John Updike on Franz Kafka (1983)

In 1983 American novelist John Updike was commissioned to write the introduction to a new collection of the complete short stories of Franz Kafka. Here are his main points:

Kafka is one of many who reacted to the arrival of the ‘modern’ world around the turn of the century. For him it manifested as:

a sensation of anxiety and shame whose centre cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.

In Kafka this is combined with immense tenderness, unusual good humour, and formal skill.

He dwells on Kafka’s instruction to Max Brod to burn all his writings and summarises Brod’s reasons for not doing so (while pointing out that Kafka’s girlfriend at the time of his death, Dora Dymant, did burn all the letters, notes and sketches in her possession – alas).

He describes how not only all three novels but many of the short stories were left unfinished, such as The Great Wall of China or The Burrow.

The manuscripts suggest that Kafka wrote fluently as long as the inspiration lasted, but then stopped, when the inspiration stopped. More interestingly, he was happy to leave them in an ‘open’ state as a collection of fragments, splintering off in different directions from a core insight. Rather like the Great Wall itself which, according to the historian who is the narrator of that piece, was built as standalone fragments, which often never joined up.

Updike dislikes some of Kafka’s earliest fragments because of their adolescent showiness, the way they depict extravagant physical and psychological contortions. But even in a text as early as Wedding Preparations the fundamental basic narrative trope is there, the fact of non-arrival.

Updike points out how many of Kafka’s German readers and critics praise the purity of his Germany prose style, something which is pretty much impossible for us to hear in any English translation.

Thomas Mann paid tribute to Kafka’s ‘conscientious, curiously explicit, objective, clear, and correct style, [with] its precise, almost official conservatism.’

My ears pricked up at this description because there certainly is something very precise and official in the formalistic phraseology, especially in the later stories, many of which are cast in the form of reports or investigations or historical essays, and which use wordy and pedantic official-sounding formulae.

Updike touches on Kafka’s own feel for the different registers of German prose, and for Jewish diction in German, quoting Kafka saying:

“Only the dialects are really alive, and except for them, only the most individual High German, while all the rest, the linguistic middle ground, is nothing but embers which can only be brought to a semblance of life when excessively lively Jewish hands rummage through them.’

But despite his interest in Yiddish street theatre, and the fact that he taught himself and then began having formal lessons in Hebrew, Kafka’s prose is the extreme opposite of this ‘Jewish rummaging’, and Updike quotes Philip Rahv aptly describing Kafka’s style as ‘ironically conservative’. This seems to me a spot on description of the laboured officialese or parody of academic style of the later stories: here is a typical paragraph from Investigations of a Dog:

When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.

Kafka himself dated his breakthrough to a mature style from the night of 22-23 September 1912 when he wrote the entire story The Judgement  at one sitting. Soon afterwards he wrote what may be his signature work, The Metamorphosis, in a few weeks.

Updike points out how the apple which his father throws at him and which gets embedded in his exoskeleton and rots and decays symbolises the psychological trauma and wounding his father caused him.

Updike carefully considers the physical specifications Kafka gives for the insect and comes to the conclusion that it is no known species – neither cockroach nor dung beetle nor centipede, because Kafka only uses elements of its physicality at certain moments, to make specific points. They don’t necessarily have to hang together.

(One could observe that this aspect of the description is another example of Kafkaesque fragmentation – the elements don’t necessarily join up, just like the great wall.)

It certainly explains why, when the story was published in 1915, Kafka begged the publisher not to commission an artist to draw it. The story can’t be filmed or dramatised, it is a very literary text in the way that details emerge only as and when needed to bring out the psychological points. It is not meant to be physically but psychologically consistent.

Updike describes how much of the mature style is present in The Metamorphosis:

  • official pomposity, the dialect of documents and men talking business
  • a love of music which is the reverse of a longing for complete silence
  • animals which take a high intellectual line but are stuck in bodies befouled with faeces and alive with fleas

Kafka wrote the long letter to his father in November 1919, when he was 36, gave it to his mother, his mother kept and read it then handed it back, saying it was best not to bother his busy father with it, and Kafka lacked the courage to hand it over in person, or post it.

Updike suggests it’s not necessarily Hermann’s fault that his super-sensitive son turned him into a psychological trauma, a monster, the unappeasable Judge.

It is Franz Kafka’s extrapolations from his experience of paternal authority and naysaying, above all in his novels The Trial and The Castle, that define the word ‘Kafkaesque’. Like ‘Orwellian’, the adjective describes not the author but an atmosphere within a portion of his work.

Updike brings out Kafka’s success as a professional man. He earned a Law Degree, had experience of merchandising through his father’s business, worked for thirteen years for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia where his speciality was factory safety, and his reports were admired, trusted, and published in professional journals. He retired as Senior Secretary and a medal of honour ‘commemorating his contribution to the establishment and management of hospitals and rest homes for mentally ill veterans’ was in the post to him when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918.

In other words Kafka’s daily engagement with the prose style of officialdom, of reports and studies and memoranda, go a long way to explaining the continual parody of officialdom and its prose mannerisms which we find in almost all his work.

Updike has a section touching on Kafka’s Jewishness and his interest in the history and practices of Jews. Kafka blamed his father for assimilating too well into Germanic society, for neglecting much of the family’s Jewish heritage, but he also wrote words about the ‘abolition’ of the Jews which were eerily prescient of the rise of the Nazis – although also, realistically, they were no more than a sensitive awareness of the fragile status of Jews even in Franz Joseph’s Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Despite all this Jewish self-awareness Updike brings out how Kafka’s characters are mostly Christian (Gregor Samsa’s family cross themselves and celebrate Christmas). This Christian character seems dominant in the novels and many of the stories. But when the stories become deep and allegorical, or where they go into the countryside and deal with peasants and pre-modern behaviour, I, personally, am unable to distinguish between rural folk tradition, and the other, separate tradition of Jewish heritage, folk tales and practices. I have to rely on Jewish commentators and critics to guide me.

Updike concludes by giving a very eloquent summary of the feel or vibe or mindset conjured up and described in the Kafka universe:

Part of Kafka’s strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret. He received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being a ‘slave living under laws invented only for him.’ A shame literally unspeakable attached itself to this impression. Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence.

More than abashed. Horrified.


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Dates are dates of composition.

Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

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

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

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of totalitarian society

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

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

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

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

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

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

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

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

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

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

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

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

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth (2015)

The chief reporter was the veteran Frank Keeler, a terrific journalist who became my mentor. He was a stickler for accuracy, dunning into all cubs he ever mentored his personal philosophy: check, check and check again. Then write. I still do. (p.107)

This is a very entertaining, amusing, informative and life-affirming book. What a great life Forsyth has had and with what brio he sets it down in his brisk, non-nonsense style.

The challenge of autobiography

We think and feel and speak and interact with other people all the time in a myriad of complex ways. Just writing down everything that happens in a day would be challenging, because so much of our interactions have a long history of interactions preceding them, and ramify out in all directions. So if describing everything that happens in a day would be challenging, how do you go about writing about your entire life? I was born here. My dad did this, he started out doing that but someone offered him a job, but he was never really happy, I remember him saying one day that… It could go on forever.

Forsyth solves the problem of what to write about yourself by converting his life story into a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales. He has been turning complex political and social issues into 500-word columns for the Daily Express for decades. Briskly told in short declarative sentences, he now applies the same style and technique to his own life, turning it into 60 short (3- or 4-page) chapters, each focusing on a telling moment, incident or event, generally concluding with a humorous or resonant punchline.

A month later I turned six and the dream [of one day flying a Spitfire] did not die.

That summer of 1948 was the first time I had seen a human corpse. It would not be the last. Not by fifty thousand. (p.36)

So much for official denials. (p.245)

I have never emigrated and never will. (p.314)

And that is why I hate mortars. (p.250)

Biographical sketch

Forsyth was born in 1938 and turned out to be an only child. His parents appear to have run a furrier shop in Ashford, Kent (only referred to once or twice with, alas, no detail of furs, skins, pelts etc).

His father had started out as a rubber planter in Malaya in the 1930s but – as is described in one of the early ‘articles’ – was advised to get out and return to England. He did so, a few years later the war started, the Japanese invaded, and none of his fellow planters ever returned from the Japanese prison camps.

Forsyth was evacuated from Kent during the Blitz, but returned later in the war and then had what sounds like an idyllic childhood – camping in the countryside, learning to skin and cook rabbits, cycling round country lanes, fishing in lakes etc. Towards the end there were Americans who let him climb up on their tanks and introduced him to chewing gum.

Around age 10 he was sent to France for four consecutive summers and learned perfect colloquial French. Then to Germany for several more summers and learned perfect German. There followed a spell staying with a Russian countess in Paris to pick up colloquial Russian. His language skills were to hold him in good stead throughout his career.

But the most personal moment comes when he was five and his dad took him to an RAF airfield where, while dad did business, the crew played with the little boy and put him in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From that moment he became determined to fly one.

Tonbridge school and travelling abroad

The furrier shop obviously makes OK money because his parents send him to the fee-paying Tonbridge school which, like so many beneficiaries of a private education of his generation, he hates. We hear nothing about his fellow pupils or teachers. Instead he takes his O- and A-levels precociously young but his main focus is getting onto an RAF training course. Here he secures 30 hours flying training and becomes a qualified pilot capable of solo flying by the age of 17.

He hitch-hikes across France with a friend, having the usual adventures. Back in Blighty he is sent to Cambridge for an interview, where he candidly tells the Master of Clare college that he doesn’t want to go there, he wants to be a fighter pilot.

Age 17 he gets a scholarship to Granada University for a three-month course in Spanish language, history and culture but he skips every lecture and instead enrols in the bullfighting college (where he discovers he is not a natural). He gives a typically interesting account of the training school, the cape and equipment, the moves and the fake bull machine you train with.

Oh and has an affair with a 35-year-old German countess, an ex-Nazi who likes to sing the Horst Wessel song at the critical moment. Too good to be true? At the end of the course, his parents fly in and take him for a week’s holiday in Tangiers, where he encounters Africa, Islam, Third World poverty and a group of Marines from a Royal Navy ship moored in the harbour. Not for the last time his fluent languages come in handy and he becomes the squaddies’ unofficial translator and drinking buddy. God, what a life!

Learning to fly then becoming a journalist

Back in Blighty strings are pulled (his father, the furrier, donates a leopard-skin to the local OTC for their band drummer) and he gets permission to go to RAF training camp before his 18th birthday. His RAF training reads just like the military CVs he gives to so many of the heroes of the books, being mainly a list of bases: RAF Hornchurch, RAF Cardington, RAF Ternhill, RAF Worksop, training first on a Tiger Moth then a Provost, then a de Havilland Vampire!

He gets his flying wings 44 days before his 19th birthday, the award ceremony being the proudest day of his life. But career prospects in the RAF are not good, the real high flyers go to a special fast track college and his training so far will only qualify him for cargo flights or just a lot of desk work, whereas he wants to fly fly fly.

And see the world. So he quits at the end of his short-term contract and makes a complete switch, applying to become a journalist, with a view to working his way up to be foreign correspondent.

He gets an apprenticeship at the Eastern Daily Press and is posted to the westernmost outpost at King’s Lynn, under the tutelage of the veteran Frank Keeler. Three years of reporting magistrates court, births, marriages, deaths and local fetes. Excellent training.

Reuters, in Paris and Berlin

In 1961 Forsyth spends a day walking along Fleet Street, walking unannounced into every newspaper office and trying to get an interview with the editor. Obviously he is turned down everywhere and is taking lunch at a pub when he gets chatting to a hack who had also served apprenticeship in East Anglia, and knows old Frank.

They finish their pints and the veteran takes him to Reuters, where the domestic editor, hearing he can speak four languages, sends him upstairs to the Foreign Desk. They test his French on a genuine Frenchman working in the office – his teenage years in the depths of France come up trumps – and he is offered a posting in Paris.

Here he is taken under the wing of another old pro, the renowned Harold King, just as the Algeria crisis is reaching a head. Thus Forsyth finds himself reporting the various attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, which – though he didn’t know it at the time – were to form the basis of his bestseller, The Day of The Jackal, ten years later.

After two years getting to know Paris, following the crisis and sharing drinks with de Gaulle’s bodyguards, Forsyth is offered sole charge of the East German office, with responsibility for other Redland countries eg Czecho, Hungary etc.

Cue anecdotes about life in East Berlin, sending scotch and cigarettes to the surveillance team watching him, disappearing into the countryside for days on end to interview real people, and cultivating a dim Bertie Wooster persona, complete with shocking German accent, to disarm suspicion whenever he’s stopped. There are short bite-sized accounts of the time:

  • He tracked down the US spy plane shot down near Magdeburg, by disappearing off the main roads and using his fluent German to wheedle the location out of local peasants.
  • He nearly set off World War Three by reporting on the huge convoy of tanks he saw rumbling through East Berlin towards the Wall, in the dead hours of one spring morning – only for Western diplomats panicking that the Sovs are about to invade to extract from their puzzled Russian counterparts that the convoys are practicing for the annual May Day parade.

Man of the world bonhomie is the tone throughout these stories, which have the feel of having been honed to perfection at a thousand dinner parties and diplomatic receptions.

Forsyth decides it’s time to leave, and fast, when he discovers the young woman he’s been sleeping with is the mistress of the East German Defence Minister who, if he found out, could have FF locked away forever. He packs his bags and asks London to be withdrawn immediately, which they do.

Bad time at the BBC

Back in Blighty Forsyth joins the BBC full of optimism and ambition to become a foreign correspondent. In the event he had a very bad experience, which obviously still rankles 50 years later. Here, as everywhere in the book, you feel you’re not getting the full picture, that there must be more to it, but Forsyth’s view is that he joined at a chaotic moment when the heads of the Beeb were under fire and resigning, and that – fatally – his head of department was cross that he wasn’t involved in FF’s recruitment and so bore him a grudge right from the start.

Biafra

Forsyth was packed off to Biafra to cover what he was assured, at a Foreign Office and then a BBC briefing, would be a two-week insurrection. Biafra was the eastern most part of Nigeria, which had gained independence in 1960. The majority population belonged to the Ibo people; there had been attacks on the successful, and therefore unpopular Ibos in the north and west of the country and this slowly escalated into a demand for full independence.

As soon as he arrived in the capital of the newly-declared Biafra, FF realised the conflict was much larger than he’d been told and reported back to this effect – but his reports were quashed. He slowly began to realise that the BBC was parroting the line put out by the Foreign Office, itself generated by the High Commissioner in Lagos, all of which supported the official Nigerian government view that Biafra had no right to secede from Nigeria and the ‘rebels’ would soon be quashed. It was the way the BBC didn’t question the official, deeply misleading, line – in fact collaborated with it – which disgusted Forsyth then and now.

In the event the war dragged on for three years (1967-70) and, in its final year, with Biafra totally sealed off from the outside world, approximately 1 million Nigerian children starved to death. It was the first time photos of black children with distended bellies, covered in flies, and dying like flies, had been widely distributed in the West, and caused outrage, as well as mobilising charities and public calls for action.

Forsyth remains disgusted to this day by the deceitfulness of the Labour government of the day, which a) held to the fatuous claim that it would all be over in a few weeks, and b) denied supplying the Nigerians with arms – while all along doing so. He was disgusted with the Foreign Office for supporting such an immoral policy, refusing to concede Bifran claims and help broker a ceasefire or peace conference. And he was disgusted with the BBC for parroting the official line, instead of ripping it to shreds as a proper news operation should.

The experience made him realise the BBC is not a news operation, but a bloated bureaucracy, not a caller-to-account of the powers-that-be, but merely an extension of the smug, sanctimonious Establishment. Fifty years later he is still angry.

That is why I believe this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honour of my country for ever and I will never forgive them. (p.239)

Forsyth quit the BBC and returned to Biafra to report the whole of the rest of the conflict as a freelancer, and these years have more space devoted to them than any other subject, about 90 pages in the middle of the book. When the war ended in January 1970 Forsyth was on one of the last planes out (itself a thrilling adventure, and a scene he reuses in the opening of The Dogs of War).

Accidental novelist

Forsyth’s career as a novelist is dealt with briskly. Back in London after his African adventure, he found himself broke with no hope of a job, having blotted his copybook with the all-powerful FO and BBC. He was able to doss on a friend’s sofa for a while and conceived the mad plan of writing a novel, having never written one before or never thought about it. In 35 days, through January and February 1970, Forsyth knocked out The Day of The Jackal on a second-hand typewriter.

He then hawked it round publishers with predictable rejections, until he met a man at a party and hassled him into reading the manuscript. When he returned to his office, the agent offered him a three-book deal on the spot! Soon afterwards a film company offered £20,000 cash for all rights in perpetuity to the Jackal which, like the innocent he was, he accepted (it’s made millions over the past 50 years).

Writing was only ever meant to be a stopgap measure and his attitude to writing fiction is as dismissive as can be.

It just occurred to me that if I could make a good living dashing off this nonsense, why get my head blown off in an African rain ditch? (p.271)

Forced to think of two other book subjects he revisited his knowledge of Germany and alighted on the issue of the networks of surviving Nazis. He undertook his trademark in-depth research with the help of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal – and this led to The Odessa File.

Then he put his knowledge of Africa – and the white mercenaries he’d met in Nigeria – to use for The Dogs of War, his incredibly long, detailed account of how to mount an armed coup.

We knew about the thoroughness of the research he did for both books – it’s interesting to discover how autobiographical they are, in that he based whole scenes, journey and encounters on the ones he actually had. Thus the journey of discovery which the hero of The Odessa File goes on closely follows the actual driving round Germany and interviewing ex-Nazis, lawyers and journalists which Forsyth himself undertook. The long interview with a Jewish survivor early on in the book is a retelling of a long interview with a Jewish survivor which Forsyth carried out, with only the name and the city changed.

A little showbiz gossip

There are one or two stories about the director of Jackal, Fred Zinneman, and the actor Edward Fox, but by and large the book is striking for the complete absence of gossip or stories about other writers or people in the arts.

Once these three key books are published, the text reverts to anecdotes which leap over big periods of his life, leaving huge gaps. Thus a chapter on the time he went fishing in a boat off Mauritius and nearly got killed when a tropical cyclone changed course and bore down on the boat. (This experience was recycled into the powerful short story The Emperor.Or accounts of taking his two young sons game hunting in Africa, or scuba diving in the Indian Ocean.

It’s almost like being shown a book of holiday snaps, each one coming with a well-polished comic story.

Jobs for ‘the Firm’

In its final sections Forsyth breaks the omerta of the security services by describing several jobs he did for ‘the Firm’ aka MI6 aka the Secret Intelligence Service. One was a full-scale mission, carrying a package containing documents to a rendezvous with a top agent, a communist General inside East Germany, which reads exactly like the rendezvous you read about in Deighton, le Carré and so on and which Forsyth used as the basis for a similar incident in one of his novels.

On a different occasion his contact at ‘the Firm’ asked him to take advantage of his friendship with senior South African officials, specifically Defence Minister Pik Botha, to ask about the future of SA’s nuclear weapons after the upcoming multi-racial elections and the end of the apartheid system (1994). Botha disarms Forsyth by matter-of-factly telling him to tell ‘his masters’ back in London, that SA will safely dispose of them before the ANC government comes to power.

He loses his money and has to start again

In the early 1990s Forsyth’s financial adviser was revealed to be a crook who had stolen the investments of all his clients, not only leaving them penniless but, in Forsyth’s case, £1 million in debt. Result? He had to start all over again to restore his fortunes.

Forsyth doesn’t spell it out but presumably this explains the latter part of his bibliography, the series of thrillers from The Fist of God onwards which, as I’ve pointed out in my reviews of individual novels, become increasingly repetitive in terms of setting (Islamic terrorism), of factual references (the same anecdotes from the same recent conflicts) and of repeated (wafer-thin) characters.

But his first three novels (Jackal, Odessa, Dogs) are the only ones which merit even a page or two of explanation – the majority of his books aren’t even mentioned in this brisk, business-like overview. The short stories? Not mentioned. The experimental continuation of The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom of Manhattan? Not a whisper. The genesis, writing and reception of each book? Silence.

This would be an odd oversight if this were the autobiography of a writer, but more than anything this series of well-honed, after-dinner anecdotes is keen to emphasise that Forsyth is a man who has lived, been a journalist, travelled widely, had many adventures and, only last and very much least, been lucky enough to fund it all by churning out his impressively-researched, shallow and undemanding poolside thrillers.

Barely any family

The same skimming over the surface applies to his almost complete absence of references to his family. Only a passing mention of the end of his first marriage, and similarly only a handful of allusions to the second Mrs Forsyth, Sandy. The two boys, Stuart and Shane, are referred to in the context of the fishing or hunting expeditions but barely anywhere else: there’s certainly no detail or feeling about family life, of the prolonged trials and tribulations of being a parent.

His autobiography is, in other words, as devoid of emotion and character as any of his books. Except that, like the books, the lack of character is the character, and instead of the usual sympathies for family or friends, what there very much is is the love of machines – of cars, fishing boats, of recent military history, armies, weapons and, above all, of planes.

A dream come true

Thus it is entirely fitting, and unexpectedly moving, that in the autumn of his years, the 76-year-old author was finally able to fulfil his childhood dream and not only go up in a Spitfire, but (being a specially adjusted two-seater model) was able to fly it solo for a spell. It is a wonderfully uplifting ending to this account of a charmed life and I found it impossible not to be moved by Forsyth’s simple, boyish joy.

It was over too soon but it was done. The seventy-year-old promise was fulfilled and the little boy’s dream had come true. (p.366)

Comment

If this book is anything to go by Forsyth has led a charmed and wonderful life in a world he regards with tolerant good humour, flecked with occasional outrage at injustice and suffering. The most attractive thing about the book is its buoyancy. Nothing seems to get him down. With the unflinching nervelessness displayed in all his novels, he just gets on with it, waltzing through extraordinary situations and the direst peril (as when he gets caught, a white man in his 70s, in a real-life coup in Guinea-Bissau) with extraordinary sang-froid.

He has been a happy man, a lucky man, a man with the knack of presenting himself in the right place at the right time, and if this autobiography lacks almost any psychological or emotional depth or complexity, it is still a marvellous record of an extraordinary life, and its robust optimism is a welcome counterbalance to the all-too-familiar negativity and pessimism of our age.


Credit

The Outsider: My life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2015. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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