Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (1941)

‘Don’t be afraid. The devil’s a sportsman and he looks after his own.’ Rowley Flint

This is a ripping little novella, gripping and compelling, slightly ludicrous and strangely affecting, which I read from cover to cover in a single two-hour sitting. Maybe it would be the perfect introduction to Maugham for someone who’s never read him.

Background

When she was 22, Mary, a young lady from a good family, married Matthew Panton. Little did she realise he would turn into an alcoholic and a gambler. He gambled and was reduced to sottish inebriation every night, often not coming home at all because he had gone off with the first woman he could drunkenly chat up. After eight years he had gambled away his inheritance so it was tragic, but also a blessed relief, when he killed himself while driving blind drunk and had a high-speed car crash.

After prolonged discussion with the family lawyers it emerged that Mary had just enough income to survive, if she was frugal. So she welcomed a kind offer from friends, the Leonards, to go and recuperate at their villa overlooking Florence. It was not grand, it was a bit cold, but it was the perfect rest cure, with the added benefit of being looked after by the kind maid, Nina, and her husband, Ciro.

The plot

The story unfolds over a few fateful days. Mary is expecting a proposal of marriage from an old friend of her family’s, the eminent diplomat, Sir Edgar Swift, K.C.S.I., of the Indian Civil Service. Twenty five years her senior, he’s been in love with her since she was a teenager. They have had many discussions about it and now he is stopping over on a trip to Cannes, to propose to her.

Sir Edgar arrives, has tea, they talk politely and he informs her that he has been confirmed in the governorship of Bengal. Behind this is the possibility that he will one day be made Viceroy of all India. Marry him, and all that pomp and circumstance would be hers.

Maugham carefully investigates Mary’s feelings and hesitations on the matter – of course it would be a glorious life and yet… the age difference. She tells Sir Edgar she will give him her answer in three days’ time.

Submitting to her wish, Edgar leaves. As an after-thought, he insists she carry the revolver he’s given her when she goes out, since ‘you never know with all these foreigners about’. Touched and amused by his concern, she absent-mindedly agrees.

Mary then motors into Florence to attend a party given at a restaurant, Peppino’s, by the old Princess San Ferdinando. Despite her title, the Princess is in fact a humorously cynical old American lady who married an Italian prince some forty years earlier. He had affairs; he died. Whereupon she inherited his land, house and inheritance and has made herself into a well-established grande dame and hostess of Florentine society.

This is the kind of party which Maugham, for so long a hobnobber among the rich and titled, describes with such urbane confidence. I particularly enjoyed the character of the choleric old English traveler, Colonel Trail, much given to imbecile spluttering and indignation.

Also a guest is the wicked debauchee, young Rowley Flint, a kind of Errol Flynn character. (As a sample of his repartee, at one point he tells Mary that she is ‘an almost perfect specimen of the genus peach’ which made me laugh.) Rowley smooths up to Mary, with the sly encouragement of the wicked old princess, but Mary easily fobs him off – all carried off in the kind of sparkling dialogue which Maugham deploys to such effect in his many comic plays.

The Princess had arranged the party specially to hear a singer perform at Peppino’s but, to the Princess’s disgust, the singer is off sick tonight and has been replaced by a violinist. He is a shy, frail-looking man who plays a set of sentimental songs, but can’t overcome the disappointment of the rich clientèle. When he passes around a hat only a few coins and small notes are given.

Feeling sorry for him, Mary astonishes Rowley by handing over a hundred lira note.

At the end of the evening the Princess suggests to Mary that she give Rowley a lift to his hotel in her stylish little coupé. So she does. Rowley flirtatiously suggests they drive on into the country for a while, it being such a fine June evening.

During this drive a) Rowley makes a pass at Mary which b) she confidently rebuffs, during which she c) explains that he is the last kind of man she would have an affair with. If she was tempted to have an affair, it would be to make someone happy; to find someone less fortunate than herself, and to make him the gift of her lovely sexual body; to make the affair an act of charity. Rowley thinks this a ridiculous attitude and they squabble. So Mary drives Rowley back to his house, then turns round to drive up the hill to the villa.

At a bend in the road up the hill there is a fine viewing point and she pulls over and parks, gets out and stares out over the panorama of Florence by moonlight. Her mind and heart are confused and whirling: should she marry old Sir Edgar in order to have a distinguished middle-age? What of Rowley’s arguments that she is still young and beautiful and ought to enjoy life while she can? All mixed in with sad memories of her one true love, the husband who turned into a useless drunk.

She is so deep in thought that she is startled when a cigarette is lit in the shade of the tree next to her. Out from the shadow comes the violinist from Peppino’s, looking even poorer in his own clothes than when he’d been dressed in the threadbare costume of the troupe of musicians at the restaurant.

Initially scared, Mary is softened by his gentle attitude and poverty. Turns out he’s renting a room in one of the shacks further up the hill. Mary offers him a lift. On the way it turns out he’s had nothing to eat and so, by now feeling thoroughly sorry for him, she drives him on up to the villa.

She hears his story. His name is Karl Richter and he’s not Italian at all, but Austrian. He was among a student group which spoke out about the Anschluss (whereby Hitler’s Germany incorporated Austria in March 1938) whereupon they were all arrested, a couple shot and the rest thrown into a concentration camp. After a few months he managed to escape and made his way across the mountains to Italy, where he just about scrapes a living playing the violin.

As it happens the villa is decorated with impressive murals and, because Karl had mentioned that he was an art student back in Austria, Mary shows them to him. Then she takes him into the kitchen and cooks him bacon and eggs which he eats ravenously. Back in the living room there is a gramophone which, when she turns it on, proves to have a record of Austrian waltzes on it.

So it feels perfectly natural that they start dancing, her feeling his strong undernourished body pressed against her, he almost drunk with happiness, with a full stomach for the first time in months, mind filled with the wondrous art of the villa, and holding a beautiful woman in his arms.

Suddenly they are both overcome with passion, his fairly understandable, but Mary’s a logical consequence of the aim she stated to Rowley back in the restaurant – to make her love/body a gift of charity, to make someone happy. They make love.

Maugham tactfully skips the actual sex. Later she is sitting in an armchair chair, he sitting at her feet. Now the argument starts. He declares his undying love and that she must marry him, live with him, become his.

Mary delicately tries to explain that she’ll be leaving Florence in a few days because she’s going to say Yes in marriage to another man (Sir Edgar). Karl is upset and the more Mary tries to explain, the worse it gets. In her honest way, she can’t help revealing that she only took Karl to bed out of charity; she was doing a good deed. But from Karl’s point of view, the doorway to a wondrous better life had barely opened before she is slamming it shut in his face.

‘I didn’t mean to be cruel. My heart was full of tenderness and pity.’
‘I never asked for your pity. Why didn’t you leave me alone? You have shown me heaven and now you want to thrust me back to earth. No. No. No.’

At one point Karl approaches her threateningly, Mary remembers the gun and takes it from her handbag. Karl is so angry he shouts, ‘Yes, go on, shoot me, put me out of my misery.’ She drops it, he grabs her and, er… ravishes her, this time with real anger and aggression.

Once again they are lying on the bed after passion. Karl gets to his feet and she hears him padding round the dark bedroom. Suddenly there is a loud bang: he has shot himself through the chest.

Oh my God!

Part two

Maugham describes Mary’s panic-stricken reaction to this disaster. Practical worries swamped by her emotional reaction to the suicide of the man she’s just made love with. It’s made worse by the maid, Nana, tapping on the bedroom door, asking what the bang was. ‘It’s nothing,’ says Mary, ‘must have been a car backfiring in the road below.’ The only person she can think of who can help her in this crisis is Rowley, so she phones him and this begins part two of the book.

For Rowley turns out to be fantastically helpful, resourceful and reliable. Woken by her call in the middle of the night, he borrows his hotel porter’s pushbike and quickly cycles up to the villa.

Mary turns the light on, shows him the body and tells him the whole story with no omissions.

Rowley is shocked and appalled but quickly regains control. He tells her to fetch the car. They carry the body out and put it in the back. Rowley gets a towel and mops up all the blood on the floor. He drives to a place she suggests, up a remote hilltop road towards thick woods. They’re about to get the body out of the back when they see lights from a car coming along the same road. With quick thinking Rowley gets in the back with her (their feet on the warm corpse which is in the chairwell) and as the car goes by, make a big show of snogging, just another courting couple. The Italians in the car driving by whoop encouragement and start singing La donne e mobile. Italians.

Having finally disposed of the body, they drive back to the villa where Mary she says she’s got a luncheon appointment the next day but obviously can’t go. Quite the opposite, Rowley tells her. She mist take a sleeping pill now, and tomorrow she must go and be her usual bright and happy self.

Which is what she does. Takes pill, sleep deeply, wakes late. Bath and make-up helped by the maid. Then off to lunch at the Atkinsons’ and another of the frightfully posh social scenes Maugham does so well – old man Atkinson (‘a fine, handsome, grey-haired man, plethoric and somewhat corpulent, with an eye for a pretty woman’) flirting with Mary outrageously and Mary doing her best to keep up the light-hearted banter in between panic-stricken flashbacks to the night before.

I suppose it’s about here that one should mention that not much of this is very plausible. Mary is flustered alright, but shows little of the psychological trauma you might expect in a modern rendition of these events. The fact that she has to go to this lunch party – and that the conversation turns to the wretched little violinist they’d been forced to listen to the night before, instead of the hoped-for singer – are not indicators of ‘real life’ but of exactly the same kind of narrative logic you find in Maugham’s plays, or indeed of the popular American films noirs of the period.

Events are carpentered together in order to produce the best dramatic effects, with only a passing concern for psychological plausibility. This is brought out even more in the next few scenes which have a kind of melodramatic or even soap opera logic.

Chapter 7 Back at the villa after her lunch ordeal, Mary is sitting in the exquisite garden when Rowley saunters in and up to her. They review the events of the night before and Rowley points out they’ve been damn lucky. Mary tells him she’s really frightfully grateful. With a charming smile Rowley explains it’s because he likes the risk, the gamble, the excitement of an adventure.

Then he asks about the gun, which they had forgotten in all the excitement. Mary had put it back in her bedroom drawer – bad idea. To her horror, Rowley gets it then goes down to his bicycle and cycles off to the wood where he dumped the body. A little later he returns safely, saying he dropped it in a stream nearby.

It is only now that she gives a really thorough blow-by-blow explanation of what happened the night before, the flow of the conversation, the sex, the suicide. And Rowley gives his explanation:

‘I think I can tell you why he killed himself,’ he said at last. ‘He was homeless, outcast, penniless and half-starved. He hadn’t got much to live for, had he? And then you came. I don’t suppose he’d ever seen such a beautiful woman in his life. You gave him something that in his wildest dream he could never have dreamed of. Suddenly the whole world was changed because you loved him. How could you expect him to guess that it wasn’t love that had made you give yourself to him? You told him it was only pity. Mary, my dear, men are vain, especially very young men: did you never know that? It was an intolerable humiliation. No wonder he nearly killed you. You’d raised him to the stars and then you flung him back to the gutter. He was like a prisoner whose jailers lead him to the door of his prison and just as he is about to step out to freedom, slam it in his face. Wasn’t that enough to decide him that life wasn’t worth living?’

Mary is surprised that Rowley, according to ex-pat received opinion a well-known wastrel and ne’er-do-well, turns out to have such sensitive insight into other people. Which comes on top of her surprise at how sensible, calm and decisive he had been last night.

Mary hands him a telegram she received that morning from Sir Edgar. He will be arriving that afternoon. ‘Are you going to marry him?’ asks Rowley. ‘I need someone to look up to, someone to look after me,’ replies Mary.

But then she horrifies Rowley by announcing she will tell Edgar all about last night. ‘No, no, no,’ says Rowley. He knows these Empire Building types, the soul of integrity and honour. Sir Edgar has a shining ideal of her; it would be madness to destroy it. But I must she says, I must tell him the truth.

‘Have it your own way, sweetheart,’ replies insouciant Rowley, bids her adieu and saunters back out of the garden.

Chapter 8 There follows kind of scene Maugham excels at and which feels like it comes straight out of one of his plays. The worthy and dignified suitor, Sir Edgar, arrives to ask the hand of the younger women he has worshiped chastely and honourably all her adult life.

Unfortunately, ignoring Rowley’s advice, Mary does tell him about last night, leaving out nothing – the pity, the sex, the suicide, the hiding the body.

I don’t know whether we’re meant to be moved or amused or both by the subtlety with which Maugham describes the psychological negotiations which then ensue. It is like watching two masters play chess.

Mary realises she has shattered Edgar’s idealised vision of her – but that he is bound by his own code of nobility to continue with his proposal of marriage. That much she expected.

However, Edgar surprises Mary by announcing that he cannot now, of course, accept the post of Governor of Bengal. Why? Because now more than ever (i.e. in the dying days of the Raj) the British are only ruling by dint of their integrity. Sir Edgar wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights knowing that at some point, any point, in the future, the whole affair might somehow come out tarnish his reputation and, by extension, the entirety of British rule.

Not least because of the role played by bloody Rowley Flint. Sooner or later he’ll tell one of his many women and it will all come out. So it’s not so much his own personal fate Sir Edgar is concerned about, but  that it might damage British rule in India and the Foreign Service to which he has dedicated his life.

No, he will resign his commission and they can live quietly somewhere, maybe the Riviera, on his pension.

Mary hadn’t expected this at all. She is appalled. She realises that her confession has made Sir Edgar abandon his career, now, just as it reached its climax of success, the reward of thirty years of loyal service. But that he feels obligated by his sense of honour to pursue his suit regardless of the cost to himself.

Her confession has ruined his life, and yet he has the honour and dignity to accept the fact quite calmly.

And so – just as in the best of his plays – we watch Maugham make his character think on her feet. She realises she must do the right thing and force Sir Edgar to drop his marriage proposal, in order to rescue his career. But it must be in such a way so as not compromise him, to make him feel he is fulfilling his duties. She must place herself in a guilty position, she must paint herself in such a way that he can honourably dump her.

And so Mary lights on the solution of telling Sir Edgar that, given the difference in age and the fact (previously well aired) that she doesn’t really love him, that although she respects him and has great affection for him etc,. she had only said yes because when he was working full time as governor they wouldn’t see very much of each other and so the marriage would have worked as a sort of companionable arrangement.

However, if he is to quit his job and they are to live as a retired couple on the Riviera, well, they would be in each other’s faces all day long. And this wouldn’t work.

He was silent for a long time. When he looked at her again his eyes were cold.
‘You mean that you were prepared to marry the Governor of Bengal, but not a retired Indian Civilian on a pension.’

Excellent. Result. Mary has made herself appear heartless and scheming. She has killed not only his love for her, but his respect. She has given Sir Edgar the gift of enabling him to drop his suit with a clear conscience.

‘In that case we need not discuss the matter further.’
‘There doesn’t seem much point in doing so, does there?’

Abruptly frigid and correct, Sir Edgar stands up. He shakes her hand. He leaves. End of scene.

Chapter 9

Rowley rings up and is his usual flippant self.

‘Have you got any ice in the house?’ he said.
‘Is it to ask me that that you made me come to the phone?’ she answered coldly.
‘Not entirely. I wanted to ask you also if you had any gin and vermouth.’
‘Anything else?’
‘Yes. I wanted to ask if you’d give me a cocktail if I got into a taxi and came along.’
‘I’ve got a lot to do.’
‘That’s fine. I’ll come along and help you.’

Rowley turns up and, to cut a long story short, renews the proposal of marriage which he had made a few nights earlier, when he was drunk and she was driving him home. He tells Mary he has a farm in Kenya which he’d been letting a manager manage for him, but he’s just sacked him and fancies going out to manage the place himself. Fancy coming along?

‘How on earth could I ever hope to keep you even moderately faithful?’
‘Well, that would be up to you. They say a woman ought to have an occupation, and that would be a very suitable one for you in Kenya.’

But:

‘But I don’t love you, Rowley.’
‘I told you the other night, you will if you give yourself half a chance.’

Does it matter that none of this is particularly plausible? No. It is a social comedy, a comedy of manners, just like his many smash-hit West End plays. The reader’s job is not to seek for deep psychological analysis or investigation of the human condition. It is to be entertained and amused.

What the hell. Mary says Yes.

Rowley gave a great throaty chuckle. He jumped up and dragged her to her feet and flung his arms round her. He kissed her on the mouth. ‘So now what?’
‘Well, if you insist on marrying me… But it’s an awful risk we’re taking.”
‘Darling, that’s what life is for – to take risks.’

As delicious, as piquant, as sharp and sweet as a lemon sorbet.

Dolce far niente

Decades of holidaying on Capri and then living at his sumptuously-located villa in the south of France gave Maugham a profound feel for the physical and psychological well-being produced by beautiful Mediterranean landscapes and the balmy air of southern nights.

To dine there on a June evening, when it was still day, and after dinner to sit till the softness of the night gradually enveloped her, was a delight of which Mary felt that she could never tire. It gave her a delicious feeling of peace, but not of an empty peace in which there was something lethargic, of an active, thrilling peace rather in which her brain was all alert and her senses quick to respond. Perhaps it was something in that light Tuscan air that affected you so that even physical sensation had in it something spiritual. It gave you just the same emotion as listening to the music of Mozart, so melodious and so gay, with its undercurrent of melancholy, which filled you with so great a contentment that you felt as though the flesh had no longer any hold on you. For a few blissful minutes you were purged of all grossness and the confusion of life was dissolved in perfect loveliness.

Although at its core is a grisly sequence of events, this short book is punctuated by lyrical descriptions of beautiful scenery and stylish living. Here’s a description of the Atkinsons’ lunch party.

On that warm day of early June there was an animation in the air which put everyone in a good humour. You had a sensation that no one there was affected by anxiety; everyone seemed to have plenty of money, everyone seemed ready to enjoy himself. It was impossible to believe that anywhere in the world there could be people who hadn’t enough to eat. On such a day it was very good to be alive. (p.66)

God knows, there’s no shortage of ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ authors who can effortlessly convey feelings of anguish and despair, delving deeply into the tragedy and absurdity of existence. One of Maugham’s great appeals as a storyteller is that, even in the midst of sordid or even murderous events, he is able in the settings and the atmosphere of his stories to convey moods of great tranquility and serenity.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The End by Samuel Beckett (1946)

… and anyway no one understands a tenth of what you say…

Before the war Beckett had begun composing experimental prose pieces in French. After the war he wrote these four short monologues entirely in French. Breaking free of English has the effect of cleansing his palate so he can start anew. The Beckettian themes –

  • a shambling decrepit protagonist
  • trapped in total solipsism
  • autistically close observation of their own physical gestures
  • obsessive-compulsive repetition of gestures, words and thoughts
  • physical decrepitude, old age, decay
  • memory loss, vagueness about his own name, age, identity, biography
  • the impossibility of communication

emerge cleaner and sharper in these short monologues than in the pre-war books, where they tended to be buried under a crust of mock heroic, mock academic bombast and pedantry.

Things, especially the underlying nihilism, are expressed clearer and bleaker.

But the biggest single breakthrough is that these are all monologues. In More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had had to create ‘characters’ and ‘dialogue’, no matter how artificial or stained.

Now he doesn’t have to bother. Other people come in and out of focus as the half-deranged narrator requires and fragments of conversation can appear, inconsequentially, puzzlingly, allusively, without any tiresome requirement to delineate a character or further a ‘plot’.

The result of freedom for Beckett’s imagination, freedom to wander, surrealise, dream and spool out endless filaments of free-associating fantasia.


The plot

‘They’ – the same kind of all-powerful faceless ‘they’ as in the other short monologues – give him money, clothes and tell him to push off, this time from some kind of charitable institution rather than his own home.

(It occurs to me that all four of these stories – First Love, The Calmative, The Expelled and The End repeat the same basic premise of someone being ‘kicked out’; they are variations on a theme; as the texts themselves contain little eddies and whirls of repetition.)

Alas he has to leave all his favourite furniture, including the stool where he used to sit, immobile, waiting for bed-time. He begs to be allowed to stay in the cloister. Mr Weir lets him but, come 6pm and the end of the rain, he’s kicked out. He walks the streets completely confused, not knowing where he is, before coming across an apartment block where a woman rents him a basement room, feeds him once a day, takes away his chamber pot (the body’s effluvia being a very Beckettian concern).

The Turkish or Greek woman extracts six months’ rent in advance then disappears, and the real owner of the house arrives back and kicks our man out. He takes a bus to the countryside, dosses in a barn, (apparently, it’s hard to make out) rolls about in animal dung, which explains why he’s thrown off the buses he tries to catch into town the next day.

He tries to track down the Greek woman with predictably useless results.

I don’t know exactly what happened, whether I couldn’t find the address, or whether there was no such address, or whether the Greek woman was unknown there…

He thinks he sees his son, but it is a hairless old man. He meets a man leading an ass. He mounts the ass and is taken to the man’s cave beside the sea, which is described with great moronic lyricism. — All this seems wilfully surreal, with the logic of dream not world.

He is left with a cow which he tries to milk, failing handsomely, before being dragged by the cow out into the open air where he lies by a cart track trying to get a lift or pity, discovers an old pair of glasses in his pocket, begs, with much detail on the size, shape and angle of the begging tin(s) he employed.

He begs, scratches himself, pees, sends a boy for milk. One day he comes across a car in which an orator is talking about Marx and suddenly points our man out to the crowd as a down-and-out, ‘old, lousy, rotten, ripe for the muckheap’, a ‘living corpse’.

He finds a new base in an abandoned estate near a river. Here in the boat shed he adapts a beaten-up old boat for his needs, fitting handholds, boards over  his body, though he can barely be bothered to poo outside it, or pee – the reader imagining it becoming slowly more befouled. In the final pages he appears to have a vision of being at sea, winkles out the plug at the bottom of the boat and, as it begins to sink, takes his ‘calmative’, presumably some kind of suicide pill – the narrator of the previous story mentioned cyanide – and, presumably, dies.

Back now in the stern-sheets, my legs stretched out, my back well propped against the sack stuffed with grass I used as a cushion, I swallowed my calmative. The sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands closed in and crushed me in a mighty systole, then scattered to the uttermost confines of space. The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.


Nihilism and decay

The estate seemed abandoned. The gates were locked and the paths were overgrown with grass

I understood then that the end was near

Vagueness

It is true I did not know the city very well. Perhaps it was quite a different one. I did not know where I was supposed to be going…

Now I didn’t know where I was. I had a vague vision, not a real vision, I didn’t see anything…

I don’t know how long I stayed there…

Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere…

I knew it would soon be the end, so I played the part, you know, the part of – how shall I say, I don’t
know…

I slept very little at this period, I wasn’t sleepy, or I was too sleepy, I don’t know, or I was afraid, I don’t know.

I don’t know how long I stayed there…

Pointless pedantic precision about minute physical actions

It was at this time I perfected a method of doffing my hat at once courteous and discreet, neither servile nor insolent. I slipped it smartly forward, held it a second poised in such a way that the person addressed could not see my skull, then slipped it back. To do that naturally, without creating an unfavorable impression, is no easy matter. When I deemed that to tip my hat would suffice, I naturally did no more than tip it. But to tip one’s hat is no easy matter either. I subsequently solved this problem, always fundamental in time of adversity, by wearing a kepi and saluting in military fashion, no, that must be wrong, I don’t know, I had my hat at the end.

As for holding out my hand, that was quite out of the question. So I got a tin and hung it from a button of my greatcoat, what’s the matter with me, of my coat, at pubis level. It did not hang plumb, it leaned respectfully towards the passer-by, he had only to drop his mite. But that obliged him to come up close to me, he was in danger of touching me. In the end I got a bigger tin, a kind of big tin box, and I placed it on the sidewalk at my feet. But people who give alms don’t much care to toss them, there’s something contemptuous about this gesture which is repugnant to sensitive natures. To say nothing of their having to aim. They are prepared to give, but not for their gift to go rolling under the passing feet or under the passing wheels, to be picked up perhaps by some undeserving person. So they don’t give. There are those, to be sure, who stoop, but generally speaking people who give alms don’t much care to stoop. What they like above all is to sight the wretch from afar, get ready their penny, drop it in their stride and hear the God bless you dying away in the distance. Personally I never said that, nor anything like it, I wasn’t much of a believer, but I did make a noise with my mouth. In the end I got a kind of board or tray and tied it to my neck and waist. It jutted out just at the right height, pocket height, and its edge was far enough from my person for the coin to be bestowed without danger.

Decay, humiliation and abasement

What would I crawl with in future? I lay down on the side of the road and began to writhe each time I heard a cart approaching.

Often at the end of the day I discovered the legs of my trousers all wet. That must have been the dogs.

Penises, poo and psoriasis

The narrator is not shy about mentioning his penis – as in the other three short monologues – but without much affection or interest.

I lay inert on the bed and it took three women to put on my trousers. They didn’t seem to take much interest in my private parts which to tell the truth were nothing to write home about, I didn’t take much interest in them myself. But they might have passed some remark.

And is really just part of the wider disgust with human bodily fluids and activities.

The vilest acts had been committed on the ground and against the walls. The floor was strewn with excrements, both human and animal, with condoms and vomit.

The result is ‘Down and out with Samuel Beckett’:

I unbuttoned my trousers discreetly to scratch myself. I scratched myself in an upward direction, with four nails. I pulled on the hairs, to get relief. It passed the time, time flew when I scratched myself. Real scratching is superior to masturbation, in my opinion. One can masturbate up to the age of seventy, and even beyond, but in the end it becomes a mere habit. Whereas to scratch myself properly I would have needed a dozen hands. I itched all over, on the privates, in the bush up to the navel, under the arms, in the arse, and then patches of eczema and psoriasis that I could set raging merely by thinking of them. It was in the arse I had the most pleasure. I stuck my forefinger up to the knuckle. Later, if I had to shit, the pain was atrocious. But I hardly shat any more…

So I waited till the desire to shit, or even to piss, lent me wings. I did not want to dirty my nest! And yet it sometimes happened, and even more and more often. Arched and rigid I edged down my trousers and turned a little on my side, just enough to free the hole. To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over. The excrements were me too, I know, I know, but all the same..

Back in 1946, presumably, this was shocking. Now, in our unshockable age, it seems just more of the systematic degradation of the image of man, the defacating on human dignity, which these texts so assiduously aim for.


Credit

Samuel Beckett wrote The End in French in 1946. It was only published (in Paris) in 1954, some time after the success of Waiting For Godot. It was translated into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver in 1967 and gathered, along with The Expelled and The Calmative, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

These three short pieces – The ExpelledThe Calmative and The End – were reprinted, along with First Love, in a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself…

The via negativa

In 1946 Beckett wrote four short prose pieces – The CalmativeThe ExpelledThe End and First Love – which announce the arrival of the post-war Beckett, fully formed in his half-comic nihilism and his bookish but spavined style, by turns surreal, literary, pedantic, coarse, but always afflicted by anxiety, obsessions, worries, panics.

Hence the title – in this piece in particular, the narrator unreels an almost stream-of-consciousness flood of half memories and blurred fantasy occurrences, anything, any narrative, any story, to keep the panic and the nothingness at bay.

Obsession with the body, its repetitive behaviour, its decay

His own body is the most important factor in any of these narrator’s stories, its decrepitude, decay, collapse, inability, frailty and so on.

But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe…

Amnesia and uncertainty

Beckett heroes can never remember the past, not completely, only fragments. After all, to remember it clearly would establish a framework and meaning to their lives and that’s exactly what the texts want to deprive them of. Hence all of them sound the same in that they only recall fragments.

Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small, and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism…

do you remember, I only just…

And they’re never sure of anything – or, rather, they emphasise their uncertainty, at every opportunity, for the same reason, to create a fog of uncertainty around everything:

I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know…

Suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime…

It might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening…

He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me…

If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said.

A permanent mental, perceptual and cognitive fog.

My mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing…

The surreal

Surrealism began in the early 1920s partly as a response to the madness of the Great War. It was a dominant visual and literary mood of the 1930s. Impossible and bizarre juxtapositions are presented deadpan, as (allegedly) happens in dreams. Beckett was of his time, combining it with his own pessimism to create a kind of surrealistic nihilism in which the impossible and absurd is quietly accepted.

I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses.

In which the patently ridiculous is calmly discussed. In which the absurd is carefully weighed.

Is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.

Sex

All four of these stories have suddenly graphic and crude references to sex. Sex erupts unexpectedly. Certainly not sensually. Maybe it erupts from the texts as it erupts in real life, rupturing the bourgeois tranquillity with its animal crudity.

Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs? I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that! I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said.

Mottoes of pessimism

All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing.

I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on…

The core and kernel of Waiting For Godot and all the rest of his plays, of his entire worldview, iterated again and again, are all present.

Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while.

Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen?

How tell what remains? But it’s the end.

This kind of sentiment can be repeated potentially infinitely which is what, in effect, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to.

To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again…


Credit

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett in 1967 and published – along with The ExpelledThe End and other shorter works, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

The ExpelledThe End and The Calmative were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.

While on the run across France he worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories, First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more a dramatic monologue. The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has an adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body – its farts, arses and sticky foreskins. There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart to help his stool descend.

The other members of his father’s household never liked him, or barely tolerated him.  – He reminds me a bit of the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. – He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be, what? Taken away and put in a home?

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a  bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia.)

After a few night-time encounters with Lulu, the narrator goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to tracing her name in cow pats. He returns and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside. He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think they have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and cries. He gets dressed quietly, exits the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not a conventional romance, is it?


The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with has vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is by and large much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout.

But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite pole is schoolboy crudity.

  • The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.
  • Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.
  • I considered kicking her in the cunt.

A crudity, an aggressiveness, which may be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and so difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs because of his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start). They decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna does not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so they discuss the options in mind-numbing detail, the obsessive triviality – and the sordid subject matter – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with a somewhat arcane historical terminology – the classic Beckett manoeuvre!

Learned wit

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s deployment of ‘learned wit’. 65 years ago Professor D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions. There is a long tradition of this approach and style, dating from the classical world which runs strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

Beckett is strongly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour, taking the mickey out of its own estimable knowledgeableness. One element of it is dressing up the crudest physical bodily functions in elaborately academic periphrasis, littered with learned references and classical quotations. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title in a comically pedantic style.)

So Beckett’s obsession with farting, pissing and pooing is slap bang in the middle of this tradition – as is another element, the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator doesn’t just complain about his pains, but goes on to sketch out a theory of  his pains, and draw up a deliberately ridiculous list:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway) – although in Beckett, over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. You can never be sure.

Retard or hyper-intellectual?

This raises the issue that, although the narrator lives in squalor, can’t remember his name or things that have happened to him, has a brain-damaged fixation with his own body and an autistic inability to communicate with others – nonetheless, all this is conveyed in an incredibly ornate, articulate, intellectual and educated register. It is precise and finicky, a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision.

It is this unlikely clash or dichotomy which produces the peculiar effect of Beckett’s prose – the feelings of a retard expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton couched in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

Poetic

And then there’s another, mostly buried, aspect. Amid all the other tones and registers, just occasionally a poetic voice peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Sometimes, in fact fairly regularly, there are phrases which are neither nihilistic, ridiculous or disgusting, but haunting and touching. There are quite a few moments which, despite the clammy negativity, actually emerge as sweet and doleful.

Thus, right at the end of the text, the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn who is in fact his own son, despite the fact that he has abandoned them both and is walking away as fast and as far as he can.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing. To be cynical, this kind of rhetorical twist, this sudden incursion of a portentous tone, will be Beckett’s schtick for decades to come. But, if you are not repelled by the subject matter, if you put yourself mentally in a place where you accept the incongruity of a simpleton who talks like a Cambridge graduate, if you accept the lying in cow pats and the autistic behaviour and the deliberately vague sense of other people, the drift and the decay – then there are regularly moments when the prose achieves a kind of epiphany of sadness, a rather hard-faced poetics of desolation.

These four short texts are weirdly compelling. I read all of them twice.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story must be one of the most famous novellas in the world.

It is the story of Manor Farm whose animals rise up and throw off the repressive rule of Jones the farmer, write a set of revolutionary rules, write a revolutionary anthem (Beasts of England), create a flag for the coming Republic of Animals when all humans had been overthrown, and try to institute animal utopia and live according the doctrines of ‘animalism’.

But slowly this ‘revolution’ is co-opted by the clever calculating pigs, who roll back the liberating effects of the revolution one step at a time, until at the fable’s climax, the animals look into the house to see old Jones dining with the now thoroughly corrupt pigs and can see no difference between them. Their new revolutionary master is identical to their old reactionary master.

The animals rise up against Farmer Jones - illustration by Ralph Steadman

The animals rise up against Farmer Jones – illustration by Ralph Steadman

Animal Farm is a naked satire on the corruption of the Russian revolution which went from genuine egalitarian idealism to brutal dictatorship in under 20 years.

The specific prompt for the book was Orwell’s nausea at the way British official channels swung 180 degrees from anti-Soviet propaganda while Stalin was an ally to Hitler (September 1939 to June 1941) to sudden support for our gallant ally, Uncle Joe, once he was fighting on our side i.e. against Hitler.

Orwell had never deviated from the hatred of Stalin’s murderous regime which he saw working at first hand during the Spanish Civil War. Confirming his worst fears of British culture’s craven submission to pro-Stalin influences, the book was turned down by a succession of publishers, some on the direct advice of the Ministry of Information, which was tasked with repressing criticism of our gallant Soviet ally.

The fable is alive with brilliant touches. At first the victorious pigs write out a set of revolutionary rules, the seventh and most important is of which is ‘All animals are equal’. It was a brilliant idea to have the clever pigs simplify this for the dimmer animals (the sheep, hens and ducks) into the motto ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’. But it was a real stroke of genius for Orwell to later have the pigs amending these rules, most notoriously amending rule seven to become ‘All animals are equal – but some are more equal than others’. This says something so profound about human beings and our laws and rules that it can be applied anywhere where laws are corrupted and distorted by the powerful.

A drunk pig rewrites the rules of the revolution - ilustration by Ralph Steadman

Squealer falls off the ladder while rewriting the rules of the revolution – illustration by Ralph Steadman

Like all fables it endures not just because it skewers the Stalinist tyranny so well – but because it brings out really deep, profound truths about human nature, our sometime strengths and our all-too-human weaknesses, the readiness not only of the unscrupulous to rule corruptly by terror, but the far worse readiness of their aides and lickspittles to help them and, worst of all, the willingness of so many of us sheep to let them.

The 1954 adaptation

There have been countless adaptations. Maybe the most atmospheric, because made during the bitter Cold War, is this 1954 cartoon adaptation.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2006)

The Uncommon Reader is a short (100 pages) novella by Alan Bennett, dry, clipped, funny, understated, with some-thought provoking notions and brilliant phrasing.

Plot The Queen stumbles across the travelling lending library in the Palace grounds and out of politeness borrows a book. She starts reading. She becomes intrigued at new thoughts and feelings. She develops sensibility ie noticing people and details, becomes less dutiful, more enquiring. This unsettles everyone from her Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. After a discursive middle which explores the nature of reading, what it does to you, why we do it, the book moves quickly to a surprise, or shock, ending.

The camp/gay environment of the Royal Household is very well conveyed, all those gay equerries, a royal milieu familiar to Bennett from his play about the gay traitor Anthony Blunt, from The Madness of George III etc. He seems perfectly at home putting pithy dialogue into the mouths of her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh.

And what dialogue! Bennett has been writing dialogue for 50 years, from the Cambridge Review, through his countless plays, TV monologues and film scripts, along with the brief concentrated format of his diaries: the short form, and a pithy abbreviated style, are his thing and reading the prose is a delight:

‘We have a travelling library’, said the Queen to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’
‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’
‘You remember Oklahoma?’
‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.
‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’ said the Queen.
‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’
‘Smelled delicious.’
‘What’s that?’
‘A book. I borrowed it.’
‘Dead, I suppose.’
‘Who?’
‘The Beaton fellow.’
‘Oh yes. Everyone’s dead.’
‘Good show, though.’
And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

Bennett’s books are small, domestic, homely. He is a national treasure because, under his hand, everything turns into Ratty and Moley: vide George III and his wife wonderfully domesticated as Mr and Mrs King; here, the Prime Minister is an easily confused figure of fun, not the war criminal Bennett probably thinks him.

As to the thoughts on reading, they are nicely phrased:

‘Of course’, said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’ (page 22)

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal… (Page 30)

But for all the crafted dialogue, the limpid style, the witticisms, the out-and-out jokes, the sly quotes and the knowing references to contemporary authors, ultimately, like all Bennett, we are left a little empty and unsatisfied. Is that it? I wanted more meat. The choice of the Queen as subject turns out not to be revolutionary or disruptive but to ensure the book is small in scope and intention. The reading bug makes her less mechanical in her brief chats with her subjects: she actually starts asking them what they’re reading, which throws the subjects and her staff; and then she realises she enjoys writing down the thoughts that reading prompts – maybe she should record them in a notebook or something?

That’s about it. The text, like the subject matter, feels controlled and safe and cosy. Like the proverbial Chinese meal, I enjoyed the flavours and colours as I read it; but an hour or two later I was hungry again.

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