The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


Related links

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 ‘trilogy’ describing 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
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
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 fastpaced 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 vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

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 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
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

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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
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 spare, 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

1980s
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
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
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

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (1974)

This is a good, deep and thoughtful novel even if, in the end, you disagree with some of its ideas and aims.

It is a) set in the far future, b) in a solar system far, far away, and c) starts off as a variation on the age-old science fiction theme of the innocent who arrives in a new world / new civilisation, notes the myriad of ways in which it is different from his home country / civilisation, and then slowly realises he is a pawn in a murky geopolitical power-play.

At various moments it reminded me of some of the earliest science novels such as Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy in which a sleeper wakes into a drastically changed human society and spends the rest of the book being lectured about the badness of the bad old days, or HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes where a Victorian man wakes in the far future to discover not only that an entire cult has built up around him, but that society is fiercely divided into haves and have-nots and his very awakening triggers a violent revolt by the underclass.

In this novel a naive idealist goes to a more sophisticated future culture and finds himself triggering a major revolt of the long-suffering underclass, which is put down with bloody violence. So at moments I had a strong sense of deja vu.

Urras and Anarres

In this variation of the theme, there are two sister planets, apparently of the ‘Cetian’ system, named Urras and Anarres, which (seem to) orbit each other and so appear as each other’s moons.

Both are occupied by human-type entities, who in fact refer to themselves as Mankind. (There are teasing references to two other planets beyond the immediate system, Haina and Terra, the latter presumably being ‘our’ Earth: only towards the very end of the book do we learn – from the Terran ambassador no less – that Terra is indeed our earth, that it is eleven light years from Tau Ceti, that humanity almost destroyed itself and has ravaged Earth’s environment, and was only saved by the arrival of the more advanced Hainish. There is some intriguing speculation that at some point in the remote past all these planets were colonised by humanoids – which would include Earth, p.119.)

Anyway, these are just intriguing grace-notes of the kind science fiction writers love teasing their readers with and science fiction readers love working up into elaborate theories.

More central to the story is that 170 years before it begins, technology on Urras led to the development of spaceships which could voyage to its ‘moon’, Anarres. The first arrivals were disappointed to discover the supposedly green planet was in fact a mostly windswept desert of dust, where only rare regions had even low-lying trees, where there were no birds or land animals, for life was still at the fish stage.

Initially, the Urrasti mined the new planet, sending back metals and petroleum which had become rare on Urras due to over-development. But some kind of social revolution was taking place on Urras, led by a woman philosopher and social reformer named Odo. Odo developed a pacifist, anarchist, communitarian, vegetarian, holistic philosophy in several books – the Prison Letters and the Analogy (p.74) – and her teachings spread, threatening to undermine the materialist Urrasti way of life, leading to ‘the Insurrection’ in the year 747. (Odo had a husband, mentioned once, Aseio, p.157)

And so the authorities – ‘the Council of World Governments’ (CWG) – on Urras realised a clever way to square the circle would be to pack off the entire sect of ‘Odonians’ to their ‘moon’, where they could put all their utopian visions into practice, and also continue to provide the raw materials Urras required.

And so, over a course of 20 years, some million Odonians were ferried up to Anarres, at first settling what became the capital city, Abbenay (which means Mind in the new language they began to use), slowly moving out to colonise the other regions (and discovering just how barren and inhospitable Anerras is).

Shevek

And it’s at this point that the narrative opens, focusing on the experiences of the young Anarresti physicist, Shevek. It opens with Shevek boarding one of the rare (only ten or so a year) cargo flights which travel from Anerras back to the ‘mother’ planet, Urras. The populations of the two planets remain in touch, but – as you might expect – as their social systems, languages and customs have diverged, so suspicion and reserve have arisen on both sides. (In fact, again only towards the end of the book, we learn that the emigration involved signing certain Terms of Settlement which mandated that no Urrasti were allowed off their occasional cargo ships.)

The narrative proceeds by alternating chapters describing Shevek’s arrival on Urras, with others giving flashbacks to his childhood, boyhood, and young manhood on his home planet. This sounds like a gimmick but it works wonderfully well, in the second half of the novel the alternating timezones create a powerful rhythm and create a deepening emotional connection with the supremely clever but naive, idealistic and yet troubled Shevek.

In other ways, it is is slowly, through the slow revelation of Shevek’s backstory and experiences, that the book reveals its depths.

Initially, we are led to believe that Anarresti society is a Utopia – a non-materialistic, communal society, where there is so little personal property that there aren’t even personal pronouns (no ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ or ‘her’s), where children are raised communally, where everyone works voluntarily and eats freely from the communal refectories, there is no profit motive and no power complexes, in fact no government, just ‘syndicates’ which specialise in particular areas of work, and a central administration of the division of labour (DivLab) which uses computers to organise the population’s work rotas.

‘We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners.’

If they are mostly brain workers, then every tenthday (they don’t have seven-day weeks, they have ten-day ‘decads’) they will be rotated to some kind of manual labour. They speak Pravic, a language invented to be rational and without all the words for possession, ownership and exploitation. Anyone beginning to display such tendencies is (mildly) criticised for being a ‘propertarian’, or told to ‘stop egoising’ and put the community first.

The sexes (there are two sexes, named men and women) are completely equal, participate equally in work and decision making and scientific study etc, and sex is easy and casually available as and when couples feel the need, with no shame or taboos. If couples partner up, fine, if they break up, fine, just as Shevek’s parents split up when he was small, and he was brought up in a communal centre.

Because Anarres is relatively impoverished, there is no waste and everyone lives frugally. Because there are no land animals, everyone is vegetarian.

In other words, Anarres – at least to start with – has very much the feel of a hippy Utopia circa 1974.

Shevek on Urras

When Shevek arrives by rocket on the mother planet Urras – heralded as ‘the first visitor from the moon in 170 years’ – he of course discovers that, although its inhabitants have more goods and services, their society is unrecognisably different from his communal homeland. Urrastis are ‘propertarians’, society is ruled by the profit motive, everyone has titles and formal terms of address (unlike the simple one-word names of Anerras which, we learn, are allotted by computer).

The first time he is taken to the two-mile-long shopping street – Saemtenevia Prospect in the capital city, Nio Esseia (p.110) – Shevek is made physically ill by the excess and the waste.

And so on. As is standard with this kind of ‘innocent abroad’ narrative, we are made to see the corruption, waste and greed of our own wretched capitalist system via a description of a supposedly ‘fantasy’ civilisation as seen through the eyes of an archetypal outsider.

As well as the fondness for titles and possessive pronouns, Shevek discovers (i.e. Le Guin satirises) various other aspects of Urrasti-American culture. Shevek discovers that women on Urras are second-class citizens, very much confined to the home as housewives, and banned from the university, which he finds unnerving and bizarre.

He can’t believe the staggering scale of the conspicuous consumption, the myriads of different clothes, along with the numerous forms of address and politeness, none of which exist on simple, honest Anerras.

He is appalled at the way everything is packaged and wrapped, even the wrapping paper is wrapped in wrapping paper. Waste upon waste.

He goes to the theatre and doesn’t understand the play which is full of snide references to copulation which never actually mention the fact; everyone titters and guffaws but he doesn’t understand their hypocritical shying away from the basic facts of life.

He goes to a museum and is appalled by all the relics of bloodthirsty barbarity it contains.

Shevek the physicist

The institution of the University looms large and makes me realise I haven’t yet explained that, as well as some trade between the two planets, there is also intellectual exchange, and that Shevek is an intellectual prodigy.

The descriptions of his childhood are used to explain Anerras’ utopian social structure to us, but also to bring out Shevek’s unique vision, his intellectual precocity. We are shown Shevek quickly outdoing his college teachers, one of whom in particular – the sneaky Sabul –  suffers from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the much better-endowed intellectuals of the richer, larger mother planet, and so sends some of Shevek’s graduate work back to academics on Urras.

It is this – Shevek’s intellectual promise – which leads to the invitation from leading academic figures on Urras to visit them, to take a rocket journey back to the home planet, and to the extended passages where the disorientated visitor is shown round this brave new world by his hosts – all this allowing Le Guin to make her points about the unattractiveness of materialism, capitalism, conspicuous consumption, the oppression of women which this simple, honest, open man is introduced to.

Politics

But again, as you might well expect for this kind of storyline, there is trouble in paradise. We slowly learn that Urras is divided between two power blocs, the runaway capitalism and conspicuous consumption of A-Io, and a rival state named Thu, an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Ring any bells? It would have done in 1974, when this aspect of the story would have been an obvious reference to the way the world was divided between two rival superpowers, super-capitalist USA, and the ruthlessly authoritarian Soviet Union which practiced every kind of tyrannical practice in the name of the ‘proletariat’.

It turns out that the scientists – and so the political leaders – of A-Io and Thu have both realised that Shevek’s physics is teetering on the brink of a major breakthrough in the understanding of spacetime, a new theory called ‘transilience’ which could, potentially, lead to the development of vastly more powerful forms of instantaneous communication and maybe transportation across stellar distances.

Thus, as you might have predicted, on one level the novel turns into a kind of Cold War thriller, in which Shevek – who had naively come back to the mother planet seeking to establish ‘brotherhood’ and a new understanding (p.121) – slowly realises that his smiling, obliging hosts in A-Io are after his knowledge, but so are agents of Thu who have been sent to ingratiate themselves with him, namely Dr Chifoilisk who tries to persuade him that Thuvians are revolutionaries, like the Odonians. He becomes a pawn in the power politics of Anerras.

Indeed, Shevek eventually becomes so disillusioned that he throws in his lot with the inevitable ‘underground’ movement, getting in touch with them in their haunts on the derelict Old Town part of the capital city, and becoming the symbolic figurehead of an immense protest march of the underclass which wins through the city streets to the Capitol Square, where Shevek makes an inspiring speech about brotherhood and solidarity just before state security helicopters open fire on the crowd, massacring unarmed women and children, and Shevek makes a getaway, helping a mortally wounded man to a hideaway in a derelict warehouse where he stays with the man till he dies of blood loss and shock.

This as well, reads like an only slightly paranoid version of the police state many liberals thought America was in danger of becoming in the final stages of the Vietnam War, with mass civil disobedience leading to atrocities by the National Guard.

From that point onwards Shevek freely expresses his disgust with Urras:

‘There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and a wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is `superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box – Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man.’

Utopia and universities

In the preface to this novel, Le Guin explains how she came across anarchist writings, for example of Kropotkin, and found these a more attractive alternative to the more authoritarian Marxism as, indeed, many well-heeled bourgeois academics and writers have. How wonderful to live in a world with no bosses, no state and where everyone co-operates willingly for the common good!

And, at least to begin with, the description of the utopian arrangements on Anerras for work or sex or education or relationships or family or farming or building and so on come across as idyllically simple and fair and soul-building, allowing each to contribute to society voluntarily, how and as and when they wish.

And it is a central flaw or issue with the book that virtually all the characters are intellectuals: Shevek’s school and college career leads straight into a job in the university (though with breaks for quite demanding manual labour); his wife Takver is also an academic, a marine biologist; their friends are writers or fellow intellectuals, and they are all shown having extended arguments about the soul of man, and justice, and property and ownership and communal living and so on. And when he arrives on Urras it is to join the faculty of the famous Ieu Eun university and mix with, yes, more lecturers and professors who spend all their time talking about society and justice and so on.

In fact, although it is regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction, The Disposessed could be considered a sort of campus novel, a tale of two university campuses, and all its lead characters are almost exclusively academics.

He crossed the campus on his way to a lecture. (p.171)

Because Shevek is a young man finding his way in the central chapters about his life on Anerras (aged 24 on p.156 as he falls in love with the marine biologist) and because so much of the book has the feel of an undergraduate debating society, it is a surprise to learn that he has just turned 40 at the point where he decides to take the fateful trip to Urras, and has – by that point – spent over ten years working on the problem of Simultaneity – the General Theory of Temporality.

Towards a subtler picture

The essentially white liberal bourgeois academic milieu and the prolonged and high-minded debates about social organisation and justice sometimes give it the feel not only of a campus novel, but of a very 1970s campus novel, with all the characters, whether radical or reactionary, worrying about the advent of The Revolution as if it’s just around the corner, just the way people used to talk about The Revolution in the 1970s.

And, as mentioned, the book has a lot of rather cliched themes – the innocent traveller to a more corrupt culture and the solitary idealistic figure who becomes the trigger for a violent insurrection.

BUT. But but but… I found the second half of the book steadily improved, grew richer and deeper and – crucially – was less expected and predictable. In the alternating flashback chapters we come to ones which describe a really profound drought which affects Anarres and leads to a disastrous famine. Food is short all over, and Shevek volunteers to go and help with famine relief.

Now we begin to see cracks in the high-minded fabric of the utopia. Now we see people not mucking in together, people behaving selfishly, people trying to protect their own. And, during the extensive description of this time, Le Guin emphasises that the entire communal lifestyle is only possible because it is necessary. Part of the reason there is no conspicuous consumption and waste is because there just aren’t enough resources on Anarres to make very much more than basic recycled cotton clothes, and the dreariest of simple vegetarian diets.

Slowly, in a number of scenes, we come to see that even people raised from childhood in an egalitarian society can become selfish, jealous, snide, threatening and violent, if the circumstances are correct.

These scenes – and the commentary of the characters such as Shevek and his wife and best friends discussing them – are genuinely interesting reflections on human nature in an entirely invented culture and civilisation, coming under pressure.

Keng

Similarly, towards the end of the novel, after the climactic massacre in Capitol Square, Shevek manages to evade the sinister, black-clad security forces, and his friends in the ‘Underground’ smuggle him to the neutral city of Rodarred, where he seeks asylum in the Terran Embassy. (A setting which gives rise to all kinds of intriguing contrasts between the physique of the Anarrasti – big and haired all over – and of the Terrans – slight and smooth). And here he meets the slight, smooth-faced female ambassador whose name, Keng, suggests she is of Chinese ancestry.

Here a number of threads are tied up.

  1. Keng arranges with the authorities of A-Io that Shevek can return to Anarres unharmed (in fact he will be carried there by a ship of the fourth race of humanoid mentioned, the Hainish)
  2. The climax of Shevek’s mission is that he explains that he has developed the theory which could lead to Transilience and a technology of instantaneous communication (it is here we learn from Keng that the planets we’re on are eleven light years from Earth i.e. messages to Terra take at least 11 years there and 11 years back, so instant messaging would transform all the humanoid civilisations). And he asks Keng if she can arrange for the crucial handful of physics equations to be beamed to all the humanoid planets simultaneously, so no one culture gets exclusive use of them.

So they have a fascinating conversation, the slight Terran ambassador and the hulking hairy Anarresti. But what pleased me because it was unexpected and yet seemed psychologically true is that, after Shevek has finished a long speech about how much he now hates and detests Urras and its grotesque capitalist luxury and inequality… what was strangely moving is that the ambassador then makes a speech in which she explains that, from the perspective of the ravaged, ruined Earth, Urras is Paradise!. Sure it has its inequalities and tensions, but her home planet is desolate, barren, a place of ruins and total poverty. At least Urras has life and invention and colour and exuberance.

It’s not a very profound fictional move, but it exemplifies the way this slow-building but eventually wonderful and moving book looks at themes and ideas which, to begin with, seem rather stereotyped and over-familiar, and then subjects them to more penetrating examination than you’re used to in the generally sensationalist genre of science fiction.

Time and meaning

And it’s symptomatic of the way the book leans towards a more ‘serious’ tone and attitude, that the final chapter isn’t triumphalist or doom-laden, it doesn’t end in flames or indeed anything very decisive. Only here, right at the end, do we learn about the opposition stirred up to Shevek’s idea of travelling to Urras among his fellow anarchists and communalists.

Like people everywhere, it turns out that they can be quite as paranoid, suspicious and vindictive as anyone else – Shevek is treated as a traitor, his wife is cold-shouldered at her work, and even their ten-year-old daughter is bullied and victimised at her learning centre.

All this reinforces the metaphysical strand at the heart of the book, that life isn’t a fixed state, happiness isn’t something you achieve and then relax. Life is a continual process, and its meaning derives from the union of past and future in a continual flux.

This issue – the question of the meaning of human existence in an endlessly changing world – maps beautifully onto Shevek’s intellectual concerns as a physicist trying to reconcile two completely different theories of time, he devotes his life to seeking:

the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity in a general field theory of time,

The fact that Le Guin was raised in the home of two successful academics at first glance helps explain the limitations of the novel – as I’ve mentioned – to a cast list mostly made up of academics and intellectuals who spend nearly the whole book having philosophical discussions,

But on the upside, it means that she does manage to capture the feel of academic research, the mundaneness of it. The scene – a sequence of a few days – where Shevek – after a disastrous social outing on Urras where he gets humiliatingly drunk on champagne which he’s never drunk before – tells his servant to close ad lock the doors, allow no-one admission, and then spends day after day sitting at his desk, getting up, walking round, staring out the window and… suddenly sees the solution, the answer, the way to reconcile the two contradictory ways of thinking about and measuring time… this scene for me marvellously captures the joy of silent, entranced, intellectual effort, and its deep rich rewards, as you become aware of your mind unfolding a huge new way of seeing life.

In a smaller but comparable way, it may occur to the reader that, the alternation of the chapters, which alternate between the ‘present’ of the main narrative, and a series of flashbacks – all of which are bound together by a narrative which starts with Shevek leaving his home planet and ends with him returning – in their structure reflect Shevek’s attempt to integrate a linear and a circular theory of time. That the narrative structure in some sense embodies the theory of integrated time which Shevek is working towards…

Conclusion

It’s not a perfect book, and many elements have dated in ways I’ve indicated. But at its core is a really serious attempt to engage with a number of issues – about politics and society, about the possibility of a fair and just civilisation – about the life of the mind – and above all about time and our place in time’s flux – which are rare to encounter in any genre of fiction.

The Dispossessed is not wonderfully written. But it is wonderfully and seriously imagined.


Related links

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 ‘trilogy’ describing 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
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
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 – the florid revenge of Gulliver Foyle, a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport and a terrifying new weapon has been invented
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

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 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 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
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 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
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 a catastrophe on the moon

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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
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?

1980s
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
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
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

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

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Dates are dates of composition.

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


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

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

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Pure Posy by Posy Simmonds (1987)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian newspaper gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse, married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, trying to attend night school while being mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Pure Posy is the fourth and final in the series of collections (given that 1981’s True Love wasn’t a collection but a one-off ‘graphic novel’, following the schoolgirl crush of a naive young woman, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright).

Historical context

Pure Posy brings together 75 Posy cartoon strips from 1985 through to 1987, a period of great historical change. In Britain the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 tore the country apart and polarised political and social opinion, while Mrs Thatcher’s harsh monetarist economic policies saw unemployment continuing at record highs in many parts of the country. And yet those who had jobs, especially nice jobs in the City and service sector, had never had it so good, and thrilled to all sorts of new fashions, big shoulder pads, big hair, jogging, health food etc.

On the international scene the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 was soon followed by the launch of his new policies of glasnost and perestroika which, although nobody suspected it at the time, would lead to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and the collapse of socialist ideology all around the world.

But for the first few years, the ones covered by this strip, all most of us saw was a continuation of the worsening relations between the world’s superpowers and the escalation of tensions which terrified everyone that there might be actually a nuclear war, and which was symbolised, in England, by the ongoing protests by thousands of women at the Greenham Common airbase.


Pure Posy

In general the Posy strip formed a haven away from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported elsewhere in the Guardian newspaper, focusing, as it does, on the domestic concerns and foibles of the Weber, Wright and Heep households, with occasional forays off to meet new, unnamed characters to make other points about middle-class, white, heterosexual, well-meaning liberal Londoners.

As in the previous books the strips are deliberately not placed in the chronological order of their publishing but arranged to create a sort of seasonal progression through one notional year, opening with Christmas-themed strips, and in-between progressing through spring, summer holidays, autumn, and back to Christmas again.

The triumph of Thatcherism

That said the general cultural spirit of the times does hang heavy over many of the strips, depicting the extinction of the old 1960s values of caring and concern, in a welter of greed and materialism.

This is epitomised by a very telling strip from 1986 which depicts a local working-class couple commenting on the changes they’ve seen in their neighbourhood, namely that, in the later 1970s/early 1980s, posh middle-class nobs moved in, all called Gemma and holding dinner parties and hiring au pairs but… they spoke as if they were genuinely concerned about unemployment and the need to invest in infrastructure and the NHS and so on. They were nobs, but they were also ‘sort of middle-class socialists’.

Nowadays a new breed of nobs are moving in, who show all the signs of middle-class gentility i.e. obsession with wine, interior furnishings, hiring au pairs and nannies and having a pretty little place down in the country, BUT… they have abandoned their soft-left scruples: Now they say we’ve got to be realistic about unemployment, they choose private medicine over the NHS, they unashamedly send their children to private school.

In other words, this strip epitomises the success of Thatcherism in making middle-class people across the country feel unembarrassed about making money and spending it selfishly.

This one strip shows how the cosy, rather smugly liberal, soft socialist and feminist and environmentalist worldview of George and Wendy Weber became old hat, old fashioned, musty, irrelevant, marginalised, swept away by a new generation of thrusting young entrepreneurs and money-makers.

This theme is further demonstrated by the ‘Ox and Tiger’ strip in which the Webers are at a dinner table – but no longer accompanied by other bearded sociologists and dungareed feminists – now it’s being hosted by a coiffured chap in stripey shirt and red braces, who looks like a banker out of an Alex cartoon.

The world was moving on around the Webers and they were not moving at all, they were being outflanked and outnumbered, even by their own children (notably their go-getting materialist daughter, Belinda who is given several strips despising their useless, woolly old-fashioned values).

Themes

Changing times / the Weber values becoming passé (9)

  • Pot-head revisited The Webers hire Crispin Naylor, a young fogey down from Oxford to tutor their daughter Beverley. He is astonishingly old-fashioned, dressed in a tweed suit and smoking a pipe, he berates the 1960s generation as the ones who undermined the fabric of society. (The ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was broadcast in 1981. The expression ‘young fogey’ was coined in 1984.)
  • The ox and tiger The middle-aged, middle classes have no idea how they’ve screwed up the world for the unemployed young, who bitterly resent them.
  • W.O.T. For some reason Simmonds coins the expression Wifully Over-Tasked for people who choose to over-work or use work as an excuse not to face relationships or parental responsibilities.

W.O.T. A doctor warns (1986) by Posy Simmonds

  • Fortress Britons Simmonds quotes the famous John of Gaunt speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II (‘This other Eden, demi-paradise..) contrasting the jingoistic words with the reality of a society in which everyone’s afraid of everyone else, has burglar alarms on their cars, persons and multiple locks on doors and windows.
  • Gingerbread without guilt At a very swanky private party given for Stanhope Wright a kind of strippergram arrives, except that she has an odd role, which is to assuage Stanhope’s guilt at revelling in such luxury and persuade him that the party is giving employment and jobs to all sorts of people. She is a ‘guilt-o-gram’.
  • Weights and measures Another strip depicting the fad for jogging, exercising and losing weight, depicting a party of bright 1980s people dominated by a smart woman who shows off how much weight she’s lost… until a very ‘big’ woman joins the conversation at which point they change the subject.
  • Toujours la politesse Belinda Weber’s rich City boyfriend is struggling to write a thank you note to George and Wendy for letting him stay over, and describes the evening to a work colleague, ridiculing George being a househusband, them letting the kids stay up and their general liberal permissive household. Maybe Guardian readers were meant to sympathise with the Webers but the thing is… City boy won.
  • Babaware A balding, paunchy middle-class chap goes to a Mothercare type shop pushing a buggy with a very small child in it and asks an assistant about an item of clothing for it, and the assistant makes the mistake of asking, Is it for your grandson? No my son says the man. So the strip is addressing the (middle-class) trend for men to become fathers older and older.
  • Lunch break An office meeting attended by four men and two women who all appear to be equals discussing business, turnover, profits etc. they break for lunch and the men go to a bar where they’re served by scantily-clad young women, while the two women go to an Italian restaurant where they enjoy being fawned over by handsome young Italian men. Then they reconvene and carry on business. Is this strip making a comment on feminism, or equality, or real gender differences? To a modern reader the most striking thing is that they go to a restaurant for lunch break. Or that they have a lunch break at all.

Women and feminism (7)

  • Rough winds do blow On Bank Holiday the Webers drive down to the countryside to visit friends, but after a stroll through the fields and a drink in a pub, George snaps at his host, and we see him worrying and fretting about his work. Don’t worry, explains Wendy, he’s always like that when it’s his turn to look after the kids. Maybe that’s funny but I thought it just insulted men.
  • The house-keeping A wife suggest to her husband that she stops working (as the dogsbody in an art gallery), they stop employing a nanny, she’ll be able to shop properly and have good hot meals ready, iron his shirts and everything properly washed… then she pulls his nose and says ‘April Fool!’ Presumably this is meant to be funny, because in Posy Simmonds’s view, all men’s deepest wish is to have their wives at home looking after the kids, keeping a good house and so on.
  • A mother’s plea Hand-written in dancing script, this is a letter from the statue of a suckling mother perched high on a plinth over some busy street, about how she is ignored, isolated, mute, passive, and only notice her to call her a single-parent family and a threat to society.
  • Always in the news George is in the front room watching telly with Wendy and two of their older daughters, as the news reports a succession of violent and sexual crimes perpetrated by men, while George – cartoon-style- gets smaller and smaller and smaller until, as the three women tut, ‘Tsk, men eh?’ he makes his excuses and leaves. I guess that’s because all men are rapists, paedophiles and child-murderers.
  • Pictures of the ages Like the Seven ages of women and the Seven ages of men cartoons she drew, this wordless strip shows the progress of a woman in twelve pictures from baby to old lady (dressed all in black in a parody of the painting Whistler’s mother [full title ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler]).
  • Long in the tooth Stanhope is in bed with his wife, Trish and for the first half dozen pictures is flossing his teeth which makes a peculiar tic and toc sound. Suddenly his wife says, ‘Stanhope, I want to have another baby before it’s too late’. ‘What’s brought this on?’ asks Stanhope, continuing to make the tick tock tick tock sound of her biological clock.
  • The world turned upside-down My wife remembers reading this strip back in 1987 in its original Guardian context and laughing out loud, it was so true! A harassed secretary, being leered over by her boss, dreams of a world in which women are in charge and men are patronised, touched up and made to do menial tasks, leered at by security guards and building workers etc.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (4)

  • Who worries about the worriers? Looking miserable and exhausted, Wendy walks home with a mum friend and explains how she gives all her energy to supporting her husband, her mother, Benji and Tamsin and Sophie and the babysitter and the bloody car and even the cat… ‘No one ever worries about ME!’

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • An inspiration to us all Having given the kids their tea, Wendy Weber reads an interview in a women’s magazine with a successful globe-trotting woman writers, whose smug patronising tones make Wendy screw the mag up and chuck it in the bin.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum Another ironic reversal: for ten pictures a youngish mum tells Wendy how wonderful it is to finally have her kids off her hands, as they are starting full-time school, painting a vivid picture of what hell it is to be sole carer for young children, and Wendy supportively asks what she’s going to do next, get a job, do a PhD? And the mum dreamily says… ‘Thing is… I thought I’d have another baby.’
  • Cheerful thoughts George and Wendy are in their garden with a heavily pregnant mother, but the conversation soon takes a pessimistic turn as George in particular rants against the horribly violent aggressively materialistic society the new baby will be coming into. Result: general depression.

Childhood and small children (4)

  • The ratings Two youngish children are watching a TV soap in which the characters are shouting and criticising each other, until the voices of their parents in the kitchen get louder and we realise the parents are having a row (she’s accusing him of being selfish and being out every night and leaving her to do all the housework) and so the kids turn away from the TV to watch the squabbling shouting soap which is their parents’ marriage, until the parents quieten down and the bored children return to the TV.
  • Little ones’ lunch A busy strip divided into 4 to six boxes each depicting the various stages of children playing with, putting in their mouths, spitting out, mixing with uneaten food or spitting at their neighbours one of: fizzy drinks, jelly and ice cream, noodles with sauce, chocolate digestive biscuits, stew mash and peas.
  • Men’s talk Two little girls come into a room where two little boys are falling about laughing and eventually find out it’s because one little boy has looked at another boy’s willy. So the girls ask to look at the boys’ willies and themselves fall about with laughter, at which the little boys are aggrieved: ‘S’not funny.’

Men’s Talk by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good sports Little Katie’s birthday party, where the bien-pensant liberal parents are determined to give everyone who takes part in the games presents – although ironically this creates lots of upset and unhappiness because those who genuinely won something are aggrieved that children who didn’t get exactly the same as them.

Divorce

Divorce featured strongly in the previous collection; for some reason it doesn’t feature at all in this one.

Ironies of love (2)

  • Live-in-love Young woman takes her cat to the vet. The cat is furious because after five years of living alone together, the woman’s fiancé has moved in so now the cat is pooing everywhere and generally misbehaving.
  • Moon flush A middle-aged woman is reading a romantic novel (the text of which is given in an unusual font, a type of Courier) and the cat is fidgeting with boredom so she shoos her out into the garden where the cat proceeds to re-enact the ‘romantic’ scene depicted in the novel, with a female cat, till their caterwauling prompts George Weber to throw a shoe at them and the cat scampers inside back to her owner’s lap just as the latter burst into tears at the sad love story she’s reading and the cat sobs at the missed opportunity for a shag.

Sex and adultery (5)

  • Forbidden fruit An ironic reversal of the reader’s expectations, for we find dedicated philanderer Stanhope Wright chatting up a dishy old flame at a Christmas party, and asking whether they can have a quick one for old time’s sake, but, when they sneak outside, it is revealed that they’re both being furtive and ashamed because they’ve nipped out… for a smoke!

Forbidden fruit by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good timing One of the pastiche cartoons Simmonds is so good at, five rows of pictures which depict the four phases of a casual sexual encounter, namely: well before, before, during, and after – and on the left of the rows a bunch of Rococo cherubs hassling one of their number to intervene with an important message. It’s only at the very last picture that you realise they are encouraging him to prompt one or other of the participants to ask: WHAT CONTRACEPTIVE PRECAUTIONS ARE YOU TAKING?’ (Given that this dates from 1986 it’s surprising Simmonds isn’t satirising the Safe Sex / use a condom message, which first appeared in British journalism in 1984.)
  • Just past it That said, this strip from 1987 is about AIDS, featuring Belinda Weber sitting at dinner with her parents and some friends complacently discussing AIDS and how difficult sex is going to be for young people today… until she burst their complacency by suggesting that the AIDS virus has been about longer than people think, like back into the 1960s… at which the smug middle-aged people start panicking.
  • Where there’s a will A long ironic strip wherein inveterate philanderer Stanhope Wright chats up an old flame over lunch and they agree to have a shag, but there’s a snag: wife? au pair? STD!? No, it’s the new neighbourhood watch scheme and the snooping neighbour Primula Stokes. To evade her ever-watchful gaze Stanhope outlines a plan of Byantine complexity and the would-be shagee politely declines.

A writer’s life (3)

  • Nine till five Satire on a woman writer who has to produce a weekly column showing how she puts off all her other chores and social engagements yet still manages to leave it to the last minute and have a massive crisis the night before.
  • J.D. Crouch As far as I can see this is the first appearance of the tubby, middle-aged, bearded writer J.D. Crouch, who will go on to become a regular feature in post-Posy strips (in 1992 Simmonds commenced a year-long strip solely about him and a writer’s life). Here he is in his natural habitat – the book signing – when unexpectedly his ex-wife appears and asks him to sign a copy of the book for: herself who he beat up in 1975, one each for the writer’s she saw him plagiarise (Kingsley Amis, John Updike, Alan Sillitoe, Gunther Grass), one each for the children he has never bothered to visit, one for his former researcher who he was knocking off while his wife lay in hospital… during which recitation Crouch shrinks smaller and smaller until he is hiding under the table. Men, eh.
  • The pleasure of their company A literary party at which a load of writers mill about gossiping about new books, are jealous of more successful writers, criticise book deals and publishing execs and publicity people and generally bitch and backstab, ending with the ironic conclusion that they don’t know why they bother attending them. A strip like this just makes you despise book luvvies even more.

Academia (3)

  • George retires? In the poly canteen George’s colleagues speculate that he’s retiring and in a chorus tell him about the pitiful perks he’s amassed in 17 years working there (a small parking space, use of the Xerox machine, he can claim for cassette tapes on expenses), all of them tending to how pitiful and puny his rewards are, except that… in an ironic reversal… they all reveal that they are madly jealous of these huge perks and tell him he’d be mad to quit.
  • The absent-minded professor George has a nightmare in which he actually really kicks an insufferable colleague he’s dreamed about kicking for years.
  • To whom it may concern George is angry that he’s been asked to provide a reference for one of his pupils without the student asking him first, also that the boy was lazy and rude. At first he types out the truth, but then we see the debate in his wooly liberal conscience as the figure of the student asks what right George has to ruin his life and, slowly, reluctantly, George goes back through his draft revising it and systematically lying.

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (10)

  • Year of the tiger A dinner party where most of the guests are lamenting how awful 1985 (the year of the Ox) was but how they’re looking forward to 1986 (year of the Tiger) and proceeding to chunter on about the new vintages of Bordeaux and champagne and so on – leading to an outburst by the posh host’s son. An unshaven man who points out that he and his girlfriend are unemployed. They represent the new year and the anger of the tigers.
  • Union Jakes In the Brass Monk pub the Weber’s are discussing Britain with some Americans and the conversation somehow gets onto toilets and toilet humour and the assembled Brits make fools of themselves by trotting through the amazing gamut of slang expressions we have for toilets and crapping.

Union Jakes by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • New minorities A comment on the spread of health food shops and jogging, Edmund Heep is in a cheap corner shop where his punk sons spot him and encourage him to buy a selection of crisps and buns and lollies, but when they go out onto the street we see all the other shops have become gentrified (‘Croissant Neuf’, the Natural Food Store, the Grainery, Herbalism) and it is they who are regarded as oddballs and cranks.
  • Senses and sensibilities A very structured strip in three rows of five pictures, the top row showing three high street shops, including clothes, burgers and records: in the next row pedestrians experience the five sense of sight (nice looking clothes), smell (of fired burgers and chips), taste (people munching burgers on the street), hearing (sounds from the record shop), touch (two women feeling nice clothes). And in the third row is the reaction of passersby to a tramp (unsightly, smelly, distasteful), a busker (unheard) and some vagrants who tell passersby to fuck off (untouchable). This is the kind of strip my daughter (aged 17) read and asked me, ‘So? What’s it meant to be about?’ Maybe Posy’s strips are an early example of ‘virtue signalling’ and reading them was meant to make you feel that, somehow, you more sensitive and caring about the homeless and squalid high streets than anyone else… all without the effort of putting down your newspaper.
  • The Age of REASON A television commentator reports that inhabitants of gentrified Balaclava Road are up in arms because one new incomer has stripped away all the chintzy facade of his house and restored it to being the Victorian artisans’ dwelling (which, we then learn, the entire street, despite their facades, actually consists of).
  • School steps Two teachers at parents’ evening discuss how there’s been a lot of them this evening, them being the parents who fuss about giving their beloved kids extra coaching and tutoring and support and so on and the punchline is that… these are all the signs of over-concerned step-parents. (This 1986 strip is notable for having a non-white person speaking, an apparently Asian male teacher.)
  • What Monet can buy At a house party that posh woman with the big blonde hair and twin pearl necklace we’ve met at her second home and running the Society for People With Second Homes, ribs Wendy because she’s heard Wendy is sending Bev to a private school. No no no no no insists Wendy, however can we expect to tackle inequality and improve the state system if the middle classes abandon it etc etc? But then the daughter in question reveals that she does have a private tutor and Wendy turns bright red with embarrassment.
  • May Day The Webers and children drive through wretched Bank Holiday traffic, the children requiring stops to throw up, everyone getting tired and angry… all to visit George’s mother in her rest home, whereupon she is subtly dismissive of all the presents they’ve brought and moans and complains. Maybe this is meant to prompt ‘the wry smile of recognition’ but I found it simply depressingly accurate.
  • French impressionists A funny strip in which the Webers take some French friends to the Royal Academy and, to the Webers’a amazement, the French rave about the foggy, grey, dull English climate. Really? Yes think of the great masterpieces it has produced and then… they point at some of the shops along Piccadilly showcasing the great names of British art, namely… Harris Tweed, Burberry and Barbour!
  • Smoke signals Bonfire night and three London neighbours have fires which pinpoint their social class: the posh Belpers are burning wood they brought back from the countryside, admittedly with one or two disposable nappies in it; the Timmises are burning an old settee and some shag pile carpet, the Webers are burning old books and magazines and theses (in a symbolic bonfire of so much of the late 60s / early 70s French intellectual content they valued and went out of date like old fruit).

Pastiches and parodies (5)

  • The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas is retold with the king giving a poor collector of wood in the snow ‘Take this sovereign and this tie / This clever bar utensil / And this stilton and this pie / This matching pen and pencil’… and then the strip cuts to some moustachioed club bores telling a silly joke at a modern party.
  • A second cartoon features Good King Wenceslas and his rich party-goers besieged in their castle by four million unemployed for whom they have zero sympathy: ‘Don’t bore us with talk of strikes / Or your whingeing blather / Off your bums and on your bikes / And pull yourselves TOGETHER!’
  • Pilgrimage An extended skit which takes the opening verses of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…’) but applies it to middle-aged, middle class people going on pilgrimage to sanctuaries and health spas.
  • Spring song The text is written in Simmonds’s trademark chintzy hand-written script (technically, dancing script, I think) which tells a jingle (‘As I awoke this morning, I heard a funny thing…’) which is ironically set against poor student Jocasta Wright waking, crunching around in her dingy student flat, and suddenly realising she’s late handing in her dissertation.
  • Household tips from the household gods Not sure it’s really a parody, but the strip is dominated by the Greek gods who give spring cleaning tips on how to clean various dirty areas round the house, like the kitchen floor or the toilet, but give up when – unexpectedly – this includes nuclear waste! A reflection, maybe, of the Chernobyl disaster (26 April 1986).

Second homes (3)

  • Arcadia Also a parody, two large pictures, the first showing an 18th century gentleman and wife admiring a winsome country cottage, the second in the present showing a coachload of tourists turning up to photograph the same cottage, now the second home to rich Londoners.

Old Arcadia by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Different species Rich London family enjoy walking round the cliffs near their second home identifying plants and species until, in the final frame, they enter a packed pub of locals and we are shown the latter’s thoughts, assessing their worth, calling them a blight, and figuring out how to mulch them for money doing repairs and gardening.
  • Turning an honest penny Tresoddit is the fictional seaside Cornish village Simmonds has invented to take the mickey out of the way the countryside is colonised by rich Londoners buying up second homes. The strip concerns Kevin Penwallet, one-time lecturer in anthropology who gave it up to open a shop in Tresoddit but has been forced to abandon all his socialist principles and reinvent it as an emporium of revoltingly twee knick-knacks for posh London mums to coo over and pay extortionate prices. Again, this isn’t funny so much as depressingly accurate.

Christmas (3)

  • The book opens with one big photo showing a Santa on top an open-top red bus yelling ‘Ho Ho Ho’ in the middle of an Oxford Street absolutely thronged with harassed shoppers, even the bus driver looks pissed off, and Wendy Weber is among the throng and yells up at Santa, ‘It’s NOT FUNNY.’
  • The book ends with a sequence of Christmas strips:
  • Thinking of you this Christmastide Notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright is slow coming to bed with wife Trisha. Being Christmas-time, she is thinking about all her relations, making a list of everyone she’s got to send a card to. Stanhope, by contrast, is weighed down by fears about his relations which are, of course, sexual in nature: He worries that he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, maybe even AIDS!!! and so runs through a list of all the women he’s had sex with – Helen after the D&AD awards, Vicki, Penny, you never know. It is typical of Simmonds to be really depressing at Christmas-time.
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page An oddity made up of two big pictures in which you’re asked to spot the difference – except I don’t think there were any differences. Another in which you’re asked to spot the four policemen – except I don’t think there were any policemen in it. Edmund asks three riddles, none of which I thought were funny or interesting. And then there’s a maze the reader has to navigate to help drunk Edmund back to his house.

Teenagers and the Generation Gap (3)

  • George and Wendy’s eldest, Belinda, is moping round the house leading the parents to worry what it could be – break-up with boyfriend? pregnant? herpes? other STDs? drink? drugs? debt? trouble with the police? general depression? But then she comes bouncing out of the loo happy and clutching a box of tampons: she’s had her period and she’s not pregnant.
  • Family planning Trish Wright is showing her step-daughter Jocasta photos of a family wedding tutting about the ghastly relatives. Jocasta says Don’t knock the family, it’s the cornerstone of society (echoing Thatcherite rhetoric), and then ironically goes on to point out how the young couple getting married in the photo will end up having to support a whole array of ageing relatives (as is coming true in our own time).
  • Hair today A young dud with stubble and a ponytail goes into a barber’s who presents him with a bewildering range of haircuts, until the dude says he needs one that will help when he goes home to see his parents to beg for money since he can’t survive on his grant.

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Good samaritans Heep is staggering home drunk in his sheepskin jacket and beer belly, and about to throw up, ignored by decent couples who pass by on the other side of the road when… he is accosted by two skinhead bovver boys who appear to be rifling through his pockets, finding £20 notes etc, but… it turns out they are looking for a 20p piece to open a nearby street lavatory. They find one, pay, help him into it, wait till he’s thrown up, then help him out and give all his money back, and walk off, two modern angels.
  • Giving up An ironic reversal where the appalling Edmund Heep is propping up the bar at some pub and showing off to friends how he’s cut back on smoking by making a cigarette log which he then shows them and reveals.. he’s smoked two packs already that day!
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page as above

Miscellaneous (4)

  • Live from the scene of the tragedy An odd strip devoted to satirising TV news, showing a reporter shoving his microphone in front of someone who’s just witnessed a terrible (unspecified) tragedy, asking how they feel, and the interviewee does what most of us wish they would do in these situations, which is knee the insensitive, crass reporter in the nuts, grab his microphone, and asks him how he feels now!

We bring you – live, from the scene of the tragedy… by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • To a tree Wendy gets furious with the council workmen who’ve come to prune the tree in front of the house, insisting they cut the bloody thing down as it is a magnet for dog poo.
  • A modern alphabet 26 acronyms, starting with AIDS and going through to the Zzzz of a homeless person in a cardboard box, via  CND, GBH, PLO, UB40, and VDU among others.
  • Two American tourists wonder just what it was that stood out most for them on their visit to Britain and trot through a set of clichés – was it the pub, the language, the history and culture, the healthy lifestyle – to each of which, as you might expect, Simmonds gives a typically depressing, downbeat ironic visual counterpoint (the language of Shakespeare is old codgers in a pub, the healthy food is sausage and mash and beans) until they conclude – depressingly – that whatever it was they sure are glad they don’t live here.

Animal liberation and vegetarianism (2)

  • Flying fur Unexpectedly, a strip showcasing ‘speciesism’ in the form of a selection of furry toys in a department store all complaining about how humans exploit them for food, fur, research and so on
  • Only connect Linked to this 1987 strip which has a straightforward vegetarian message, as the lamb joint Wendy Weber serves up to guest starts singing and dancing.

Homosexuality (1)

  • A kind of liberation The one and only strip about homosexuality in the strip’s ten year existence, this is an odd one about George going shopping with a gay friend and how the gay friend camping it up has ruined all the effort George has put in over the years to persuade the proletarian shopkeeper that it’s OK for men to do the shopping and the housework. I couldn’t work out if this is insulting or patronising, but I couldn’t see how it could be considered funny.

A kind of liberation by Posy Simmonds (1985)

Politics (4)

  • The game of happy families The one and only appearance of the dominant personality of the age, Mrs Thatcher, showing her playing a game of happy families with a vicar which is ruined when it’s revealed one of the cards has run off with his PA leaving a one-parent family to sponge on the state.
  • Heresies and blasphemies George and Wendy try to persuade their daughter Sophie to come on a march against nuclear dumping. the joke, such as it is, is that they present it as a duty, and Sophie resents it as a duty, which eerily echoes the pieties and sitting and standing and shuffling round which used to accompany attendance at church.
  • Suffering Compares the suffering of anonymous dark third World figures (war, famine, disease etc) with the suffering of the bien-pensant middle classes who read Guardian reports about it; and the real relief (food, medicine, money, water, clothes etc) is juxtaposed with the ‘relief’ felt by the Guardian-reading classes at how much they raised and donated to charity.
  • Consequences A surprisingly blunt and crude ‘political’ strip in comparing the fates of three drivers pulled over by the police. The rich white man talks his way out of it. The posh white woman gets off, although not without the policeman patronising her (‘Is this your boyfriend’s car?’). And then a black man driving an expensive car who doesn’t even wait for the police to ask if he’s stolen it but drives right out of the strip. Ending with the rhyme: ‘If you drive a motor car… You’ll get stopped, the chances are. But as a rule, you’ll be alright, If you’re male and posh and white.’ I found this crude, obvious and patronising, especially from a writer who includes no black or Asian or ethnic minority characters in any of her strips. In fact, the black man in this strip appears to be the only black person who speaks in any of the ten years of Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strips and his role is – to get into trouble with the police. Can’t help feeling Simmonds deals in stereotypes which are as patronising and clichéd as anything you’d find in the Sun or Daily Telegraph but just that they’re the patronising stereotypes of her tribe.

The end of the Webers (2)

  • Cutting the cord At a barbecue George sees his grown-up daughter Belinda in a huddle with notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright and thinks she must be propositioning him. In fact she is asking if he will ‘give her away’ at the big traditional wedding she’s planning to have, since her ‘principled’ feminist father refuses to.
  • Wedding party politics A strip describing Belinda’s marriage to options trader Mr Alistair Razer-Dorke, humorously profiling all the relatives and guests in terms of their party politics. In fact the wedding is an opportunity for Simmonds to review the key characters she’s created and whose company readers have kept over the previous ten years – and to say GOODBYE. The Posy strip’s time was up.

Thoughts

I showed my teenage, feminist daughter this book and she surfed through a dozen or so strips before handing it back saying she didn’t find anything in it funny in it, the opposite. She said she felt she was being nagged or scolded – a common enough feeling for readers of the Guardian, which after all is targeted at self-flagellating liberals who feel guilty because they’re not doing enough about sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia and the environment etc.

Some of the Posy strips are funny, but many of them rely on this mood or attitude – of taking a perverse pleasure in being told off or lectured or harangued. Of course the reader feels that, because they are being told off, they somehow rise above the guilt and responsibility for all the wrongs and injustice of the world. As if being nagged and lectured, cleanses and absolves you. As if, by reading a bitter comic strip about homelessness, and tutting and tsking about it, you have in any way whatsoever ameliorated the problem of homelessness.

It’s a peculiar psychological state, this state of recognition of some social ill, without any kind of proposal for what to do about it – and it is much the most frequent feeling you experience at the end of reading a strip, far more so than humour or comedy.

But the real story of the book is the way the Webers with their polytechnic-level, woolly soft liberal socialism and feminism and vegetarianism and permissive attitudes and touchy-feely concern about society and everyone less well-off than themselves had lived far beyond their sell-by date.

The strip had become stuck in that world, a world which had become a small island, a leftover of faded 1960s ideas, while the big wide world outside had moved on into a violent schizophrenic situation, caught between the millions thrown onto the dole, especially in the North of England and Wales, by the wide-ranging devastation of British industry, symbolised by the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (not referred to anywhere) – while down in London, the City and related service industries of advertising and TV and publishing had never had it so good, with money cascading out from bankers’ bonuses into holiday homes, and new fashions for clothes and music and foreign holidays, while the escalating tension between the superpowers gave even the most stoic sleepless nights.

Not much of this, the drastically changing national mood, could be captured in the Webers’ homely little world, which is why it was the right decision to kiss them goodbye. And why I admire the cleverness with which Simmonds did it, the book climaxing in the highly symbolic marriage between the Webers’ own daughter, go-getting daughter Belinda – who had repeatedly repudiated and criticised their narrow old views – and rich, posh, public school City banker, Alistair Razer-Dorke.

Simmonds did, in fact, return to writing a weekly cartoon strip for the Guardian for the year 1992-3, and the Webers and a few other characters do, in fact, make a few scattered cameo appearances in it – but it was entirely the right decision for her to end the Weber strip in 1987 and move on to other projects and new perspectives.

Credit

All Posy Simmonds cartoons are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


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The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett (1995)

What a devastating indictment of British character, government and industry! What an unforgiving expose of our failings as a nation, an economy, a political class and a culture!

Nine years separated publication of Barnett’s ferocious assault on Britain’s self-satisfied myth about its glorious efforts in the Second World War, The Audit of War (1986) and this sequel describing how the Attlee government threw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise Britain’s creaking infrastructure and industry – The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities, 1945-50.

I imagine Barnett and the publishers assumed most readers would have forgotten the detail of the earlier book and that this explains why some sections of this volume repeat The Audit of War’s argument pretty much word for word, down to the same phrases and jokes.

And these set the tone and aim which is to extend the brutal dissection of Britain’s wartime industrial failings on beyond victory in the Second World War, and to show how the same old industrial and economic mistakes were made at every level of British government and industry – but now how the ruling class not only ignored Britain’s bankruptcy and ruin during the war but consciously chose not to take the opportunity to consolidate and invest in Britain’s scattered industries, her creaking infrastructure, and draw up plans for long-term industrial rejuvenation (unlike the defeated nations Japan and Germany) but instead piled onto the smoking rubble of the British economy all the costs of the grandiose ‘New Jerusalem’ i.e. setting up a national health service and welfare state that a war-ruined Britain (in Barnett’s view) quite simply could not afford.

The unaffordable British Empire

One big new element in the story is consideration of the British Empire. The British Empire was conspicuous by its absence from The Audit of War, partly, it seems, because Barnett had dealt with it at length in the first book of this series, The Collapse of British Power which addressed the geopolitical failings of greater Britain during the interwar period, partly because Audit was focused solely on assessing Britain’s wartime economic and industrial performance.

Anyone familiar with Barnett’s withering scorn for the British ruling class, the British working class and British industry will not be surprised to learn that Barnett also considers the empire an expensive, bombastic waste of space.

It was the most beguiling, persistent and dangerous of British dreams that the Empire constituted a buttress of United Kingdom strength, when it actually represented a net drain on United Kingdom military resources and a potentially perilous strategic entanglement. (p.7)

It was, in sum:

one of the most remarkable examples of strategic over-extension in history (p.8)

The empire a liability Barnett makes the simple but stunningly obvious point that the British Empire was not a strategically coherent entity nor an economically rational organisation (it possessed ‘no economic coherence at all’, p.113). Instead he gives the far more persuasive opinion that the empire amounted to a ragbag of territories accumulated during the course of a succession of wars and colonising competitions (climaxing with the notorious Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century) whose rationale was often now long forgotten. It was, as he puts it, ‘the detritus of successive episodes of history, p.106.

For example, why, in 1945, was Britain spending money it could barely afford, administering the Bahamas, Barbados, Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands? They didn’t bring in any money. They were a drain, pure and simple, on the British Treasury i.e. the British taxpayer.

India too expensive Everyone knows that India was ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Empire, but Britain had ceased making a trading surplus with India by the end of the 19th century. Now it was a drain on resources which required the stationing and payment of a garrison of some 50,000 British soldiers. It was having to ‘defend’ India by fighting the Japanese in Burma and beyond which had helped bankrupt Britain during the war. Barnett is scathing of the British ruling class which, he thinks, we should have ‘dumped’ India on its own politicians to govern and defend back in the mid-1930s when the Congress Party and the Muslim League had started to make really vehement requests for independence. Would have saved a lot of British money and lives.

Ditto the long string of entanglements and ‘mandates’ and ‘protectorates’ which we’d acquired along the extended sea route to India i.e. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt with its Suez Canal. None of these generated any income. All were a drain on the public purse, all required the building of expensive military bases and the indefinite prolongation of National Service to fill them up with discontented squaddies who, as the 40s turned into the 50s, found themselves fighting with increasingly discontented locals demanding independence.

So why carry on paying for this expensive empire?

For psychological reasons. Politicians and public alike though the Empire (morphing into the Commonwealth) was what made Britain Great.

Pomp and circumstance Barnett explains how the trappings of Empire were mostly created in the late Victorian period in order to unite public opinion across the dominions and colonies but also to impress the home audience. These gaudy ceremonies and medals and regalia and titles were then carried on via elaborate coronation ceremonies (George V 1910, George VI 1936, Elizabeth II 1952), via pomp and circumstance music, the Last Night of the Proms, the annual honours list and all the rest of it, the grandiose 1924 Empire exhibition – all conveying a lofty, high-minded sense that we, the British public, had some kind of ‘duty’ to protect, to raise these dusky peoples to a higher level of civilisation and now, in some mystical way, Kikuyu tribesmen and Australian miners and Canadian businessmen all made up some kind of happy family.

In every way he can, Barnett shows this to be untrue. A lot of these peoples didn’t want to be protected by us any more (India, granted independence 15 August 1947; Israel declared independence 14 May 1948) and we would soon find ourselves involved in bitter little wars against independence and guerrilla fighters in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya to name just the obvious ones.

Empire fantasists But the central point Barnett reverts to again and again is the way what he calls the ’empire-fantasists’ insisted that the British Empire (morphing into the British Commonwealth as it was in these years) somehow, magically, mystically:

  • made Britain stronger
  • gave Britain ‘prestige’
  • made Britain a Great Power
  • thus entitling Britain to sit at the Big Boys table with America and Russia

He shows how all these claims were untrue. Successive governments had fooled themselves that it was somehow an asset when in fact it was a disastrous liability in three ways:

  1. Britain made no economic advantage out of any part of the empire (with the one exception of Malaya which brought in profits in rubber and tin). Even in the 1930s Britain did more trade with South America than with any of the colonies.
  2. Most of the Empire cost a fortune to police and maintain e.g. India. We not only had to pay for the nominal defence of these colonies, but also had to pay the cost of their internal police and justice systems.
  3. The Empire was absurdly widely spaced. There was no way the British Navy could police the North Sea, the Mediterranean and protect Australia and New Zealand from Japanese aggression.

The end of naval dominance Barnett shows that, as early as 1904, the British Navy had decided to concentrate its forces in home waters to counter the growing German threat, with the result that even before the Great War Britain was in the paradoxical position of not being able to defend the Empire which was supposed to be the prop of its status as a World Power.

In fact, he makes the blinding point that the entire layout of the Empire was based on the idea of the sea: of a merchant navy carrying goods and services from farflung colonies protected, if necessary, by a powerful navy. But during the 1930s, and then during the war, it became obvious that the key new technology was air power. For centuries up to 1945 if you wanted to threaten some small developing country, you sent a gunboat, as Britain so often did. But from 1945 onwards this entire model was archaic. Now you threatened to send your airforce to bomb it flat or, after the dropping of the atom bombs, to drop just one bomb. No navy required.

An Empire based on naval domination of the globe became redundant once the very idea of naval domination became outdated, superseded. Instead of an economic or military asset, by the end of the Second World War it had clearly become an expensive liability.

The hold of empire fantasy And yet… not just Churchill, but the vehement socialists who replaced him after their landslide general election victory in August 1945, just could not psychologically break the chain. Their duty to the Queen-Empress, all their upbringings, whether on a council estate or at Harrow, all the trappings of the British state, rested on the myth of the empire.

The delusion of being a Great Power Added to this was the delusion that the existence of a British Empire somehow entitled them to a place at the top table next to Russia and America. Churchill had, of course, taken part in the Great Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin which made enormous sweeping decisions about the future of the whole world at Yalta and Potsdam and so on.

Looking back across 70 years it is difficult to recapture how all the participants thought, but there was clear unanimity on the British side that they genuinely represented a quarter of the world’s land surface and a quarter of its population.

Ernest Bevin What surprises is that it was a Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who became Foreign Secretary in 1945, who felt most strongly about this. Barnett, in his typically brusque way, calls Bevin the worst Foreign Secretary of the 20th century because of his unflinching commitment to maintaining military defence of the British Empire at its widest and most expensive extent. He repeatedly quotes Bevin and others like him invoking another defence of this hodge-podge of expensive liabilities, namely that the British Empire provided some kind of ‘moral’ leadership to the world. They thought of it as an enormous stretch of land and peoples who would benefit from British justice and fair play, a kind of safe space between gung-ho American commercialism on the one hand, and the menace of Stalinist communism on the other.

And yet Barnett quotes the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson as getting fed up with Britain’s clamorous calls to be involved in all the high level discussions between America and Russia, calls which would increasingly be ignored as the years went by and which were brutally snapped down during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when America refused to back Britain’s invasion of Egypt and Britain had to back down and walk away with its tail between its legs.

Salami slicing On the specific issue of imperial defence Barnett shows in considerable detail – using minutes and memoranda from the relevant cabinet meetings – that the Attlee government’s inability to decide what to do about defending the farflung Commonwealth set the pattern for all future British administrations by trying to maintain an army and navy presence in all sectors of the Empire (Caribbean, Far East, Middle East) but ‘salami slicing’ away at the individual forces, paring them back to the bone until… they became in fact too small to maintain serious defence in any one place. For the first few decades we had an impressive military and naval force but a) to diffused in scores of locations around the globe to be effective in any one place b) always a fraction of the forces the Americans and the Soviets could afford to maintain.

Empire instead of investment

Stepping back from the endless agonising discussions about the future of the Empire, Barnett emphasises two deeper truths:

1. The 1946 loan The British were only able to hand on to their empire because the Americans were paying for it – first with Lend-Lease during the war, which kept a bankrupt Britain economically afloat, then with the enormous post-war loan of $3.5 billion (the Anglo-American Loan Agreement signed on 15 July 1946). This was negotiated by the great economist John Maynard Keynes:

Keynes had noted that a failure to pass the loan agreement would cause Britain to abandon its military outposts in the Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean regions, as the alternative of reducing British standards of living was politically unfeasible.

A debt that was only paid off in 2006.

2. Marshall Aid While Barnett shows us (in numbing detail) successive British governments squabbling about whether to spend 8% or 7% or 6% of GDP on the military budget required to ‘defend’ Malaya and Borneo and Bermuda and Kenya and Tanganyika – their most direct commercial rivals, Germany and Japan, were spending precisely 0% on defence.

I was surprised to learn that (on top of the special loan) Britain received more Marshall Aid money than either France or Germany but – and here is the core of Barnett’s beef – while both those countries presented the American lenders with comprehensive plans explaining their intentions to undertake comprehensive and sweeping investment in industry, retooling and rebuilding their economies to conquer the postwar world, Britain didn’t.

This was the once-in-a-generation opportunity which Britain also had to sweep away the detritus of ruined British industry, and invest in new technical schools, better training for workers and management, new plant and equipment built in more appropriate locations and linked by a modern road and rail infrastructure.

Instead Britain, in Barnett’s view, squandered the money it borrowed from America (the only thing keeping it afloat during the entire period of the Attlee government) on 1. the grandiose welfare state with its free care from cradle to grave and 2. propping up an ‘Empire’ which had become a grotesque liability and should have been cut loose to make its own way in the world.

Empire instead of Europe

Britain’s enthralment to delusions of empire is highlighted towards the end of the period (1945-50) when Barnett describes its sniffy attitude towards the first moves by West European nations to join economic forces. The first glimmers of European Union were signalled by the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 which proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the basis of the EU as we know it today.

Typically, the British government commissioned several committees of mandarins to ponder our response, which turned out to be one of interest but reluctance to actually join – with the result that a pan-European coal and steel market was forged and we were left out of it.

The episode starkly demonstrated that five years after Victory-in-Europe Day Britain still remained lost in the illusion of a continuing destiny as a world and imperial power – an illusion which was costing her so dear in terms of economic and military overstretch. (p.120)

The following month (June 1950) North Korea invaded South Korea and Britain immediately pledged its support to America in repelling the invasion. The Korean War ended up lasting three years (until an armistice on 27 July 1953). Britain committed over 100,000 troops to what those who served bitterly called ‘the forgotten war’, of whom 1,078 were killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing, in defence of a nation 5,500 miles away – a military deployment which cost a fortune.

New Jerusalem

This prolonged demolition of the whole idea of the British Empire comes before Barnett even turns his guns on the main target of the book – the British government’s misguided decision not to invest in a comprehensive renovation of the British economy, and instead to devote its best minds, energies and money to the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Here Barnett deploys all the tactics he used in The Audit of War:

  • he lumps together these two projects, along with the broader aims of the Beveridge Report (massive rehousing, full employment) under the pejorative heading ‘New Jerusalem’ and deliberately mocks all its proponents as ‘New Jerusalemers’ (Beveridge himself described as ‘the very personification of the liberal Establishment’, possessing the righteousness and ‘authoritartian arrogance and skill in manipulating the press which made him the Field Marshall Montgomery of social welfare’, p.129)
  • he goes to great lengths to show how the entire New Jerusalem project was the misguidedly high-minded result of the culture of Victorian idealism, the earnest religious revival of the early and mid-Victorian period as brought to perfection in the public service ethos of the public schools and which he scornfully calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ – meeting and marrying the ‘respectable’ working class tradition of non-conformism and moral improvement, particularly strong in Wales which produced, among many other Labour politicians, the father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan
  • and how this enormous tide of high-minded paternalistic concern for the squalor and ill health of Britain’s industrial proletariat led throughout the war to a co-ordinated campaign across the media, in magazines and newspapers – led by public school and Oxbridge-educated members ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’, editors, writers, broadcasters – which used all means at its disposal to seize the public imagination

The result of this great tidal wave of high minded altruism was that by 1945 both Tories and Labour were committed to its implementation, the implementing the Beveridge Report of 1942 which called for the creation of a welfare state, for the creation of a national health service free at the point of delivery, and for Beveridge’s other two recommendations – for a vast building plan to erect over 4 million new houses in the next decade, as well as a manifesto pledge to maintain ‘full employment’.

Barnett quotes at length from the great torrent of public and elite opinion which made these policy decisions almost unavoidable – but also emphasises how none of these great projects was ever properly costed (the actual cost of the NHS tripled within two years, far exceeding expectations); and how the warnings of financial ‘realists’ like the successive Chancellors of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir John Anderson, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell) that Britain simply couldn’t afford them, were rejected by the barnstorming rhetoric of the impetuous and passionate Bevan, who established a pattern of making grandstanding speeches about the poor and needy to his cabinet colleagues, before threatening to resign (page. 150) (Bevan did eventually resign, in 1951, in protest at Chancellor Gaitskell introducing prescription charges for false teeth and glasses).

Case studies and proof

As in The Audit of War these general chapters about the New Jerusalemites, the pointlessness of the empire, the arts and humanities education of both politicians and civil servants, and the lamentable anti-efficiency practices of the trade unions, are all just preliminaries for a long sequence of chapters and sections in which Barnett examines in mind-boggling detail how the Attlee government’s wrong-headed priorities and policies hampered and blocked any kind of industrial recovery across a wide range of industries which had already been struggling even before the war started, and now became fossilised in postures of bureaucracy and incompetence.

It is an absolutely devastating indictment of how restrictive government policies, short-sighted and stupid management, and the incredibly restrictive practices of an embittered and alienated working class all combined to create the ‘British disease’ which had brought Britain to its knees by the 1970s. Some quotes give a feel:

The catastrophically cold winter of 1946-47 forced the shutdown of large swathes of industry.

In 1947 the price of food imports, many of them from the dollar area, rose to nearly a third higher than in 1945. As a consequence of this double misfortune [loss of exports due to shutdown factories, huge rise in cost of food imports] plus the continued £140 million direct dead-weight cost of the world role, Britain was no longer gaining ground in the struggle to close the balance of payments gap, but losing it. In the first six months of 1947 more than half the original 1945 loan of $3.75 billion was poured away to buy the dollar goods and foodstuffs that Britain could not itself afford. (p.199)

In fact, there is evidence that it was the failure of the ‘centrally planned’ economy under Labour to supply enough coal to keep the power stations running, and the general collapse of the economy, which did a lot to undermine faith in their competence.

It is striking that in this great age of plans and planners, it turned out that Labour did not, in fact, have a fully costed and worked out plan for either the costs of the welfare state and NHS, and even less so for what it wanted to do with the country’s economy and industry. The only plan was to nationalise key industries in the vague hope that bringing them into public ownership would make management and workers work harder, with a greater spirit of public unity. But nationalisation did the opposite. Because no new money was poured in to modernise plant and equipment, men kept working in crappy workplaces at hard jobs and insisted on their pay differentials. Instead of directing resources to the most profitable coalmines or steel plants, the Labour government nationalised these industries in such a way that the most inefficient were subsidised by the most efficient, and workers across all factories and mines were paid the same wages – thus at a stroke, killing any incentive for management to be more efficient or workers to work harder. The effect was to fossilise the generally poor level of management and incredibly inefficient working practices, at the lowest possible level.

From the start the various Boards and committees and regional Executives set up to run these ramshackle congeries of exhausted industry regarded their job as to tend and succour, not to inspire and modernise, dominated

by a model of a ‘steady-state’ public utility to be ‘administered’ rather than dynamically managed.

But it’s the fact that, after all these years of articles and speeches and radio broadcasts and meetings and papers and research and books, there were no worked-out plans which takes my breath away.

The Labour government renounced the one advantage of a command economy – direct intervention in the cause of remaking Britain as an industrial society. Except in the fields of defence, nuclear power and civil aircraft manufacture, there were still to be no imposed plans of development – even in regard to industries where the need had long been apparent, such as shipbuilding, steel and textiles. (p.204)

As to these knackered old industries:

It was a mark of how profoundly twentieth century industrial Britain had remained stuck in an early-nineteenth century rut that even in 1937 exports of cotton (despite having collapsed by three-quarters since 1913) still remained a third more valuable than exports of machinery and two-and-a-half times more than exports of chemicals. (p.209)

A Board of Trade report stated that between 60 and 70% of its buildings had been put up before 1900. Whereas 95% of looms in America were automatic, only 5% of looms in Britain were. Most of the machinery was 40 years old, some as much as 80 years old. Barnett then describes the various make-do-and-mend policies of the government which had spent its money on defence and the welfare state and so had none left to undertake the sweeping modernisation of the industry which it required.

Same goes for coal, steel, shipbuilding, aircraft and car manufacturing, each of them suffering from creaking equipment, cautious management, mind-bogglingly restrictive trade union practices, poor design, absurd fragmentation –

The chapter on Britain’s pathetic attempts to design and build commercial airliners is one of humiliation, bad design, government interference, delay and failure (the Tudor I and II, the enormous Brabazon). While politicians interfered and designers blundered and parts arrived late because of lack of capacity in steel works themselves working at sub-optimal capacity because of failures in coal supply (due, more often than not, to strikes and go-slows) the Americans designed and built the Boeing and Lockheed models which went on to dominate commercial air flight.

While the French committed themselves to an ambitious plan to build the most modern railway network in the world, high speed trains running along electrified track, the British government – having spent the money on propping up the empire, building useless airplanes and paying for cradle to grave healthcare, was left to prop up the Victorian network of

slow, late, dirty and overcrowded passenger trains, freight trains still made up of individually hand-braked four-wheeled wagons, and of antique local good-yards and crumbling engine sheds and stations. (p.262)

The Germans had already built their motorways in the 1930s. Now they rebuilt them wider and better to connect their regions of industrial production, as did the French. The British bumbled along with roads often only 60 feet wide, many reflecting pre-industrial tracks and paths. The first 8 mile stretch of British motorway wasn’t opened until 1958.

When it came to telecommunications, there was a vast backlog of telephones because no British factories could produce vital components which had to be (expensively) imported from America or Germany. Result: in 1948 Britain was a backwards country, with 8.5 phones per 100 of the population, compared to 22 in the US, 19 in Sweden, 15.5 in New Zealand and 14 in Denmark (p.265). Some 450,000 people were on a waiting list of up to eighteen months meaning that for most of the 100,000 business waiting for a phone to be installed, making any kind of communication involved popping out to the nearest call box with a handful of shillings and pence and an umbrella (p.267).

Barnett

details the same kind of failings as applied to the entire system of British ports: too small, built in the wrong places without space to expand, harbour entrances too narrow, docks too shallow, cranes and other equipment too small and out of date – then throw in the immensely obstructive attitude of British dockers who were divided into a colourful miscellany of crafts and specialism, any of whom could at any moment decide to strike and so starve the country of supplies.

I was particularly struck by the section about the British car industry. it contained far too companies – some 60 in all- each of whom produced too many models which were badly designed and unroadworthy, made with inferior steel from knackered British steelworks and required a mind-boggling array of unstandardised parts. Barnett tells the story of Lucas the spark plug manufacturers who put on a display of the 68 different types of distributor, 133 types of headlamp and 98 different types of windscreen wiper demanded of them by the absurd over-variety of British cars e.g. Austin producing the A40, the Sheerline and the princess, Rootes brothers making the Sunbeam-Talbot, the Hillman Minx, and three types of Humber, and many more manufacturers churning out unreliable and badly designed cars with small chassis and weak engines.

Barnett contrasts this chaos with the picture across the Channel where governments helped a handful of firms invest in new plant designed to turn out a small number of models clearly focused on particular markets: Renault, Citroen and Peugeot in France, Mercedes and Volkswagen in Germany, Fiat in Italy. It wasn’t just the superiority of design, it was subtler elements like the continentals’ willingness to tailor models to the requirements and tastes of foreign markets, and to develop well-organised foreign sales teams. The British refused to do either (actually refused; Barnett quotes the correspondence).

On and on it goes, a litany of incompetence, bad management and appalling industrial relations, all covered over with smug superiority derived from the fact that we won the war and we had an empire.

It makes you want to weep tears of embarrassment and humiliation. More important – it explains what came next. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Barnett explains why the Britain I was born into in the 1960s and grew up in during the 1970s was the way it was, i.e. exhausted, crap ad rundown on so many levels.


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