Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard (1971)

All summer the cloud-sculptors would come from Vermilion Sands and sail their painted gliders above the coral towers that rose like white pagodas beside the highway to Lagoon West. The tallest of the towers was Coral D, and here the rising air above the sand-reefs was topped by swan-like clumps of fair-weather cumulus. Lifted on the shoulders of the air above the crown of Coral D, we would carve sea-horses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film-stars, lizards and exotic birds. As the crowd watched from their cars, a cool rain would fall on to the dusty roofs, weeping from the sculptured clouds as they sailed across the desert floor towards the sun.

Those who come looking for classic Ballard – all car crashes and multi-story car parks – will be disappointed. The nine stories Ballard wrote about Vermilion Sands are, for the most, part, among his earliest – in fact Prima Belladonna, the first story in the series, is also the first short story he ever had published – and they all reek of early period, fin-de-siecle-cum-surrealist dreams rather than the hard psychoses of the modern world which he became famous for later on.

The idea is that Vermilion Sands is a holiday resort of the very near future, but not a holiday resort as we know it in the real world of Ibiza or the Costas. For the most striking aspect of Vermilion Sands is that there is no sea. No sea, no beaches, no sunbathing and all that vulgar paraphernalia. Instead the town appears to be surrounded by a vista of endless rolling dunes, sand-lakes and quartz reefs, among which grow the mysterious ‘sound sculptures’ and out of whose dark grottos fly the ominous sand-rays.

Perfectly at home with this nearly other-planet-like landscape, the denizens of this alternative reality are all well educated and middle class, all seem to work in the arts (we meet an increasingly predictable series of artists, singers, film makers, architects, painters and fashion designers), and indulge strange dreamy fantasies which involve making singing sculptures, tending plants which emit music, selling houses which shape themselves to their owners’ moods and, in the most characteristic story, The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D, use gliders to carve faces and shapes out of clouds for the entertainment of the jaded inhabitants below.

The stories appear to take place in the present or near future:

  • in Venus Smiles the narrator references the Expo 75 and the Venice Biennale as contemporary events; later he tells us that the artist Lorraine Drexel hobnobbed with Giacommetti and John Cage (making her a very 1950s character)
  • in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista the architect who is shot dead is described as having hung out in the 1950s with Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright, and then moved on to Vermilion Sands, ‘1970 shots of him, fitting into the movie colony like a shark into a goldfish bowl’, and since we know he was shot soon after arriving at the resort that sets his murder in the Seventies, and the story is being told some ten years after the trial (p.194)
  • in Say Goodbye To the Wind the lead female character Raine Channing, was a world famous model in the 1970s and the ‘now’ of the story is barely ten years later (p.132)

But the stories take place in a location which is not the same earth or the same present as the rest of us inhabit. Everyone is comfortably off and lazy. All the houses have balconies and verandas where the characters do a good deal of daydreaming and musing. Everyone takes the endless dunes, the singing sculptures, and the flying manta rays for granted.

Ballard is often heralded as the prophet of late-twentieth century urban psychoses but these stories really reveal the late Victorian in him, the man in thrall to a Tennysonian love of euphony, given to long lazy paragraphs describing pre-Raphaelite women who sleepwalk through the dunes under the shimmering moonlight, combined with an 1890s, decadent, Oscar Wilde intoxication with jewels (jeweled eyes, jeweled insects) and the uncanny attraction of the macabre. In these stories Ballard is more of a Symbolist than a modernist.

Standing with one hand on the cabin rail, the brass portholes forming halos at her feet, was a tall, narrow-hipped woman with blonde hair so pale she immediately reminded me of the Ancient Mariner’s Life-in-Death. Her eyes gazed at me like dark magnolias. Lifted by the wind, her opal hair, like antique silver, made a chasuble of the air.

In a short preface Ballard says the stories are his best guess at what ‘the future will actually be like’, a snapshot of ‘the day after tomorrow’ – but I think we can take that with a pinch of salt: the future will obviously look very much like the world of today, only more crowded and polluted; that’s certainly how the future has turned out for the last 40 years that I’ve been experiencing it.

In the 1970s they told us that by the year 2000 there’d be colonies on the moon or even Mars, and we’d all be living in the Leisure Society where the only challenge would be deciding whether to fill your spare time by being an artist or a poet. 40 years later the Space Age is over, everyone works harder than ever, and the world is just more crowded and polluted.

What the Vermilion Sands stories really are is a mental realm where Ballard could go to indulge the most rococo and whimsical of his decadent fantasies, untroubled by any constraints of realism or logic. He is closer to the mark when, later in the Preface, he says that the stories consciously celebrate ‘the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.’ They are exercises in the strange and the fantastical, the weird and surreal, all told in the calm, bejewelled prose of a latter-day Oscar Wilde.

Memories, caravels without sails, crossed the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes. (p.21)

References in the text to Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands is my guess at what the future will actually be like.

Vermilion Sands is a place where I would be happy to live. I once described this overlit desert resort as an exotic suburb of my mind…

Vermilion Sands has more than its full share of dreams and illusions, fears and fantasies, but the frame for them is less confining. I like to think, too, that it celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.

Where is Vermilion Sands? I suppose its spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach, but in recent years I have been delighted to see it popping up elsewhere — above all, in sections of the 3,000-mile-long linear city that stretches from Gibraltar to Glyfada Beach along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and where each summer Europe lies on its back in the sun. That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future — not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work. (Preface)

‘tourist haunts like Vermilion Sands’ (The Singing Statues)

Ten years ago the colony ‘was still remembered as the one-time playground of movie stars, delinquent heiresses and eccentric cosmopolites…

All the houses in Vermilion Sands, it goes without saying, were psychotropic…

‘Darling, Vermilion Sands is Vermilion Sands. Don’t expect to find the suburban norms. People here were individualists.’ (Stellavista)

… to Vermilion Sands, to this bizarre, sand-bound resort with its lethargy, beach fatigue and shifting perspectives

The Recess is referred to in several places as a worldwide economic slump which reduced most people to working a few hours a day (Referred to in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista and the Cloud Sculptors), but this is as airily vague and meaningless as everything else in the stories.

Vermilion

Prima Belladonna (1956)

Steve Parker keeps a shop of singing flowers, Parker’s Choro-Fauna. A lot of effort is put into explaining the complexity of singing plants and, in particular, the way they need tuning and Steve does this using the monstrous Khan-Arachnid orchid, a difficult bloom with a range of 24 octaves. When he’s not fussing about these rare and expensive musical plants, Steve hangs out with his pals Tony and Harry, drinking cool beers on his balcony.

What is maybe most characteristic about the story is the notion that it is set during ‘The Recess’, a decade of economic stasis. There’s no socio-economic explanation of this, it just reinforces the sense of slow, lazy, easy-going torpor which hangs over the story.

Into their relaxed, passive lives arrives the stunningly beautiful Jane Cyracylides, long and lean with golden skin and disconcerting eyes which seem like insects. The boys ogle her from their balcony and then one day she comes to the shop.

Tony gets to know here and discovers Jane’s astonishing singing ability, an ability which, if not restrained, badly upsets the flowers in his shop. She starts to make a living singing in nightclubs and becomes famous so Tony is thrilled when they become an item, cruising round together and hanging at the beach.

One day he is awoken by music from the shop, strange, it’s locked up and should be quiet. He goes in to discover the Khan-Arachnid orchid in mad tumescence, rearing up to over nine feet tall and sucking into its core the willing body of Jane Cyracylides. When he tries to pull her free she pushes him away. Later, when he re-enters the shop, the Khan-Arachnid has returned to its normal size and Jane is nowhere to be seen. Has it eaten her?!

Venus Smiles (1957)

A broadly comic story. The narrator – Mr Hamilton – is on a small committee which commissioned a sonic sculpture for the central square of Vermilion Sands and awarded the gig to Lorraine Drexel. Unfortunately the finished product looks like a radar aerial with a car radiator grill broken in two so the bars stick up like a big metal comb. And the sound it emits instead of being calm and reassuring is a high pitched whine, a sitar-like caterwauling. The crowd gathered to see the unveiling starts booing.

Quite quickly the statue is withdrawn and ends up in the narrator’s own front garden, and Lorraine Drexel leaves town, laughing. This is because she knows what’s coming next. Which is the statue starts growing, and sprouting more and more sound cores which start broadcasting various classical lollipops like Mendelsohn’s Italian Symphony or Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

Hamilton chops it up with a hacksaw but the parts only grow back. They call in an expert, a Dr Blackett, who spouts some typical half-plausible pseudo-scientific explanation about the sculpture extracting its new content from oxygen in the air and its metal core, creating a dynamic form of rust.

Hamilton wakes up to find the thing smashing through his bedroom window and stretching all over his garden, caterwauling umpteen different pieces of classical music. His colleague on the Art committee, Raymond, comes round with an oxy-acetylene kit and they spend a day chopping the monster singing sculpture up into thousands of tiny pieces. They pay a local contractor to take it away to a steel mill and get it all recycled.

But the sculptress Lorraine Drexel reads about it in the press and sues. The case spends months dragging through the courts and the final verdict is delivered in Vermilion Sands’s new courthouse. They lose the case because the judge doesn’t believe – despite the eye witness testimony – in a growing singing sculpture.

But as they leave the courthouse, Hamilton feels a vibration in his feet. He leans to the floor and hears music. He walks to a window and looks out at some of the unfinished parts of the courthouse. Yes, there are new struts and stanchions growing out from the building even as he watches and new ‘sonic cores’ forming, from which emits louder and louder music.

The sculpture! Its melted-down parts have been mixed with other metal and sent off to construction jobs all over the city. Not only buildings but cars and planes, all the artifacts of modern technology will start budding soundboxes and singing!

Studio 5, The Stars (1960)

Studio 5, the Stars is an address – studio 5 is a house half way along a road in Vermilion Sands called The Stars.

It’s a good-humoured joke that the narrator is Paul Ransom, editor of Wave IX, a poetry magazine all of whose works are produced by modern VT technology – punch in your requirements of stanza form, genre, style, metre and so on into an IBM machine and it coughs out as many lines as you like.

Into his life wafts a late-Victorian beauty, the mysterious figure of Aurora Day (much like the slender and mysterious beauties Leonora Chanel and Jane Ciracylades in the other stories), given to mysterious sleepwalking in her billowing white gown or feeding the white fish in her pond or stretching on her divan, her ‘beautiful body uncoiling like a python.’

She is a real poet in that she writes the old fashioned way, with a pen. Once she learns Ransom is editor of a poetry mag she sends her pink Cadillac round every morning so that the hunchback chauffeur can deliver her latest compositions, and in the evening the tapes on which she has written her texts comes roiling and blowing across the sand from her house across the dunes, Studio 5.

But this is just the start. When Ransom rejects her poems, she magically co-opts the entire issue he’s sent to the printers, deleting all the computer-generated poems and replacing them with hers. Far more dramatic, when Ransom gets over burning the tampered copies, he lifts his glass to find a quote of poetry engraved on it, and poetry engraved on the steps of his, and on the doors, and on the walls, and on the floors. Then he looks at his arms and realises they are live with hand-written verse and when he looks in the mirrors he sees that his face it is covered in poetry.

He vaults the balcony, lands on the sand and runs over to Aurora’s house. There she is lazily feeding her fish and asks him if he knows the Greek myth about Melander, goddess of poetry, and Melander, the only true poet of the day who kills himself to prove his devotion to the art of poetry. As she tells it him, Ransom realises there are paintings of the two characters all round the walls. Is she… is she the goddess Melander?

Quickly the plot develops. Ransom utterly gives in to Aurora’s demand that the next edition of his magazine be filled with original, hand-made poetry. But when he gets home he discovers his lovely IBM poetry-making computer has been trashed. He phones the other 23 poets in Vermilion Sands and same has happened to them. How the devil is he going to fill his magazine?

One alone among the other poets isn’t fazed, the good-looking youth Tristram Caldwell. He not only offers to submit some of his verse but comes over and introduces himself to Aurora. Over the next few days they become inseparable. He suggests they go on a sand-ray hunt, sand-rays being things like bats which fly about above the ‘reefs’ but have a sharp and fatal sting.

To cut a long passage short, Tristram fools Aurora into going into a mazy grotto of the reefs and there whipping the sand-rays into such a frenzy that they appear to attack and kill Tristram. Aurora runs off screaming and is driven away the goatish chauffeur who Ransom has, by now, realised must be a reincarnation of the Greek god Pan.

Ransom a) tries to follow them but their big Cadillac loses him b) drives to Aurora’s house only to find it empty, deserted and feeling as if it has never been inhabited (as in a thousand clichéd ghost stories) and c) gets home to find Tristram lazing on his divan. What!

It was a scam by Tristram. He learned how seriously Aurora took the Melander story and how she had cast him as the tragic devotee. So he staged the entire sand-ray hunt in order to fulfil her psychological need. Only he among the little hunting party knew that they are in the ‘off’ season for the rays, and so their blades aren’t poisonous.

And the punchline of the story? Ransom is still stressing about how to fill his next issue when he gets a call from one of the poets who, strange to say, has had a moment of inspiration and has knocked out quite a decent sonnet. And then another phone call. And another. Somehow, Aurora’s presence, or her (probably) commissioning the hunchback to smash up all the poetry computers, has had the desired effect. The poets have learned how to write again.

The Singing Statues (1961)

Another story about a beautiful willowy woman who enters the life of the male narrator and entrances him.

In this case he is Milton, an artist, a maker of sonic sculptures and she is Lunora Goalen (what, not the Lunora Goalen, yes!! the Lunora Goalen!!), rich patron of the arts with apartments in Venice, Paris, New York (funny how some things haven’t changed in 60 years), doyenne of the news magazines and celebrity columns and society pages.

Lunora has rented a luxury house in the resort. She has dropped into the art gallery where Milton was just adjusting his latest sound sculpture which looks like an enormous totem pole with wings at the top. Out of the wings come sounds. Milton happens to be inside when the rich client strolls his way and – knowing the musical range of his sculpture is actually pitifully thin – he grabs the microphone and as Ms Rich arrives in range, singes the Creole Love Call which is transmogrified by the computers into a haunting melody which enchants Lunora and she buys it on the spot, turning and walking out to climb back into her white Rolls Royce, leaving it for her sharp-eyed assistant Mme Charcot to make out the cheque to the flustered gallery owner.

Next day they get an angry call complaining that the sculpture only seems to emit a dull booming noise. Milton drives out to the luxury house (like ‘a Frank Lloyd Wright design for an experimental department store’) and pretends to be doing maintenance when he is in fact installing a tape of classical music. This should fix the problem for a day or two.

On successive nights he sneaks back across the dry lake climbs over the wall into the garden, sneaks up onto the unrailed terrace and instals a new tape. Then spends increasing amounts of time looking down to the ground floor where Lunora is sleeping on an open-air divan, topless.

On the climactic day he is rung up by Mma Charcot who insists he comes straight away. Lunora is distraught, her hair undone, dishevelled, crouching beside the sculpture. Milton crouches down beside her and takes her hands in his but Mme Charcot sniggers, it is not him she cares for – it isn’t even the sculpture – it is herself she is in love with.

Appalled, Milton turns and walks away. Next day Lunora, her secretary and chauffeur have gone, When he revisits the house it is cold and empty, the muted statuary standing around like corpses. Months later, in preparation to make a new statue, Milton goes out among the actual living sound sculptures, among the sand dunes and reefs of the desert, and there discovers the sculpture he had sold her, chopped up into pieces and scattered around the sand, some of the fragments still making a sad, whining lament.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1961)

Talbot and his wife Fay are looking for a house to rent in Vermilion Sands. The resort is now past its prime and these new buyers are aware of the history of movie stars and celebrities who populated it in its prime.

The story is based on the idea of Psychotropic Homes – these are homes built in a kind of bioplastic which respond to their owners’ moods and personalities. This immediately leads Ballard into a comic tour of totally unsuitable homes, such as the mock-Assyrian ziggurat whose previous owner had St Vitus dance and so which was still nervously jitterbugging even years after he’d left. Or the converted submarine pen which was the home of an alcoholic and whose vast concrete walls still reek of gloom and helplessness. You get the idea.

Anyway they finally take a nice house with a pool and it’s only when the estate agent ‘turns it on’ (you turn on psychotropic houses) that he reveals it was the home of 70s movie star Gloria Tremayne, who was the defendant at the Trial of the Century, accused of shooting dead her architect husband, Miles Vanden Starr. Now we learn that Talbot, who’d already told us he was a lawyer, was actually a junior defence lawyer on Gloria’s team. Lots of guff about how mysterious and aloof and Greta Garbo she was.

To cut to the chase, Talbot and Fay find themselves beginning to act out the characters of its previous inhabitants. In particular, we learn from Fay’s comments to him, that Talbot has become obsessive, vengeful, permanently angry. One day the house tries to kill her by melting and bending down the ceiling in the living room where she’s sleeping to crush her onto the sofa. Her screams waken Talbot who comes running in to save her.

Next day she’s gone, a note on the memogram saying she’s gone to stay with her sister. Two months later she demands a divorce. Talbot goes on a bender, drinks too much, raves the car back across the lawn, smashing into the automatic garage, throws his coat in the swimming pool, necks a bottle of whiskey and wakes up sprawled across his bed to witness a strange sight.

A pressure zone enters the doorway, but no person, The pressure zone crosses the bedroom towards the bed, there’s a pause, then a convulsion in the air and the house goes into spasm, has a fit. The room he’s in starts to contract, within moments the door and control panel are covered in melting blob, huge veins stand out on the walls. Luckily his lighter is in his pocket and Talbot holds it up to the ceiling which starts to fizz and melt apart and he’s able to pull himself up into the from above, though that is melting and bending, the swimming pool has been upturned and draining.

He realises the house is reliving the moment Gloria Tremayne went into his bedroom to shoot Starr. The spasm was the house re-enacting Starr’s death spasm, the contraction was his lungs and heart ceasing to work, his life force contracting as the room contracted around Talbot.

Talbot makes it to the control panel and turns the house off. Hours later the police leave deciding there’s nothing they can do to prosecute a house for murder. The estate agent looks in horror at the wrecked, erupted shell of the desirable property he sold Talbot only a few months previously, then leaves.

For the time being Starr will remain. He can’t afford to move and the house is turned off. But one day… one day, he will turn it back on… the threat being that he will subsume himself in the damaged psyche of the murderess.

The Screen Game (1962)

Paul Golding is an artist, well, an artist in the Vermilion Sands sense, meaning he rarely actually paints anything. He’s co-opted by his friend Tony Sapphire into painting the sets for an avant-garde movie being produced by the millionaire playboy Charles van Stratten (two ex-wives and a controlling mother who mysteriously died in an ‘accident’) who owns a massive house out across the sand lakes.

There’s a cast of distractions including the outrageous director, but the point of the story is to introduce us to the beautiful, slender and (inevitably) troubled young woman at the heart of it. Emerelda Garland used to be a famous actress, darlings, but had a breakdown after her mother died. Now van Stratten (who is, of course, devoted to her) has organised the filming solely to recreate the milieu of her glory years and try and effect a cure.

As an typically eerie and oblique aspect of this cure the narrator is tasked with building a series of twelve enormous screens, which are painted with the signs of the zodiac and are to be moved around what seems to be an enormous chessboard on a terrace below the producer’s summer house.

As the story progresses, Golding produces many more screens than are required and he and his friends develop a strange complicated ‘game’ of moving them around, creating strange patterns and mazes.

Emerelda does indeed find walking among their ever-changing patterns and mazes somehow consoling, although Golding finds it disconcerting that she is followed everywhere or surrounded by an eerie troop of scorpions and spiders with jewels embedded in their heads, jewelled insects which foreshadow the jewelled world created in The Crystal World. (Leonora Chanel is referred to on almost page of her story as having ‘jewelled eyes’, which, we eventually realise, means small decorative jewels stuck around her eyes.)

The climax comes one morning when Charles himself deigns to come down from the summer house and play ‘the screen game’, by now a complex process using the 40 huge screens Paul has painted. But suddenly an abandoned sonic sculpture down on the empty beach sets up a wailing and they realise something is wrong.

Charles starts tearing apart the screens which form the protective carapace the mad Emerelda has made for himself. But when he penetrates to the core and strips away the screens shielding her, exposing her to the harsh sunlight, her entourage of jewelled insects, scorpions and spiders, protects her by leaping onto Charles’s body and covering his face, and stinging him to death as he runs away down the sand embankment screaming in time to the sonic sculpture’s mournful wail.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury! (1966)

The first-person narrator, Robert Melville, goes sailing on his sand-yacht across the bone-dry dunes of the sand-sea, in hunt of the eerie sand-rays which fly just out of reach. When one of the tyres of his sand yacht gets a puncture he sets off on foot but the razor sharp sand cuts his feet. Back at the yacht an enormous ray flies overhead till he shoots it dead and it falls out of the sky wrecking his sails and knocking him unconscious.

When he comes to he is being rescued by a much larger sand-yacht under the command of the windswept beauty, Hope Cunard, who tends him in her cabin as they cruise over the smooth dry sand lakes towards her luxury home on the bone dry Lizard Key. Here Melville meets Hope’s small and characteristically troubled entourage, namely her pockmarked half-brother, Foyle, and her secretary Barbara Quimby.

Hope is, of course, a painter, she paints portraits. In a nod to his sci-fi audience Ballard invents a kind of paint which, once you’ve set the basic parameters, you leave out on the canvas in front of the subject and it automatically takes the shape of whatever you intend to paint – similar to the computer programs for making poems in Studio 5, The Stars.

The subject of painting does two things. One, it brings out a profusion of references to artists, including Monet, Renoir, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Balthus, Gustave Moreau, the surrealists as a group and ‘the last demented landscapes of Van Gogh’, as well as literary references to Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner and one of the Surrealists’ holy books, Maldoror. Two, it triggers a glut of sensuous, decadent description, of the desert, the gleaming sand, the  sand-rays wheeling above the rock spires and so on. And, of course, the human body as a junction or meeting point of the organic and the crystalline.

Sometimes at night, as she lay beside me in the cabin, the reflected light of the quartz veins moving over her breasts like necklaces, she would talk to me as if completely unaware p.103

It emerges that Hope had a tempestuous affair (underneath the psychological flim-flam there’s quite a lot of Mills and Boon about a Ballard story) with a tall dark stranger who is identified in the story with the Flying Dutchman. He even left a jacket behind with a tell-tale bullet hole in the chest.

Hope lets a portrait of herself and Melville be painted but over the following days it twists and distorts into the macabre figure of a skull-faced woman in a blonde wig and a pig-faced mannequin. The narrator thinks this is a reflection on the weird psychic processes at work in the isolated house, but at the climax of the story we learn that the two other occupants – Foyle and Barbara – have been dressing up in costumes and standing in front of the self-painting paintings, nothing weird and psychic about it at all, it’s a twisted attempt at humour and control.

The climax come when the Flying Dutchman or some such young man does indeed arrive, but Hope has been driven into a state of hysteria and fires a pistol at him, wounding him in the wrist and he and Melville both make their escape, running across the piazza and onto the man’s sand-schooner.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D (1966)

This might be the best, the most representative of the stories. Major Raymond Parker has been invalided out of the air force after an accident, hence the crutches. He is building gliders in a disused garage. two freaks pass by, the hunchback Petit Manuel and tall artist Nolan. They’re joined by playboy Charles van Eyck and form the cloud-sculptors of Coral D. a) Coral D is the fourth and largest of the four large coral towers outside vermilion Sands b) cloud sculptors glide among the clouds and release scythes of silver iodide to carve and sculpt them into the shapes of celebrities, presidents and actresses.

Till the day when beautiful reclusive heiress Leonora Chanel (daughter of one of the world’s leading financiers) is driven up in her white Rolls Royce, accompanied by her secretary Beatrice Lafferty (it does feel as if Ballard is writing the same story again and again and again).

As we get to know her we realise Leonora is a monster of egotism. She puts on a massive party at her huge villa and invites the cloud sculptors to perform. Van Eyck and Nolan are vying for her attention and outdo each other. Parker quickly starts an affair with Miss Lafferty and they jointly observe what happens next which is

1. That night there is some kind of argument or fight up on the terrace and Nolan goes running off into the night. We learn that he has in fact already had an affair with Leonora and painted a very unflattering portrait of her. Out of the shadows emerges smooth playboy Van Eyck who now tries his chances with Leonora.

2. Next day there is another party (easy to get the fact there are two, a bit confused) and this time the clouds darken into a storm. First Manuel begs to go up, in order to impress Leonora who had not tried to hide her revulsion at the hunchback. He goes up and his glider is smashed to bits in a storm cloud. Parker and Lafferty go and recover his body which means they are out in the desert when the storm turns into a real tornado and – apparently driven by the vengeful Nolan in his glider -heads straight for Leonora’s villa, where it wreaks tremendous damage.

Emerging from their hidey-hole, Parker and Lafferty tour the ruined, devastated villa, with its wreckage of party chairs, marquee and smashed champagne glasses. They find Leonora dead among her peacock feathers, her face covered by shreds of the many portraits of herself she’d commissioned over the years. And Van Eyck hanging strangled in the wires of the party lights.

Say Goodbye to the Wind (1966)

The narrator, Mr Samson, keeps a fashion boutique jokily called ‘Topless in Gaza’, the snazzy sci-fi angle being that the clothes are all bio-clothes, animated clothes, which shape and mould themselves around the owner and are also prone to hysterical fits (much like the sensitive plants and the sensitive houses and the sensitive musical sculptures).

One day a glamorous former supermodel, Raine Channing, turns up at the shop (just as Lunora Goalen turns up at Milton’s art gallery and Jane Cyracylides turns up at Tony Parker’s flower shop) and buys a carful of clothes. This is paid for by her secretary Mme Fournier (same figure as the Mme Charcot who handles everything for Lunora) and has an aggressive chauffeur (as did Lunora and Aurora Day).

Basically, Raine was used and moulded by her svengali, fashion designer Gavin Kaiser. Now she imagines he is coming back to get her and her behaviour becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly her habit of wafting from her hotel room through the empty streets to the abandoned nightclub and dancing by herself to the one record left on the old-fashioned gramophone.

At the climax of the novel the narrator is watching her, when someone creeps up behind him and biffs him on the head. When he regains consciousness he is in a hand-tailored biomorphic golden suit which almost immediately starts contracting and strangling him to death. there’s a couple of sentences of over-the-top description of this Poe-esque fate before strong hands grip him and a macho man cuts open the constricting fabric. It is none other than Jason Kaiser, brother of the dead Gavin Kaiser who has rescued him for obscure reasons.

Five miles away they watch the headlights of Miss Channing’s chauffeur-driven car as it disappears into the night, just like all the other psycho-goddesses in every other one of these stories, disappears back into the shadows of Ballard’s obsessive psyche.


Ballard’s goddesses

Hope Cunard stepped through the open window, her white gown shivering around her naked body like a tremulous wraith. (p.102)

Into all this Emerelda Garland had now emerged, like a beautiful but nervous wraith. (p.65)

Almost all the stories rotate around women of a particular type. Each of Ballard’s narrators meets and falls under the intoxicating influence of glamorous female figures with golden skin and mysterious pasts, former movie stars, reborn goddesses, alluring divas from myth, beguiling heiresses, elusive millionairesses:

  • Jane Ciracylades – mysterious and sexy woman who has a superhuman singing ability
  • Aurora Day – a witch with magic powers who can project poetry quotations into solid objects and onto human skin and murders (she thinks) her lover
  • Leonora Chanel – ‘this beautiful but insane woman’, millionairess who inspires the cloud sculptors, spurring them on to death and destruction
  • Gloria Tremayne – former actress who shot her husband and went mad
  • Emerelda Garland – former actress who had a collapse after her mother died and ends up trying to shoot her lover
  • Hope Cunard – millionaire heiress owner of mansion on Lizard Key who tries to shoot the narrator and her former lover
  • Lunora Goalen – neurotically self-obsessed millionaire art collector who has a breakdown by a sculpture
  • Raine Channing – former teenage supermodel who tries to kill the narrator by dressing him in constricting bio-fabric

These femmes fatales involve the narrator in their strange and dreamlike psychodramas which spiral up towards some kind of often violent climax before they abruptly disappear. He uses the stock phrase – ‘I never saw XX again’ – in so many of these stories it becomes a trademark, a cliché. ‘Of course I never saw her again’ (Gloria); ‘That was the last I saw of Aurora Day’ (p.180) and so on. They come; they entrance and beguile; they disappear – like women in a (very male) dream.

In fact the basic structure – glamorous woman enters life of man with an interesting speciality (animated clothes, musical plants, cloud-carving gliders, computer-generated poetry), after some fencing they ‘fall in love’ i.e. go to bed, before the plot moves to some kind of climax to which she is central and then the woman disappears as abruptly as she arrived – reminds me of the basic template of the James Bond stories (Bond’s interesting speciality being that he is the sexiest spy in the world). The Bond books began appearing only a few years before Ballard’s (first Bond novel 1953, first Ballard short story 1956).

There’s another point worth making: almost all the women are topless or scantily clad at some point; there are quite a few bare bosoms about. Lunora Goalen sleeps topless every night out on the desert terrace where Milton the sound sculptor spends hours watching her. When you see the contemporary illustrations for Ballard’s stories in contemporary sci-fi magazines, you see why coming up with a steady supply of nubile, slender and topless or diaphanously dressed women was required to keep the fans happy.

Cover of the October 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories showing an illustration of The Screen Game – jewelled insects, moveable screens painted with signs of the zodiac and – of course – a slender, half-naked young woman

Some of this – the recurrence of film stars and the entire story about making an avant-garde movie (The Screen Game) – sheds light on Ballard’s later obsession with real-life movie stars like Greta Garbo, Jayne Mansfield and especially Elizabeth Taylor in Atrocity and Crash.

These later texts are usually read as deconstructions of the mediascape in a consumer capitalist society, of the way Hollywood iconography and huge advertising hoardings mediate, focus and exploit primal human longings (for sex, for a better, perfect life) for profit. But a simpler interpretation is that Ballard himself had a deep devotion to the figure of the goddess, the muse, the Perfect Woman, which has more to do with Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites than the hectic commercial world of the 1960s.

It’s characteristic that even though some of his male narrators sleep with these other-worldly muse figures – as Steve Parker does with Jane Cyracylides and Robert Melville with Hope Cunard – little if anything is made of the sex, as such. It is more important as a symbol of the often oblique psychological bond between the narrator and the goddess-figure.

But even that is not quite accurate, because there is actually little if any psychology in a Ballard novel. Or, to put it another way, Ballard’s novels are full of psychology but it is Ballard’s psychology – the characters are little more than ciphers in the strange trance-worlds Ballard creates, as their generally anonymous names clearly signal – Ransom, Golding, Milton, Talbot, Melville, they’re all dream figures acting out Ballard’s compulsive scenarios, again and again and in Vermilion Sands it’s striking how many of these obsessions are more or less the same one – being entranced by a beautiful, sexy, but mad and dangerous young woman.

As a footnote, they all arrive in very nice cars, and they all have chauffeurs:

  • Leonora Chanel – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.11)
  • Lunor Goalen – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.75)
  • Aurora Day – pink cadillac and chauffeur (p.154)

Once I’d noticed this, I couldn’t help thinking about Lady Penelope, driven about in her pink six-wheeled Rolls Royce by the faithful Parker in Thunderbirds (which was broadcast 1965-66).

Ballard’s buzzwords

There’s a lot of detail and imagination in all of the stories – a lot of sci-fi gags, like the houses which change shape or the mutant plants which can make music or the eerie sand sculptures and so on – but, in the end, I found it a struggle to read the book right to the end. The atmosphere, which starts off as dreamy symbolism, ends up becoming too one-dimensional, the effects too shrill and tinny.

I began to notice the way he throws around the adjective ‘insane’ a lot – insane wishes, insane people, insane ideas, insane landscape, insane logic,

  • fighting the insane air, Manuel piloted the glider downward…
  • For a moment the ambiguous nature of my role, and the questionable morality of abducting a beautiful but insane woman, made me hesitate. (p.67)
  • Convinced at the time of this insane logic, I drove my fists through the canvas… (p.105)
  • I raised my hands to my face, in horror saw that the surface of my skin was interlaced by a thousand tattoos, writhing and coiling across my hands and arms like insane serpents. (p.163)
  • The fragments of Aurora Day’s insane poems caught the dying desert light as they dissolved about my feet… (p.181)
  • I stood up, wondering what insane crisis this psychotropic grand mal duplicated. (p.205)
  • ‘The place must have been insane.’ (p.207)
  • There’s a subtle charm about the house even in its distorted form, like the ambiguous smile of a beautiful but insane woman. (p.208)

And bizarre:

  • the portraits recapitulated in reverse, like some bizarre embryo, a complete phylogeny of modern art… (p.98)
  • a character’s shirt makes him look like ‘some bizarre harlequin’ (104)
  • She seemed to be concealed in this living play-nest like a bizarre infant Venus (p.134)

And demented:

  • We barely noticed the strange landscape we were crossing, the great gargoyles of red basalt that uncoiled themselves into the air like the spires of demented cathedrals. (p.52)
  • In the wardrobe the racks of gowns hung in restive files, colours pulsing like demented suns. (p.136)
  • I woke on Raine’s bed in the deserted villa, the white moonlight like a waiting shroud across the terrace. Around me the shadows of the demented shapes seethed along the walls, the deformed inmates of some nightmare aviary. (p.141)

Yes, nightmare:

  • What had begun as a pleasant divertimento… had degenerated into a macabre charade, transforming the terrace into the exercise area of a nightmare. (p.69)
  • Kicking back the door I had a full glimpse of these nightmare figures. (p.106)
  • The macabre spectacle of the strange grave-flora springing from cracked tombs, like the nightmare collection of some Quant or Dior of the netherworld… (p.130)
  • The cloud if insects returned to the summer house, where Dr Gruber’s black-suited figure was silhouetted against the sky, poised on the white ledge like some minatory bird of nightmare. (p.71)

And macabre. And grotesque. And hell.

  • The livid colours of Hope’s pus-filled face ran like putrefying flesh. Beside her the pig-faced priest in my own image presided over her body like a procurator in hell. (p.107)
  • I remembered the clothes I had seen on a woman killed in a car crash at Vermilion Sands, blooming out of the wreckage like a monstrous flower of hell, and the demented wardrobe offered to me by the family of an heiress who had committed suicide. (p.137)
  • Three nights later, tired of conducting my courtship of Emerelda Garland within a painted maze, I drove out to Lagoon West, climbing through the darkened hills whose contorted forms reared in the swinging headlights like the smoke clouds of some sunken hell. (p.67)

And nightmares. And Bosch.

  • My pig-snouted face resembled a nightmare visage from the black landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. (p.105)
  • With his beaked face and insane eyes, his hunched figure hung about with the nets of writhing rays, he looked like a figure from Hieronymus Bosch. (p.177)

There’s a tired business mantra that if everything’s a priority then nothing’s a priority. Same here. If everything is ‘insane’ and a ‘landscape from hell’ then, eventually, nothing is.

My point is that it’s too easy and glib to chuck around extreme adjectives like that. It devalues them and they quickly lose their evocative affect.

The obsessive repetition of the same basic structure – mysterious glamorous woman entrances naive male protagonists against the backdrop of the endless dunes, sand reefs and sonic sculptures – gets pretty boring after the fourth or fifth iteration. The details of things like the psychotropic houses and the moments when the house tries to kill Fay, then the narrator, are weird and hallucinatory, the details of the gliders flying among the clouds and sculpting them into shapes and faces is wonderful, but:

  1. the human plots which he concocts amid the sand-seas and reefs of quartz are often shallow and disappointing
  2. Ballard’s language is too often cranked up to maximum all the way through; there’s little light or shade, the whole thing does indeed become ‘glossy, lurid and bizarre’ to such an extent that, in the end, it runs the risk of ceasing to register or matter

Maybe literature is something to do with restraint, and the reason Ballard is hard to take seriously as a literary figure is because, although his novels are brilliant (the three disaster novels are breath-taking and Atrocity and Crash are all outstanding visions), nonetheless Ballard’s writing – considered solely as written prose – is so ridiculously over the top.

In the silence of the villa I listened to [the shadows of the demented shapes] tearing themselves to pieces like condemned creatures tormenting themselves on their gibbets. (p. 141)

Edgar Allen Poe on acid.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Across the bridge over the Serpentine is the second Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery converted from a 200-year-old former gunpowder store by legendary architect Zaha Hadid. For the time being the Serpentine Gallery seems to be retaining its link with the Sackler family who are under attack in the States for owning one of the largest manufacturers of addictive opioid drugs, although other British galleries are severing their links with the controversial family.

This knowledge adds a pleasing level of irony to the exhibition on show here, for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is currently hosting a FREE exhibition of work by Patrick Staff (a young British artist born in 1987) which very much focuses on The Body. To quote the gallery introduction:

Through a varied and interdisciplinary body of work, Patrick Staff interrogates notion of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Staff examines the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally transformed the way we regard the body today, with a particular focus on gender, debility and biopolitics.

Oh, I thought, another contemporary artist kvetching about gender.

The corridors

The gunpowder store was originally at the core of the building, protected by double thickness walls, with a square walkway around the two inner, rectangular powder stores, each not much bigger than a long domestic living room.

By far the best thing in this installation is that the walkways around the central rooms have had their floors covered with a yellow metal and the fluorescent lights overhead given a yellowy-green tinge. The effect is to make you feel like you’re walking through the set of a science fiction film or maybe some kind of specialist industrial facility. This is pleasingly freaky.

Installation view of Patrick Staff: On Venus at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Note the two oil drums. Several of these are placed in each of the four corridors. If you look above the head of the woman in my photo you can see a latticework of very small-bore pipes suspended from the ceiling. This network carries on round all the corridors and where they pass over a drum, they have a tap which is set to allow a steady drip-drip of fluids down into each drum. What fluids?

A piping network suspended from the ceiling slowly drips a mixture of natural and synthetic acids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids, or the trafficking of viruses or data.

It isn’t suggestive of bodily fluids, though, is it? It’s suggestive of offices or factories where the overhead air conditioning or other piping has sprung a leak and facilities management have put in a bucket or other container to catch the drips while they phone a plumber.

The Ian Huntley room

Remember Ian Huntley? He was convicted of murdering two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002, hence the name the papers gave the case, The Soham Murders, and sentenced to a minimum term of 40 years in prison.

Anyway, in April 2018 the Daily Star newspaper reported that Huntley wanted to transition to a woman, wore a blonde wig in prison and insisted on being called Nicola. The story was picked up by other tabloids with a predictable hurricane of outrage from the highly-paid bigots who write for those papers.

Only nine months later did pressure from Huntley himself force the Star to retract the story and admit that it was entirely false in every detail. This led to a storm of comment from the other side, from queer activists, the Guardian and some left-wing politicians, lamenting the way the story was just one among a steady stream of stories designed to criticise, outlaw and ridicule trans people.

So Patrick Staff has taken front covers from the tabs who published the story, along with some of the later retractions and turned them into detailed etchings on metal, reminiscent to us old guys of the kind of heavy metal type that old-style newspapers were set in before the print revolution of the 1980.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

My reaction to this was:

1. I’m not that thrilled about being reminded of Huntley and his pointless stupid murder of two beautiful young girls and the awful, awful suffering their parents must have gone through, especially as Huntley lied his head off to the investigating police for two long weeks of one of the most intensive searches in British police history.

2. I am a little staggered that a grown man is telling us that tabloid newspapers make things up. I thought that was the most obvious thing about them, that the tabloids make things up and pander to the crudest prejudices and stereotypes, turn the complex world into a series of cartoons and clichés in order to cater to the basest instincts of their badly educated readers. I’ve known that for nearly fifty years.

If they are having a go at transgender people, now, they’re only the latest in a long line of groups who have been victimised and attacked on the basis of their gender (Page 3 girls) or race (blacks) or marital status (single mums) or disabilities (welfare scroungers) and so on. They are a poisonous blight on the country but they cannot be defeated because lots of people identify with their values and way of thinking. And that is because a lot of people in this country are pitifully badly educated, with not only the reading age but the immaturity and general stupidity of a nine-year-old.

Good luck changing that. Millions of left-wing intellectuals, politicians and activists have tried throughout my lifetime. That said, change can be achieved. The Sun in particular was virulently homophobic when I was a young man and nowadays reports on Elton John’s marriage to David Furnish or any other gay or lesbian marriage in more or less factual terms.

Social attitudes can be changed and liberalised. But I’m not sure how much impact an art installation like this can have.

On Venus

The work On Venus is in the other powder room and consists of a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two films are projected.

One consists of scratched, warped and overlapping footage of the most disgusting aspects of factory farming, showing the management of animal commodities such as urine, semen, skins and furs. I glimpsed a few shots of cows in cramped pens having their stretched udders brutally sucked dry by metal pumps so we can have the fresh milk to pour onto our organic porridge every morning.

If you didn’t realise that most livestock farming is disgusting and immoral, you are an idiot. That’s what vegetarians have been saying for fifty years or more, and countless books, articles and documentaries have revealed over and over again, with little practical effect.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

The second film is a poem describing life on the planet Venus, conceived as:

“a state of non-life or near-death, a queer state of being that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis, infused with the violence of pressure and heat, destructive winds and the disorienting lapse of day into night.”

Conclusion

These are big issues he’s taking on. After years and years of political engagement I have reached a stage of exhaustion and complete detachment. Maybe Trump will be re-elected, maybe he won’t. Maybe Boris’s crew will make a go of Brexit, maybe they won’t. So many things have happened during my life, that I have realised a kind of informed, observant detachment is the best way to preserve your sanity.

Otherwise you end up like my left-wing friends and all the columnists and commentators in the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and all the curators of contemporary art, who ever since the referendum then election of Trump have lived in a state of permanent outrage and anger.

– I support the transgender movement, which has come out of nowhere in the past few years but does appear to be a genuine thing – not least because several of my daughter’s friends, and several of my middle-aged friends’ young adult children, wish to change gender. Fine.

– I support vegetarianism and would support any attempts to make farming less disgusting and less destructive of the environment.

– I’d sort of support banning all the tabloid media and their vicious, immoral, muck-raking, phone-hacking journalism – although that is never going to happen.

But Staff is clearly going beyond these specific topical issues, to ask bigger questions, or make interesting connections, or prompt more lateral thoughts – thoughts which you can sense but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, or the way we usually think about the world.

Something to do with what moral judgments are acceptable and unacceptable. Something to do with the power the tabloids exercise in defining reality for their audiences. But these are just sub-sets of the bigger question of how we define what is human and what is not, and apply treatments which are obviously inhumane and degrading to pretty much every other life form but ourselves – and even to ourselves as well.

How we long for an alien civilisation to come down from the stars and teach us how to live properly and run our societies like decent people. Quite clearly, we’re incapable of doing so ourselves.

Staff may be pushing towards some kind of change of attitudes and culture – but along with John Gray, I’ve come to believe that human nature doesn’t change. Cultural attitudes may, in some places, and for a while, be rerouted and redrawn – but the fundamental attributes of human nature don’t change.

Liberals castigate Trump and Johnson for their alleged racism or misogyny (defined as their supposed hatred of BAME people or women) but you only have to dip a little into left-wing print or social media to find equal or greater levels of anger vented against all conservatives or all republicans or all men or all white people.

Like Gray, I think a kind of informed detachment is the only practical attitude to exercise in our times, the only way to prevent yourself from being drawn into the steaming cesspit of anger which almost all political and public discourse seems to be becoming.

Patrick Staff talks about his Serpentine show

What I learned from Staff’s own introduction was a different take from actually visiting it.

I like his point that everyone lives as though everything is alright with the world when, in fact, it really isn’t. Seen from this perspective the topics he’s chosen here are just some of the things which have upset him or which he thinks lift the veil on our respectable passivity and reveal the intertwined horrors beneath.

Seen in this way, the four elements of the exhibition – factory corridor with leaking fluids, the tabloid lies about Ian Huntley which are also smears on trans people, factory farming, and the queer poem about Venus – become more like personal symbols than political statements – moments of horrified insight, from which he has constructed a personal mythology.

I find this a much more fruitful way of thinking about the installation, because it is the way many poets work, creating a network of everyday imagery which they manage to imbue with supercharged imaginative energy, and mould into a personal mythology.

The question then becomes why didn’t he or the curators explain this a bit more clearly on the one and only wall label by the front door which introduces the show and which was full of the usual curator boilerplate about bodies and gender and made Staff sound just like every other modern artist — when I had already begun to feel – and this video crystallises – the ways in which he’s not, in which he’s distinctive and interesting.

Having thought my way all around the issues and ideas and surrendered to the sensual impact of the installation, I ended up liking it much more than my initial negative impressions.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

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

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Natalia Goncharova @ Tate Modern

Major retrospective

This is the UK’s first ever retrospective of the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. It’s huge, bringing together over 160 international loans which rarely travel, including works from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Goncharova’s work.

The exhibition is imaginatively laid out with some lovely rooms, and it certainly gives you a good sense of her range of styles, not only in painting, but in lithographs, fashion and costume design, especially for modern ballet, posters, pamphlets and much more. But it also leaves you with a few nagging questions…

Peasants Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1911) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Fabric design

Goncharova was born in Russia in 1881. She grew up on her family’s country estates in Tula province, 200 miles from Moscow. Her family were impoverished aristocrats who made their fortune through textiles, in fact the name of Goncharova’s family estate, Polotnianyi Zavod, means ‘cloth factory’. From early childhood, Goncharova witnessed the rhythms the farmers’ lives – working the land, planting and harvesting – and also became deeply familiar with all the stages of textile production, from shearing sheep to weaving, washing and decorating the fabric.

Hence two threads to her artistic practice:

  1. fabric design, which ran through the 1910s and led to her wonderful designs for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and 30s, as well as commissions from fashion houses
  2. a profound feel for the rhythms of agricultural labour, which she depicted in a number of early paintings (like Peasants picking apples, above)

The first room epitomises both threads with several paintings showing agricultural labourers, in a highly modernist style, alongside a display case containing an example of the kind of traditional costume worn by the peasant women on Goncharova’s estate.

Installation view of Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

Cubo-futurism

What comes over is Goncharova’s very quick artistic development from about 1908, when she was doing stylised but essentially traditional paintings of peasant subjects, to 1911 when she had transformed herself into one of the leading lights of the Moscow avant-garde.

Her swift development was helped by two Moscow industrialists – Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin – who had built up extensive art collections of leading European artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and made their collections accessible to the public. These French works had an electrifying effect on young Russian avant-garde artists, which was accentuated by news of the new movement of Italian Futurism, which they could read about in international art magazines.

Goncharova swallowed both influences whole and became the leader of what contemporaries came to call Russian ‘cubo-futurism’. Various contemporaries are quoted commenting that she was the leader of the younger generation, not only in painting, but in self-presentation, creating an avant-garde ‘look’, as well as happenings, given walking through Moscow’s streets wearing stylised tribal markings on her face, or involved in volumes of avant-garde poetry published just before the Great War.

A work like Linen from 1913 seems to be a straight copy of Picasso-style cubism, cutting up an everyday domestic scene into fragments and pasting in some text, as if from a newspaper or advertising hoarding. The main differences from a cubist work by Picasso or Braques is that the text is in Russian, and the bright blue is completely unlike the cubist palette of browns and greys.

Linen (1913) by Natalia Goncharova. Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The 1913 exhibition and ‘everythingism’

This exhibition feels logical and well designed, and features at least two particularly striking rooms. The first one is dedicated to recreating the landmark retrospective Goncharova was given in September 1913 at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow. The 19193 show included more than 800 works (!) and was the most ambitious exhibition given to any Russian avant-garde artist up to that date. Goncharova was thirty-two years old.

The curators have brought together thirty big paintings which featured in the 1913 show and created a central column in the style of those circular bulletin boards you get in Paris, on which they have plastered copies of some of the posters and reviews of the original exhibition.

Here we learn that Goncharova’s fellow artist and long-time partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented the term ‘everythingism’ to describe her openness to diverse styles and sources, the way her paintings invoke all kinds of sources from the folk designs of her family farm, through to the latest ideas from Paris and Rome.

Thus the thing which comes over from the 30 or so works in this room is their tremendous diversity. There’s a striking female nude which reminded me of something similar by Matisse, there’s a pipe smoker at a table, a motif familiar from Cézanne, there’s a surprising work which looks like a dappled impressionist painting. It really is a little bit of everything and so ‘everythingism’ seems an accurate label.

You could claim this is as a positive achievement, indeed one of the wall labels praised the lack of ‘hierarchy’ in Goncharova’s diverse styles and I understood what they were getting at. There was the implication that it is somehow masculine to want to be the leader of the avant-garde, at the cutting edge, always one step ahead: and somehow a slave of capitalist or consumer culture to need to create a unique brand or style.

By contrast, Goncharova is praised for her more easygoing, unmasculine and uncapitalist stance – allowing herself to be open and receptive to all kinds of visual approaches, mixing Cézanne with Russian icons, or cubism with peasant designs, or futurism as applied to distinctly Russian cityscapes. She was presented as ‘a universal artist’.

You can see how, at the time, she seemed to contemporaries to be a one-woman explosion of all the latest visual breakthroughs and trends because she was covering so much territory.

The drawback of this approach is that Goncharova risks, in retrospect, appearing to be a Jill of all trades but a mistress of none. Lots of the works in this room were interesting but you found yourself thinking, ah, that’s the cubist influence, that’s the futurism, that’s a touch of Cézanne, and so on. They all had her mark, but not so many seemed entirely her, if that makes sense.

For me the most distinctive work in the room was the series of paintings she called Harvest, which was originally made up of nine large works which were designed to be hung together. Two have gone missing but Tate have hung the other seven together on one wall and the effect is stunning.

Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City (1911) by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The palette of red, orange and tan runs across all seven paintings and gives them a tremendous visual unity. Also note the highly stylised, almost child-like depiction of the human figure, with simplified arms and legs and big simple eyes. The same big wide white eyes with huge jet black irises which appear in Peasants picking apples. This is maybe her core visual style.

Harvest uses Christian motifs. It was inspired by popular prints and the frescoes in Russian cathedrals and takes its images from the Book of Revelation in which the end of the world is presented as a symbolic harvest with the grapes of human souls being gathered and thrown into the winepress of God’s anger.

All in all, surprisingly religious, unironically religious, for an avant-garde artist. It comes as no surprise to discover that room six of the exhibition is devoted to just her religious paintings, featuring half a dozen enormous works she did on Christian subjects, notably four tall narrow full-length portraits of the four evangelists. I can see the way she has applied her distinctive cubo-futurist style to a very traditional Russian subject – I note her characteristic way with big white eyes – but I didn’t really warm to them.

The Four Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Fashion and design

Room four picks up the theme of Goncharova the fashion designer, showing work commissioned from her by the couturier to the Imperial court, Nadezhda Lamanova, in 1911-12. This room also includes work commissioned from Goncharova after the war by Marie Cuttoli, whose design house Myrbor showcased carpets and fashion designs by famous contemporary artists.

There’s a series of sketches from the 1920s, haute couture-style sketches which make the women subjects look as tubular as a Fairy Liquid bottle, with no hips or waist or bust, which were utterly unlike her modernist paintings, and looked more or less like any other fashion sketches for stick-thin flappers from the Jazz Age.

But on the opposite wall was a piece which I thought might be my favourite from the whole show, a study Goncharova did for a textile design in the later 1920s. I loved the vibrancy of the colours and the primitiveness of the design. In fact it’s only one of a series she did using bird motifs but, to me, it was a standout piece.

Design with birds and flowers – Study for textile design for House of Myrbor 1925-1928 by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The Great War

In April 1914, Goncharova and Larionov were invited to Paris by the famous ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to work on designs for his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel. This was presented in Paris to great acclaim and the pair followed it up with an exhibition. But then the Great War broke out, and both were forced to return to Moscow. Larionov was called up for military service and sent to the front line, was wounded within weeks and invalided out of the army.

Goncharova responded to the crisis by creating a series of prints titled Mystical Images of War which brought together symbols Britain, France and Russia together with images from the Book of Revelation and Russian medieval verse. They use her trademark stylisation of the human face and eyes, and throw in the religious iconography which we’ve by now realised was a big part of her psyche.

The fourteen or so prints on display in room five are a really interesting mix of modern warfare and traditional Orthodox iconography, featuring angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary mourning fallen soldiers, and the Pale Horse from the Apocalypse. She chose to create prints in order to reach a broad popular audience with what are, essentially, patriotic rallying cries, which also feature patriotic heroes who defended Mother Russia against invaders.

‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ from Mystical Images of War by Natalia Goncharova (1914) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Books and photos

Room seven is a narrow corridor between the conventionally-shaped rooms six and eight. As in other exhibitions, this corridor makes a good space not to hang works of art, but to place books, pamphlets, photos, prints and posters related to the artist under review, in the long rack of display cases lining the wall.

For this exhibition the curators have displayed artist manifestos, exhibition catalogues and a number of books of poetry which Goncharova was involved in writing or designing or illustrating. The later part of the case displays the ephemera she produced for a series of artists’ balls in Paris, including posters, tickets and programmes. There’s a speaker on the wall from which comes a Russian voice reciting some of the avant-garde poetry included in the pamphlets on display. (It is, apparently zaum or ‘transrational’ poetry, from ‘World Backwards’ by Alexey Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vzorval or ‘Explodity’ also by Kruchenykh.)

Cubo-futurism

Room eight is devoted to another series of cubo-futurist works, highlighting classic Modernist-style depictions of factories and machines and cars and bicycles, all those implements of power and speed which were fetishised by the Italian founder of Futurism, Marinetti.

There are some great pieces here, classic Futurist depictions of machines and factories, a big painting of a bicyclist, another titled Aeroplane over a Train, and a vivid depiction of rowers on the river (which reminded me of the similar treatment given the same subject by Cyril Powers, the British printmaker, twenty years later, as featured in the current exhibition of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art at Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Cyclist (1913) by Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) State Russian Museum © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Admirable though many of these paintings were, I began to be nagged or puzzled by something. Usually in a major retrospective, you are shown samples of the artist’s work throughout their career. Goncharova was established as a leader of the Russian avant-garde by the time of her huge exhibition in 1913, and lived on until 1962, producing works well into the 1950s.

So where are they? Where are all the later works? Here we are in room eight of ten and we are still… only at 1913?

The first eight rooms of this ten-room survey have all hovered around the years 1910 to 1914. Nowhere does the exhibition say so explicitly, but are we to conclude from this lack of later content that her golden years were a brilliant but brief period, from 1911 to 1914 or 1915?

Goncharova in Paris

Only in this, the ninth and penultimate room, do we learn what happened to Goncharova as a result of the Russian Revolution, namely that she and Larionov were on a tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes through Switzerland, Italy and Spain when the October Revolution broke out. The revolution, and then the civil war, prevented them from returning home, and in 1919 Goncharova moved into a flat in Paris that would remain her home for the rest of her life.

This penultimate room contains half a dozen works from the 1920s during which Goncharova received more commissions for ballet costume, some from fashion houses (as mentioned earlier) and a few funky commissions for interior design, including an impressive painted screen made in 1928 for the American patron Rue Winterbotham Carpenter. She did the interior designs for the Paris house of Serge Koussevitsky, exploring the motif of the Spanish Lady on a monumental scale.

When she had accompanied the Ballet Russe in Spain, Goncharova had become fascinated by the clothes of the Spanish women she saw, and ‘the Spanish woman’ became a recurring motif in her inter-war years, maybe because the vividness and ethnic distinctiveness of the outfits reminded her of the Russian peasant look she knew so well.

By far the most impressive work was a huge abstract work titled Bathers from 1922. It is immense, at least fifteen feet across, and reminded me of all kinds of other modernist abstract painters though I couldn’t quite put my fingers on who. First time it’s ever been exhibited in the UK and a coup for the exhibition organisers.

Bathers by Natalia Goncharova (1922)

Ballet designs

Anyway, the point remains – why isn’t there more of her work from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s? You might have expected the last room in the show to cover the later part of her career but, instead, the exhibition takes an unexpected detour to make this final room, arguably the best in the exhibition.

It is a big space which has been specially darkened to create an atmospheric setting in which to review Goncharova’s work for the ballet and the theatre. Lining the walls are drawings and sketches for costumes Goncharova designed for productions of The Golden Cockerel (Rimsky-Korsakoff) and Les Noces (Stravinsky). There are some videos of her costumes and backdrops being used in revivals of the ballets, The Golden Cockerel footage is a silent but colour film of a production dressed in Goncharova’s costumes which toured Australia in the late 1930s.

But the highlights of the room are four or five of the actual costumes themselves, the costumes Goncharova designed for these classic ballet productions, which are featured in display cases around the room. They are all wonderfully bright and imaginative, drawing on the (to us) exotic and fanciful traditions of Russian legend and folklore.

Theatre costume for Sadko (1916) by Natalia Goncharova. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

And, last but not least, the room is filled with music, with clips from the famous ballet scores in question, wonderful Russian melodies filling the air as you stroll from wonderful costume to fascinating set designs, or stop to watch footage of actual performances using Goncharova’s colourful and vivid costumes.

The music, the darkened atmosphere, the videos of performances, and the glass cases of costumes – all make this room completely unlike the previous nine and a very evocative space to be in.

Summary

This is a major exhibition by a leading Russian artist who, for a period before the Great War, epitomised the avant-garde for her compatriots. She produced a lot of striking paintings, as well as pioneering designs for ballet costumes and sets, and a wealth of prints and posters and pamphlets and poetry books.

And yet I was left with two nagging questions: first, from such a profusion of images and designs, not that much really rang my bell. A lot of it was striking and thought-provoking and interesting – but possibly only the design with birds and flowers really set me alight.

The stylised human figures with those big eyes is the nearest Goncharova comes to having a recognisable ‘look’ and I liked it, but only up to a point. I actively disliked its application to the icons and evangelists and wasn’t, at the end of the day, that taken with the Great War prints, either.

Comparison with Käthe Kollwitz

Great War prints by a woman artist made me think of the epic prints created by the German woman artist Käthe Kollwitz. These are infinitely more powerful. Comparing the two made me think that maybe Goncharova was held back by her attachment to the Russian Orthodox tradition and its Christian iconography. Kollwitz, by contrast, has broken free of all traditional or religious straitjackets in order to create spartan images of humanity under stress which still speak to us today with horrifying force.

The Survivors by Käthe Kollwitz (1923)

Then again, maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Goncharova’s works were created at the very start of the war, when it was thought of as a religious crusade, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Whereas Kollwitz’s haunting images were made nearly ten years later after not only bitter defeat, but collapse of the German state and descent into semi-civil war. So it’s not a fair comparison at all. But you can see why, if you set the two side by side – as we latecomers a hundred years later are able to – Kollwitz’s images are vital, a necessary record of a horrifying period; whereas Goncharova’s are an interesting and nice inclusion in a retrospective of her work, but have nowhere near the same importance or force.

Where is the later work?

And second, where was the work from the later years? Are we to deduce from its almost complete absence from this exhibition, that the curators consider Goncharova’s work from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to be poor or sub-standard? Or is it for some reason hard to borrow and assemble for an exhibition like this?

As far as I could see, the only work dating from either the 1940s or 1950s was one medium-size set design for Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, which Goncharova drew in 1954.

Set design for the final scene of The Firebird by Natalia Goncharova (1954) Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

I thought this was brilliant, vivid and fun, in a completely different style from everything which preceded it, like a highly stylised illustration for a children’s book. So is this what Goncharova’s work from the 1950s looked like?

Having devoted eight or so rooms to going over with a fine tooth comb the intricacies of her output from 1911 to 1915 or so, it’s a shame we didn’t get at least one room telling us what happened to her style in the entire last thirty years of her career.

Video

‘Visiting London Guide’ produce handy two-minute video surveys of all London’s major exhibitions. I include them in my blog because they give you an immediate sense of what the exhibition looks like.

Curators

Natalia Goncharova is curated by Natalia Sidlina, Curator of International Art, and Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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

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

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

The twelfth century

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

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

I’m Still Here @ Royal Festival Hall

On the ground floor (Level 1) of the Royal Festival Hall is a suite of rooms rather hidden away opposite the loos and cloakroom. It turns out to be a linear and surprisingly big exhibition space. It is currently displaying artworks from the 2018 Koestler Awards.

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best known prison arts charity. Each year, it encourages over 3,000 people from inside the criminal justice system, as well as ‘secure forensic and immigration removal settings’, to express themselves creatively, and learn new skills by entering work to the annual Koestler Awards.

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

This year there were 7,236 entries. Rather then whittle this down themselves, the curators asked three wives and two families who’ve each supported a family member though a prison sentence, to select the works from this huge array which really spoke to them about the experience.

Since the five groups each chose around 40 works, the exhibition contains some 200 pieces, many of them for sale, many of them profoundly imaginative and moving.

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

There’s a really wide range of styles and types and sizes of work on display, including paintings and sculpture, poems and videos, animation and craft.

Left: Lift by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Left: Life by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle of Life by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Many of the works are done to a very high standard indeed. Anthony Gormley curated last year’s show. This work – Night at the chippy by ‘Brian’- won the Grayson Perry Highly Commended Award for ceramics. In other words, the project has secured the co-operation of some of Britain’s leading artists.

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

I don’t know why, but writing that sentence made me cry. So much talent, so many young lives, gone astray.

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

If you’re passing by the South Bank Centre, make the effort to go visit this exhibition. It’s open from 10am till 11pm, and is FREE.


Related links

Arp: The Poetry of Forms @ Turner Contemporary

Turner Contemporary

Turner contemporary art gallery is on the beachfront at Margate in East Kent. It was opened in 2011, allegedly on the site of a boarding house where the great Victorian painter, J.M.W. Turner, used to stay on his frequent visits to Margate.

Exterior of Turner Contemporary, Margate

Exterior of Turner Contemporary, Margate

Inside the main atrium-reception space-cum-shop is one of the best views I think I’ve ever seen from any building anywhere, better than Tate Modern’s boring view over London, better than the view from the Rockefeller Centre over New York. which I visited a few years ago. The high windows create a frame through which you see the ever-changing movement of the grey sea, the surf-capped waves, the enormous blue sky puffed with clouds and seagulls swooping and wheeling. Apparently, Turner wrote to Ruskin that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’, and on the day I visited it was a believable claim.

View out of Turner Contemporary over the sea

View from the ground floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

The gallery contains a main exhibition space, a smaller space, and education and kids’ spaces. When I visited a ballet/contemporary dance class for under-tens was in action, watchable through big sheet glass windows. The whole place feels big and open, family-friendly and happy.

Jean Arp: the poetry of forms

Hans Jean Arp was born in 1886 and lived till 1966. He was a draughtsman, painter, sculptor and printmaker as well as a notable poet. He was born in Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed borderland between France and Germany, which was seized by Prussia in 1870, taken back by France in 1918, and seized again by the Germans in 1940. His mother was French, his father German and he grew up speaking both languages, using Hans or Jean as necessary, or just ‘Arp’, writing poetry fluently in both languages.

Installation view courtesy of Turner Contemporary, photograph by Stephen White

Installation view courtesy of Turner Contemporary, photograph by Stephen White

Dada

Arp was associated with the Dada movement of the 1910s and then surrealism in the 1920s and 30s. Dada was founded in 1916 by a group of writers and artists as a reaction against the senselessness of the Great War. Arp wrote:

Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts. While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.

Arp contributed drawings and illustrations to Dada magazines (included here). He also contributed his distinctive free verse poems. These were written in French or German, with a high degree of dada/surrealist no-sense, but have been well translated into English and are strangely persuasive.

kaspar is dead (1912) by Hans Arp

Kaspar is dead (1912) by Hans Arp

Object language

Throughout the show are many of Arp’s woodcuts, often in relief, as he laid one outline of wood over another. They are abstract shapes rather than realistic depictions. There are plentiful references in titles to natural objects like birds, cutlery or people, but always these figures have undergone substantial transformation towards abstract shapes and patterns – he seems to have been a natural abstractionist from the get-go. Everything has been alchemised into purer, simpler shapes.

Static composition (1915) by Jean Arp

Static composition (1915) by Jean Arp

The exhibition includes this set of seven ‘Arpaden’ which represent pictograms of simple everyday objects which he suffused with his own meanings and became the basis of an object language which he used for the rest of his life. In particular, the navel (a ring shape) represents nature and the cycle of life, whereas the moustache (apparently copied from images of Kaiser Wilhelm) represents pomposity.

Arpaden (1923) by Jean Arp

Arpaden (1923) by Jean Arp

For such a revolutionary in style is is surprising that he had a surprisingly conservative worldview, a strong belief in nature, believing that art is an extension of natural processes like growth and decay. He was seeking new forms and shapes which gave the sense of having grown, of revealing the essence of life. There are a lot of reliefs made from painted wood which somehow combine the curves of life forms with the hard edge of the wood into a kind of biomorphic modernism.

Der Pyramidenrock (1924) by Jean Arp

Der Pyramidenrock (1924) by Jean Arp

Arp’s titles are playful. They share the same enjoyment of language, of mixing incongruous words and ideas, as his dadaist poetry, examples of which are scattered liberally and amusingly throughout the exhibition.

The cloudpump (1920) by Jean Arp

The cloudpump (1920) by Jean Arp

In fact playfulness and humour, a lightness of touch, are in evidence throughout.

Plates, fork and navel (1923) by Jean Arp

Plates, fork and navel (1923) by Jean Arp

Surrealism

In 1925 Arp’s work also appeared in the first exhibition of the surrealist group at the Galérie Pierre in Paris but this attachment didn’t significantly alter his well-worked out visual language. From the same time he began to experiment with converting the wood-reliefs into free-standing sculptures. The sculptures included in this exhibition appear fully-formed and highly finished, utterly abstract if vaguely zoomorphic blobs, very smooth and self-contained and complete.

Three disagreeable objects on a face (1930) by Jean Arp

Three disagreeable objects on a face (1930) by Jean Arp

In some of these bronze sculptures the smaller blobs are moveable so they can be rearranged to create new works. Très moderne.

In the early 1930s Arp developed the idea of ‘constellations’, using the same shapes or patterns in a limited set of variations and combinations. In his poetry this meant using the same constellation of words in different contexts, to explore new meaning combinations, echoing the endless metamorphoses of the natural world.

Surrealism in service of the revolution (1933) by Jean Arp

Surrealism in service of the revolution (1933) by Jean Arp

In the 1930s Arp also coined the term ‘concretion’ for his zoomorphic sculptures. With typical fluency Arp wrote:

Concretion signifies the natural processes of condensation, hardening, coagulation, thickening, growing together. Concretion designates the solidification of a mass. Concretion designates curdling, the curdling of the earth and the heavenly bodies. Concretion designates solidification, the mass of the stone, the plant, the animal, the man.

You can see how the poetry comes from this fondness for repetition and recombination.

Human concretion (1933) by Hans Arp

Human concretion (1933) by Hans Arp

Way back in 1915 Arp had met the artist Sophie Taeuber, who was also involved in Dada, designing costumes and scenery for their wacky theatrical productions, as well as herself dancing and performing. During the war Taeuber taught weaving and other textile arts at Zurich Art School, and from early on she influenced Arp towards abstract design and encouraged the practical handicraft aspect of the woodcuts and his sculptures. They married in 1922 and lived and worked closely together till her tragic accidental death in 1943.

Arp’s art and poetry isn’t usually very moving. The dry outline of the wood reliefs, the smooth globular shapes of the sculptures, the restrained colouring of his prints, all create a kind of mood of tranquillity, a contemplative, relaxed vibe, which he would presumably have said stems from nature, the source of all creativity.

Coloured prints by Jean Arp

Coloured prints by Jean Arp

Which is why it was a surprise to come across some rather tear-jerking late works. He had previously torn up stuff in the Dada years, and during the war was so hard-up he produced minimal sculptures from waste paper (papiers froissés). But after Taeuber’s death, Arp embarked on a series of papiers déchirés (torn drawings) in which he ripped up and repositioned fragments of drawings by his wife and soul mate. As the wall label says:

The act of tearing Taeuber’s works may be seen as an attempt by Arp to come to terms with his loss and to renew, posthumously, the collaboration that had been such an important part of their life together.

All the more moving for being so under-stated and unemotional.

Collage of torn-up drawing by Sophie Taeuber (1939/47)

Collage of torn-up drawing by Sophie Taeuber (1939/47)

Also during this period Arp came across some drawings which had developed mould. He realised there is no stopping the natural processes of degeneration and death. His poems express the same sense of despair and dereliction, the futility of striving for any kind of artistic ‘perfection’, acceptance of mutability.

On my way (1948) by Jean Arp

On my way (1948) by Jean Arp

Summary

I had only a vague sense of Arp before visiting this exhibition, but now feel I know a lot more about his work, his key ideas and motivations, about his personal life and – the biggest surprise of the show – the fact that he wrote poetry, and really enjoyable poetry at that. Thanks to Turner Contemporary for including the translated poems on the walls rather than just in the catalogue – giving them the same size and priority as the art works.

Installation view of Arp: The Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary

Installation view of Arp: The Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary

This is a lovely show, a revelation for anyone who, like me, wasn’t that knowledgeable about Arp. It’s unbelievable that such a thorough and interesting survey is FREE!

And, after being lulled into a zoomorphic, nature-inspired, seraphic mood – you step out of the gallery and into the first floor landing where this amazing view awaits. It’s an all-round lovely experience.

View from the first floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

View from the first floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

Related links

Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews, along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary-minded essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, to identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format, first published in 1998. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start, to an deleted passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. For a start, it is an eye-opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the twentieth century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left-wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker and more.

Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long, notes explaining the background of each of the magazines in question and Orwell’s relation to them – for example, including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell, when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News Reviews, generally describing the political situation, which were broadcast to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these). But he also worked on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute – and so on.

Orwell quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join the left-wing newspaper Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. To take a random selection, subjects included: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising, and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants who forbid admission to non-whites, which sounds very relevant to our own race-conscious times.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, Letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview thus:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is no longer possible; only a Socialist revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human decency and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is very interesting to learn that this tendency, the tendency of all his writing to return to the same fundamental issue, was noticed at the time. The book includes the first ever sustained essay written about Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s leading reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government… Insidious persuasion is his method… (Davison pp.375, 377, 379)

In the light of the enormous effort Orwell poured into his writings, it seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of what he predicted actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific, at the same time! In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a decade of the end of the war into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell fails to see this coming because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. It comes out strongest in the novels whose protagonists routinely despise American consumer culture, despise soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. This cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made Orwell underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’ as the war draw to an end – i.e. not only the survival, but the triumph of the kind of consumer capitalism he despised and thought was doomed, and the concomitant flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The totalitarian mind-control which remodelled human nature to render it supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves – this never happened. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and its control of Eastern Europe, there was samizdat literature, there were dissidents, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in the 1970s, setting up Charter 77.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war had turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist Revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

And although I wanted to like Orwell, as I read through these pieces I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with him, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416) – an opinion of purely historic interest to us today. He speculates that, if four-letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, put simply, it triumphed and defeated communism around the world. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, the English language looks alive and kicking to me today.

And quite often not only does his journalism reference one or more elements of the worldview I summarised above, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (Written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political and social and cultural prophet, Orwell is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not today face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then, society was also grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation we find ourselves in now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia for a large percentage of the population.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, and millions of blogs like my one, has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

On the plus side Orwell’s journalism offers trenchant commentaries on particular events of his day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics. It contains thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. This volume amounts to a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Maybe the best way of seeing all these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves often suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought-control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader can’t help but think of hos these ideas will end up informing his great novel.

In this respect, Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he was lucky enough to find an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And lucky that he managed to complete his masterwork, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s.

That he was able to finish the book which is one of the great masterpieces of the century was partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades – as the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book testify.

This book contains scores of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a great pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

Another major theme which emerges is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the left-wing orthodoxy in the England of his day. Barely a page goes by without some withering criticism of left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control doesn’t come from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from his actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to vilify, arrest, torture and execute all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia because they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’,because they wouldn’t accept its criticism of Soviet policy. And when the book was eventually published, it prompted negative reviews from most of the left-wing press as well as personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain.

And he realised – It could happen here. It could happen here because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class had given its heart to a foreign power and to a Great Leader who they slavishly believed would transform the world and make them happy. And because the left-wing intellectuals have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he routinely criticises the Tories, whether in or out of power, the lies of the right-wing press, and has harsh words for the Catholic church’s instinctive support of all right-wing causes – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. The real enemy is the slavish devotees of Stalin’s Soviet communism.

Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

Now readers up-to-speed with left-wing politics in general and the tortuous situation of the 1930s in particular, Orwell is making subtle and important points. How many people would that have been? As an indication, some of Orwell’s books only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. But to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, locking up, torturing and executing your opponents and imposing totalitarian mind control. In other words, his calls for a Democratic Socialism only really mean something to someone who already knows quite a lot about left-wing politics and can distinguish between its multiple strands and traditions.

Political correctness

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

‘One cannot be politically orthodox.’

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. While I was reading the book and thinking about the issues it raises, the resignation was announced of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing an article in the Sun newspaper about British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject matter – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues – if anyone in the world was going to be politically correct and careful what they say, you’d have thought it would be Labour’s equalities spokesperson. If even she can’t speak casually and openly on certain subjects, then the rest of us better keep quiet.

The peril doesn’t come from the Right. I can say or write whatever I like about Donald Trump or Theresa May, I can insult Brexiteers or English nationalists till the cows come home, and I will be praised in the mainstream media. It is the Left which has erected certain orthodoxies, certain ‘correct’ attitudes, which anyone writing, or even talking out loud, must be careful to comply with.

To repeat – I make no comment whatsoever about the subject raised in Champion’s Sun article – I am just pointing out that her resignation shows that we live in a time of powerful orthodoxies which you infringe at the risk of your job and your career – and that I find Orwell’s thoughts about the impact of unquestioned orthodoxies on freedom of speech and imaginative literature far more relevant to our present-day situation than his more directly political analyses.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

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.

Related links

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

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