book, as of its predecessors, is its inclusion of huge gobbets of religio-philosophical speculation.

5. Broch’s pseudo-philosophy

By this time I had formed the opinion that Broch is at his weakest when he launches into prolonged passages about human nature and the human soul and ‘the soul of the age’ and ‘the spirit of our times’ etc etc. In case you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a little taste of one of the Disintegration of Values chapters:

War is war, l’art pour l’art, in politics there’s no room for compunction, business is business – all these signify the same thing, all these appertain to the same aggressive and radical spirit, informed by that uncanny, I might almost say that metaphysical, lack of consideration for consequences, that ruthless logic directed on the object and on the object alone, which looks neither to the right nor to the left; and this, after all, is the style of thinking that characterises our age.

One cannot escape from this brutal and aggressive logic that exhibits in all the values and non-values of our age, not even by withdrawing into the solitude of a castle or of a Jewish dwelling; yet a man who shrinks from knowledge, that is to say, a romantic, a man who must have a bounded world, a closed system of values, and who seeks in the past the completeness he longs for, such a man has good reason for turning to the Middle Ages. For the Middle Ages possessed the ideal centre of values that he requires, possessed a supreme value of which all other values were subordinate: the belief in the Christian God. Cosmogony was as dependent on that central value (more, it could be scholastically deduced from it) as man himself; man with all his activities formed a part of the whole world-order which was merely the reflected image of an ecclesiastical hierarchy, the closed and finite symbol of an eternal and infinite harmony. The dictum ‘business is business’ was not permitted to the medieval artist, competitive struggle being  forbidden to him; the medieval artist knew nothing of l’art pour l’art, but only that he must serve his faith; medieval warfare claimed absolute authority only when it was waged in the service of the faith. It was a world reposing on faith, a final not a causal world, a world founded on being, not on becoming; and its social structure, its art, the sentiments that bound it together, in short, its whole system of values, was subordinated to the all-embracing living value of faith; the faith was the point of plausibility in which every line of enquiry ended, the faith was what enforced logic and gave it that specific colouring, that style-creating impulse, which expresses itself not only in a certain style of thinking, but continues to shape a style characterising the whole epoch for so long as the faith survives.

But thought dared to take the step from monotheism into the abstract, and God, the personal God made visible in the finite infinity of the Trinity, became an entity whose name could no longer be spoken and whose image could no longer be fashioned, an entity that ascended into the infinite neutrality of the Absolute and there was lost to sight in the dread vastness of Being, no longer immanent but beyond the reach of man. (pp.146-147)

The infinite neutrality of the Absolute. The dread vastness of Being. They’re certainly what you want to read about in a novel.

There’s more, lots and lots more, hundreds of pages more just like this. I can see four objections to the acres of swamp prose like this.

  1. Aesthetically, it is out of place to swamp a novel with tracts of philosophy. If you want to write philosophy, put it in a philosophy essay or book. In a sense putting it in a novel is cheating because here a) it’s not going to be judged as pure philosophy by your professional peers b) if there are errors or inadequacies in it you can always explain them away saying that’s a requirement of its fictional setting.
  2. It destroys the rhythm of the stories of the actual characters, you know, the things novels are usually written about.
  3. Most damning, it’s not very original. To say that society was more integrated and authentic in the Middle Ages is one of the most trite and hackneyed pieces of social criticism imaginable. Victorian cultural critics from Disraeli to Carlyle were saying the same sort of thing by the 1840s, 90 years before Broch.
  4. So to summarise, these are hackneyed, clichéd ideas served up in long-winded prose which translates badly into English, and interrupt the flow of the narrative.

In the second book in the trilogy, The Anarchist, I initially thought the religio-philosophical musing belonged solely to the character Esch, but then the narrator began launching into them unprompted and separate from his characters, and I began to have the horrible realisation that Broch himself appears to believe the pompous, pretentious, Christian pseudo-philosophy he serves up, hundreds of pages of it:

Is it this radical religiosity, dumb and striped of ornament, this conception of an infinity conditioned by severity and severity and by severity alone, that determines the style of our new epoch? Is this ruthlessness of the divine principle a symptom of the infinite recession of the focus of plausibility? Is this immolation of all sensory content to be regarded as the root-cause of the prevailing disintegration of values? Yes. (p.526)

Therefore I (initially) liked The Realist because these kinds of passages were hived off to one side in chapters which were clearly marked Disintegration of Values, so they were easy to skim read or skip altogether (after a close reading of half a dozen of them revealed that they had little or nothing of interest to contribute to the book).

6. Humourless hysteria

It is hard to convey how cold, charmless and humourless these books are. The tone is monotonous, departing from a flat factual description only to switch from brutal to homicidal, via paranoia and hysteria.

For example, Huguenau gets his new war charity to organise a drink and dance celebration at the Stadthalle. Most of the characters are present, plus local worthies and their wives, there is drinking, there is flirting, there is dancing. Now almost any novelist you can imagine might have made this the opportunity for humour, but not Broch. For him it is a trigger for the religious hysteria and psychopathic righteousness of Major von Pasenow.

Sitting at his table watching the dancers mooch around the dance floor, the Major has a nightmare vision. Filled with ‘growing horror’ he becomes convinced that the sight of people dancing and having a good time in front of him is a vision of ‘corruption’, every face becomes a ‘featureless pit’ from which there is no rescue. From these grotesquely adolescent immature thoughts arises the wish to ‘destroy this demoniacal rabble’, ‘to exterminate them, to see them lying at his feet’ (p.515).

And all this is prompted by a town dance, a relaxed and happy social event. But in this Broch character it triggers a kind of mad, religiose hysteria.

At times the madness of many of these characters is terrifying, not because they’re scary, but because behind them rise the shadows of Warsaw and Lidice and Oradour-sur-Glane and all the other places and populations which Broch’s humourless, hysterical, hell-bent fellow Germans set about destroying and exterminating just a few years later.

(And it’s a reminder why The Romantic, the first book in the trilogy which focuses on Joachim von Pasenow’s increasingly hysterical religious mania, is such a hard read. And also why these books are emphatically not ‘the portrait of a generation’ or an entire society, but cameos of a handful of religious nutcases and psychopaths.)

7. Drawing strands together

The volume containing all three novels is a long book. The reader has to process much information, and information of different types – from descriptions of individual landscapes and scenes, to the cumulative impression made by characters major and minor, through to the two major obstacles of 1. extended descriptions of the weird, deranged psyches of major characters e.g. both von Pasenow and Esch, and 2. in the Realist, extended passages of philosophical speculation and/or cultural criticism (about the artistic bankruptcy of ‘our age’).

I’ve tended to emphasise the problems and the longeurs, but there are many many pleasurable moments to be had, moments of subtle psychological insight and descriptions of rooms, city streets and landscapes.

And one of the pleasures is that Broch has gone to some pains to sew threads into the text, to litter it with reminiscences and echoes. Having slogged through all three books, recognising these is like seeing stars in the sky.

For example, at a musical concert, the elderly Major von Pasenow mentions the music of Spohr and we remember that it was a piece by Spohr which his wife-to-be, Elisabeth, played when Pasenow visited her and her parents in the summer of 1888 in the first novel (p.93)

In another fleeting moment Pasenow uses a phrase about love requiring a lack of intimacy and familiarity, which we recall his cynical, worldly friend Eduard Bertrand using in the first novel.

A little more than fleeting is the major echo event when the (as usual) confused and perplexed von Pasenow has his interview with Huguenau during which he fails to know what to do about Huguenau being a deserter, collapses in self-loathing and despair and gets out his service revolver to shoot himself. First he tries to write a suicide note but, characteristically useless even at this, presses the pen so hard he breaks the nib, and when he next tries to dip it in the ink pot, spills the pot releasing a stream of black ink all over his desk (p.585).

The reader remembers that this – trying to write a letter, breaking the nib and knocking over the ink pot – is exactly what his father did in his fury when Joachim refused to come back from Berlin and take over the running of the family farm in the first novel (pp.104-5). The echo extends even to the words: old Herr von Pasenow in the first book is found spluttering ‘Out with him, out with him’ about his son, while 500 pages and thirty years later his son is found spluttering exactly the same words, about Huguenau, ‘Out with him (p.584).

These moments remind you that, beneath the philosophical verbiage and tucked between the characters’ often hysterical over-reactions and blunt aggressive dialogue, there is actually a novel, a work of fiction about characters.

If Broch submitted this to a modern editor I suspect they’d tell him to delete all the philosophy. But the philosophical sections and the regular philosophical meditations on the thoughts and ideas of his characters, are largely what characterise the book.

The problem is that almost all the ‘philosophy’ is bunk. It rotates around ideas of God and the Infinite and the Absolute which might resonate in a country with a strong tradition of Idealist philosophy (i.e. Germany) but which means nothing to an Anglo-Saxon reader. E.g:

‘Hegel says: it is infinite love that makes God identify Himself with what is alien to Him so as to annihilate it. So Hegel says… and then the Absolute religion will come.’ (p.624)

I reread the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre not so long ago. Sartre starts from a not dissimilar position from Broch, his characters plagued with an unusual, hallucinatory, highly alienated relationship with reality. The difference is that out of his intensely alienated relationship with ‘reality’ and language, Sartre created an entirely new worldview, expressed in a difficult-to-understand but genuinely new philosophy.

Broch, through his characters and his long-winded investigations of alienated mental states, starts from a similar place but his philosophy reaches back, back, back, to the German Idealist tradition and, above all, to a kind of troubled Catholic Christian faith which he and his confused characters circle round endlessly, like moths round a flame.

Sartre is forward-looking, Broch is backward-looking. Sartre is still read, quoted and studied; Broch is largely forgotten.

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume, first published in 1996.


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20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward (1978)

There is full many a man that crieth “Werre! Werre!”
That wot full litel what werre amounteth.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, captured in France on campaign with Edward III in 1359 and ransomed – with a contribution of £16 from the king)

The hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years

The Hundred Years War did not last a hundred years, it was really a sucession of conflicts between successive kings of France and England which are generally agreed to have started in 1337 and trundled on until a final peace treaty in 1453 (same year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks).

It see-sawed between prolonged periods of war, and long periods of truce

The ‘war’ was periodic, blowing hot and cold, with long periods of peace or truce – for example, there was peace between the Treaty of Brétigny of October 1360 and a new outbreak of hostilities in June 1369, and an even longer lull between 1389 – when Richard II signed a peace treaty with Charles VI of France – and the renewal of hostilities by Henry V and continued by his successors from 1415 until the final collapse of English possessions in 1453. Modern accounts divide the war into three distinct periods of conflict:

  1. Edwardian phase (named for English King Edward III) 1337-1360
  2. Caroline phase (named for French King Charles V) 1369-89
  3. Lancastrian phase (named for the House of Lancaster which came to the throne with Henry IV, and renewed the war at the wish of his son Henry V) 1415-53

What gives the long sequence of battles and campaigns a conceptual unity is that between 1337 and 1453 the King of England made a formal, legal claim to the crown of France. For much of that period successive English kings styled themselves King of England and of France. 

Historical origins of the war

The deep background to the war is of course the fact that William of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, and his successors ruled not only England but Normandy and an ever-changing constellation of states, duchies and princedoms scattered round northern France.

It was Henry II who, by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, expanded the northern realm by bringing this huge area of south-west France under ‘English’ rule, thus expanding the so-called Plantagenet Empire to its fullest extent. In this map everything in pink was controlled by the Plantagenet king and amounted to just over half the nominal territory of France.

Plantagenet possessions in France in 1154 (source: Wikipedia)

Alas, Henry’s second son, King John, managed to throw away almost all this territory, through mismanagement, bad alliances and military defeats, and his successors – notably Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), and Edward II (1307-27) – lived in the shadow of the loss of the empire’s once-huge extent in France, and made spasmodic attempts to revive it.

Edward III’s claim to the throne of France

It was King Edward III, who ascended the throne as a boy in 1327 but then seized power from his guardians in 1330, who took the bull by the horns.

When the French king Charles IV died in 1328 without a son and heir the nobles of France had to decide who to succeed him. Edward’s claim was that he was the son of Isabella, sister to Charles IV. However, the French nobles, understandably, did not want to hand the crown to the English and chose to emphasise that the French crown could not be handed down through the female line – so they chose instead Philip VI, a cousin of the recently dead Charles IV.

Philip’s father had been a younger brother of a previous king, Philip IV, and had had the title Charles of Valois. Thus the throne of France passed to the House of Valois (having previously been the House of Capet).

Edward, only 16 when all this happened, was under the complete control of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who were allies with the French crown, who had indeed needed the support of the French king to overthrow Edward’s ill-fated father, Edward II, and so who made no protest and didn’t promote boy Edward’s claim.

It was only once he had himself overthrown Mortimer and banished his mother, and securely taken the reins of power, only in the 1330s, that Edward III got his lawyers to brush up his claim to the French throne and make a formal appeal for it. But it was, of course, too late by then.

Relations between the two kings deteriorated, and the road to war was marked by numerous provocations, not least when Edward happily greeted the French noble Robert of Artois who had, at one point been a trusted adviser of Philip VI, but then was involved in forgeries to secure the duchy of Artois, and forced to flee for his life.

This offensive gesture led King Philip to declare that Guyenne (another name for Aquitaine, which the English had held on and off ever since Henry II married Eleanor) was now forfeit to Edward i.e. no longer his. This triggered a formal letter from Edward III objecting to the forfeiture of Guyenne, and in which Edward  formally lay claim to the throne of France.

A maze of powers and alliances

Almost any summary of the war is likely to be too simplistic for two reasons. One, it went on for a very long time with hundreds of battles, sieges, campaigns, on land and sea, each of which deserves a detailed account.

But – two – I was also struck by how many kingdoms, dukes and princes and whatnot got involved. Just in the early stages in the 1330s and 1340s, you need to know that Edward sought alliances with the Count of Flanders up in the north-east of France, and also tried to ally with the dukes of Burgundy on the eastern border. He also tried to get on his side the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope. Early on (1341) there was a civil war in Brittany between two claims to the title of Duke of Brittany, one backed by Edward, one by the French, and this degenerated into a civil war which went on for decades. Normandy – once the base of the Plantagenet empire – was, and then was not, allied with Edward.

In other words, France was far more fragmented an entity than the England of the day, and this made for a very complex kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. It’s broadly correct to speak of the king of England trying to secure the crown of France but that doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of the situation.

And that’s without Scotland. The king of England was always worried about what the Scots were doing behind his back which was, basically, to invade the north of England whenever the king of England was busy in France. It didn’t take much brains for the French to renew a sequence of pacts and alliances with Scotland to provide men and munitions to encourage their repeated invasions, renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’ which had first been made during the time of the aggressive ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward I, in 1295.

The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Wales and Ireland, which periodically rebelled against English rule, and which required armed expeditions, for example the large army which Richard II led in person to put down Irish rebellion and force Irish chieftains to submit to English overlordship in 1394.

And Spain. Spain also was divided into warring kingdoms and these, too, got drawn into the complex alliances north of the Pyrenees, which explains why, at various moments, the kingdoms of Castile or Navarre became involved in the fighting. Castile, in particular, allied with the French king and provided ships to the French fleets which repeatedly harried and raided ports on the south coast and attacked English merchant shipping going back and forth from Flanders (wool) or Guyenne (wine).

Famous highpoints

For the English the high points are the early, Edwardian phase of the war, featuring the two great battles of Crécy (26 August 1346) and Poitiers (19 September 1356) where we heartily defeated the French, plus the sea battle of Sluys (24 June 1340) where we destroyed an invasion fleet anchored off modern-day Holland, and the Battle of Winchelsea (29 August 1350) where a British fleet just about defeated a Castilian fleet commanded by Charles de La Cerda.

The Caroline phase 1369-89 marked the slow disintegration of the English position in France, latterly under the unpopular King Richard who, in 1389, signed a long-term peace.

Then, after a very long lull, Englishmen like to remember the Battle of Agincourt in 25 October 1415, fought as part of a prolonged raid of northern France undertaken by King Henry V, but this was just part of Henry V’s sustained campaign to conquer France, which was continued after his early death in 1422 by his brother John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and others, until England had complete control of all Normandy and even Paris.

But this is, of course, is to forget the various achievements of successive French kings during this period, and to underestimate the importance of the fact that France descended into civil war (the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War) from 1407 to 1435, partly because it was ruled by a completely ineffectual king, Charles VI, also known as ‘the Mad’ (1388-1422). It was only because France was completely divided and that we allied with the powerful Burgundians, that we managed to seize and control so much of northern France.

As soon as Philip of Burgundy defected from the English cause by signing the Treaty of Arras with Charles VII and recognising him (and not the English Henry VI) as king of France, the rot set in and the period from 1435 to 1450 marks to steady decline of English landholdings and influence in France, ‘a protracted rearguard action by the English in France’ (p.235).

Famous characters

The protagonists of the Hundred Years War are among the most colourful in European history: King Edward III who inaugurated the Order of the Garter, his son the swashbuckling Black Prince, and Henry V, who was later immortalized in the play by Shakespeare. In the later, Lancastrian phase, I was impressed by Henry V’s brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, who took over control of the war and acted as regent to the baby Henry VI, and to the great commander of the day, Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, known as ‘Old Talbot’, ‘the English Achilles’ and ‘the Terror of the French’.

On the French side there were the splendid but inept King John II who was taken prisoner at Poitiers and died a prisoner in London; Charles V, who very nearly overcame England; Charles VI who went spectacularly mad; and the enigmatic Charles VII, who at last drove the English out – not to mention Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who died aged just 19 but whose legend was to grow enormous.

The war also features walk-on parts from King David II of Scotland, who was captured when the Scots army was defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on 17 October 1346, and spent the next 11 years in captivity in England. And Peter the Cruel, king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369 who lived up to his nickname, and whose daughter married Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, who thus became heir to the crown of Castile.

And Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, who proved a thorn in the side of the French crown because of ancestral lands he owned near Paris. The deeper you read, the more complex the web of personalities and players becomes.

Seward’s account

Seward’s book is a good, popular account, which includes family trees explaining the complex genealogical aspects of the war and is dotted with black and white reproductions of paintings, tomb effigies and brass rubbings of the main protagonists.

He describes all the military campaigns and diplomatic manoeuvrings behind them. The book includes interesting sections about the arms and ammunition of the day (English longbows versus French crossbows) and brings out the uniqueness of the English tactics which lay behind our early victories, namely the tactic of having mounted archers who were able to ride into position, dismount, and then release volleys of arrows at such a rate (ten per minute!) that the sky turned dark and the attacking French was slaughtered.

But I just happen to have read Dan Jones’s account of the Plantagenet kings and, although Jones’s book is also popular in intent, I felt it gave me a much clearer sense of the machinations going on in English politics at the time. Take the reign of Richard II (1377-99). Once you start looking into this 22 year period, it reveals a wealth of issues which lay behind the two big political crises of 1386–88 and 1397–99. Only by reading the 40 or so pages that Jones devotes to it did I develop a feel not only for why Richard was against war with France and signed the peace treaty of 1389 and married his child bride (Isabella of Valois, aged just seven when she married Richard), but why there continued to be a powerful War Party among the top aristocracy, which continued to promote raids and attacks on France.

Seward conveys some of this, but his account of Richard’s period of the war lacks the depth and detail of Jones’s account – he skims over the first crisis in Richard’s rule without even mentioning the so-called ‘Merciless Parliament’, which seized control from the king and oversaw the systematic arraignment for treason and execution of most of his council.

This, I suppose, is reasonable enough if we grant that Seward’s account is focused on the war and deliberately gives no more about the domestic situation of the English (or French) kings than is strictly necessary. But comparison with the Jones brought out the way that it is not a full or adequate account of the period as a whole, and begs the question: how much of the domestic political, economic and social situations in England, France (and the numerous other countries involved, from Scotland and Burgundy to Castile) do you need to understand, to fully understand the Hundred Years War?

What is a full understanding of a historical event or era? Is such a thing even possible?

From what I can see, the fullest possible account of not only the war but all the domestic politics behind it in both England and France and further afield, is Jonathan Sumption’s epic, multi-volume account:

The chevauchée – death and destruction

Instead the main thing that came over for me was the scale of the destruction involved in the war.

Obviously war is destructive but I hadn’t quite grasped the extent to which the English pursued a deliberate scorched earth policy, a conscious policy of systematically devastating all the land they passed through, as their main military strategy, sustained for over one hundred years.

Some campaigns the English launched had little or no strategic value, their purpose was solely to destroy as many French towns and villages as possible, to loots and burn, to rape and pillage, to steal everything worth stealing and to murder all the inhabitants over really significant areas of France – from Gascony and Aquitaine in the south-west, up through the Loire valley, in Brittany, in Normandy and right up to the walls of Paris itself.

What makes the 1339 campaign of particular interest is the misery inflicted on French non-combatants. It was the custom of medieval warfare to wreak as much damage as possible on both towns and country in order to weaken the enemy government. The English had acquired nasty habits in their Scottish wars and during this campaign Edward wrote to the young Prince of Wales how his men had burnt and plundered ‘so that the country is quite laid waste of cattle and of any other goods.’ Every little hamlet went up in flames, each house being looted and then put to the torch. Neither abbeys and churches nor hospitals were spared. Hundreds of civilians – men, women and children, priests, bourgeois and peasants – were killed while thousands fled to fortified towns. The English king saw the effectiveness of ‘total war’ in such a rich and thickly populated land; henceforth the chevauchée, a raid which systematically devastated enemy territory, was used as much as possible in the hope of making the French sick of war… (p.38)

Thus:

  • in autumn 1339 English ships raided Boulogne burning thirty French ships, hanging their captains and leaving the lower town in flames
  • in September 1339 Edward invaded into France from the Low Countries, ‘he advanced slowly into Picardy, deliberately destroying the entire countryside of the Thiérache and besieging Cambrai’
  • in 1339 the pope was so appalled by the ruin the English were inflicting that he sent money to Paris for the relief of the poor, and the envoy who distributed it wrote back a report describing the 8,000 utterly destitute peasants forced to flee their land, and of 174 parishes which had been utterly laid waste, including their parish churches
  • in 1340 Philip’s army invaded Aquitaine and ‘laid waste the vineyard country of Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion’

In 1346 Edward landed with a huge force in Normandy and proceeded to rampage through the countryside.

The following day the king launched a chevauchée through the Cotentin, deliberately devastating the rich countryside, his men burning mills and barns, orchards. haystacks and cornricks, smashing wine vats, tearing down and setting fire to the thatched cottages of the villagers, whose throats they cut together with those of their livestock. One may presume that the usual atrocities were perpetrated on the peasants – the men were tortured to reveal hidden valuables, the women suffering multiple rape and sexual mutilation, those who were pregnant being disembowelled. Terror was an indispensable accompaniment to every chevauchée and Edward obviously intended to wreak the maximum ‘dampnum‘ –  the medieval term for that total war which struck at an enemy king through his subjects. (p.58)

On this campaign the English burnt Cherbourg and Montebourg and Caen. In Caen, after the garrison surrendered, the English started to plunder, rape and kill. The desperate townsfolk retaliated by taking to the rooves throwing down bricks and tiles onto the English soldiers, killing several hundred at which Edward went into a rage and ordered the massacre of the entire population, men, women and children. Later persuaded to rescind the order, but the sack lasted three days and some 3,000 townsfolk were murdered. Nuns were raped, religious houses looted, the priory of Gerin was burned to the ground, and so on.

This chevauchée took the army right to the walls of Paris where they burnt the suburbs of Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain before retreating northwards and burning the town of Mareuil, along with its fortress and priory.

After the famous victory at Crécy, the English went on to besiege the port of Calais for over a year, which involved the systematic destruction of the entire countryside for thirty miles around.

In 1355 the Black Prince rode out of Bordeaux with a force of 2,600 and carried out a 600-mile chevauchée across Languedoc to Montpelier and almost to the Mediterranean burning as many villages and hemlet as they could, burning mills, chateaux and churches. His forces took by storm and then burned to the ground Narbonne, Carcassone, Castlenaudry, Limousin and many other settlements large and small.

When war broke out in 1369 John of Gaunt led a chevauchée through Normandy, employing mercenaries and criminals. In 1370 the mercenary leader Sir Robert Knolly led a chevauchée through the Ile de Paris, burning and looting villages and towns right up to the walls of Paris, so that the king of France could look out over the burning and devastated landscape surrounding the capital.

In 1373 John of Gaunt led 11,000 men out of Calais on a chevauchée through Picardy, Champagne, Burguny, the Bourbonnais, the Auvergne and the Limousin, ‘cutting a hideous swathe of fire and destruction down central France’ (p.114).

During such a chevauchée the English killed every human being they could catch (p.85)

It is shocking to read that even the ‘great’ Henry V pursued exactly the same policy. The Agincourt campaign was in fact an attempt to take the walled city of Harfleur and then march up to the Seine to capture Paris. This completely failed because Harfleur held out for over a month during which a third of Henry’s expensively assembled army died of disease. Once the town was finally taken he decided to retreat north towards Calais, burning and laying waste to everything in sight, in the by-now traditional English way. Henry is quoted as saying that was without fire was like sausages without mustard.

Indeed Seward is at pains to deconstruct the image of the Shakespearian hero. Seward emphasises the ruthlessness of the young king – a man of ‘ruthless authority and cold cruelty’ (p.154) – and compares him, somewhat shockingly, to Napoleon and Hitler, in his single-minded self-belief, religious fanatacism and obsession with war and conquest. The account of his short reign is quite harrowing, involving the massacre of the entire population of Caen after it fell to an English siege in 1417, and the deliberate starving of the besieged population of Rouen later that year. All his sieges are marked by brutal treatment of the losers.

As late as 1435, when the English began to slowly lose control of their territory, an experienced soldier like Sir John Fastolf suggested that two small forces of 750 men be created who, twice a year, in June and November, would invade a different part of France and burn and destroy all the land they passed through, burning down all houses, corn fields, vineyards, all fruit and all livestock. The aim? To create famine. To starve the French unto submission.

Loot

Throughout this period the main motivation for ordinary soldiers to go and fight was loot. Everything of value in enemy territory was stolen. The English confiscated all the food and drink from every farm they despoiled and then burnt.

In the towns they stole gold, silver, jewels, fur coats. The king took possession of the best spoils and from each chevauchée sent convoys of carts bearing clothes, jewels, gold and silver plate and cutlery and much else lumbering back to the coast and to ships which bore it all back to England.

The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder (p.81)

In the countryside they took all the livestock and stole all the grain then burned everything else. Many areas took decades to recover. Seward quotes contemporary chroniclers describing mile upon mile of devastated landscape, every building, cottage, manor house and church gutted and burnt to the ground, with no survivors to prune the vines or plough and sow the land, the sheep and cattle all killed and eaten by the English, the roads empty in every direction.

No wonder the English came to be hated like the Devil, like the Nazis were 600 years later.

Mercenaries

A crucial aspect of the war was the employment of mercenaries. Warriors for hire had, of course, existed through the ages. In post-Conquest England they flourished during the Anarchy i.e. the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda from 1135-1153. Later, King John used mercenaries in his wars against the barons in the early 1200s, leading to the hiring of foreign mercenaries being specifically banned by Magna Carta.

But not abroad. The reappearance and flourishing of mercenaries was particularly associated with the Hundred Years War. By the 1340s the English king was finding it difficult to pay his own or foreign troops and license was given to soldiers to ‘live off the land’.

This opened the road to hell, for soldiers, English and foreign, quickly took advantage of the new liberty to a) take all the food and drink from every farm or village they passed b) terrorise and torture the natives to hand over not just foodstuffs but anything of value c) to create protection rackets: pay us a regular fee or the boys will come round and burn everything to the ground. This became known as the pâtis, or ‘ransoms of the country’.

For example, in 1346 the Earl of Lancaster captured Lusignan, a fortress near Poitier. When he moved on he left a garrison under the command of Bertrand de Montferrand. Many of his troops were criminals and misfits. Despite a truce between 1346-1350, the garrison laid waste to over fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou. One story among thousands.

It is easy, reading the countless examples of blackmail, threat, looting, ravaging, burning, stealing and extorting, to see the entire era as one in which the English and their mercenaries mercilessly terrorised, attacked and looted the French people for over a hundred years. The Hundred Years Extortion.

After the Treaty of Brétigny, signed between England and France in October 1360, which brought the first phase of the war to an end, thousands of mercenaries and low-born vassals, serfs and miscellaneous crooks from  a number of nations, were left jobless. They didn’t want to go back to slaving on the land, so they set up their own mercenary groups.

In French these groups became known as routes and so the mercenaries acquired the general name of routiers (pronounced by the barbarian English ‘rutters’).

But in English they came to be referred to as the Free Companies, ‘free’ because they owed allegiance to no king. The Free Companies included all nationalities including Spaniards, Germans, Flemings, Gascons, Bretons and so on, but collectively the French chroniclers refer to them as ‘English’ because of the terrors the English chevauchées caused throughout the period (p.135).

Many of the routier groups were well organised, with administrative staff, quartermasters, and army discipline. They continued to be available for hire to the highest bidder. One scholar has identified 166 captains of mercenary groups during the period. The largest bands became notorious along with their leaders, such as the notorious Bandes Blanches of the Archpriest Arnaud de Cervole. Some routier groups even defeated the national armies sent to suppress them.

Many of the leaders became very rich. In an intensely hierarchical society, one of the chief motivations for fighting, for joining up with an army, was the incentive to make money. Really successful mercs were extremely useful to the sovereigns who paid them, and quite a few were given knighthoods and ‘respectability’, allowing them to retire back to England where they built mansions and castles, many of which survive to this day.

For example, plain Edward Dalyngrigge enlisted in the Free Company of Sir Robert Knolles in 1367 and over the next ten years accumulated a fortune in loot and plunder, returning to Sussex in 1377, marrying an heiress and building the splendid Bodiam Castle in Sussex, which is today a peaceful National Trust property. Built with money looted and extorted abroad by a mercenary soldier. Possibly a fitting symbol of this nation, certainly a classic example of the money, power and rise in social status which was possible during the Hundred Years War.

Other examples include Ampthill Castle built by Sir John Cornwall with loot from Agincourt, and Bolton and Cooling castles, as well as Rye House near Ware, built with French money by the Danish mercenary Anders Pedersen, who rose through the ranks of the English army and found respectability as Sir Andrew Ogard MP.

This helps explain the unpopularity of Richard II’s policy of peace with France.

[The English] had been fighting France for over half a century; almost every summer ships filled with eager young soldiers had sailed from Sandwich to Calais or from Southampton to Bordeaux. War was still the nobility’s ideal profession; the English aristocracy saw a command in France much as their successors regarded an embassy or a seat in the cabinet. Moreover, men of all classes from [the Duke of] Gloucester to the humblest bondman, regarded service in France as a potential source of income; if the war had cost the English monarchy ruinous sums, it had made a great deal of money for the English people… (p.141)

Why are there wars? At the top level, because of the strategic and territorial greed or nationalistic fervour, or simple mistakes, of dim leaders. But if you ask, why do men fight wars, this sociological explanation must be taken into account. It’s because wars are a way of escaping from poverty and being trapped in the lower levels of society and offer the opportunity of escape, foreign travel, adventure, testing yourself as a man, and 1. raising your social status and 2. making money – in the case of the Free Companies of the Hundred Years War, lots of money.

The war was long remembered as a time to rise in the world. The fifteenth-century herald, Nicholas Upton, wrote that ‘in those days we saw many poor men serving in the wars in France ennobled.’ (p.119)

Conclusion

Looking beyond the boys’ adventure aspects of the great military victories, and the supposedly dashing figures of the Black Prince or Henry V, the distraction of the girl saint Joan of Arc (who was burned to death by the English aged just 19), mad King Charles who thought he was made of glass, or the long rearguard action by John Duke of Bedford – it is, I think, difficult for a modern reader not to feel oppressed by the sheer scale of the deliberate wanton destruction the English visited across huge areas of rural France and the ultimate futility of all those lives wasted, all that treasure expended, all that land and buildings and carefully built farms, manors, churches, priories and so on burnt to the ground. Human folly.

By 1453 all the English had to show for over a century of oppressive taxation, countless deaths and the expenditure of vast fortunes paying for weapons and mercenaries, was to end up pathetically clinging on to tiny little Calais. Meanwhile, France had become unified as a nation and emerged as the strongest state in Europe. And a long legacy of mutual mistrust which, arguably, lasts right up to the present day, as Seward points out in the very last sentences of his book.

France suffered horribly when England escaped unharmed – every local historian in northern and western France will show the tourist a château or a church which was sacked by the English. There is a strong case for maintaining that the origin of the uneasy relationship between the two peoples can be found in the battles, sieges and the chevauchées, the ransoming and the looting, the pâtis, the burning and the killing by the English in France during the Hundred Years War. (p.265)


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

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