Munich by Robert Harris (2017)

Both men fell silent, watching him, and Legat had a peculiar sense of – what was it, he wondered afterwards? – not of déjà vu exactly, but of inevitability: that he had always known Munich was not done with him; that however far he might travel from that place and time he was forever caught in its gravitational pull and would be dragged back towards it eventually. (p.188)

This is another Robert Harris historical thriller, set during the four nailbiting days of the Munich Crisis of September 1938.

In the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book Harris discloses that the crisis had been an obsession with him even before he collaborated on a BBC documentary about it, to mark the 50th anniversary, in 1988, and he hasn’t stopped being obsessed by it. The acknowledgements go on to list no fewer than 54 volumes of history, diaries and memoirs which were consulted in the writing of this book.

And this depth of research certainly shines out from every page right from the start. Even before the text proper begins, the book has an architect’s plan of the Führerbau in Munich where the climactic scenes of the book take place, because it was here that the four key European leaders – Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, Daladier, Premier of France, Mussolini, the Duce of Italy and Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Germany – met to resolve the crisis and here that the various backstairs shenanigans of Harris’s thriller take place.

The Munich Crisis

Hitler came to power in 1933 with promises to end reparations to the Allies (France, Britain, America) for Germany’s responsibility for World War One, and to repeal or turn back the provisions of the Versailles Treaty which had stripped Germany of some of her territory and people.

True to his word, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland (until then a neutral zone) in March 1936. Two years later in March 1938, he sent German troops to annex Austria, thus creating a Greater Germany.

Next on the list were the ethnic Germans who lived in a strip of territory along the periphery of Czechoslovakia, a ‘new’ country which had only been created by Versailles in 1918. Hitler created a mounting sense of crisis through the summer of 1938 by making evermore feverish claims to the land, and then arranging incidents which ‘proved’ that the Czechs were attacking and victimising the ethnic Germans, blaming the Czechs for their aggression and bullying.

Now France had made formal legal obligations to guarantee Czechoslovakia’s safety, and Britain had pledged to come to France’s aid if she was attacked, so everyone in Europe could see how an assault in Czechoslovakia might lead France to mobilise, Britain to mobilise to defend here, the Poles and Russians to pile in, and it would be exactly how the Great War started – with a series of toppling dominoes plunging the continent into armageddon.

Determined to avoid this outcome at any cost, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew twice to Germany to meet Hitler, on the 15th and 22nd of September. On the second occasion he conceded that Hitler could have the Sudetenland with the full agreement of Britain and France – but Hitler moved the goalposts, now demanding the full dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the redivision of its territory among Germany and Hungary and Poland (who also shared borders with Czechoslovakia and had mobilised their armies to seize what territory they could.)

On 26 September Hitler made a speech to a vast crowd at the Sportspalast in Berlin setting Czechoslovakia the deadline of 2pm on 28 September to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. In secret, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had a fully-worked-out plan of invasion and expected to carry it out.

However, in a fast-moving sequence of events, Chamberlain sent a message via diplomatic channels to the Fascist leader of Italy, Mussolini, asking him to enter the negotiations and use his moderating influence on the Führer. Mussolini agreed, and sent a message to Hitler saying he was totally on his side but suggesting a 24 hour delay in the deadline in order to further study the problem.

Thus it came about that a conference was arranged in Munich, to be hosted by Hitler and attended by Mussolini, Chamberlain and the increasingly sidelined French premiere, Daladier.

And thus Chamberlain and his staff flew for a third time to Germany, this time to Munich, destination the Führerbau building, and here it was that over a series of closed-door meetings the four leaders and their staffs thrashed out an agreement.

It was signed by the four leaders the next day at 1.30pm. As one of Harris’s characters makes clear, the final agreement, although ostensibly submitted by the Italians, was in fact a German creation which they had given the Italians to present. The main terms were that the German army was to peacefully complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

One of the most famous aspects of the summit meeting was that the Czech leaders were physically there, but were prevented by Hitler’s orders from attending any of the actual negotiations. They were simply forced by France and Britain to accept all the terms and hand over their border area to Germany. Since this was where all their fortifications were built it left the rest of the country defenceless and, sure enough, the German army invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia just six months later, in March 1939.

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

All of Europe had held its breath in case the incident sparked the outbreak of another European war. Chamberlain is quoted in the book, in private and then in a famous speech to the House of Commons, saying how unbelievable it is that they all seemed to be galloping towards the apocalyptic disaster so many of them could still remember (the Great War). It was this attitude – avoiding war at all costs – that underpinned Chamberlain’s strategy. And so when he flew to Munich, and even more when he emerged with a face-saving treaty, scores of millions of people all across Europe greeted the avoidance of war with enormous relief, and Chamberlain was feted as a hero.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see that nothing was going to stop Hitler and his maniacal dreams of European domination, and Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ grew to have an entirely negative connotation of weakness and cowardice, a policy failure which only ended up encouraging the dictator. And there were plenty of politicians and intellectuals at the time who thought Hitler needed to be stood up to, instead of cravenly given in to, and that Chamberlain had made a great mistake.

That said, there are other historians who point out that neither Britain nor France were militarily prepared for war in September 1938 and that the deal, whatever its precise morality, and despite the unforgiveable abandoning of the Czechs, did give both France but particularly Britain a crucial further year in which to re-arm and, in particular, build up an air force, the air force which went on to win the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It was only by a sliver that we won the Battle of Britain, thus maintaining the island of Britain as a launchpad for what eventually came the D-Day invasions.

If war had broken out in 1938, Britain might have lost and been invaded (doubtful but possible), America would never have entered the war, and Europe might have become an impenetrable Nazi fortress. Chamberlain certainly didn’t achieve the ‘peace in our time’ which he so hoped for; but maybe he did secure a vital breathing space for democracy. Historians will discuss these and other possible variations for generations…

The thriller

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the real-life, historical diplomacy, it is these hectic days leading up to 30 September, which Harris describes in minute and fascinating detail, and from both sides.

Because the book is made up of alternating chapters, following the parallel experiences of two well-placed if junior civil service figures, one on the Nazi side, one in Chamberlain’s staff.

In London we follow the working routine and then increasingly hectic preparations for flying to the conference of Hugh Legat, Oxford-educated Third Secretary in Chamberlain’s staff, very much the bottom of an elaborate hierarchy of civil servants. Through his eyes we see the bureaucracy of Number Ten Downing Street in action, as Legat interacts with his civil service bosses and Chamberlain himself (and his wife), fetching and carrying papers, writing up notes to meetings and so on.

In all these passages you can sense the intense research Harris has put in to document with meticulous accurately the layout of the buildings, the furnishing of each room, who attended which meeting, what they looked like, their personal quirks and nicknames, what was said, etc, in immense detail.

On the German side, we meet Paul von Hartmann, a junior official in the Foreign Ministry, as he, too, goes about various bureaucratic tasks, again gradually giving us insider knowledge of every personage in the German government, with pen portraits of senior civil servants, military figures as well as glimpses of the Führer himself.

Why these two protagonists? Because Harris places them at the heart of the thriller plot he has woven into the real historical events. We now know that during the Munich Crisis a group of senior figures in the Nazi regime and army met to discuss overthrowing Hitler, if the crisis blew up into full-scale war. Hartmann is one of these conspirators and so, through his eyes, we witness one of their meetings and are party to various panic-stricken phone calls among them as the crisis escalates.

None of the conspirators were western liberals. They hated reparations just as much as Hitler, they wanted to unravel the Versailles treaty, they wanted a strong Greater Germany and they were in favour of annexing the Sudetenland. They just disagreed with Hitler’s approach. They thought his brinkmanship would plunge Germany into a war it wasn’t yet militarily ready to win. And so, if the talks failed and war was declared, they were prepared to overthrow the Nazi regime and assassinate Hitler.

To this end they steal secret documents which show that Hitler had planned not only the Sudeten Crisis, and the full-blown invasion of all Czechoslovakia, but has a deeper plan to invade eastwards in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum. This ‘incriminating’ document is a memo of a meeting Hitler held with his chiefs of staff back in November 1937. It conclusively shows that the Sudetenland is not the end, but only the start of Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

The documents are handed to Hartmann by his lover in the Ministry, Frau Winter, who is part of the plot and stole it from a Ministry safe. At a meeting of the conspirators Hartmann realises he must pass this document on to the British delegation at the conference, and his fellow conspirators agree.

Thriller tropes

It’s at this point that you enter what could be called ‘thrillerland’ i.e a whole series of familiar thriller plotlines and tropes.

  • First tension is raised as Hartmann takes a train out to a Berlin suburb for the meeting of conspirators, convinced he is being followed or watched.
  • Later he makes a copy of a top secret Nazi document and then bumps into people who, he thinks, are watching him too closely, asking too many questions. Do they suspect?

It is, after all, Nazi Germany, which comes with a ready-made atmosphere of guilt and paranoia.

Hartmann then has to wangle his way into the delegation travelling with Hitler by train from Berlin to Munich for the conference. He manages to do this but at the price of raising the suspicions of his superior, an SS Sturmbahnfūhrer, Sauer, a senior figure in the delegation who from that point onwards keeps a very close watch on Hartmann. When Hartmann takes advantage of a short stop he phones his office in Berlin to make sure that Legat is on the British delegation. His paranoia forces him to find hiding places for both the document and the pistol he has brought with him, leading to heart-thumping moments when he returns to check his hiding places and see if they’re still there.

Why is Hartmann so concerned that Legat be on the British delegation. Because they had been friends once, when Hartmann was on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where Legat was a student. Now he hopes to use Legat as a conduit to the British Prime Minister.

To this end, back in London and a few days earlier, Hartmann had used contacts in England to anonymously drop off less important but still secret Nazi documents at Legat’s flat in Westminster. Legat hears something coming through his letterbox but by the time he’s gone into the hall, the car with the deliverymen is long gone.

When Legat hands these documents into the authorities, he is called to the office of Foreign Office mandarin Sir Alexander Cadogan where he is introduced to a secret service colonel, Menzies. Menzies questions him and Legat reveals his friendship with Hartmann from their carefree Oxford days back at Balliol College in 1932. They had been very close friends and Legat had gone over to Munich that summer to go on a walking holiday with Hartmann in the mountains.

Menzies judges that Hartmann is obviously a member of the German ‘opposition’ (which British security have heard rumours about) and may wish to communicate with Legat in Munich. Therefore he gets Legat’s immediate superior, Cecil Syers (Chamberlain’s Private Secretary) bumped off the British delegation – much to his anger – and Legat replaces him. But with a mission – to be professional and discreet and do nothing to undermine this vital diplomatic mission – but to be alert to an approach from his old friend and to report back on its contents and intentions. Without wishing to, he has in effect been recruited as a spy.

Legat’s presence enables Harris to give the reader a first-hand account of the Chamberlain entire trip, from packing bags at Number 10, the taxi to Heston airport, the flight, the landing, the official greeting, taxis to the hotel, and then on to the Führerbau for the official reception and then meetings with Il Duce and Der Führer.

The descriptions of all these scenes reek of decades of in-depth research. Which kind of plane, the layout inside it, the sound of take-off, what refreshments were served – all of it is utterly believable but also smells a bit of the study, of the careful poring over dry old memoirs and diaries to recreate every aspect of the scene.

Those 54 books listed in the acknowledgments underpin the detailed descriptions of who was wearing what at the diplomatic reception party which precedes the actual talks, who Mussolini was talking to, what Goering was wearing, even down to the expression on Hitler’s face as he first walks down the grand staircase into the assembled diplomats.

All of it reeks of authenticity and former journalist who has done his research to a T, and all of it makes the book a fascinating account of events – right down to the way that Legat literally stumbles upon the Czech delegation (Foreign Office official Masarik and Czech Minister to Berlin Mastny) being kept in virtual house arrest by SS guards directly under Hitler’s orders – a fact he passes on to his own superiors who filter it up to the PM.

So all these descriptions make it feel like you are there. But as to the thriller plot… for once a Harris thriller failed to really catch light for me. It contains umpteen thriller tropes and moments – we share Hartmann’s stress and anxiety as he hides the incriminating document from the SS man who suspects him – and then tries to give this man the slip once everyone is at the Führerbau, the anonymous men who drop the document through Legat’s letterbox and make off in a car in the dark.

Similarly, from the moment Legat is given his spying mission by Colonel Menzies he certainly feels stiff and self-conscious. A big stumbling block comes when his superiors (not knowing about the mission Menzies has given him) instruct him to stay at the British delegations’s hotel and keep the phone line open to London to report developments, thus stymying his intention of going to the Führerbau and searching for Hartmann. Another uptick in the sense of tension.

But in the end Legat evades this order on a pretext, gets to the big Nazi building, almost immediately sees Hartmann, follows him down backstairs to the basement, out into the car park and then through local streets to a busy Bierkeller and out into the garden where they can talk in secret and that talk… is strangely inconsequential. As in, it doesn’t reveal any really big or new facts.

The crux of their conversation is this: Hartmann and his people want war to break out, so that they can recruit as many high-level German officials as possible to their plan to mount a coup and overthrow the irresponsible warmonger Hitler. This is why Hartmann hands Legat the Nazi memo dating from November 1937 which clearly states that Czechoslovakia is only the beginning of Hitler’s plans. It must be given to Chamberlain in order to make him realise that Hitler is a mad warmonger, and the final invasion of Czechoslovakia and much more will happen regardless of agreement in Munich. Chamberlain must see the memo in order to stiffen his resolve to stand up to Hitler, even if it prompts a crisis, even if it prompts war. Good. That is what the conspirators want. Or, as Hartmann puts it:

‘If Chamberlain refuses tonight to continue to negotiate under duress, then Hitler will invade Czechoslovakia tomorrow. And the moment he issues that order, everything will change, and we in the opposition, in the Army and elsewhere, will take care of Hitler.’

Chamberlain mustn’t sign a peace. If he signs a peace treaty then Hitler will be immensely popular inside Germany as the man who created a Greater Germany without firing a shot: all the waverers Hartmann and the conspirators hope to recruit will fall in line behind him. Hitler will become unstoppable. But, Legat points out, this is all hugely speculative:

Legat folded his arms and shook his head. ‘It is at this point that I’m afraid you lose me. You want my country to go to war to prevent three million Germans joining Germany, on the off chance that you and your friends can then get rid of Hitler?’ (p.297-98)

Which Hartmann has to concede, does sum up his position. And when it is stated like that, not only Hartmann and Legat realise how unlikely the position is… but so does the reader. This could never happen, the reader thinks, with the added dampener that the reader of course knows that it did not happen. At the heart of the book is a little cloak and dagger adventure among a handful of men, boiling down to these two old friends, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and doesn’t change anything.

So the old ‘friends’ have met, exchanged the document, and Hartmann has laid his proposition on the line. What happens in the final hundred pages?

Chamberlain refuses the Nazi memo

Both men return to their delegations and tasks which are described with documentary accuracy. But overnight Hartmann sees no sign of change in the British position and he suddenly decides to abandon diplomacy and care for his cover. He shoulders his way into the British delegation, confronts Legat and forces him to take him to Chamberlain’s room.

There Hartmann begs five minutes of Chamberlain’s time and presents him with the 1937 Nazi war plan. Chamberlain reads it and his reaction is interesting, in a way the most interesting part of the book. Chamberlain says it is entirely inappropriate for Hartmann to have pushed in like this; it breaks the chain of command on both sides, and it undermines the present negotiations; because Chamberlain is interested in the present, not what Hitler may or may not have said 6 months, or a year or five years ago. From the point of view of the professional negotiator, all that matters is what your opposite number says in the room, now. What he says and signs up to now supersedes all previous declarations. I thought that was an interesting insight into negotiating tactics as a whole.

Chamberlain reads the stolen memo but rejects it and its contents and asks Hartmann to leave, and then instructs Legat to burn it. It has no bearing on the present.

This is a very interesting scene in terms of being an education in how actual diplomacy and negotiation works, but it militates the entire basis of the thriller. the Big Secret is out. The Key Document has been shown to the Prime Minister. The Secret men and women risked their lives for, cloak and dagger letter drops in London took place for, which Legat was subbed onto the British Legation for and Hartmann played sweaty cat and mouse with his SS boss for – has finally been delivered and… nothing happens. Chamberlain says: I am ignoring it. Burn it.

Oh. OK. Hard not to feel the tension Harris has built up with all the backstairs meetings and SS searches suddenly leak away like the air from a punctured balloon.

Leyna

Throughout the narrative Legat has dropped occasional hints about a woman named Leyna, who made up the third element in his friendship with Hartmann. Only now, towards the end of the book, do we find out more.

A few hours after they’ve both been turfed out of Chamberlain’s office, Legat is fast asleep in his room at the hotel being used by the British, when there’s a knock and it’s Hartmann who tells him to get dressed. Hartmann takes him outside to car he’s (conveniently) borrowed and then drives Legat out of Munich into the countryside, to a village called Dachau and stops outside the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp there.

To my surprise, Legat is not impressed, and says officials in Britain know all about these camps, Stalin has as many if not more but they have to deal with him, too. Hartmann points out that within weeks, if the Nazis annex the Sudetenland, some Sudeten Germans, now free – communists and Jews and homosexuals – will be behind the wire being worked to death at Dachau. Yes, replies Legat, but then how many would survive the aerial bombing and street fighting which will occur if Chamberlain refuses a settlement and prompts war, which will end up with Czechoslovakia still being occupied and victims still being carted off by the SS.

This is an interesting debate but it has now lost the element of being a thriller. For me this felt like a purely cerebral, intellectual debate about what was at stake at Munich.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t what Hartmann wanted to show him. Some Dachau guards notice the pair bickering in the car and turn the floodlights on them, so our guys beat a hasty retreat and Hartmann then drives Legat on for a further hour until they arrive at a remote mansion in the country with, Legat notices, the windows barred, no notices on the noticeboard in the cold hallway which smells of antiseptic.

Now we learn two things. Harris gives us a flashback to that summer of 1932, when, after walking in the woods, the three friends drove back into Munich and Leyna insisted on going to the apartment block where Hitler lived, surrounded by Nazi bodyguards.

As the would-be Führer (he was famous but had still not been made German Chancellor) leaves the building Leyna shouts loudly ‘NIECE-FUCKER’ at him. This was based on the rumours that Hitler had had an affair with his niece, Geli Raubel, who he forced to live with him in this apartment block and kept a maniacal watch over. In his absence, on 18 September 1931, Gaubl apparently shot herself dead with Hitler’s pistol. Was he having an affair with her? Was she pregnant with his child? Did she kill herself, or was it a put-up job by party apparatchiks who realised her existence threatened the Führer’s career. Whatever the truth (and historians argue about it to this day) there were enough lurid rumours around to allow Leyna to shout this insult at the future Führer as he emerged from his apartment, and to anger his SA guards, some of whom turn from protecting their boss and give chase to Leyna, Hartmann and Legat. The SA guards chase after our threesome who split up in a warren of alleyways.

Legat finds his way back to Hartmann and Leyna’s apartment. In the melee outside the apartment, someone had punched him in the eye and now it is swollen closed. Layna leans over Legat to apply a poultice, and he pulls her head down and kisses her. They make love. It wasn’t crystal clear to me earlier but now the text makes clear that Leyna was Hartmann’s girlfriend. So she has ‘betrayed’ him, and so has his best friend. Thus there is an emotional and sexual ‘betrayal’ at the heart of this plot which is about numerous betrayals, or betrayal on many levels: Hartmann betraying his Führer; Chamberlain betraying the Czechs, and now friend betraying friend. And so on.

This, frankly, felt a lot too ‘pat’ and convenient to me. Formulaic. It had the thumping inevitability of a cheap made-for-TV movie (which is how the book might well end up, since it has none of the really big action scenes required by a modern movie).

Now, in another development which seemed to me equally clichéd, it turns out that Leyna has ended up here in this mournful, isolated care home for the mentally defective. We now learn that: a) Hartmann found out about Leyna’s ‘betrayal’ and they split up b) she got more heavily into communist politics and married a communist who was subsequently killed in the Spanish Civil War, but c) she continued being an organiser of an underground communist newspaper till she was arrested by the Gestapo and badly beaten. Hartmann points out that Leyna was of Jewish heritage (which I don’t think anybody had mentioned earlier). With the result that the SS beat her unconscious, before or after carving a star of David into her back, and then threw her out of a third floor window. She survived in body, but was permanently brain damaged. Hartmann found out, and used his contacts to get her a place here in this out-of-the-way hospice.

This plot development, coming late on in the story, did three things for me:

1. It is a gross and characteristic example of the brutality of the Third Reich i.e. it has the effect of undermining all the diplomats fussing about precedence back in Munich. I think that is its intention, to show you the brutality behind the diplomatic veneer. But it has the unintended consequence, fictionally, imaginatively of making all the rest of the text, with its precise observations of diplomatic procedure, seem pale and irrelevant.

2. Indeed Hartmann picks up this idea, and makes an impassioned speech explaining that this is what he and Legat didn’t realise when they airily debated national Socialism back at Oxford, what their lofty Oxford education didn’t at all prepare them for: for the sheer bestial irrationality of the regime, its violence, which no diplomatic niceties can contain (‘This is what I have learned these past six years, as opposed to what is taught at Oxford: the power of unreason.’ p.374)

3. But I also couldn’t help the feminist in me rising up a bit and thinking – why does this point have to be made over the mute, unspeaking body of a tortured and disfigured woman – for Leyna is brain-damaged and recognises neither Hartmann nor Legat (p.373)?

Why is the central woman in their menage reduced to silence? Is it, in itself, a sort of feminist point, that the entire diplomatic circus, Hitler’s blusterings and Chamberlain’s prissy precisionism and French cowardice, all this describes the world of men, the men who would soon plunge the entire world into a war in which millions more totally innocent women and children would be murdered?

Back in Munich

Hartmann drives Legat back to his hotel in Munich as the last day of the Munich conference, and the novel, dawns.

Legat is shaving when he hears a noise in his bedroom and gets in just in time to see a man exiting by the door into the corridor. This scene reminded me of numerous Tintin books where the hero gives chase to the ‘strange man’ who turns a corner and disappears, leaving our hero to trudge back to his room half-dressed, bumping into a startled member of the delegation on the way.

Back in his room, Legat discovers that he has, of course, been burgled and that the incriminating Nazi memorandum from November 1937, the one which had been stolen and given to Hartmann to show to Chamberlain, who rejected it and told Legat to destroy – well, Legat like a fool hadn’t destroyed it, and he now discovers that whoever was searching his room found it. What an idiot he’s been. He has jeopardised his friend’s life – and all for nothing!

So Legat finishes dressing and goes along to the Prime Minister’s room where he just about persuades Chamberlain to let him (Legat) accompany Chamberlain to his last meeting with Hitler.

Chamberlain has had the bright idea of requesting a one-on-one meeting with Hitler in order to present him with the text of a speech he (Hitler) made a week earlier, in which he had pledged eternal friendship between Germany and Britain. Chamberlain has had his officials convert this speech into a pledge, a declaration, a binding document. He hopes to persuade Hitler to sign it and thus secure ‘peace in our time’.

And now, thanks to Harris’s clever interleaving of historical fact with spy fiction, Legat gets to witness this meeting at first hand, and so do we. We are given the entire scene in which a translator translates into German the couple of paragraphs in which Chamberlain has recast Hitler’s pledge of friendship between Britain and Germany and, to his slight surprise, Hitler signs it.

And now the delegation packs up, catches its taxis to the airport and flies home. It is only as they land that one of the pair of female typists who have accompanied the delegation, to type up the various notes and memos, corners Legat.

As Chamberlain gets out of the plane and holds an impromptu press conference, waving the little piece of paper with Hitler’s signature on it, this secretary tells Legat that she is also a recruit of British Security, tasked with keeping an eye on Legat. And that she had earlier broken into Legat’s bedroom, professionally searched it, found the incriminating memo and removed it; so that the burglar who Legat disturbed, and who ran off down the corridor, did not have the incriminating memo after all. Hartmann is in the clear.

And indeed in the last couple of pages we learn that Hartmann was not arrested by his hyper-suspicious boss, Sauer, and continued to serve the Nazi regime until he was involved in the 20 July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, at which point he was arrested, interrogated and hanged.

Comment

This is a fascinating and deeply researched description of the Munich Crisis which opened my eyes about the details of the actual negotiations and the issues at stake. But despite early promise, the thriller element never caught fire for me. If you come to the book with the mindset that the whole future of Europe is at stake, then maybe you can make every one of the small tense incidents (secret documents, secret meetings) have a vast world-shattering importance.

But I came to it knowing what came afterwards (i.e. the entire conspiracy fails, is completely inconsequential) which continually poured cold water on attempts to get me excited. Even if both the protagonists had been arrested, tortured and bumped off, it wouldn’t ultimately have made any difference, not if you bear in mind what was about to follow i.e. the deaths of tens of millions of people.

For a thriller to work you have to believe the fate of the protagonists is of total, nailbiting importance. But nice enough though these two young chaps seemed to be, the book failed to make me care very much about them.

Shit and fuck

Part of this was because the characters just seemed too modern to me. They seemed contemporary, not creatures from what is becoming a remote past. Legat and Hartmann and many of the other characters completely lacked, for me, the old trappings, the genuinely old and remote mindset of that period – not only its embedded sexism and racism, but the entire imperial and class assumptions of their time and class. When you read fiction written at that time (late 1930s) you are continually pulled up sort by all kinds of period assumptions, about race and sex and class, not to mention that actual vocabulary and phraseology and turns of speech. The ruling class really did say ‘Top hole’, and ‘I say’, and ‘old chap’, and was drenched in expectations of privilege and deference.

None of this really came over in Harris’s book. Instead the characters came over as entirely up-to-date modern thriller protagonists. They think logically and clearly, with no emotion, like computers, uninfluenced by ideology or the beliefs of their era. Hartmann says he is a German nationalist, but nowhere in his conversations with Legat, or in his thoughts which we are privy to throughout the book, does any of that come across. He is a good German nationalist and yet his attitude to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism could come from a Guardian editorial.

There is little sense that these people belonged to a different time, with its own, now long-lost values and assumptions.

A small but symptomatic indication of this was Harris’s use of the words shit and fuck. His characters think ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ in a way you would never find in, say Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh writing in 1938. Hartmann sees roadsweepers and thinks not that they are shovelling up horse droppings, but cleaning horse ‘shit’.

When Hartmann is lying in the bed of his mistress, Frau Winter, he notes the photo of her husband on her cabinet and wonder if she fantasises, when they make love, that she is ‘still fucking Captain Winter’.

The half a dozen times Harris uses the word ‘fuck’ completed the process of making his characters sound like post-1960s, brutally explicit, modern-day thriller protagonists. The use of ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, for me, not only upset the register of the narrative but begged the bigger question of whether he was at all inhabiting the minds of the people of the day – or simply ventriloquising them from an irredeemably 21st century perspective.

Without a doubt the book is a fascinating account of the nitty-gritty of the Munich meeting, of the nuts and bolts of key events and main players – but it failed for me a) as a thriller, because the Big Secret which is meant to underpin a thriller in fact is revealed a hundred pages before the end and turns out not to matter at all – and b) as a fictional attempt to enter the minds and mindsets of these long-dead people.

All the people felt like they were just waiting to be turned into the characters of another film adaptation, an adaptation in which all the good guys will have impeccably #metoo and politically correct attitudes about everything, who will be fighting for decency as we define it in 2019 – instead of being the much more difficult and potentially unlikeable characters you’d expect to meet from that period.

Munich is an effectively written account of the events, with a clever but ultimately disappointing thriller plot slipped in – but not a very good fictional guide or insight into the lost values and psychology of that remote and ever-more-distant era.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of almost daily strikes by the workmen – and worrying about his impending marriage to his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so that, at the end of another trying day, when he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house to insulate him from all distractions, he sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up it is to find himself in a strange room. The kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days.

Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are mostly gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society of the Future..

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he meant that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on, creating a permanent sense of crisis.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat at the head of its thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling, and clamber up the coachwork a bit. But even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the buried concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier. On breaking a hole into it, they discovered West’s perfectly preserved, barely breathing body.

They speculate that Dr Pillsbury must have put West into a trance, but then later that night the house burned down. Everyone assumed West had perished in the fire.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000.

Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality. He then begins the immense lecture about society 2000, an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future, which makes up most of the text.

Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Private enterprise has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21 and is educated to the highest level they can attain, and then everyone undertakes three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for the career which best suits their skills, whether it be coal mining or teaching Greek. At that point they join one of the dozen or so ‘armies’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month, regardless of their job. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

This Perfect Society is, then, a sustained attempt to put into practice the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and to overthrow the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Friedrich Engels

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, the late nineteenth century was seeing, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, the emergence of larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, eventually creating monopolies. This, they claimed, appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if left unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the state should step in and run these industries as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism – naturally, inevitably.

And that’s exactly what has happened in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete is now explaining to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that stage grasped the trend and seen how efficiently the government managed the other big concerns already in its control. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his own day and the wonder of the Perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the changes between West’s day and the present.

The revolution

Here is Dr Barton long-windedly describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes, and that the precise nature of the ‘revolution’ is the touchiest subject of all – and so becomes obscured by the most gasous verbiage – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘A mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’. Hmmm.

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Anyway, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up ‘the nation’ adjust and control things in the interests of the people, and everyone agrees what those are.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about gaining, protecting and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all of the old law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money or property. In a society without money, there is no motive for crime.

A platonic dialogue

And so on and so on, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, on the artificial creation of different brands and makes, on the  countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it.

All that has gone.Now you go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes but this is solely a pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty with this kind of thing is always explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. For example many utopian authors have invoked a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling to examine in detail. Andthis, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both use that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people.

Notoriously, Engels speculated that the post-revolutionary state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does just the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, a cabal of cunning, calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will take advantage of a weakened state to seize absolute power – it happened in Tsarist Russia, in post-war Italy, in Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda at their command.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

But even more important than the question of how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’.

In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: in order to bring all this about there must have been some kind of revolution in human nature: how did you bring that about?

To which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People, says Dr Leete, are naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them be. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature – it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on – an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – well before any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, albeit not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My central critique of books like this is not economic or political it is psychological, it is to do with the extremely narrow grasp of human psychology which books like this always depict.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and discovers – that they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think even to this day.

In my opinion most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the most basic fact that a huge number of people don’t even read books, ever, let alone fairy tales like this – and so never hear about these writers and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library, which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

The central problem with propertyless socialism

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because they cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter.

As I read that I thought, but people will still barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods, selling them on to the right person at the right time, at a profit – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is all about money and value. Maybe these are all ‘tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world’. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial, but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. Farmers had stopped growing crops because the Red soldiers just commandeered them without paying. Where was their motivation to get up before dawn and slave all day long if the produce was just stolen?

And so Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence, ten years later, that all agricultural produce was to be taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering, really ram this point home.

Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back, and so destroy the entire socialist society and economy they were building.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed.

In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union’s economy to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating human nature.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful, completely failing to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries, far more than most authors of utopias, to paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ need not be as pedantically systematic as the one he has written; they can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of our present day society. And here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your tat – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All these aspects of contemporary capitalist society come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of dazzling revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose style – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of hunts for treasure in colourful settings or detective sleuthing – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington in the late 1880s.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, thoughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s prose points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move on Bellamy’s part to make the American rejection of capitalism around 1900 seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier (in the 1775 War of Independence).

And here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isn’t it? Clear, rational, sensible… And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And then West wakes up and it was all – a dream!

I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant to find himself back in bed, in  his underground bunker, back in 1887 – and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises that the future world he was just getting used to… was all a fantasy.

There then follows by far the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book. West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy, smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, all that human effort wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of ‘the system’, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time, in his mind, West is comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is another, final twist. West wakes again… and is back in the Perfect Society of the future.

His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led back and the values he unthinkingly accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged position, enjoyed the wine and the fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society, and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


Related links

Related reviews

Futurism by Richard Humphreys (1999)

This is a nifty little book, an eighty-page, light and airy instalment in Tate’s ‘Movements in Modern Art’ series.

In its seven fast-moving chapters it captures the feverish activity of the Italian Futurists from the eruption of the First Futurist Manifesto, which was published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909 – until the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, to which many Futurists had attached themselves – in 1944.

Thirty-five hectic years!

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

That founding manifesto is worth quoting at length (this is just the middle part of it):

  1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
  2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
  3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
  4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with ardour, splendour, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervour of the primordial elements.
  7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Humphrey makes the point that, despite the movement’s noisiness and name, there is actually very little about the future in Futurism, not in the sense that H.G. Wells and other contemporary science fiction prophets conceived of a future of shiny space ships, worlds transformed by technology, super-intelligent beings, death rays, aliens and so on.

Futurism was much more about getting rid of Italy’s enormous historical and cultural past – a vast artistic albatross around their necks, which the Futurists thought prevented Italian artists and writers from engaging with the exciting new developments of the present.

This insight explains their lack of interest in the future, but their obsession with destroying the past, in order to liberate artists and writers to engage with the technological marvels of the present. 

It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.

Museums: cemeteries!… Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!

It explains their feverish iconoclasm – Italy’s museum culture was strangling the current generation so – Away with it!

In truth I tell you that daily visits to museums, libraries, and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for artists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner… But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!

So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!

Historical and social background to Futurism

Humphreys gives some historical and social background. Italy was only unified as a state in 1870 and in the following forty years its economy failed to keep pace with the progress experienced by the more heavily industrialised nations of northern Europe. Urban Italians in the north (Milan, Turin) felt ripped off by capitalist industrialism, while Italians in the south (Naples to Sicily) lived in astonishing rural poverty. The result was forty years of political and cultural turmoil.

Seeking distraction from domestic problems, the government embarked on colonial adventures, notably in Abyssinia where the Italian army managed to be defeated by the locals at the Battle of Adua in 1896. Humiliation heaped on humiliation.

Futurism was just one among many voices and movements seeking cures to Italy’s apparent stagnation, including Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Nationalists, neo-Catholics and right-wing proto-Fascists.

The Futurist present

In the fifteen years or so leading up to 1909 the world of science and industry had generated a dazzling array of new technologies which were transforming human existence and age-old ideas about time, travel, communication, vision, language, space, matter.

This might sound exaggerated but the inventions of the period included the electric light, the telephone, the telegraph with its huge cables laid across the floors of the world’s oceans, the x-ray, cinema, the bicycle, automobile, airplane, airship and submarine. One of the very first movies was about a manned flight to the moon. Anything seemed possible.

Why then, raged the Futurists, were people still queuing up to look at Botticelli, when outside their windows human existence was changing at unprecedented speed?

Futurist manifestos

Futurism was a writers’ movement before it was an artistic one (like Symbolism). The manifestos were themselves embodiments of the new style, the new attitude towards language, the new verbal excitement! And, being a loquacious race, there were plenty of them!

Futurist members

The driving force (pun intended) was car-mad Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

The principal artists were Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, and Luigi Russolo, and the Italian and Swiss architects Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone.

Offshoots included the wonderful English artist C.R.W. Nevinson, and the Canadian Percy Wyndham Lewis, who set up his own copycat movement, Vorticism, in London, which for a while included the poet Ezra Pound and the anti-romantic intellectual T.E. Hulme.

In France the artist Robert Delaunay, in Russia the artists Mikhail Larionov and Kasimir Malevich and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, all drew inspiration from Futurism’s dynamic iconoclasm.

Futurist art

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was probably the most important Futurist painter. Humphreys shows him developing quickly from social realism in 1909, through a version of Seurat’s Divisionism in 1910, and then – like all the Futurists – responding to the dazzling impact of Braque and Picasso’s Cubism in 1911.

States of Mind - Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

States of Mind  II- Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson was immensely influential during this period, with his idea that human beings are driven by an élan vital or life force, which pushes us forward through the subjective experience of time, bursting through the encrustations of traditional life and traditional clock time.

This notion chimed perfectly with Cubism which adopted multiple viewpoints, as if the viewer were in numerous different positions at the same moment.

And it also helped to explain the Futurist concern to capture movement in time. Of Boccioni’s States of Mind  II- Those who go (above) Humphreys writes that it includes:

  • lines of force which are intended to convey the trajectory of moving objects, as well as drawing the viewer’s visual emotions into the heart of the picture
  • simultaneity to combine memories, present impressions and future possibilities into one orchestrated whole
  • emotional ambience in which the artist seeks by intuition to combine the feelings evoked by the external scene with interior emotion

Specifically, Those who go depicts ‘the oblique force lines of the passengers’ movement in the train as is speeds past a fragmentary landscape of buildings’ (p.32).

I found all this fascinating and insightful. This is a short but extremely useful book.

Humphreys goes on to analyse how Futurist principles were applied in the paintings of Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Giacomo Balla.

Abstract speed by Balla is a triptych of paintings intended to show the effect of a car approaching, passing, and having passed. Below is the third of the set, showing a simplified green landscape against which the lines of force show the air turbulence caused by the car which has just passed by, tinged by pink representing the car’s exhaust fumes.

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Further sections describe:

  • Futurist literature – Marinetti’s wholesale attack on traditional syntax especially in his famous book, Zang Tang Tumb, promised ‘the complete renewal of human sensibility’.
  • Futurist sculpture – its use of movement and ‘lines of force’ easily grasped in Boccioni’s wonderful Unique forms of continuity in space (1913) – illustrated at the top of this review – and now in Tate Modern.
  • Futurist music – the attempt by Luigi Rossolo to create a new ‘art of noises’, conveying the sounds of the city through a set of ‘noise intoners’ with names like Exploder, Crackler, Gurgler, Buzzer and Scraper, the use of machine sounds which hugely influenced modernist composers like Antheil, Honegger and Varèse.
  • Futurist photography – from the evidence here, the attempt to capture blurred motion by Anton Giulio Bragalia.
  • Futurist cinema – using every trick available including split screens, mirrors, bizarre combinations of objects and painted frames to convey movement, abrupt transitions, dynamic energy, epitomised by Amado Ginna’s Vita Futurista (1916).
  • Futurist architecture – As early as 1910 Marinetti and collaborators in Venice, from the top of St Mark’s Campanile, threw thousands of pamphlets then bellowed from a loudspeaker at the confused crowd below inciting them to burn the gondolas and tear up the bridges. Futurist architects, led by Antonio Sant’Elia, threw out Art Nouveau curves and natural motifs in favour of soaring vertical lines, rejecting the entire European tradition in favour of thrusting, machine-led New York. – Construction for a modern metropolis by Mario Chiattone (1914)

The Vorticists

I’ve always thought Christopher Nevinson was a much better Futurist than any of the Italians. Marinetti (who called himself ‘the caffeine of Europe’) recruited Nevinson who became a paid-up Futurist when he signed the ‘Vital English Art’ futurist manifesto in 1914. Nevinson’s paintings are harder-edged, more finished.

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

In London Marinetti stirred things up with a Futurist exhibition held in 1912, but drew a blank when he encountered an artistic entrepreneur almost as forceful as himself in the shape of Percy Wyndham Lewis.

In 1913 Lewis created ‘Vorticism’, combining hard-edged Cubist-Futurist inspired visuals with texts supplied by Ezra Pound or T.E. Hulme, all wrapped up in their inaugural magazine, BLAST!

I’ve read a lot about Lewis and Pound but Humphrey is the first author I’ve read to identify the fundamental difference between the Futurists (who the Vorticists dubbed ‘automobilists’) and Lewis’s gang.

Whereas the Futurists wanted to throw themselves into the speeding world, to lose themselves in the milling crowd, and their art investigated emotions and ideas stemming from movement – Lewis was an unrepentant individualist, determined to keep the world and the ghastly hoi polloi at a distance.

The essence of his notion of ‘the vortex’ is that it is the utterly still point at the centre of the incessant motion of the modern world. It is a detached observer. For Lewis the emotional (and in some cases, even spiritual) element in Futurist painting made it soft, made it dispersed. Lewis wanted an art which was hard and clear and focused.

Humphreys also references Edward Wadsworth and the sculptors Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, all of whom showed the clear influence of the Futurists.

Epstein’s Rock Drill (1914) may be my all-time favourite work of art.

London had been stunned and stunned again by Roger Fry’s two landmark exhibitions of post-Impressionist art in 1910 and 1912. It reeled again from the Futurist exhibition opened on 1 March at the Sackville Gallery and featuring Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini.

In these years just before 1914, for the general public, journalists and their readers, ‘Futurism’ became the generalised term for all avant-garde art.

The Futurists at war

In one of the manifestos Marinetti notoriously wrote that ‘war is the sole hygiene of the world’, and the artists responded to the advent of the Great War with enthusiasm, holding a number of pro-war happenings.

However, their art wasn’t as violent or inspired by war as you might expect.

Boccioni was killed in 1916 and his final works show – astonishingly – a return to the figuratism of Cézanne.

Just before the war Carrà was in Paris having second thoughts about ‘Marinettism’, as its critics called it. When he was called up in 1917, he was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico. They collaborated for a while on a completely new style which they called ‘metaphysical painting’ by which they meant: instead of Futurist movement, stillness; instead of fragmentation, structure. Instead of immersion in the flow of modern life, de Chirico and Carrà sought detachment, poise and simplicity. And a hint of humour.

They were part of a widespread ‘return to order’ which affected artists and composers across Europe. De Chirico’s odd, dispassionate classicism was to be one of the tributaries of Surrealism a few years later.

Nevinson served on the Western Front and made much more exciting images of war than anything – on the evidence here – the Italian Futurists managed, for example the wonderful Le Mitrailleuse (1915).

Futurism and Fascism

In the turmoil immediately after the end of the First World War, despite the death or defection of the first wave of Futurist artists, Marinetti tried to maintain the Futurist brand with theatrical performances and pamphlets.

Although attracted by some anarchist and left-wing ideas, he in the end plumped to support Mussolini, whose Fascist Party marched on Rome and seized power in 1922.

Humphreys is good on the surprisingly broad and liberal cultural atmosphere which Mussolini maintained in Fascist Italy, partly under the influence of his Jewish mistress, partly because he wanted to encourage all the arts to support his idea of a neo-classical resurgent Italy.

The first wave of Futurists had died or fallen away during the Great War. Now Marinetti had to whip together and motivate lesser talents.

In the 1930s there was a great vogue for airplanes all across Europe, and the book concludes with some vaguely modernist paintings of cockpits and swooping machines of the air. The Futurist brand staggered on into the Second World War with Marinetti, now an overt Catholic, giving his unstinting support to the Duce. But by then the initial buzz and thrill of 1909 Futurism was only a distant memory.

Futurism today

The Futurists insisted that humanity destroy its enervating attachment to clapped-out traditions, accept the violent reality of human nature, reject artificial and sentimental morality, and live on the basis of how life is now – not what it used to be, or how we would like it to be.

I warm to many of these ideas, particularly given the anti-sentimental findings

  • of modern genetics and evolutionary psychology (which tend to prove that we have much less ‘say’ over our character and behaviour than we like to think)
  • of ever-accelerating computer science (which has already undermined old-fashioned ways of thinking, talking, writing and communicating)
  • of environmental degradation (no matter what we say, we are destroying the planet, exterminating countless species every year, filling the seas with plastic, melting the ice caps)
  • of modern war, of which there never seems to be an end (Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria)

As a thought experiment, reading and falling in with the Futurists’ worship of speed, violence and the utterly modern, at the very least opens up new ways of feeling about our present situation.

Stop whining about Brexit and Trump and Weinstein, Marinetti would have yelled! Embrace the chaos!


Related links

Related art reviews

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (2006)

Furst

Furst’s novels are all historical spy adventures, set in Continental Europe, often in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, in the dark days before the Second World War and on into the early years of the conflict. They feature fairly ordinary, everyday guys who become reluctantly embroiled in ‘spying’, in its unglamorous, everyday forms – receiving and passing on information, meeting people from foreign powers who slowly take control of your life, who persuade you to take risks you’d prefer not to. So:

  • In Blood of Victory (set in late 1940 and 1941) the Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, finds himself slowly drawn into a plot to sink barges in the Danube river to choke off Nazi Germany’s supply of oil from Romania.
  • In Dark Voyage (set over two months in 1941) grizzled Dutch merchant captain, Eric DeHaan, finds himself reluctantly recruited into the Dutch Royal Navy and carrying out a number of clandestine voyages, ferrying Allied soldiers, arms and equipment on a number of hazardous missions around the Mediterranean.

The Foreign Correspondent

Although they go off on missions to the East, many of Furst’s protagonists are based in Paris, safe haven for many exiles as the grim 1930s progressed. This novel, though it features trips to Berlin and Prague, is more rooted than most i the boulevards and cafés of the city of light, and includes a map of Paris at the start, with key locations in the story marked on it.

It follows the ‘adventures’ of Italian émigré journalist Carlo Weisz. He’s landed a good job as Paris correspondent for Reuters, where he’s looked after by an understanding manager, Delahanty, who doesn’t mind that in the evenings Weisz helps write and organise an anti-Fascist, anti-Mussolini freesheet, Liberazione, cobbled together by half a dozen Italian refugees who meet at the Café Europa, the galleys then smuggled to Italy, where it’s printed and distributed via an informal network.

The text is divided into four long parts, within which the numerous sub-sections are simply divided by line breaks. As with all Furst’s novels, these short sections come with date stamps  and sometimes precise times of day, to convey the pace of events, and give a sense of urgency and thrill.

The narrative covers events between 4 December 1938 and 11 July 1939, ie the dark slide towards war, and features the following true historical events:

  • The Nazi occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, beginning 15 March 1939
  • Victory of the Nationalist (fascist) forces in the Spanish Civil War on 1 April 1939
  • 7 April the Italian navy bombarded the coast of Albania, then invaded
  • Signing of the Pact of Steel, 22 May 1939

Dark times, darkly captured and broodingly conveyed.

1. In the Resistenza

We meet Weisz in Civil War Spain, as that conflict grinds to an end, accompanied by the veteran female journalist, Mary McGrath, and driven around by a driver provided by the Republican side. They visit the front lines, are shot at by Nationalist soldiers across the river, then briefly interview the legendary ‘Colonel Ferrara’, an Italian commanding an International Brigade on the Republican side, then drive off to the nearest town to file their reports.

Back in Paris, the high profile Italian exile, vociferous opponent of Mussolini, and editor of Liberazione, Bottini, is assassinated by agents of OVRA, while in bed with his mistress Madame LaCroix. It is a warning to other exiles, and we are introduced to the head of the little squad which carries out the execution, an Italian nobleman and committed Fascist, Count Amandola. But as Mme LaCroix happens to have been the wife of a French politician, this prompts the French police to open a murder investigation which will wind on for the rest of the narrative.

Thus it is that on returning to Paris, Weisz discovers Bottini to be dead and is offered the editorship of Liberazione by the small band of exiles, led by Arturo Salamone, and which he reluctantly accepts. He feels it is his duty, and he is a good journalist, he should be able to manage. The meeting is followed by a short text which is the ‘report’ of ‘Agent 207’, summarising the decisions of the meeting. Aha. One of them is a spy, or at least an informer, passing on his reports to OVRA.

Soon afterwards, in a Paris bar, Weisz bumps into an acquaintance from his two years of study at Oxford, Geoffrey Sparrow, who is accompanied by his petite girlfriend, Olivia. She enjoys flirting with Weisz, who finds himself entranced by her ‘smart little breasts’ (p.43). They go on to another bar where Sparrow accidentally-on-purpose introduces Weisz to a ‘Mr Brown’, an obvious British agent (which we know for sure since we’ve met him in previous novels). So – the old friend act and the flirting were designed to ‘ensnare’ him. At this stage it’s just an introduction and an agreement that they’re on the same side, but we all know something more will come of it…

Weisz is invited to room 10 of the Sûreté National offices, to meet the French detectives investigating the Bottini murder. They let it be known that he’s being watched, and mention that an Italian official was recently expelled from France. Was that a threat or a tip-off? As so often in Furst, the main character is puzzled about what’s going on, about the deeper or ‘hidden’ meaning of sometimes the simplest conversations. As exiles, most of his protagonists are at the mercy of ‘the authorities’ and live with a permanent sense of insecurity.

Finding himself the attention of the British and French security services, and probably of OVRA into the bargain, Weisz not unnaturally becomes convinced he’s being followed, narrowing it down to a man in a check jacket who keeps popping up behind him in the street, then on the Métro. It’s mildly ironic then, when a completely different man leans over him in the Métro carriage and slips him an envelope before quickly exiting the carriage.

Weisz brings the envelope to the next meeting of the Liberazione group at the Café Europa, where it turns out to contain detailed technical specifications for what looks like a torpedo, the writing in Italian. A new design for an Italian torpedo? Who was the man who gave it to him working for? Is it a trap? Is the door about to burst open and French police find them with the evidence that they’re spies, so they’ll all be shot? Or is it a genuine bit of clandestine information but – who should it be passed on to? The French authorities? The British? Mr Brown?

This is typical of the fog of uncertainty in which Furst’s characters (and the reader) move. Also typical is the low level of suspense: it doesn’t feel like it matters all that much, and the group decide to burn the document quickly, which they do. And nothing happens. No police burst in. The man who gave it to Weisz never reappears. There are no repercussions at all. The novels are full of mysterious threats and loomings.

Weisz regularly fantasises about sex. He imagines making love with Sparrow’s girlfriend. He thinks about calling up his old girlfriend Véronique for sex. He fantasises about his lazy landlady Madam Rigaud, who has accidentally on purpose bumped his ample hips against him many a time. He remembers the myriad highly erotic encounters with his former German lover, Christa von Schurr. He remembers having sex with the well-known British spy and recruiter, Lady Angela Hope, who – apparently – made a great deal of noise, ‘as if he were Casanova’, twice, before attempting to wangle Italian state secrets out of him (futilely, it turns out). He goes to sleep.

2. Citizen of the Night

The Reuters man in Berlin, Wolf, is getting married and going on honeymoon, so Weisz’s boss, Delahanty, sends him to Berlin to cover. We have been privy to Weisz’s sensuous memories of making love with Christa – now he sees the assignment to meet her again. Sure enough, as soon as he contacts her she comes to his hotel room, and for the rest of his stay they meet every afternoon to enjoy a sequence of pornographic encounters, livened up by varieties of underwear and positions, and the ability to perform time after time. Underwear, panties, bra, camisoles are described in loving detail.

In between sex sessions, Christa invites Weisz out to a remote fairground where he is introduced to an unnamed man (p.88). He hands over a list of Nazi agents who have penetrated to high position in Italy, lots of them, over 150. Weisz is left wondering: Has Christa only revived the affair to ‘recruit’ him for her people, to make him a conduit to a free press outside Germany? What is he expected to with the list? Weisz experiences a familiar feeling of perplexity.

Furst’s men (they’re all men) move rather dreamily around Paris and other European capitals, cocooned in an atmosphere of good food, fine wines, bars and cafés high and low, seeming to end up in bed with a steady stream of uninhibited, easy and sexually inventive women, but plagued by obscure meetings and ambiguous conversations which leave them permanently puzzled about what they’re meant to be doing, and for who…

Germany threatens to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia which Hitler hadn’t already seized as a result of the Allied betrayal during the Munich Crisis (August 1938). And so Weisz’s boss tells him to pack and go by train from Germany to Prague to record the event.

He travels down with two other journalists, Hamilton of The Times and Simard from Havas, but the train is stopped by the Germans at Kralupy, before it reaches Prague. The three journalists pay the very reluctant town taxi to drive them through snow to the capital, the driver grumbling all the way. They’re still driving slowly around town when two students bundle into the car carrying a Nazi flag which they’ve torn down. Seems like a student prank for a few moments until a Gestapo car swings after them and starts shooting, bullets through the windows, little Simard gets injured and there’s frantic argument about how to tie a tourniquet. The taxi driver skedaddles through Prague’s snowy back streets to an old stables which the students know about, and where they help them hide out till the cops are gone.

In a separate plotline S. Kolb, a seedy little man who works for the British SIS (and who we have met in previous books) is despatched by his masters to track down Colonel Ferrara who we met in the opening pages. Ferrara had managed to escape from Spain after Madrid fell and the Spanish Civil War ended in March 1939. Kolb tracks him to a French internment camp near Tarbes, in the south, then bribes the camp’s commandant with a lot of francs to let Ferrara free.

At first sceptical that he’s going to be shipped back to Italy, Ferrara lets himself be persuaded into a taxi to a station, and then onto a train to Paris. Here Kolb fixes him up with a room at the Hotel Tournon and it is here that Weisz is introduced to him, via Mr Brown.

Mr Brown explains to Weisz that ‘they’ would like him to write Ferrara’s biography, the biography of an Italian patriot and hero who resisted Mussolini. Ferrara agrees; later, when Weisz puts it to the Liberazione group, they also agree. So Weisz gets into the habit of going every evening, after his main day’s work, to the Hotel Toulon, there to smoke lots of cigarettes and type up Ferrara’s life story.

In short order, Weisz dumps his Paris girlfriend, Véronique and buys a typewriter in a flea market. He uses it to type out copies of the list of Nazi agents in Italy which Christa gave him back in Germany and which he carried round Prague and back to Paris. He’ll post copies to the British and French authorities – the flea market typewriter was so they couldn’t match it against his own typewriter, if they manage to trace it to him,

This section closes with Furst giving us a brief sketch of the Liberazione‘s distribution network in Italy: the conductor on the Paris-to-Genoa train; Matteo, who works at the printing works of Italy’s second newspaper, Il Secolo and slips printing the free sheet in between bigger jobs; Antionio who drives a coal delivery truck from Genoa to Rapallo and takes copies with him; Gabriella and Lucia, 16-year-olds in a convent school in Genoa who help distribute free copies; ending with readers like Lieutenant DeFranco, a detective in the rough waterfront area of Genoa, who enjoys reading the copy posted in the police station’s lavatory.

3. The Pact of Steel

Back in Paris. Véronique phones to tell Weisz that a threatening man came to cross-question her about Weisz and Liberazione, pretending to be – but obviously not – a member of the Sûreté. The Liberazione group meet and discover that Salamone has been dismissed from his job. The threat from OVRA seems to be looming from different directions. Agent 207 reports the meeting.

Weisz is despatched by his Reuters boss to cover the crowd assembled outside the hotel where King Zog of Albania is discovered to be staying. King Zog shows himself at the balcony, some cheer, some throw bottles, the crowd turns ugly and Weisz is suddenly hit very hard on the head, by some kind of sharp but heavy implement, regaining consciousness on the floor and helped to a nearby café by a cop. Staggering home, he fears he’s being followed. Was it an OVRA attack? A random bit of thuggery?

Next evening he meets up with Ferrara to move the book forward, and finds Kolb and Brown there. They go to a ‘mad’ nightclub up in Pigalle, where the girls dance naked except for shoes. Here Ferrara picks up a fetching naked girl called Irina. The reader suspects this will end badly: possibly she, too, is an OVRA agent or will lure him to a sticky end…

News comes in to Reuters that Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, is flying to Berlin to sign a so-called ‘Pact of Steel’ between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Delahanty orders Weisz back to Berlin to cover it for the Italian point of view.

While Weisz is packing a new guest at the hotel looms menacingly at his door and we strongly suspect something bad is going to happen to Weisz, when the old hotel retainer Bertrand arrives puffing and panting up the stairs with Weisz’s plane tickets, thus saving him in the nick of time. The novels are full of close shaves, what-might-have-beens, or even perfectly innocent events which we – sharing the protagonist’s paranoia – think of as unnecessarily sinister. Thus in a hundred little ways, we enter the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which the characters move in…

Back in Berlin, Weisz gets a cryptic message from Christa inviting him to a party at a friend’s house. When he arrives at the apartment given on the invitation, there is no party and the door is open. He tiptoes through eerily empty rooms suspecting something bad has happened and, again, the reader is thinking the worst. But Christa is simply lying in bed, naked. She had fallen asleep. They have sex several times, as she explains that she thinks she’s being watched and so arranged this rendezvous at the apartment of a friend.

Weisz is an eye witness of the signing of the Pact of Steel at a formal hall in Berlin. Up till this moment the Italian exiles Weisz moves among have been hoping Italy will somehow keep out of Hitler’s mad plans, especially as Mussolini is on record as saying Italy wouldn’t be ready for war until 1943.

Weisz notices the changed atmosphere in Berlin, the number of uniforms on the street – SS, Gestapo, Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Hitler Youth and so on, the expectation of violence. Then he’s back in bed with Christa.

Idly, he trailed a finger from the back of her neck down to where her legs parted, and she parted them a little more. (p.186)

When his trip ends he is upset, kisses Christa goodbye in the street, she walks away and out of sight, and he wonders if it’s forever. Oddly, as in all these Furst novels, I had absolutely no sense of emotional involvement or upset whatsoever. I see the logic of these characters’ emotions – but I don’t feel them. For me, these novels are like diagrams of emotion and feeling. Blueprints.

Back in Paris Weisz discovers the café where the Liberazione group meet has been burned down. Salamone has had a heart attack. Things are not looking good for our little group. The same man who pretended to be a Sûreté officer to interview Véronique, turns up at Elena’s workplace, the Galeries Lafayette, asking about her. Infuriated, Elena tails him through the Métro back to 62 Boulevard de Strasbourg. There’s a card claiming it’s the office of a photo agency. Next day Weisz rings the number on the card and establishes it’s an obvious front, they know nothing about press photos. Then Weisz goes along himself and finds letters in the postbox with Croatian names and addresses. Possibly agents of the Croatian Ustasha, sub-contracting to OVRA.

4. Soldiers for Freedom

Weisz and Ferrara continue working on the biography. Weisz reads in a newspaper a small article about a spy circle in Berlin being rounded up and imprisoned. His heart stops, as he thinks it must be Christa and her circle – and from this point onwards, for the last 60 or so pages of the novel, its protagonist’s overwhelming motivation is to find out what’s happening to Christa and try to ensure her safety.

Mr Brown takes Weisz to meet a ‘Mr Lane’, obviously a more senior SIS figure, who talks him into considering expanding the Liberazione operation, increasing the print runs, expanding the distribution network. Now that Mussolini is an official ally of Hitler, Britain will put more effort into trying to undermine his regime. But Weisz can only think about Christa.

Taking the initiative regarding the threat from OVRA, Weisz makes an appointment to see the inspectors investigating the Bottini murder. He takes along a case full of evidence about the phony Sûreté guys, and the evidence suggesting they are Ustashe agents operating illegally in France. They are interested. ‘Leave it with us; we’ll be in touch.’ At their next meeting they show Weisz photos, some of which he identifies as the men he’s seen. This confirms something the detectives knew (though they’re very vague about it to Weisz). As a sort of reward, they tell him there’s an OVRA agent within Liberazione, Zerba the art historian. Weisz is shocked, and so is Salamone when he tells him later. The latter’s first reaction is to kill him, but the police and Weisz had said No, let him continue  his activities.

Weisz has made a decision about the British suggestion to increase Liberazione activity: he asks Kolb if he can organise a meeting with his boss, Mr Brown. Here he asks if the SIS can find out Christa’s situation. Brown grudgingly agrees, but insists that, in return, Weisz a) hurry up and finish the Ferrara book b) agrees to go back to Italy to organise the printing and distribution of Liberazione on a much larger scale and in the process c) is seen, spreading the rumour of defiance, raising morale among the anti-Mussolini opposition.

Tense climax

And so the last forty pages of the novel follow Weisz’s tense journey across the border, to Genoa and then to clandestine meetings with the distribution network, as he pays Matteo to find extra capacity at the print works, meets an underworld fixer, Grassone, who can supply newsprint by the ton, and then is taken to meet an old Genoese criminal who is prepared to rent him a huge underground vault to operate in.

They’ve just been shown round the vault and emerged into the daylight into a busy marketplace, when rough hands are placed on Weisz’s collar and he realises a policeman is arresting him. He tries to get away, but is slapped and kicked to the ground and finds himself wriggling under a market stall. The cop is tugging at his legs when suddenly the market traders start throwing things at Pazzo, who turns out to be the well-known and much-hated local cop, such a barrage, that Pazzo is forced to turn and flee.

Leader of the vegetable throwers had been a huge old lady, Angelina. She picks Weisz up and dusts him off and then takes him off through a maze of alleys to a church, where she hands him over to Father Marco for safekeeping. Weisz realises he can’t go back to the hotel, so he’s abandoning his things and in fact the entire project.

Was he betrayed? Was it a misunderstanding (surely the OVRA would have sent a whole squad of heavies not a fat local policeman)? Who cares. Now he’s going home. But when he goes down to the docks to try and board the Hydraios, sailing back to Marseilles, part of the carefully worked out plan – he finds that the slack dock passport controller, Nunzio, has been joined by two serious looking detectives. There is no way through without being cross-questioned and arrested. Forlorn, he watches the ship slip its moorings and sail away.

Promptly Weisz abandons Genoa. He has money and so he buys a completely new outfit and travels to the resort of Portofino where he puts himself about among the rich tourists, hoping to get himself invited aboard one of the many rich tourists yachts. He fails with the Brits and the Americans, but then scores a success with the party of Sven, a self-made Dane, who shrewdly realises he’s in trouble but invites Weisz to join their yacht party anyway.

As if by magic, a few days later Weisz is back in Paris. And the last pages cut to Berlin where Kolb has been sent to extract Christa. Although she is being followed everywhere by the Gestapo, Kolb has a taxi driver follow her when she takes a group of Hitler Youth girls out to a lake (where many of them strip naked and frolic in the waves, to Kolb’s delight). He hisses at Christa from the treeline, and persuades her to come there and then, clamber into the boot of the car, be driven to a safe flat, where they’ll change her appearance, give her new papers and smuggle her into Luxembourg.

On the very last page Weisz arrives tired and demoralised back at the Hotel Dauphine, his Paris base, and the landlady. Madam Rigaud, tells him a new guest has checked in, a German countess, who seemed keen to see Herr Weisz. She’s put her in room 47.

Never has a man run up flights of stairs with such enthusiasm! To a joyous happy ending.


A web of characters

Blurbs on the books tend to praise the tremendous ‘atmosphere’ of Furst’s historical novels. I personally don’t find them ‘atmospheric’ so much as stuffed with an amazing grasp of historical detail and an astonishingly large cast of characters.

The novels feature not just the main protagonist (always a fairly average, if foreign, bloke: Serebin, DeHaan, Weisz) but a realistic web of secondary, tertiary and minor characters, many of whom only appear in fleeting scenes, but are given vivid thumbnail descriptions, quick lines, enough to make an impact and create the sense of a fully-populated imaginative world.

This way that the novels just teem with people and takes us to a wealth of urban settings and locations, helps the novels read like life, like confused, hectic, twentieth-century modern life in big cities, in huge industrialised nations lumbering towards war.

Characters

I set out to make a list of all the characters which appear in the book and was amazed at just how many of them there are.

  • Carlo Weisz, Italian émigré journalist, Paris-based correspondent for Reuters news agency, who works part time producing Liberazione, an anti-Mussolini free sheet.
  • Hotel Dauphine, Weisz’s home in Paris.
  • Madame Rigaud, landlady of the Hotel Dauphine, broad-hipped and complaisant, about whom he has vivid sexual fantasies.
  • Ettore, il Conte Amandola, agent of OVRA, the pro-fascist agency.
  • OVRA, the Organizzazione di Vigilanza e Repressione dell’Antifascismo (p.98)
  • Bottini, émigré lawyer from Turin and outspoken critic of Mussolini, he is assassinated by OVRA agents in the opening pages.
  • Madame LaCroix, Bottini’s plump noisy mistress. The OVRA agents murder her in bed with Bottini and make it look like he killed her then committed suicide, in order to achieve maximum humiliation of the anti-fascist figurehead. However, Mme LaCroix happened to be married to a French politician minister, and this draws the French Security forces into an investigation of her death, which will eventually draw Weisz into collaborating with them.
  • Staff of the Liberazione freesheet, who meet in the Café Europa:
    • Arturo Salamone, former insurance salesman in Italy, now main organiser of the paper
    • Sergio
    • Elena, fiery little exile
    • Michele Zerba, art historian from Siena (p.239)
  • giellisti (p.8) collective name of the opponents and resisters of Mussolini’s fascism, a conflation of Giustizia e Libertà (p.220).
  • Agent 207 – spy inside Liberazione group, we read his reports of the secret meetings immediately after they’ve happened – obviously he or she is one of the core members. Towards the end of the novel we learn the agent is Zerba, the art historian. (pp.29, 152)
  • confidente – Mussolini’s secret police / secret agents.
  • Mary McGrath, a veteran correspondent in her 40s (p.13) a journalist who we meet accompanying Weisz in Civil War Spain.
  • Sandoval, Spanish driver, assigned by the Republicans to drive Weisz and McGrath around the battlefield and to nearest towns to file his copy.
  • ‘Colonel Ferrara’ – nom de guerre of an Italian hero of the Great War who became an anti-Mussolini  figurehead and volunteered to fight in Spain, where has become a legendary figure (p.18). Kolb buys his freedom from a French internment camp and accompanies him to Paris where Weisz is engaged to write his heroic biography, Soldier for Freedom.
  • The military censor in Castelldans (p.24)
  • S. Kolb (p.50), a meagre little man, his career at a Swiss bank was ruined after he was (unfairly) caught embezzling money, then recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, after which he has been thrown into all kinds of perilous situations. In this novel he is given the money to purchase Colonel Ferrara’s freedom, brings him to Paris, settles him in a safe apartment and supervises Weisz writing his biography.
  • Commandant of the French internment camp near Tarbes where Ferrara is being held.
  • Hotel Tournon – the Paris hotel Kolb books Ferrara into.
  • Monsieur Devoisin, a permanent undersecretary at the French Foreign Ministry, who Weisz visits for official briefings (p.61).
  • Irina – one night Ferrara, Weisz and Kolb go to a nightclub to blow away the blues, to the Club Chez les Nudistes, up in Pigalle, where the girls wear only high-heeled shoes and are illuminated by blue lights. She seduces Ferrara on the dance floor and quickly becomes his beloved – ‘she is my life. We make love all night.’ (p.235)
  • Véronique, one of Weisz’s lovers, works in an up-market art gallery (p.132). He has some dainty sex before formally dumping her as his affair with Christa re-ignites.
  • Delahanty, Weisz’s boss at Reuters Paris bureau (p.27)
  • Geoffrey Sparrow, Oxford friend of Weisz’s (p.41)
  • Olivia, Sparrow’s flirtatious girlfriend (p.43)
  • Edwin Brown, ‘Mr Brown’, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS (p.44).
  • Mr Lane, Brown’s superior in SIS (p.219)
  • Sir Roderick (p.233). We don’t get his last name. Lane refers to him as the head of SIS, also mentioned in previous books.
  • Count Polanyi, well known Hungarian spy (pp.48, 125)
  • Nicholas Morath, his nephew and central character in Kingdom of Shadows (p.125)
  • Lady Angela Hope, the dashing British spy and recruiter who the text goes out of its way to make clear Weisz made love to, very noisily, twice (p.49).
  • Inspector Pompon of the Sûreté National who interviews Weisz in room 10 of the imposing Interior Ministry on the rue des Saussaies (p.63).
  • Inspector Guerin, Pompon’s partner (p.223).
  • Eric Wolf, Reuters man in Berlin, getting married, going on honeymoon in Cornwall for a fortnight, Weisz is sent to Berlin to cover for him (p.70).
  • Christa Zameny, Weisz’s passionate lover, who married German count von Schirren some years before (p.75). When Weisz appears in Berlin they immediately, with barely a word spoken, resume their careers as championship sexual performers, Christa’s panties and bra repeatedly falling to the floor, ‘her breasts shining wet in the light’ (p.85).
  • Gerda, German secretary at Reuters Berlin office.
  • Dr Martz, cheerful Nazi official at the Berlin Press Club.
  • Ian Hamilton, journalist from The Times (p.98) on the short trip to Prague.
  • Prague taxi driver.
  • The two students in Prague.
  • Brasserie Heininger (p.124) the glitzy night-life bar and dance floor which appears in every one of Furst’s novels.
  • Moma Tsipler and his Wienerwald Companions – a Viennese Jazz band who’ve appeared in previous novels and are in residence at the Brasserie Heininger during this one.
  • Louis Fischfang (p.125) film scriptwriter and a lead character in The World At Night and Red Gold.
  • Voyschinkowsky, known as ‘the Lion of the Bourse.’ (p.125)
  • André Szara, protagonist of Furst’s second novel, Dark Star (p.125).
  • Cara Dionello, rich Argentinian, part of the Polanyi party (p.125).
  • King Zog of Albania, in exile in Paris after the Italians seize Albania (p.156)
  • Matteo, printer in Genoa who uses his job as cover to print copies of Liberazione before getting it clandestinely shipped off round Italy.
  • Antonio, truck driver who delivers Liberazione from Genoa to Rapallo
  • Gabriella and Lucia 16-year-old schoolgirls who help distribute Liberazione.
  • Lieutenant DeFranco, detective in the rough waterfront district of Genoa who enjoys reading Liberazione (p.139)
  • Gennaro, transport policeman on the Paris to Genoa train (p.171)
  • Perini, owner of Perini’s barbershop in the rue Mabillon (p.143).
  • Bertrand, loyal old porter at Weisz’s hotel, the Dauphine (p.176).
  • Adolf Hitler, bounding up and down with happiness after signing the Pact of Steel (p.184).
  • Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister (p.184).
  • The assistant manager of the Galeries Lafayette, nicknamed ‘the Dragon’ (p.194).
  • Old Madame Gros, secretary at the Galeries Lafayette (p.195).
  • Grassone, ‘fatboy’, huge underworld figure in Genoa (p.253).
  • Emil, slick underworld fixer in Genoa (p.255).
  • ‘The landlord’, owner of the old wine cellar which Weisz can use as a base for the expanded printing of Liberazione (p.263).
  • Pazzo, the local bully boy policeman who tries to arrest Weisz in Genoa (p.265).
  • Angelina, immense woman wearing a hairnet who retaliates against Pazzo and secures Weisz’s freedom (p.266).
  • Father Marco, who gives Weisz sanctuary after Angelina has got him away from the local police (p.267).
  • Nunzio, easy-gong customs officer at Genoa docks.
  • Klemens, former German street fighter now agent for SIS, driver of the car in which Kolb collects Christa and spirits her away from her watchers (p.274).

Nets and webs

The novel is, in other words, populated by an amazingly intricate web of characters who are shown interacting in a multitude of expected or unpredictable ways. For me, Furst’s novels have complexity instead of ‘atmosphere’. It’s the sheer proliferation of characters, with numberless walk-on parts for taxi drivers, bartenders, customs officials and so on, which gives the novels their extraordinary sense of range and their imaginative suasion.

As explained in reviews of his previous novels, I don’t find Furst’s novels particularly thrilling for most of their length – not until the deliberately exciting final chapter or so. For most of their length they consist of accounts of meetings, interviews, rendezvous, the handing over of documents, discussion of secrets, making of arrangements and so on, in offices, street corners and cafés. And the making love.

Fine food They routinely feature rather sumptuous descriptions of meals at fancy restaurants (at the Ritz hotel in Paris, the Adlon in Berlin, the famous Brasserie Heininger) accompanied by fancy cocktails or champagne.

Sex And of course, the novels are laced with descriptions of knowing, sensual sex with one of the hero’s various lovers or mistresses (Marie-Galante in Blood of Victory, Demetria and Maria Sombel in Dark Voyage, and the very sensuous and imaginative Christa von Schirren in this novel). We read descriptions – muted tasteful descriptions – of Weisz having sex with Véronique, with Lady Angela Hope, with Christa, or fantasising about having sex with little Olivia or his Paris landlady.

He knew what she liked, she knew what he liked, so they had a good time. Afterwards, he smoked a Gitane and watched her as she sat at her dressing table, her small breasts rising and falling as she brushed her hair. (p.32)

In Furst’s fiction, you’re never far away from silk bras or panties suavely slipping off smooth flesh.

After a time, she moved her legs apart, and guided his hand, ‘God,’ she said, ‘how I love this.’ He could tell that she did. Sliding down the bed, so that her head was level with his waist, she said, ‘Just stay where you are, there is something I have wanted to do for a long time.’ (p.181)

Good living The fine food, the champagne cocktails, the beautiful women stripping down to their cami-knickers in each novel tend to counter-balance – or even outweigh – the rarer action scenes: the strange men following the hero down a darkened street, the shots from the police as they crash a roadblock, the dive bombers attacking the naval convoy. Much more often you get paragraphs like this:

She stood and took off her jacket and skirt, then her shirt, stockings and suspenders, and folded them over the top of the chaise longue. Usually she wore expensive cotton underwear, white or ivory, and soft to the touch, but tonight she was in a plum-coloured silk, the bra with a lace trim, the panties low at the waist, high at the hip, and tight, a style called, Véronique had once told him, French cut. (p.94)

Sensual and soft More broadly, if something actually violent isn’t happening (which it generally isn’t) Furst’s general purpose setting is noticeably sensual and gentle. It’s not just the sex and fine wine which contributes to the sense of softness about the novels, it’s the default attitude which is – oddly given the subject matter – consistently sweet and gentle.

All his life he’d gazed at rivers, from London’s Thames to Budapest’s Danube, with the Arno, the Tiber and the Grand Canal of Venice in between, but the Seine was queen of the poetic rivers, to Weisz it was. Restless and melancholy, or soft and slow, depending on the mood of the river, or his. That night it was dappled, black with rain and running high in its banks… (p.123)

Very often poetic and wistful:

For a time, Weisz just stood there, alone on the wharf, as the crew disappeared up the flight of stone steps. When they’d gone, it was very quiet, only a buzzing dock light, a cloud of moths fluttering in its metal hood and the lapping of the sea against the quay. The night air was warm, a familiar warmth, soft on the skin, and fragrant with the scents of decay; damp stone and drains, mud flats at low tide.
Weisz had never been here before, but he was home. (p.246)

It is these kind of cadences which give the novels, overall, a dreamy feel which I think explains why the reader is rarely really gripped by the storyline, but is more often absorbed by the endless variety of new characters, interested in the depictions of real historical moments and geopolitical developments – and lulled by the rhythms of much of the prose.

At times this rises to overtly physical descriptions of food or sex but, even in the absence of those obvious highlights, is everywhere characterised by a kind of sweet and gentle sensuality, which helps make the novels such easy, interesting, sexy and rewarding reads.


Credit

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst was published in 2006 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

%d bloggers like this: