The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (1901)

This is the seventh of Wells’s classic science fiction novels. He had also, by 1901, written over 60 science fiction short stories. Single-handedly he had created a new genre for the English-speaking world, which was quickly taken up and copied.

It wasn’t just that he wrote a lot, it’s that the early books each tackled, described, thought through and realistically presented some of the founding tropes of science fiction – time travel, and attack by aliens from another world, being the two outstanding ones – which have been recycled thousands of times since.

The First Men in the Moon is not quite in the same league because it didn’t invent the topic of travelling to the moon – Jules Vernes had written a novel on the same theme thirty years earlier (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) and in fact a number of fantasies and romances on the subject had been written for centuries (including the version by Cyrano de Bergerac whose illustrations by Quentin Blake I recently reviewed – Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, based on the Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657).

Also, the mechanism by which they get there – anti-gravity metal – the way it’s discovered and handled aren’t that persuasive. Nonetheless, the story is still compelling because of the detail with which Wells thinks through the practical details, and then with the avalanche of astounding discoveries his heroes make once they’ve arrived on the moon.

Amateur hour

As usual in Wells, the whole thing is managed by an inspired amateur, the notion of government-sponsored scientific research being still decades away, pioneered by the Manhattan project of the 1940s. Instead the story is narrated by a rather disreputable bankrupt, Mr Bedford, who retreats to a bungalow on the Kent coast where he hopes to scribble a best-selling play in order to make a quick buck, but gets into conversation with a neighbour, Cavor, and gets drawn into the latter’s scientific experiments.

The ‘scientific’ basis is simple, or simple-minded, enough. Cavor points out that we now know the universe is full of rays and waves that act at a distance – light rays, x-rays, electricity and gravity. We know of materials which block light and electricity and x-rays. So why can’t we create something which blocks the effect of gravity?

Bedford immediately sees the vast amounts of money to be made from such a material in a hundred and one commercial applications

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres de luxe. (p.27)

So he persuades the rather other-worldly Cavor to take him on as a ‘partner’ and becomes a regular visitor to the latter’s house down the hill, incidentally observing the comic rivalry of the three working class labourers Cavor has working in his various workshops.

An enormous explosion and then terrific hurricane announces that they’ve succeeded in making the new material, by fluke, when a substance they’d been working on was left to cool and obviously crystallised into the material they now christen ‘cavorite’. (All taking place on 14 October 1899, as Bedford records.)

As soon as it came into existence, the cavorite blocked the earth’s gravitational pull from working on the air above it, which meant that all that air – which normally presses down at a pressure of 14 pounds per square inch – ceased doing so but floated free upwards, creating a column of ’empty air’ directly about the square of cavorite. Into this gravity-less tube rushed all the surrounding air which, on finding itself unpulled by the earth’s gravity, also lost its downward force and was forced upwards by the rest of the surrounding air rushing in, and so on and so on, in a split second creating an uprushing funnel of air into which everything not tied down was immediately dragged at tremendous force.

For the few moments that this happened all the air in the neighbourhood was sucked into the gravity-free tube – which explains the sudden hurricane Cavor and Bedford felt – while the cavorite itself was sucked up by the empty vortex and they both watched it soar up through the column, up, up and – presumably – right out of the earth’s atmosphere, at which point everything returned to normal. ‘By Jove, old chap.’

Bedford and Cavor look at each other. This thing could escape the earth’s atmosphere. It could fulfil man’s oldest dream of leaving earth. But how to steer or control it? Cavor goes off pondering and the next day has come up with a solution: encase the cavorite in steel plates and only open the plates to reveal it when you want it to work.

(You can see why the narrator, Bedford, keeps lamenting that he didn’t keep notes, didn’t make a record of the process by which cavorite was made, didn’t follow all of Cavor’s abstruse thinking. This is mostly because Well’s idea doesn’t really make practical sense.)

So they build a sphere, with an inner layer made of glass, then covered in warm cavorite paste, then steel divided into plates. (In fact it’s less a sphere than a polyhedron made of flat plates. And the plates are more, in fact, like ‘blinds’ which can be opened and closed. I’ve always found this quite hard to visualise.) Once everything is in place they heat the cavorite to securely bind it to the ‘sphere’ and then, as it cools, it assumes the magical properties and – whoosh!

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Hering (1901)

The idea is that to steer the sphere you open a plate in the direction you want gravity to cease working and are repelled away from any nearby object (the earth or moon or sun). Once in space, close the plates and you’ll be pulled towards the nearest big object. Like the moon.

Bedford climbs into the sphere and Cavor shows him the blankets, some frozen oxygen in cylinders, some food, an electric light and some carbolic acid device to get rid of the carbon dioxide they inhale and, while Bedford is still pondering whether he wants to go, Cavor opens the earthside shutters, the cavorite works and whoosh! they are flying towards the moon.

It is all quick quick quick to stop you realising what tosh it is, and to enchant you in his spell. Wonder follows wonder. First of all there is weightlessness. Maybe earlier writers had realised we would be weightless in space but Wells gives a very accurate prophecy of what it feels like, the tingling in the blood and the way everything inside the sphere floats around bumping into everything else.

It was the strangest sensation conceivable, floating thus loosely in space, at first indeed horribly strange, and when the horror passed, not disagreeable at all, exceeding restful; indeed, the nearest thing in earthly experience to it that I know is lying on a very thick, soft feather bed. But the quality of utter detachment and independence! I had not reckoned on things like this. I had expected a violent jerk at starting, a giddy sense of speed. Instead I felt—as if I were disembodied. It was not like the beginning of a journey; it was like the beginning of a dream.

They open some of the plates to see where they’re headed and a) are dazzled by the brightness of the sun and b) looking the other direction, are stunned by the profusion of stars, millions more than you can see through earth’s atmosphere.

Cavor makes last minute adjustments and they come to land in a vast crater on the moon. Here the reader is bombarded with impressions. It is dark and the ground is covered in soft white stuff which they only slowly realise is frozen atmosphere. They have arrived just at sunrise over the crater and are astonished to watch the frozen white stuff melt and then evaporate, to form an atmosphere, tingeing the sky blue.

Is it breatheable? Cavor performs the ludicrously amateur experiment of opening the manhole which they use to get in and out and, yes, it is thinner than earth’s but the moon’s atmosphere turns out to be perfectly breathable – no ill effects from sunlight, radiation, burning, toxic gases, nothing! Convenient, eh?

They climb outside and are astounded to watch small pebbles shiver, pop, put out roots, and then stalks. They are plants and shrubs and strange tree sized flora, which grows as they watch. Of course. The moon’s ‘day’ only last 14 earth days. In that fortnight life forms have to spring, grow, mature, produce their own seed, and decline.

But the thing they are most enraptured with is the low gravity. Only a sixth of the earth’s. Off they go springing and bounding in giant leaps amid the surreally growing and blossoming fruits of the moon. Until they realise they have forgotten where the sphere was and, looking back, see only an immense rustling growing forest of moon flora.

It is then they hear an ominous boom boom boom noise from beneath the surface and a grinding as of great gates opening. Not long afterwards they see the first of the Selenites herding a vast slug-like creature with tiny closed eyes and a horrid red mouth which is slurping and munching its way through the foliage.

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Amazement

The aim is to amaze, stun, astonish and astound. The basic, foundational trope of a visit to a strange land is reminiscent of any number of late-Victorian yarns – Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) to the Rider Haggard tales of darkest Africa (She, 1886), or Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger trip to a Lost World (1912) in the remotest Amazon.

But science fiction has the advantage over adventure stories in that it can make things up purely to astound, astonish, shock, disgust and amaze the reader.

Because the text is available online, it is searchable, and so I searched and counted 415 exclamation marks, as the characters, and the author, continually signal their amazement at their astounding discoveries!

For fun I searched all the instances of the word ‘amazing’.

It comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.

[Cavor’s workshop] looked like business from cellar to attic—an amazing little place to find in an out-of-the-way village

It was an amazing piece of reasoning. Much as it amazed and exercised me at the time.

And then, sudden, swift, and amazing, came the lunar day.

With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air.

Cavor panted something about ‘amazing sensations’.

What the Selenites made of this amazing, and to my mind undignified irruption from another planet, I have no means of guessing.

Amazing little corner in the universe—the landing place of men!

… returning after amazing adventures to this world of ours.

There were several amazing forms, with heads reduced to microscopic proportions and blobby bodies.

Amazing and incredible as it may seem, these two creatures, these fantastic men insects, these beings of other world, were presently communicating with Cavor by means of terrestrial speech.

To amaze is ‘to cause someone to be extremely surprised’. Synonyms for ‘amaze’ give a sense of the goal or aim of Well’s fantasies (and of the thousands of pulp sci-fi writers who followed him):

astonish, astound, surprise, bewilder, stun, stagger, flabbergast, nonplus, shock, startle, shake, stop someone in their tracks, stupefy, leave open-mouthed, leave aghast, take someone’s breath away, dumbfound, daze, benumb, perplex, confound, dismay, disconcert, shatter, take aback, jolt, shake up

Taken prisoner

Our heroes sneak away from the ghastly apparition of the Selenite and realise they are hungry. Not having any provisions from the sphere they are driven by desperation to nibble one of the growing ‘trees’ and Wells gives quite a humorous account of the way that the ‘food’ does them no harm but makes them both very drunk. Through their drunken bickering they are aware of Selenites surrounding them and of some kind of struggle, then it all goes dark.

They wake up with hangovers in a dark cell in handcuffs and shackles. One or two individual Selenites come to see them before they are raised to their feet and led by a posse of Selenites, some of whom are carrying the sharp spiked goads they’d seen one using to get the big fat mooncalf moving.

They are taken through caverns measureless to man, and past enormous machinery which appears to be pumping out some kind of liquid which glows blue and provides illumination, here under the surface of the moon. Cavor speculates wildly that there may be a whole civilisation here, under the surface of the moon. Maybe networks of caverns descending via tunnels down to some inner sea.

When they come to a narrow plank going out over what appears to be a vast bottomless pit, Bedford rebels. One of the Selenites gods him with the spiky implement and he sees red. He punches the Selenite and is astonished to watch his fist go right through its head and out the other side. They are far less sturdy and strongly made than humans. Before he knows it he is attacking all of them and then grabbing Cavor to make a getaway.

This is actually the turning point of the book, because the rest of the main narrative describes their escape back to the surface of the moon. As you can imagine it involves climbing up clefts and stumbling into vast caverns and a lot more fighting, with the unpleasant discovery that the Selenites have a sort of crossbow which fires spears.

Nonetheless they finally blunder out into a huge circular shaft with a spiral steps running up the outside (the kind of thing we’ve all seen in sci-fi and fantasy movies) leading up to the surface. Up it they run, emerging into the lip of a ‘crater’ and they now understand that the moon’s craters are in fact an immense network of circular ‘lids’ which can be retracted to reveal the labyrinth of tunnels create by Selenite civilisation.

The sun is visibly waning: some 14 days have passed underground though they haven’t noticed. Where is the sphere? Afflicted by despair as they survey the vast area of lunar foliage, now visibly browning and declining, they pin a handkerchief to a nearby bush and set off to explore in opposite directions, taking vast moon leaps as they go.

Nearing exhaustion and plagued by fear that search parties of very angry Selenites will be out after them, Bedford is on the brink of giving up when he is momentarily dazzled by a shaft of light and realises it is sunlight reflecting off a panel of the sphere. Weeping with relief he bounds over and confirmed it’s true. But what of Cavor? He leaps to a nearby peak and shouts Cavor’s name but – as Wells had pointed out from the first (in the kind of scientifically accurate detail which are such a joy of these stories) moon air is a lot thinner than earth air and so sound doesn’t carry very well: even when they’re shouting at each other it sounds like they’re whispering.

He can see the hankie in a bush a few miles away and so leaps over towards it. Here he yells Cavor’s name again, then looks down and sees an archetypal adventure story sight: broken bushes, churned up soil, all the signs of a struggle. Going down he finds a scrap of paper in which Cavor has hurriedly written that he’s hurt his knee in landing awkwardly in a ditch and can hear the Selenites closing in, any moment they’re going to -…

And here his message breaks off and the paper is marked by… a red liquid!!!!

They’ve got him. The crater is closed. All entrance to the interior is blocked off. The sun has almost set. Bedford realises he must save himself. I found his flight back the sphere quite gripping. Wells convincingly describes the sudden cold as the sun declines, the air grows thin and cold and then the first snowflakes will fall. The temperature will ultimately drop to Absolute Zero and Bedford will freeze to death unless he can make it to the sphere. At last he is there. Crawling on hands and knees. Barely strength to reach up to the manhole, Twists. Can’t do it. Twists again. Pulls himself up and is… inside!

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

Food. Blanket. Warmth. Recovery. Sleep. Wakes rejuvenated. Grasps the grim reality of his situation. Opens the cavorite plates. Silently flies into space. More by luck than judgement he steers a course back to earth.

In an outcome is so ludicrous it is like a pantomime, he not only lands back on earth, but he lands back on the south coast of England barely a few miles from where they took off. On the sea but by a beach. Some jolly chaps are coming down for their morning swim. ‘Crikey, old chap, you look a bit peaky let us take you up to the old hotel.’

Here he tucks into bacon and eggs and is drinking coffee when there’s an explosion and bewilderment outside the door. Some young land had accompanied the chaps taking dirty dishevelled Bedford up to their hotel. He’d looked a bit shifty. The young wretch must have gone back to the sphere, climbed in and opened a plate. Damn and blast! There go Bedford’s dreams of setting up an interplanetary travel agency.

But he still has the gold. Did I mention the gold? Amid their adventures Bedford had realised that the shackles and manacles the Selenites had bound them with were of gold. He had grabbed a couple of tyre lever size gold rods during their breakout, in fact he’d found them handy for fighting their way through the Selenites.

At least he still has them. He is rich.

A coda from Cavor

Wells could have stopped his tale there. Instead, there is a coda which takes up a surprising amount of space, pages 150 to 186 in the Everyman paperback edition. To the outrage of all common sense, a Dutch electrician and early radio ham, picks up radio messages… from the moon! Yes, Cavor was captured, as Bedford had described: but his captors were kind to him, and, once he’d recovered, they took him on a Cook’s Tour of their vast civilisation. Part of this was learning that there was an apparently infinite variety of types of Selenites and soon Cavor was being introduced to the brainy ones: he could tell they were brainy, because they had very big heads! Big heads and thin skins so he could actually see the brain matter pulsating as they thought their deep thoughts.

Turns out some of them are specialists in language and set down to study Cavor who quickly catches on and starts to teach them English. Thus, within a few weeks, Cavor is communicating with the Selenites who take him on a tour of their civilisation, explain how it all works, confirm that the moon is a swiss cheese of underground caverns and passages, that the phosphorescent liquid and much else is produced by immense machinery, that at the centre of the moon there is indeed a vast and tempestuous sea – and much more besides.

These visions of an alien civilisation, as so often, develop a strong flavour of being social criticism of the author’s own civilisation. Cavor discovers that the Selenites breed all the different types of workers in the equivalent of test tubes, distorting all aspects of their bodies and brains to suit them to the work they’re destined for. (Anticipating Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by 30 years).

Harsh? Yes, he is a bit disgusted by it but, especially one particular sight of an embryonic Selenite having its forelimbs artificially lengthened to do manual work, but – and here is the Author’s Message –

of course it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.

On another occasion his guides – the preposterously named Phi-oo and Tsi-puff – brings him to a great field of mushrooms being grown for food, where they find all the workers drugged and fast asleep, until they are needed for the harvest when they’ll be woken. Again, the character Cavor becomes a mouthpiece for the Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells:

To drug the worker one does not want and toss him aside is surely far better than to expel him from his factory to wander starving in the streets

Cavor’s tour climaxes with a presentation to the Grand Lunar, Master of the Moon – at which point the book definitely feels more like a lampoon or a parody than a ‘serious’ fantasy. Except that here it reaches a kind of height of teenage socialism Cavor radios back a lengthy version of his interview with the Grand Lunar which begins with harmless stuff about the structure of the earth, why we live on the surface and not underneath like the Selenites, what weather is like in a place with 12 hour days, and so on. Little by little Cavor describes human civilisation, cities and factories and trains, how we do not breed different types of human to perform different tasks, not yet anyway.

But, when asked whether there is a Grand Earthly as there is a Grand Lunar, he finds himself having to explain the idea of nations and empires and, before he realises it, is describing ‘war’ which fills the Grand Lunar and the huge entourage of Selenites listening to Cavor’s account with horror. Yes, wars in which men flock to the flag, train and arm and proudly wear uniforms before clashing in huge armies designed solely to kill as many of the opponents as possible. As he proceeds he realises the moans of disappointment and disillusion rising from the crowd and the ‘expression’ on what passes for the Grand Lunar’s face.

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

A week later comes the final broadcast which is a panic-stricken sentence, ‘I was mad to let the Grand Lunar know – “. And then a few words attempting to convey the secret of cavorite. Then silence.

Beckford imagines the dismay Cavor’s revelation about the true nature of human beings must have caused, and how the mood turned against Cavor, and especially the risk that he might bring more members of this violent conquering species to the moon.

Which all remind me very much of Gulliver’s Travels in which our hero proudly describes human behaviour to the King of Brobdingnag, who replies, accurately enough:

‘I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’

True or not, the point is that, bolted on to the science fantasy, this coda reads very much like a variation on the time-honoured satire on contemporary civilisation and, by extension, of human nature, which goes back before Swift to Thomas More’s Utopia and before that to any number of Roman and Greek authors.


Commentary

There are three obvious features about a Wells novel like this, what he called his ‘fantasy novels’:

1. Fast

It’s fast-moving. Bedford has bumped into Cavor, built the sphere, gone to the moon, watched the desert bloom, been captured and taken below, escaped and fought his way to the surface, found the sphere and escaped, crash-landed on earth and had a hearty breakfast, all in a mere 150 pages (in the Everyman paperback edition I read).

2. Fantastic

So fast moving you don’t notice how quickly you leave the world of Edwardian England, with its pubs and evening strolls along the Downs, completely behind. It only requires ten or so pages from Bedford meeting Cavor, to him thoroughly involving him in his theoretical speculations, and then – whoosh! they’re off to the moon.

It is fast-moving because it is, in a sense, pulp.  Only by moving fast from one astounding moment to the next can it stop you pausing to reflect and thus breaking the spell.

3. Mundanity

But, contradicting a little everything I’ve said above, just as important is its air of mundaneness and normality.

I think it was Tom Shippey in his book about Lord of the Rings who explains that what made the book such a success was the invention of the hobbits. Tolkien had been working on his private-world mythology for decades, inventing languages and complex histories for his elves and dwarves and so on, and had produced quite a few texts narrating whole eras in his legendary Middle Earth. But they were boring and flat.

It was the invention of the down-to-earth, small, beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, no-nonsense, common-sensical hobbits which gave him a vehicle to take the reader into his world. We are introduced to the hobbits first and thoroughly identify with their idealised pastoral English life, before the first hints of other-worldly menace ever appear.

This explains why Lord of the Rings is regularly voted the greatest novel of the 20th century while I’ve never met anyone who managed to complete The Silmarillion, another of Tolkien’s epics, describing a different era in Middle Earth’s history, but which lacks hobbits and, therefore, all charm and – crucially – representatives of the ordinary reader; imaginative vectors allowing us  to enter into his imaginative world.

It’s an overlooked element of Wells that his best books also require this dyad – the interlocking of two opposites. We all know about the fantastical in his books, for example the idea that Martians launch an attack on earth or a man invents a time machine and travels to the distant future. Those are certainly the ideas at the core of the books. But when you actually read the texts what comes across almost as powerfully is the very mundane details – that the Martians land in Dorking and head towards London across the humdrum landscape of Surrey, blasting well known landmarks on their way (which is why there is a striking sculpture of a ‘Martian’ in Dorking town centre).

Wells himself was well aware of doing this:

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader play the game properly he must help him, in every possible unobtrusive way, to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. (quoted in the critical afterword to the Everyman edition)

And one mark of that is the way the people who witness and generally write up the narratives are very ordinary, everyday chaps, who are often a bit confused, puzzled, don’t quite follow what’s going on, miss important details, don’t quite follow the scientific whatchamacallit, and, in their bumbling innocence, stand in as a kind of stylised representative of the innocent reader.

They are all Dr Watsons to a succession of fierce, eccentric or visionary Holmeses, respectively:

  • 1895 The Time Machine – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – first person narrative by shipwrecked sailor Edward Prendick
  • 1897 The Invisible Man – third person narrator
  • 1898 The War of the Worlds – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1899 When the Sleeper Wakes – Graham, the eponymous sleeper
  • 1901 The First Men in the Moon – first person narrative by Mr Bedford
  • 1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – third person narrative
  • 1906 In The Days of the Comet – unnamed narrator
  • 1908 The War in the Air – featuring Bert and Tom Smallways
  • 1914 The World Set Free – third person narrator

Making this list shows that this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. But it goes some way to explaining, to me at any rate, why of the early stories The Invisible Man stands out as particularly unlikeable, and negative. the main character has those qualities, and so it is one of the few not told by a more or less reasonable chap, who we’re meant to identify with.

This explains the presence of the three working class men who Cavor employs in  his lab who are each jealous of each other’s specialisms, argue and often down tools to go off to the pub and argue some more. They are like the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare, offering both comic interludes but also throwing into relief the more serious activities of their middle class superiors.

This also explains why Bedford, at an early stage, has an argument with Cavor and goes off for an epic walk across Kent, enjoying the countryside, stopping for lunch in a pub, chatting with the local yokels while he puffs on his pipe. All designed to give the fantasy a fully-fitted coat of verisimilitude.


Related links

H.G. Wells science fiction novels

1895 The Time Machine
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau
1897 The Invisible Man
1898 The War of the Worlds
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes
1901 The First Men in the Moon
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth
1906 In the Days of the Comet
1908 The War in the Air
1914 The World Set Free

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1971)

Pedler and Davis

This is a hugely enjoyable, trashy but compelling sci-fi shocker, written by the collaborative pair of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The story of their partnership is interesting in itself:

Christopher Pedler was a British medical scientist, science fiction author and writer on science in general. He was had of the electron microscopy department at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University of London, when he was invited to contribute to the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World.

In the mid-1960s, Pedler became the unofficial scientific adviser to the Doctor Who production team. It was here that he met and formed a writing partnership with Gerry Davis, the programme’s story editor.

Their interest in the problems of science changing and endangering human life led them to create the Cybermen, who have gone on to have a long cultural life in the show.

Pedler and Davis then devised and co-wrote Doomwatch, a British science fiction TV series for the BBC. The three series of Doomwatch (1970 to 1972) covered the work of a fictional government department that was brought in to fight technological and environmental disasters.

I watched it back in 1970 and remember to this day the scary special effects in the very first episode of series one, The Plastic Eaters. It was this TV episode which Davis and Pedler then novelised into the 1971 novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters.

Mutant 59

It seems to have been written in a hurry, not very well proof-read, and the science and technology bits often feel cut and pasted into the exciting ‘adventure’ scenes.

Nonetheless, I found it so gripping – in a ripping yarns sort of way – that I literally couldn’t put it down. I picked it up in the ‘library’ of a small hotel where I was staying, started to read the opening chapter about 11.30pm and then found I couldn’t stop, reading the entire book through until 3.30 in the morning – much to my regret the next day.

The plot is simple: a bacterium starts eating plastic. Incidents occur around the world, but the heart of the infection is in London and during the course of the novel, central London is cordoned off by the army who erect decontamination centres at key gateways in and out.

It takes a while for this to really emerge clearly because, to begin with, it seems more as if a new super-plastic created by a trendy technology company is at fault. The firm is run by go-getting Yank Arnold Kramer whose beautiful wife, tough independent journalist Anne, has just discovered he his having an affair. Kramer had hired from Canada a tall, handsome scientist named Luke Gerrard who emerges as the hero.

They had pioneered a tough new form of plastic and it is components made of this which fail in the opening pages, with disastrous results for a) an Apollo 19 space mission which explodes as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere b) BEA flight 510 which crashes into a suburban street on its approach to Heathrow with devastating results (a genuinely harrowing description of the death and destruction caused by a plane crashing into an inhabited area) and c) the failure of a an experimental new computerised traffic system, which brings chaos and – again – death to the area around Kensington.

Enquiries are started into the submarine loss and into the road traffic fiasco. In the latter we are introduced to the architect of the scheme, Slayter, and then to the civil servants who had commissioned the traffic scheme, Slayter’s boss, to the head of the enquiry, and to the government official, Atherton who had always been against it.

Meanwhile, at Kramer’s consultancy we meet not only him, the wife Anne and Luke, but several of the other scientists who have developed a kind of plastic designed to decompose when exposed to sunlight, when you pull a little seal, releasing the active plastic decomposing substance.

The point of describing all this is that, for the first 50 or 60 pages the book is quite confusing because it’s not really clear what is going on – the moon shot, nuclear sub enquiry, the road traffic fiasco and so on all create a compelling sense of foreboding and menace, and the reader is happy to be carried along on a wave of suspense – but it also results in quite a blizzard of names, with some 30 characters being introduced and no clear sense who, if anyone, is the ‘lead’.

The tube adventure

It is only about a third in that the central part of the narrative kicks off and this is the part which kept me up half the night. By this time various members of the various enquiries have bumped into each other for a chat and a beer in various pubs around Whitehall and have begun to realise that the incidents all have something in common, something to do with the failure of the plastic lining electrical wiring.

Thus plastics man Gerrard is introduced to traffic man Slayter, a practical no-nonsense man after his own heart – and asks him to come along to investigate reports of problems with the insulation down in the Tube. Anne Kramer had been in the Kramer Consultancy meeting where all this was discussed and so insists on coming along, too. They are met by several TFL officials who take them down onto a live Tube rail line and then into some of the huge number of unused branch lines running off it.

But they have barely had a chance to examine the way the plastic insulation around the wires carrying electricity along the lines of tube tunnels are melting before there is a catastrophe. The process of plastic decomposition releases CO2 and methane, and a lot of this has built up in the Tube system without anyone realising. Our heroes are approaching a tube station where a train has stopped, in order to climb up onto the platform, when there is the most enormous explosion and a ball of flame rips through the carriages and platform, turning people into human torches as they watch. They try to save some but are forced back to the last carriage on the train and back through the door and onto the rail, running as fast as they can to escape the fireball.

This is one of a series of explosions which blow holes in main roads, killing passing pedestrians, making cars explode and generally introducing mayhem into central London.

In the rush they find they have acquired a bossy military man in civvies, another guy and a blonde secretary. Unable to go back to the platform where a big fire is now burning, our heroes discover that if they continue down the track it dips and… is being slowly filled with poisonous CO2. They find out the hard way when Slayter and of the Tube men go that way, with the Tube man passing out and Slayter trying and failing to recover his unconscious body, while he himself becomes light-headed, weak, sick and close to death, before escaping back to the others.

Can’t go forwards, can’t go back – are there any other exits? they ask the old station master who, it turns out, suffers from a heart and breathing condition and is likely to pop his clogs at any moment. And thus begins their thrilling trek through the forgotten backways of the Tube, a subterranean odyssey which reminds me of the Wierdstone of Brisingamen or Bilbo Baggins’ lost adventures in the caves under the Misty Mountains, not to mention several classic Dr Who episodes set in the Tube.

Underground journeys through great peril go back, I suppose to Dante in the Inferno, and via him to Aeneas being shown the underworld, and to Hercule’s adventures in Hades. There is something very profound, very deep, in the most obvious sense, about being lost underground. Not only could I not put the book down but I became genuinely scared. The door into the hall was ajar showing a big black nothingness. I had to get up and switch on the hall light, so powerful was the sense of creeping awful terror.

Anyway, so by this stage we have the classic Disaster Movie selection of random citizens who find themselves at the mercy of the unwell old station-master. He leads them a complicated journey through the Tube network, into side tunnels and into disused old stations (notably Gray’s Inn station), encountering hazards all along the way, most notably a tunnel which has half-filled with water but promises some kind of light and fresh air coming from somewhere on the other side — but above which are hanging some powerful electricity cables now stripped of their insulation – if the cables touch the water ZAP!

As in all these kinds of stories the bad-tempered military man insists on risking it and persuades the weak-minded secretary to go with him, while Slayter and Gerrard, scientists both, appreciate the risks and refuse, also restraining Anne. Guess what happens to the military man and his followers…

Alas, the old station master’s heart disease gets the better of him and our guys have to abandon him, promising to come back and get him, and then proceed on their own. They discover a big brick room with fresh tea and sandwiches laid out, where workmen had been at work when the explosions happened. Good. They have only recently left and have… locked the steel door behind them. Bad. However, they have abandoned some up to date acetylene torches behind them, good. But Slayter and Gerrard realise that the oxygen at the bottom of the room is being replaced by CO2 and that using the torches will use up even more. Bad.

All this sequence of adventures, including being attacked by the half-burned and wholly mad military man returned, like a zombie, from the dead and climaxing in a final, almost impossible climb up a hundred foot, sheer-sided air shaft, reminded me very much of the original Poseidon Adventure (1972) and any number of other Escaping Disaster narratives.

To nobody’s surprise the independent, intelligent journalist Anne Kramer, who has just discovered her husband is cheating on her, finds herself strangely attracted to tall, rugged, decisive Luke. At one point they are descending a ladder and he looks up to see her white panties. At another, they have got soaked crossing through water and all strip down a bit to dry their clothes in front of a makeshift fire, Anne, of course, stripping down to wet panties and to a clinging bra which shows her large brown nipples. When I was eleven years old this kind of thing titillated me as it was more or less the most sex you could access anywhere. Years later I can see it for the highly formulaic level of titillation required in this kind of adventure.

Just as formulaic but more enjoyable is the bromance between Gerrard and Slater. Presumably it’s the scientist Pedler who allotted the two men equal amounts of scientific and technological insight so that they not only have to escape through the various underground hazards but between them begin to cobble together an explanation for what is going on with the melting plastic. (Maybe the tamwork of this clever, literate pair of scientists reflects something of the cameraderie of Pedler and Davis themselves?) Both think it is something to do with the new super-plastic developed and widely sold by Kramer’s consultancy.

But they are wrong. The plot takes a massive swerve in the middle of the narrative, when the narrator completely switches the time and setting of the story in order to give us the true account.

It was a completely different scientist, employed by a commercial company on unrelated work, who one day was irritated to discover his mains drains blocked by plastic toys thrown away by his children and, not for the first time, wondering if he could concoct a bacterium which would eat plastic. So he sets about creating a mini-lab in his own house, using materials filched form work, and systematically working through a set of variations on the most likely candidate, exposing each sample to varying degrees of radiation from radioactive cobalt.

Now this scientist just happens to have a brain aneurism and, a the very moment he discovers that variation or mutant 59 of his experiments, does seem to be a potent eater of the small sample of plastic he has placed in the petrie dish, the aneurysm ruptures, he collapses dead on the spot, and drops the petrie dish – plus plastic-eating bacterium – into the nearby sink, where it oozes into the public drainage system and towards a sewerage works.

This is all very convenient, because it means nobody knows where the plastic-eating bacterium comes from, and there is no-one to sound the alert, or to blame. Where our heroes come in is that the substance they have created which degrades in sunlight – this turns out to be a kind of superfood for Mutant 59.

And since people have been drinking drinks and eating eats and then decomposing the plastic and chucking it in the drains – the drainage system of London has become packed to the hilt with plastic-eating bacteria. Not only that, but it is mutating at an astonishing speed, becoming more and more efficient. And not only that – the by-product of the eaten plastic is the highly flammable gas methane. Hence the massive explosions in the Tube network. Hence smaller explosions in private residences all over the capital.

So much for the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the narrative. Any good sci-fi disaster story has to paint the consequences of the disaster. And so we are treated to extensive descriptions of the complex infrastructure lying under the feet of all Londoners and then to a ghoulishly enjoyable description of what happens when it all melts and blows up.

The book is set in winter so the quick result is the cessation of power, light and communications. The government assumes emergency powers. The army cordons off central London and sets up decontamination centres at key gateways, where citizens are stripped and deloused – all in a bid to prevent the bacterium travelling beyond central London and, potentially, around the world.

Obviously what policemen in novels refer to as ‘the criminal fraternity’ see a golden opportunity in all this and we are introduced to three hardened crooks based in Soho who do a job on a West End jewellers.

Having had the background of the rogue scientist explained – and the resulting ‘social collapse’ painted in some detail (there’s a meeting of the Emergency Committee where we are introduced to officials from the Army, the Police, the water board, the sewage people, London Transport, food organisation civil servants, and so on and so on, at considerable length, with each one given a name and the chance to make a page-long speech about how their department is coping with the crisis) the slightly exhausted reader returns to the adventures of Anne and Luke and Slayter.

Long story short, due to Gerrard’s heroism and tough Canadian physique, he manages to climb up the air shaft, find the authorities, get Anne and Slayter (and the station master they had abandoned way back) all released. And, after a brief spell in hospital, he calls an emergency meeting of the Kramer Consultancy scientists with Slayter attending.

The cure

I like the way that, throughout the book there is a large cast (confusing but realistic) and that we seen them arguing and bickering. The members of Kramer’s consultancy are at particular loggerheads, especially since their boss has been summoned to America to testify in front of a NASA committee looking into the Apollo space disaster.

With him out of the way, we watch the half dozen or so members of the consultancy argue like ferrets in a sack about whether the disaster is their fault (for creating the biodegradable plastic), whether the company has lost its original altruistic intentions in the rush to make money, amid lots of criticism of Kramer himself – I liked all this bickering, it felt realistic, and it certainly felt realistic the grief it gives Gerrard who is trying to get the others to discuss solutions.

So it feels earned or merited when Gerrard’s badgering finally gets the designer of the degradable plastic to think aloud of possible solutions and the way they collaborate in accelerating excitement towards a possible solution, which is: design a variant of the degradable plastic which replaces one of its polymers with the strongest poison they can find, a variety of industrial arsenic.

Overnight the chemist creates a tiny amount of this in the lab and they all crowd round to watch its action on a sample of Mutant 59 in the petrie dish. Mutant 59 gobbles it all up an then – dies :). How to distribute it? Combine it with a petrol-based aerosol to create a spray.

They contact the production company they sub-contract to, who quickly produce several canisters of it. Gerrard goes out with an army team, all dressed up in biohazard suits, to the shabby quarters of some old proles who live in Soho and who recently noticed the foul-smelling foam of post-plastic-eaten bacteria swarming up through their sink drain and onto the counter and floor, eating all the plastic in sight – and the proles, as well as Gerrard and the posh officer in charge of the unit, all watch in amazement as the spray does its work, covering the foul foam with a shiny patina which the bacteria greedily eat and then – die, hardening to crusty flakes, ceasing to eat plastic.

The crisis is solved.

But not before one final piece of poetic justice. Kramer had taken a flight to America before full quarantine conditions had been applied. He has, of course, taken a fragment of Mutant 59 with him. This allows the authors to paint a gruesomely enjoyable vision of the bacteria quickly spreading throughout all parts of the plane, from the galley to the flight deck, through the plastic insulation on the plane windows and along all the insulated electric wires which festoon a modern jet plane.

After reading with slack-jawed horror, the teenage reader is then meant to feel there is some kind of poetic or supernatural justice to the way that, despite alerting the air crew and taking every precaution, the plane disintegrates and blows up in mid-air, killing the adulterer Kramer, who was a Bad man, responsible for turning the consultancy he set up to solve the world’s technological problems into a capitalist money-making machine, concerned only with profit.

Environmental issues

It is a great sci-fi romp for teenagers of all ages, for anyone who enjoyed the old Dr Who with its cardboard sets. It is badly written and the plot creaks with holes and improbabilities – and yet the atmosphere of fear, terror and menace it creates kept me up half the night. I found it riveting.

But what I think is the most interesting part of the whole thing is the antiquity of its environmental concerns. Pedler became disillusioned with the way technology and science were degrading the world’s environment in the late 1960s. Fifty years ago.

The driving force for both the rogue scientist in developing  his plastic-eating bacteria and and for Kramer’s consultancy in creating a biodegradable form of plastic, were that both groups knew that the world was producing too much plastic. the world was choking in plastic.

Fifty years ago they were writing fictions about this issue. Nearly fifty years ago I read sci-fi novels, articles, watched documentaries and adventure series about it. Fifty years. Fifty years!

Which is why I just laugh when I read the latest moral panic publicised by the mainstream media that, apparently, there is too much plastic in the world, there are plastic archipelagos in all the oceans, every drop of sea water has plastic pellets in it and millions of fish and birds and sea mammals are killed every year by swallowing or getting caught in plastic waste.

I have known for fifty years that we humans are destroying the planet and murdering all the other species which share it with us. I cycle, don’t drive or fly, live locally, eat mostly vegetarian, and have been recycling all the crap supermarkets and shops bombard us with for over thirty years.

a) Why does anybody think this is new? How can people be so ignorant as to think that this is a new and urgent issue? It was new and urgent fifty blood years ago? Where have you been hiding, what have you been reading, how can you not know this?

b) Doesn’t make any difference anyway. Humans are programmed to seek near-at-hand short-term comfort security for ourselves and our families. The better good of the wider community is  hard for many people to conceive and for politicians and do-gooders to achieve. And as to people limiting or restraining their behaviour for the good of the planet ha ha ha ha ha.

Biology trumps ecology

Seen from this point of view the ‘relationship’ between tall strong Gerrard and fit and fertile Anne is capable of another interpretation. It shows that the sex drive of individual humans hugely outweighs broader social considerations, widening like ripples in a pond from the blindingly feverish passion of lust between two people, to a lesser consideration of the impact of their affair on those around them (spouses, children, family) to a vague awareness of what the neighbours will think, and finally indifference to the opinions of, or impact on, them, the billions of nameless souls who make up the world populations.

Thousands of poems and novels reinforce the idea that our passions, here and now, the quick hot infatuation of lust, of present pleasure, of present convenience, blind us to wider concerns.

Thus the brown nipples and white panties of the Gerrard-Anne affair can stand as a symbol of the profound selfishness which we are all biologically heirs to, the immediacy of present convenience which makes us buy a bottled water or sweets or sandwiches packaged in plastic, whenever we need to, and chuck away the wrapping and bottle with no thought for the consequences.

It is ironic that two and a half thousand years of Western philosophers have emphasised the mindfulness and rationality of human beings, when all the evidence suggests the opposite – the extreme heedlesness and indifference to anything beyond the pleasure of the moment.

Fifty years after Pedler and Davis wrote this novel, among other things, to alert its readers to the ruinous excess of plastic, nothing has changed, the seas are more polluted than ever, the animals die in ever greater numbers.

The thirst for comfort and convenience hard wired into each and every one of us always trumps the very abstract, unmeasurable sense of our impact on the wider environment.

Biology always trumps ecology.

BBC documentary about the Doomwatch TV series


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Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime, and then found among his papers after his death, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49).

I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and about the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

The ideas and issues raised in the introductory material and essays are so numerous that I discuss them in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1).

In this blog post I am commenting solely on the two large fragments of the uncompleted novel itself. These were given by Sartre the titles of: A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

Mathieu and Brunet at the end of Iron in the Soul

In the third novel of the published trilogy, Iron In the Soul, we followed the activities of Mathieu Delarue, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, as they both, separately, retreated in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ended up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself deciding to quit the squad of demoralised men he’d arrived with, and instead throw in his lot with a still-pugnacious lieutenant and his platoon, who have arrived in the village after carrying out a fighting retreat.

Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied some of the soldiers to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. When the first Germans enter the village, Mathieu and comrades begin shooting at them, sparking a fierce firefight, which is only ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu, until the last minute firing from this church tower, was killed.

Meanwhile, by a large coincidence, without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, the tough-minded communist, Brunet, has also ended up in the same village, but here he makes a very different decision. He decides to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising what is obviously going to be a larege number of French prisoners of war into a communist cell.

The final part of Iron in the Soul had followed Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others, Decent feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to a prison camp in the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and imprisonment in 1940.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet had found himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background. At key moments Schneider points out the flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident that the descriptions of the camp and of the horrible conditions are accurate.

What gets the action of A Strange Friendship going is the arrival of new prisoners at the camp, one of them being Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by announcing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who had denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was therefore expelled from the Party
b) that Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, namely organising the prisoners, recruiting the willing ones to a communist cell, with the long term plan of undermining the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a representative of the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy).

He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over yet, that the USSR will crush Germany, that the workers should reject the armistice, that the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, that the French prisoners should still consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s recent radio broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, that the Vichy government is illegitimate, that the armistice the new french government signed with the Nazis was treason. With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a propagandist for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his men must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the Germans, the communist party ought to cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and to get a foot into the French National Assembly again.

To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle – who is merely a mouthpiece for British imperialism – and direct the workers towards pacifism, not towards enmity to the Germans (p.63).

Brunet listens with astonishment to this interpretation of the situation which is completely opposite to everything he has been telling the men he’s recruited to the communist cause. Chalais has the impeccable authority of being a senior party member, and of having been free – and so in touch with the communist hierarchy – more recently than Brunet himself.

Brunet tries to quell his misgivings, to make himself a servant of the Party and to obey.

This is an example of Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

(There is also a massive authorly irony at work here, because the reader knows that Chalais is dead wrong – when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin immediately declares Germany the enemy and reverses every one of the policies which Chalais had been championing. Brunet was to be proved right. But not yet.)

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the men he has so suddenly deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with this problem – the men don’t trust Chalais and now think Brunet was lying to them. Chalais floats the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as so many old Bolsheviks did in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as depicted in the classic novel, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unwavering faith in the Party is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue i.e. History is bigger than the Communist Party.

1. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to his own free thought i.e. that it was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence which he needed to repress.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(It’s worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone as a classic of dystopian fiction, like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture all through and for long after the war.)

2. And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and if the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to the fact of his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider – a traitor to the Party because he criticised Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.

Recalling all their talks and all the help he’s given him, Brunet comes to Schneider’s rescue and interrupts the pair of thugs beating Schneider. But the two men – who Brunet himself recruited to the communist cause – don’t understand why he’s protecting Schneider. Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too?

In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the thugs in the face and the pair of thugs slope off, at which point Brunet realises that he has burned all his bridges. Now ‘his’ men belong to Chalais and everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. He has fought all his adult life for the Communist Party. Now the Party has decreed that he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape. In the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans.

As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, but vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death.

Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. You can immediately see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this story. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, as it stood in the winter of 1940-41, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes in this edition point out, the official Party line was itself continually changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, a vast amount had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse.

Why write about the arcane disputes of this increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? As you read the fragment it becomes increasingly obvious why Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in in the early 1950s.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, nearly 80 years later, all the characters seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain.

And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koestler’s fictional recreation of the interrogation and show trial of an old Bolshevik in his classic novel, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. The french hated each other much more than they hated the Germans.

At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls ‘dogs’.

(It is important to remember that the French Communist Party called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.)

Chalais prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. This is an amazing thing to really process and let sink in. And Chalais exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’.

Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on a man (Brunet) who wants to be a loyal Party servant but finds himself torn between ideology and loyalty to the men he’s recruited.

I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom: as, for example, Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic – but refuses, in the end, to give up and insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems like just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, during the revising, once the narrative scaffold was in place.

This text as we have it consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose used to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to.

Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose.

I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section is intended to enact the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals.

Whereas the moments of high delirium which Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but:

a) there’s no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see would be extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment with the Party)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape. The Germans always remain disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically enough – the Germans don’t need to do anything. They know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics. The French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted. I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from a place where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting.

Vive la France! Vive la Revolution! are essentially comic declarations.


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

All the readers of the original trilogy of novels thought that Mathieu Delarue – the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher much like Sartre – had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul. But no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The other sizeable fragment of the unfinished novel – titled The Last Chance – just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s soon transferred out into the wider camp.

The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed. Huh.

As usual, two things happen immediately with Mathieu: he is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on.

And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to perceive the world normally, cease even perceive themselves as human, instead become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on.

I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things.

Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insects, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. He was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

The structure of the complete novel

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes, the editor Craig Vasey, explains that the plan for the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first-person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the prisoners gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations.
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post-traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagines killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape, the snow-bound escape attempt in which Schneider died. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, Brunet returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. He is no longer under imminent threat of assassination. Then Brunet gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • That it is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is one of boredom and mild dislike.
  • The novel climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should have triumphantly completed the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly and convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him.

Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu has not only ‘become free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked.

But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia.

This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie.

Worst of all, all the men or blokes are referred to as ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial verbal choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the entire reading experience and its continual repetition had the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

The French edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Into The Unknown @ Barbican

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition, with a number of distinct sections scattered in locations around the Barbican complex.

The main show is in The Curve, the continuous, curved exhibition space behind the Barbican theatre, which has been transformed into a treasure trove of sci-fi-themed videos, posters, books and magazines, costumes and special affects models.

Having worked through this you exit the other side into a foyer space where you can watch three contemporary sci-fi short films on a projection screen.

Fifty yards away, opposite the main bar, is a cinema-sized projector screen showing a film by Isaac Julien, Encore II (Radioactive) from 2004.

Beyond the bar is a darkened room showing another experimental film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour and Danish author, Søren Lind.

And downstairs, in what is usually the Pit theatre, there is a funky art installation, In Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross.

There’s a lot to take in!

Installation view showing several of the video screens shoing clips from classic sci-fi movies

Installation view highlighting several of the video screens showing clips from classic sci-fi movies

The main exhibition is in The Curve and is divided into four or five sections each with a wall label introduction.

These labels are surprisingly vague and generalised and made me reflect that there is both too much and too little to say about science fiction. Quite quickly I found myself making my own summary of themes and ideas which emerged from the varied objects on display. Sci-fi can cover:

  • On earth Lost worlds here on earth, journeys to the centre of the earth, monsters on earth
  • In space Monsters from or in space, space travel to the moon or planets or other solar systems, space stations
  • Aliens Stand-alone alien civilisations which have nothing to do with earth or humans
  • Time travel to the past or future
  • The Future Future utopias or dystopias, with or without a nuclear apocalypses/plague etc thrown in
  • AI and robots Robots and artificial intelligence, which almost always turns out to be a bad thing, from Frankenstein’s monster onwards
  • Altered states of consciousness caused by drugs or various forms of artificial reality, probably most popularly captured in the Matrix franchise

See what I mean by ‘too much? ‘Science fiction’ in fact covers a vast range of subjects, themes and ideas – and that’s before you tiptoe into the neighbouring territory of ‘fantasy’.

But by ‘too little’ I mean that, in the end, a lot of sci-fi amounts to variations on a limited number of themes: in Alien they wake up an alien which kills them all. In The Thing they wake up an alien which kills them all. In The Matrix series the machines have enslaved humanity. In the Terminator series the machines have enslaved humanity. Not difficult to understand or enjoy, is it? On the up side, in Thunderbirds Thunderbirds save the day. In Star Trek Captain Kirk saves the day. In Dr Who Dr Who saves the day.

Watching clips from all these films and TV shows on the numerous projector screens scattered all through the exhibition made me realise just how many of these TV shows and movies tell the same story over and over again and are aimed, essentially, at children.

(Having watched Thunderbird Two take off on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, I could have done with similar clips from Joe 90 or Fireball XL5 or UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or Stingray – all classic TV series from the great Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. In my opinion Gerry and Sylvia could do with an exhibition in their own right.)

Comics and mags

The essentially juvenile nature of sci-fi is emphasised by the wonderful array of pulp magazines and lurid book jackets from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s on display here. Amazing stories, Astounding stories, Startling stories, Space stories, Thrilling wonder stories – you’ll be amazed, filled with wonder and thrilled. Often by nubile young women whose clothes are falling off (all wearing red because they are, presumably, all scarlet women).

Golden Age of Sci fi comics

Comics from the Golden Age of science fiction

The exhibition includes some examples of an unexpected art form, the cover art for boxes of sci-fi Super 8 films.

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

Illustrations

Books, comics, illustrations, models, film and TV clips, costumes, props, artwork – the exhibition as a whole has the feel of being a bric-a-brac shop, almost a jumble sale, with artefacts from every period of sci-fi thrown together in glorious profusion.

There is, if you look hard enough, a loose chronological order, starting with early illustrations for – and editions of – Jules Verne’s classic adventure series: voyages round the world, to the moon, to the bottom of the sea and so on – as well as models of the various contraptions which feature in Verne’s novels, the Nautilus submarine, the space ship to the moon, and so on.

Next to them is a set of paintings of ‘Dinotopia’, a fantasy world created by artist James Gurney in which humans live alongside tamed dinosaurs – beautifully painted, high quality and vivid book illustrations.

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

This tradition of sci-fi illustrations goes all the way from Vernes’s day to the art work for movies (Star Wars, Alien) alongside purely imaginary, maybe computer-enhanced, illustrations of future cities.

On a screen late in the show is projected a series of quite stunning visions of future cities by a range of contemporary sci-fi artists.

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

You get the impression that the art of science fiction – not made to illustrate a novel, not for a comic and not design work for a movie, but for itself, for the sheer joy of depicting fantastic, imaginary scenes – is an under-explored genre. A different exhibition might have concentrated just on the art of sci-fi.

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

But the exhibition is continually pulling us back to sci-fi’s cheap, pulpy roots, with display cases of comics and books, setting the literary classics alongside more pulpy works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Verne to Cormac McCarthy via Ursula LeGuin, and many more.

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Pellucidar (1915)

Masks

Given that there are half a dozen screens dotted around showing continuous loops of sci-fi classics, (alongside some more obscure foreign, and older, movies) your first, and second, impression is that the show sees science fiction through the lens of films.

After all, the more private, and demanding, experience of reading is hard to capture in an exhibition. Whereas watching a clip from Jurassic Park is about as lazy and undemanding and enjoyable experience as a human being can have.

Installation view of the exhibition with screens shoing classic sci-fi moviescases of classic sci-fi books, wall displays of sci fi art

Installation view of the exhibition with screens showing classic sci-fi movies, cases of classic sci-fi books and wall displays of sci-fi art

The film-orientation of the show is reflected in the large number of props from movies and TV shows. Several large sections of the show feature models of masks, space ships, and space suits used in movies, including quite a few display cases housing the faces of creepy aliens!

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Including probably the most famous sci-fi face of all time – H.R. Giger’s alien.

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

Spacesuits

On the same ooh-aaah level, the exhibition features life-size space-suits as actually worn in movies like Interstellar, Sunshine, Alien, Star Trek, Moon and so on. The space suit worn by Leonard Nimoy! Oooh! The actual suit worn by John Hurt in Alien!! Aaaah!

These don’t really tell you anything – reinforcing my sense that there’s less to sci-fi than meets the eye – they are just lovely objects for fans to drool over.

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

Alien, again.

Space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

The space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

There were some headphones for visitors to listen to audio clips from sci-fi classics like The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury or Stanislav Lem’s Solaris but, symptomatically, no one was using them when I passed by and I didn’t use them either.

I wanted to look at beautiful things, at the models of space ships and space suits and movie props. On reflection, I am surprised there wasn’t a section on gadgets, which should have included the phaser and the tricorder and communicator from Star Trek at the very least, alongside Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver and… well, you can make your own list.

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek: The Movie (1979)

Oh my God, they’ve got Robbie the Robot!! And the robot from the Will Smith movie, I, Robot.

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

Underneath Robbie was a display of teeny weeny vintage robot toys, such as you might find in any junk shop. It was hard not to feel yourself getting younger and younger as you soaked yourself in this comic, mag, fantasy, geek paradise.

I felt myself turning into one of the characters in Big Bang Theory leafing through the comics at Stu’s comic shop.

The films

If the Curve part of the show felt like a warm bath of nostalgia for sci-fi addicts, not so the films in the rest of the show, the ones you can watch after exiting the main exhibition in the Barbican foyer areas. These were contemporary, strange and disturbing.

To start with there were sections of Pierre-Jean Gilroux’s sumptuous, mesmerising and haunting films, titled Invisible Cities, parts 1 to 4.

Beautiful and, ultimately, reassuring.

By contrast, Afronaut directed by Frances Bodoma, is a kind of fantasy alternative reality in which poverty-stricken Ghanaians in what seems to be a shanty in the desert attempt to recreate the Apollo space mission. They train a hauntingly confused-looking albino black woman for space travel by rolling her down a hill inside a trash can and tossing her in a blanket, before stuffing her inside a space ship made from corrugated iron and lighting firecrackers under it.

In the weird alternative reality of the movie both she and her half dozen supporters undergo a genuinely transcendent experience, and the ship does appear to carry her to the moon.

The Blue Moon music on this clip below doesn’t do the full movie justice, makes it seem far too familiar and assimilable. In fact Afronaut‘s soundtrack is a confusing hubbub, the characters’ voices out-of-synch with their lips, or obscured by gritty dust and metal sounds, by the banging of metal, by chanting – all of which contributes to the powerful sense of entering a genuinely altered reality.

A bit more conventionally, the short film Pumzi is written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Asha, a young scientist living in an underground complex in Kenya some decades in the future after ‘the [inevitable] War’ has devastated earth, who decides to leave her safe environment and go questing over the desolate surface of the earth looking for life.

Even if this is a rather familiar trope, it is stunningly and beautifully shot.

Apparently, this movie is part of a movement known as Afrofuturism which envisages a future civilisation in Africa populated by black Africans. I read in the commentary that Pumzi undermines Hollywood norms and stereotypes but, in my opinion, the idea of a hero/ine escaping from a repressive, post-apocalypse society seems as old as sci-fi and has certainly been done in countless commercial films (Zardoz, Logan’s Run).

Also, the fact that the heroine is beautiful, young, slender and scantily dressed seems to me to be reinforcing pretty much the central sexist movie stereotype i.e. women in movies must be slender and sexy.

But the entirely African setting, and entirely black cast, make a welcome change from watching Tom Cruise blowing up aliens by the hundred.

Conclusions

I loved science fiction when I was a boy back in the 1970s when science fiction movies were as rare as hen’s teeth and discussing Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein marked you out as a member of a tiny sub-set of geeks.

Nowadays, barely a week goes by without a new sci-fi movie being released, and hundreds have been released in the past decade. Why the change? In discussion with my son we developed the idea that science fiction allows you to have all the thrills and spills which movies were designed for – chases, fights, shoot-outs, big explosions, spectacle and so on – with none of the moral challenges inherent in many of the older movie genres.

Nobody can make Biblical epics nowadays because most people are not Christians. War epics can’t really be such death-or-glory bubblegum entertainments after Saving Private Ryan showed the full, not-at-all funny, not-at-all-entertaining gory reality of war. Spy thrillers are at a loss since the end of the Cold War (though the War on Terror happily provides the setting for a new breed of terror thrillers). And westerns, one of the staples of my youth, have simply disappeared since we all began to feel sympathy for the oppressed Indians or ‘native Americans’.

By contrast, what science fiction provides is the Pure Untrammeled Baddy, untroubled by moral issues or cultural qualms. Whether it’s Darth Vadar’s Empire or something more disturbing like the extra terrestrials in 1979’s Alien or in this year’s scary Life, the issue of good and bad is black and white, men and women battling against The Bad Thing –  just as it was in each of the Star Trek movies or the Jurassic Park or Matrix franchises. Bad aliens trying to kill hero; hero fights back.

Just as simplistically, sci-fi movies can offer images of spotlessly heroic American patriotism which other genres now struggle with – take Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) or Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), who both triumph against the odds, shucks, folks it was nothing, while the audience cheers and the Oscar nominations roll in.

So mainstream science fiction is a way of allowing film to do what it has always done best – shock and awe, with ear-splitting special effects, giant monsters, extreme situations and sexy young heroes/heroines.

None of this is very subversive: the exact opposite, in fact.

When I watched Chris Pratt of Jurassic World (2015) strip off his shirt to reveal his astonishing physique, and the heroine, Bryce Dallas Howard, quickly lose her smart business suit and strip down to her sweat-soaked underwear, I wondered if a film could possibly be more in thrall to the most neanderthal gender stereotyping.

But in mainstream sci-fi it doesn’t matter, nothing matters – we are all reduced to popcorn-munching melon-heads screaming each time a velociraptor jumps out of the screen at us.

By contrast, almost the only thing in the entire show which gave me that genuine frisson of fear, a real sense of the weird, inexplicable and uncanny, was the film Afronauts. I had no idea how it was going to end, I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, I felt I had entered a genuinely unpredictable and uncanny space. I’d like more of that, please.


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

Eduardo Paolozzi @ The Whitechapel Gallery

This exhibition is great fun, as close to pure visual pleasure as I’ve had in a gallery for years.

Bio

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was born the son of Italian immigrants in Leith, outside Edinburgh, making him two times over an outsider to the posh world of English art. Young Ed served in his parents’ ice cream shop as a lad, surrounded by glossy advertising and packaging for the new consumer products which were sweeping into ‘Austerity Britain’ from the States, along with a tidal wave of comics and magazines and new colour movies.

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Shipbreakers’ Yard, Hamburg (c. 1962) Photo: Ulrich Mack © Ulrich Mack

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Shipbreakers’ Yard, Hamburg (c. 1962) Photo: Ulrich Mack © Ulrich Mack

Magazine collages

No surprise, then, that, after he’d gone to art school and got Picasso out of his system, he first made a real impact with a lecture given at the Institute for Contemporary Arts titled Bunk! and which consisted of a slide show of 40 or so collages featuring images cut out from pulp science fiction magazines, girly magazines, science and engineering books, newspapers and so on. It is, apparently, referred to as ‘the opening salvo of Pop Art’.

In the 1960s Paolozzi got interested in print making, the major result of which is the sequence of colourful large collage prints titled As is when (1965).

Wittgenstein in New York (1965) Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Wittgenstein in New York (1965) Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

There are eight or so examples here and I could happily live with any of them on my wall – happy, bright, fun, with an intrinsic and immediately understandable sense of design.

Sculpture

After art school he’d spent some time in Paris, soaking up the still lingering vibe of Surrealism, exemplified in metal sculptures of strange zoomorphic shapes like:

What links the collages and sculptures is Paolozzi’s interest in the spare change of engineering, nuts and bolts and screws and cogs and wheels and jets and wings and so on. These came more to the fore in his sculptures of the 1950s and won him his first real fame when displayed at the Venice Biennale.

Many of them look like robots or strange bits of machinery which have been melted in an atomic explosion or maybe found thousands of years after their lost civilisation collapsed. Either way, they played heavily to the fast-moving technical innovations of the 1950s (the jet engine) combined with the political paranoia and nihilism of the Cold War. (The first full scale thermonuclear test was carried out by the United States in 1952.)

The 1960s saw a major shift in his sculptures towards happy shiny pieces made of the funky new material of aluminium or even out of polished chrome e.g. Silk.

There’s a display case of these shiny objects, strange combinations of geometric shapes which have somehow melted. But his heart is still with knobbly would-be machinery, albeit with a Summer of Love psychedelic style. One of the most famous works from this period could be straight out of the Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine (1968).

Diana as an Engine I (1963–6) Courtesy the British Council Collection © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Diana as an Engine I (1963–6) Courtesy the British Council Collection © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Textiles

As early as 1954 Paolozzi set up a design company to create home furnishings from wallpaper and fabrics to ceramics. Examples of these, in particular a set of dresses he designed in different decades, is included in the exhibition, but didn’t have the same dynamic effect on me as either the sculptures or prints.

Cocktail Dress for Horrockses Fashions (1953) Photography by Norwyn Ltd. Courtesy the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Cocktail Dress for Horrockses Fashions (1953) Photography by Norwyn Ltd. Courtesy the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Revolutionary at the time was the incorporation of his brand of abstract designs into the very traditional medium of tapestry. The most famous work in this area is the four-metre wide Whitworth Tapestry (1967).

The Whitworth Tapestry (1967) Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The Whitworth Tapestry (1967) Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The 1970s

Apparently Paolozzi disliked the creeping engulfment of art by theory and curator-speak, and a room here is devoted to works which take the mickey out of the art world. These include a block of fake gold ingots made of aluminium and printed with the phrase ‘100% F*ART’.

The experimental portfolio General Dynamic F.U.N. consists of printed sheets of random text, abstract patterns and images designed to be rearranged and read by readers in infinite combinations. Maybe. But as hung on the walls of a gallery, the individual sheets look very much like more collages of comic and consumer magazine images from the 1950s.

More striking was a set of large prints of his characteristic engineer/machine imagery titled Calcium Light Nights (1974-6) presumably because they all have a more washed out, pastel colouring than earlier prints.

Heads and bodies

The last rooms feature two very distinct but stylistically related types of output.

1. He found a new way of configuring the human body and head, basically taking a salami slicer to the human figure and sliding disconcerting sections of it forwards or back to create a strange angular vision of the human body, perfectly in keeping with his lifelong interest in science fiction and technology.

(Disconcertingly the show also features a couple of completely smooth, lifelike bronze busts, although even these have the sci-fi perfection of the automaton from the classic movie Metropolis.)

2. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s Paolozzi took on a number of commissions for large sculptures in public places. Some of these incorporate the salami sliced heads and bodies like the figure of Isaac Newton in the British Library or the Vulcan in Docklands; others are large castings of the kinds of intricate faux-mechanical friezes he liked throughout his career, like the cooling tower at Pimlico; others are purely abstract like the recently restored mosaics which cover the entrance hall, walls and walkways of Tottenham Court Tube station.

Conclusion

Bringing together an astonishing 250 works from collections around the world and spanning Paolozzi’s five decades of dynamic and varied work, this is a lovely, happy, creative and inspiring exhibition.


Related links

For once it is entirely appropriate that the gallery shop has lots of merchandise carrying Paolozzi imagery – I particularly liked the tea-towel with one of the As is when print designs on it. But also that it’s selling fabulous Robbie the Robot toys. What fun!

Reviews

Reviews of other Whitechapel shows

Actions and Reactions by Rudyard Kipling (1909)

By this date Kipling had been publishing short story collections for twenty years and his audience was familiar with the format: every four or five years Kipling pulled together the short stories he’d published in various magazines into a one-volume collection, giving it a pithy and evocative title, and often writing poems specially to preface or follow each story. Actions and Reactions contains nine stories:

1. An Habitation Enforced (1905) An American couple, George and Sophie Chapin, buy a house in Sussex, finding themselves slowly falling in love with it, and getting to know and respect the local gentry and peasants, discovering that the wife’s ancestors used to live right in this parish, and eventually giving birth to a son and heir in the house, in a story which idealises Kipling’s deepening feelings for England and for Sussex specifically. A little obvious though the general drift of the story is, it is the style which impresses. It is noticeably more clipped and swift than any previous story and, somehow, feels more mature.

2. Garm – a Hostage (1899) This is the sixteenth story Kipling wrote featuring one or all of the ‘three soldiers’ which featured among his earliest tales. The narrator nearly runs over Private Stanley Ortheris who is drunkenly pretending to be a highway robber, and being pursued by Military Police. The kindly narrator takes Ortheris home to sleep it off, then delivers him back to barracks next day, with a note to his superior officer explaining that Ortheris was injured, hence his overnight stay – and thus saving Ortheris from punishment.

A few days later Ortheris calls round with his amazing pet dog, a bull-terrier which can do all kinds of tricks, and gives it to the narrator, as a thank-you and as a kind of hostage for Ortheris’s ongoing good behaviour. The narrator already has a dog, Vixen, who is at first resentful until the bull-terrier rescues Vixen from a pack of local strays after which they become firm friends.

The narrator christens the dog ‘Garm’, an abbreviation of the legendary ‘Garin of the Bloody Breast’. Garm is loyal and intelligent, but the narrator soon realises that Ortheris misses him dreadfully and is in fact paying the dog secret visits at night, which is having the effect of making Garm pine during the day for his old owner. When the hot season comes Ortheris, pining away and ill, is sent by his regiment off to the hills, but the narrator follows him there and reunites man and dog.

Like a lot of the ‘three soldiers’ stories it’s not really much of a story. Kipling wrote a lot of dog stories, enough to make up several anthologies later in his career. If they’re all this boring, they’ll be no loss to avoid.

3. The Mother Hive (1908) One reason to read Kipling is to have one’s own ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ ideas challenged – although sometimes it feels like they’re just being insulted. Kipling established several ways of doing this: one was to mock the foolishness of the White Man, i.e. the weakness of his country and its Liberal rulers, through the unsparing eyes of his black subjects e.g. the Muslim author of the London letter who ridicules the weakness of London Liberals, or the Sikh narrator in A Sahibs’ War who can’t believe the British’s damn-fool, sportsmanlike conduct of the Boer War.

Another way is through animal fables. Thus all the Jungle Book stories rotate around The Law of The Jungle and embody the way Kipling believes – like many conservatives – that Freedom is only possible in a well-regulated society bound by a common Law.

One of the classic metaphors for society is the bee hive, which has been used for this purpose by authors for over 2,000 years. In Kipling’s version the well-regulated hive is invaded by the Wax Moth who represents all the progressive forces he disliked about Edwardian society – ‘progressivism, liberal individualism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, little Englandism, class division’. It couldn’t have done this unless society was decadent.

If the stock had not been old and overcrowded, the Wax-moth would never have entered; but where bees are too thick on the comb there must be sickness or parasites.

Wax-moth only succeed when weak bees let them in… All this is full of laying workers’ brood. That never happens till the stock’s weakened.

The Kipling Society notes tell me that Kipling became an enthusiastic bee-keeper at his Sussex home and the story is certainly brimming over with bee-keeping facts, as his stories about ships, cars, mills, radios and electricity brim over with boyish enthusiasm for technicalities and jargon.

The Mother Hive is a complete, rounded fable, which starts with the entrance of the one Wax Moth, satirises the deceitful way she deploys her rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ while all the while she sets about laying eggs of the parasitical caterpillars who will destroy it – the one metaphorically, the other literally, undermining and polluting the hive and its structure.

Until the giant human Bee Keeper comes, as prophesied by the Old Queen, to destroy and rebuild the hive. Right up the end the deceitful Wax Moth is telling the misfits, abortions and genetic freaks her poison has helped to spawn that this is the Dawn of a New Age. But in fact the Bee Keeper realises the entire hive is worthless and polluted and so systematically destroys it – only a few loyal bees and a new Queen survive to create a new society. Based, of course, on Law and Order and Tradition.

I note that Conan Doyle made his hero Sherlock Holmes retire to the South Downs where he became an enthusiastic bee-keeper. The most obvious thing about bees, in our time, is not whether they can be used by conservative authors to symbolise a well-regulated society – but the fact that we are wiping them out.

4. With the Night Mail (1905) Kipling was nothing if not varied and ambitious as an author. Just the first four tales in this collection consist of a down-home Sussex story, a dog story, a political fable, and now a science fiction fantasy.

It is 2000 AD and the narrator takes a trip aboard the latest GPO airship. Just ploughing through the long ,long technical descriptions of Kipling’s imagined futuristic airship brings home how excessively much his stories rely on technical detail, jargon and specialist terms (in this story, largely made-up) – and how very little on sympathetic emotion: there is almost no emotional flicker in any of his stories except Anger or Fear. For the rest, the narrator is generally an unmoved and objective reporter of conversations he hears or things he sees, as emotional as a block of wood.

So in this tale of the future, once the reporter is up in the airship which is trundling through the skies, and the captain says, ‘Would you like a look round the engine room?’ the reader’s heart sinks.

“If you want to see the coach locked you’d better go aboard. It’s due now,” says Mr. Geary. I enter through the door amidships. There is nothing here for display. The inner skin of the gas-tanks comes down to within a foot or two of my head and turns over just short of the turn of the bilges. Liners and yachts disguise their tanks with decoration, but the G.P.O. serves them raw under a lick of grey official paint. The inner skin shuts off fifty feet of the bow and as much of the stern, but the bow-bulkhead is recessed for the lift-shunting apparatus as the stern is pierced for the shaft-tunnels. The engine-room lies almost amidships. Forward of it, extending to the turn of the bow tanks, is an aperture — a bottomless hatch at present — into which our coach will be locked. One looks down over the coamings three hundred feet to the despatching-caisson whence voices boom upward. The light below is obscured to a sound of thunder, as our coach rises on its guides. It enlarges rapidly from a postage-stamp to a playing-card; to a punt and last a pontoon. The two clerks, its crew, do not even look up as it comes into place. The Quebec letters fly under their fingers and leap into the docketed racks, while both captains and Mr. Geary satisfy themselves that the coach is locked home. A clerk passes the way-bill over the hatch coaming. Captain Purnall thumb-marks and passes it to Mr. Geary. Receipt has been given and taken. “Pleasant run,” says Mr. Geary, and disappears through the door which a foot high pneumatic compressor locks after him.

This is reportage, not fiction. Kipling is always a journalist eavesdropping on other people’s lives – never imaginatively inhabiting them. And instead of conversations where characters exchange feelings or thoughts or subtle nuances, in Kipling nine times out of ten you have working men exchanging the gruff manly slang of their trades.

“Hello, Williams!” he cried. “A degree or two out o’ station, ain’t you?”
“May be,” was the answer from the Mark Boat. “I’ve had some company this evening.”
“So I noticed. Wasn’t that quite a little draught?”
“I warned you. Why didn’t you pull out north? The east-bound packets have.”
“Me? Not till I’m running a Polar consumptives’ sanatorium boat. I was squinting through a colloid before you were out of your cradle, my son.”
“I’d be the last man to deny it,” the captain of the Mark Boat replies softly. “The way you handled her just now — I’m a pretty fair judge of traffic in a volt-hurry — it was a thousand revolutions beyond anything even I’ve ever seen.”

You have to make quite an effort to buy into his detailed, highly technical descriptions. It feels like a story for engineers. For the more casual reader, the illustrations to this story are infinitely more interesting and evocative than the prose.

Illustration of With The Night Mail

Illustration of With The Night Mail

The most extraordinary thing about this bit of reportage from the future is that, after the main ‘story, a further long part of the text consists of fictional ‘excerpts’ from newspapers and magazines contemporary with the narrator’s imagined journey. Thus we get: a series of weather reports for different parts of the sky on the night the narrator took his trip; notes on the prevalence of sleet, the problem of ‘bat boat’ racing (whatever that is), an anecdote from Crete, various letters to the Editor about aerial travelling along with 14 replies from the Editor, a long review of a fictional book about a fictional pioneer of aerial travel – one Xavier Lavalle – and then mocked-up adverts selling all kinds of paraphernalia connected with flying.

This is a stunning tribute to Kipling’s readiness to prepare a full, complete and exhaustive factual apparatus for each of his ‘stories’ – to work over and over the surface of  his texts to create an astonishing intricacy of realistic detail. But the more detail you read, the more you realise there is a big hole where the ‘story’ should be, and a huge emotional and psychological hole at the centre of most of them.

And yet… Kipling’s vision clearly spoke to the men who do, who make things happen. Thus Charles Carrington’s excellent biography includes the story that when the first Atlantic flight was achieved by the British airship ‘R.34’ in 1919, the crew took with them a single book, this one, so that they could refer to this story. Then they all autographed the edition, and presented it to its author. Kipling’s audience and impact were on such a different group and class than the ‘literature’ and readership we are educated to expect.

6. A Deal in Cotton A meeting up of old pals from India, who featured in various Plain Tales From The Hills. The man nicknamed ‘the Infant’ has inherited a vast estate, whither he invites the narrator who finds an old pal, Colonel Corkran (Stalky from the Stalky stories, now grown up) and Strickland of the Punjab Police (who also featured in a number of the early India stories), now retired and bringing along his son, who has just returned from service in Africa very ill.

The son tells a long story about how he’s setting up a cotton growing concern in his District and trying to tame the local tribe of cannibals to work on it. He partly financed this by fining a slave trader he caught transporting slaves through British territory. His audience, experienced administrators to a man – Corkran, the Infant, Strickland – hear him out but, when he’s gone, ask his loyal Muslim servant, Imam Din, for his version of events.

From reading the story alone, I couldn’t make head nor tail of what went on, except the Muslim and the slave trader seem to have done some deal to do some kind of scam to help young Adam with his cotton scheme: I think they burned down the village of the cannibals and terrified them into helping Adam. I think the man who was brought before him as a slave trader was also a friend and devotee of young Adam – but I found the technique of telling two conflicting versions of the same events through the jargon, slang and argot of two completely different men – posh Sahib and deferential Mussulman – too obscure to understand.

7. The Puzzler (1909) A sort of Ealing comedy which starts with the improbably named Penfentenyou, Premier in his own Province (somewhere in the Empire) who imposes himself on the narrator on a trip to England, turning the study into a Cabinet Room, sending and receiving endless telegrams.

Penfentenyou hears that one of the British politicians he needs to speak to, Lord Lundie, lives only 40 miles away. Next day he insists on being driven there to discuss his oh-so-important business. Arriving in Lundie’s village they notice a) a removal van with several men having a beer outside the local pub b) an organ grinder and monkey.

As they walk towards the hedge of Lord Lundie’s manor house they notice a fine monkey puzzle tree dominating the lawn outside and then hear the braying of upper class voices. Creeping nearer they overhear Lundie, a famous Society painter James Loman and Sir Christopher Tomling the engineer, who are all discussing whether a monkey really can climb a monkey puzzle tree.

They remember the organ grinder in the village and one of them gets sweets and biscuits from the house to plant a trail of goodies to the top of the tree, then they approach the organ grinder with their proposition – can they borrow the monkey to see if he can climb to the top of a monkey puzzle tree?

Unfortunately, the monkey is upset by all these people crowding round it and runs for it, leaping through the open window of a nearby house. The organ grinder detaches his instrument from its trolley, straps it over its shoulder and, along with the three eminent Englishmen, runs into the (empty) house. Closely followed by the narrator and Penfentenyou.

So far so Ealing comedy as the narrator and Penfentenyou hear the posh chaps running around the upstairs of the house, crashing and banging everywhere, trying to capture the monkey. The confusion is compounded when a young married couple pull up outside the house. It is their house and they are moving out and they rouse the removal men from the pub to come and finish the job – at which point the Lord and society painter and eminent engineer and organ grinder all come face to face with an outraged bourgeois couple and their surprised workers. The woman is outraged and demands to know what is going on and the whole action pauses for a comic moment.

The Eternal Bad Boy in every man hung its head before the Eternal Mother in every woman.

But at this comically crucial moment, the noble Englishman keeps his cool and shows his class, as the painter on the spot comes up with the explanation that the monkey has just got away from the organ grinder into the house and the passing aristocrats were so worried that the wild animal might harm any children inside, that they have nobly given chase and are on the verge of capturing it.

The young couple’s mood changes from anger to relief and gratitude, they thank the posh chaps profusely, who then calmly stroll back to their big mansion, followed by the narrator and Penfentenyou, who is only now formally introduced to the man of influence. After this unconventional encounter Penfentenyou manages to get his political plan and budget approved by the much relieved Lord Lundie.

This story is genuinely funny, and it’s a relief to read a Kipling story not made incomprehensible by technical jargon, impenetrable dialect, or the complex overlapping of narrators. The narrator and Penfentenyou reappear in the later farce, The Vortex, collected in A Diversity of Creatures, which is just as funny.

Illustration of The Puzzle

8. Little Foxes: A Tale of The Gihon Hunt (1909) The Gihon is a river which rises in Ethiopia. This is a comic story about the British Governor of the region and his Inspector, who are trying to establish order after the defeat of the Mahdi in Sudan (in the 1880s). When the Governor learns that real genuine foxes – not hyenas, foxes – inhabit the area, he sends for his pack of fox hunting beagles from Ireland, they duly arrive and he teaches the locals the joys of fox hunting.

Order is shown rippling outwards from this strange importation of such a British pastime – for the Governor pays for holes where foxes are caught and fines for holes where foxes are let escape – and this inadvertently clarifies innumerable land disputes. Also villages are motivated to repair their water wheels in order to fuel their crops, because the Hunt buys the crops at a good rate to feed the horses.

A local boy, Farag, immediately falls in love with the dogs and is allowed to become their groom, allowed to dress in traditional hunting outfit, absorbing the Sahib’s virtues of discipline and loyalty, and radiating these out among his people. Great tales are told in the villages of the Hunt’s mighty achievements. As quite a few of the dogs die in service in what, after all, is an alien land with unusual hazards, the Governor dispatches the Inspector back to Britain to get more huntin’ dogs. The Inspector is passed round the ‘county’ set of fox-hunting aristocrats, until a fateful dinner at a swank country house which happens to include among the guests a spluttering Liberal politician. The Inspector is tempted into exaggerating various aspects of British rule, mentioning the administration of physical punishment to the natives, comically exaggerating it and, in a mad moment, using a very crude local Ethiopian name, little thinking his dinner joke will have any consequences.

Part two of the story tells of the visit to Ethiopia of the spluttering Liberal politician who, before he even arrives, causes a lot of concern and potential bloodshed by writing pamphlets criticising Imperial rule. When these are read by the locals they think the Government is about to overthrow all the hard-won land ownership agreements which the Governor has taken so much trouble to establish. As discontent rises, the Governor finds his work cut out dealing with the effects of the ignorant, meddling, undermining stay-at-home anti-Imperialists’ writings and threats.

When the splutterer, Mr Groombride, arrives the locals have been well briefed by Farag, the dog boy, to expect ridicule and farce. They arrange for a willing translator, Abdul, to take the mickey out of Groombride’s speeches. As he reaches the peroration of a particularly virulent anti-Imperial diatribe to Farag’s assembled village, the unfortunate Groombride uses the taboo word mentioned to him ages ago over dinner by the Inspector, and is taken aback when the whole village falls about laughing at him, pointing at him, ridiculing him. Showing the typical thin skin and anger which (Kipling implies) underlies all shallow Liberals, Groombride is so outraged at this reaction that he turns and beats his translator Abdul with an umbrella — just as the Governor and Inspector ride up to witness the ‘native-loving’ Liberal caught in the peak of hypocrisy.

Groombride abjectly pleads for them not to report the matter and to suppress the law suit for assault which Abdul threatens to bring. Thus the blustering, bullying, ignorant, meddling Liberal anti-Imperialist is brought low and transformed into a whining hypocrite. Well, this era saw much Liberal, Labour, Radical and even communist literature and propaganda, so it is only fair to savour the propaganda of the extreme opposite, the virulent die-hard rhetoric of the hard core Imperialist.

9. The House Surgeon (1909) On a steamer the narrator gets talking to L. Maxwell M’Leod who bought a big old house – Holmescroft – in the Home Counties off the three Moultrie sisters through their lawyer, Baxter. M’Leod invites the narrator for a weekend, where he is no sooner inside the building than he experiences the extraordinary sense of depression, guilt and despair it throws over everyone who inhabits it. Intrigued and disturbed, the narrator decides to investigate and goes off to visit this lawyer, Baxter, working his way into his favours by taking up golf (which he detests) under Baxter’s tutelage and eventually being invited to a health spa, along with the spinster sisters.

What emerges is that only two of three sisters survive – Miss Elizabeth and Miss Mary. The youngest, Miss Agnes, died when they owned and lived in Holmescroft – she was found on the path beneath an open first floor window, having committed suicide. And both sisters, and to some extent the lawyer, believe her ghost haunts the house and accounts for the terrible sense of oppression and gloom inside it.

Now a) the narrator himself had stayed in the very room Miss Agnes was supposed to have thrown herself from just a few weeks earlier, and he had noticed that the catch to the window was both low down towards the floor and very stiff, so that in forcing it up and open he very nearly fell out of the window.

b) At this spa there is an excited scene when Miss Mary shrieks for help and Baxter and the narrator burst into the sisters’ bedroom to find Miss Mary, her hand and throat covered with blood, wrestling with the open window while her sister grips her knees to stop her throwing herself out and repeating Miss Agnes’s suicide. Miss Elizabeth claimed her sister had slashed her throat and was trying to throw herself out of the window.

BUT after the hysterical women have been calmed down, it emerges that Miss Mary had done no such thing – she hadn’t slashed anything, but had been struggling with the stiff catchment of the window with such force that when it finally gave, her wrist went through a pane and she accidentally cut herself. Suddenly all four of them – the two sisters, the narrator and Baxter – realise that this must be what happened to their sister, Agnes, at Holmescroft. She had been struggling with the wretched window, yanked it open and fell to her death by accident. He spirit has been haunting the place and trying to explain. It is this which explains the terrible sense of foreboding, depression and above all, that something unspeakable is trying to tell you something that afflicts M’Leod’s family and afflicted the narrator, when he stayed.

The narrator phones the M’Leod family and tells them to vacate the old house while he brings the two spinster sisters over. The sisters go up to the fatal bedroom (while the narrator and Baxter wait tactfully downstairs) and have some kind of communion with the dead. When the sisters return they have, somehow, spoken to the spirit of their sister, they have accepted that her death was an accident, the terrible secret the house needed to speak has been spoken, and now, magically, Holmescroft is a happy, well-lit, beautiful house again. The M’Leod family are delighted, and romp through their beautiful and now-released home, and happy young Miss M’Leod sings an old English air.

The name of the story comes from the fact that on the night of the panic at the spa when they think Miss Elizabeth is trying to kill herself, the narrator is introduced as the hospital doctor (to spare the embarrassment of Baxter having to explain that he’s in fact more or less a stranger who he – Baxter – has been telling the family secrets to). But it also has another, ironic, meaning by the end of the story, when the narrator emerges as the hero of the hour who discovered the secret of Holmescroft’s haunting and managed to exorcise it. — Early on the narrator says he is no Sherlock Holmes and this draws our attention to the Holmes in the name of the house, Holmescroft.

Comment

These nine stories are hugely varied in setting and subject matter but the two things which come over most strongly are:

  1. Kipling’s ideology, the devotion to duty as exemplified in Imperial rule over the colonies, a duty reflected in and welcomed by the colonised themselves, like Farag the dog boy or the loyal Imam Din — and its mirror image, a fierce, unremitting contempt and hatred of Liberals and do-gooders who blunder in without understanding the land, the people or the culture and so are wrecking all the good work of the Imperial administrators (in the stories of the hive and the Ethiopian hunt)
  2. Kipling’s fantastic addiction to technical terminology, jargon and cant, whether it’s the technical terms and slang associated with fox hunting or bee keeping or motoring or even, in the Night Mail story, a huge lexicon of technical terms which he appears to have invented purely for the story.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

A Man of Parts by David Lodge (2011)

At forty-five she [Violet Hunt] had already lost the beauty for which she had been admired in her younger years, and painted heavily to disguise a poor complexion, but her body was still slim and limber, able to adopt any attitude in bed he suggested, and to demonstrate a few that were new to him. Her years with Crawfurd had made her shamelessly versatile in the art of love, and she did not hesitate to use her mouth and tongue to arouse him for an encore when they had time to indulge in one. ‘Now I know why Henry James calls you the Great Devourer,’ he said, watching her complacently as she performed this service. (p.255)

Wells’s significance

This is a long, thorough and absorbing historical novel about the science fiction pioneer, novelist, journalist, political thinker and social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells. Wells’s impact on his time was huge, difficult for us now to recapture. In his 1941 essay about him, George Orwell wrote:

‘It would be no more than justice to give his name to the twenty-five years between the ‘nineties and the War. For it was he who largely wove their intellectual texture’ (quoted p.513)

The novel

It’s very similar in conception and design to Lodge’s previous historical novel which was about Henry James, Author, Author. Like that book, A Man of Parts opens with our hero at the end of his life, reviewing its events and meaning. Through the spring and summer of 1944 Wells is holed up in his house in Hanover Terrace, one of the rows of smart houses built by the architect John Nash on the edge of Regents Park in the 1820s. Refusing to be cowed by Hitler’s V1 or V2 rockets now dropping on London, Wells – or H.G. as everyone calls him – insists on sitting out the war in the capital, attended by a few servants and cooks, visited by former lovers like Rebecca West and Moura Budberg, and by his sons ‘Gip’ and Anthony.

[She] however agreed nonchalantly, stepped out of her drawers, lay down on the coat he spread on the springy bracken, and opened her knees to him. (p.219)

Visitors often find him tucked up in a bath chair mumbling to himself. Lodge deploys various narrative devices in the novel, mostly third-person narrator, but long stretches take the form of Wells interviewing himself – his young thrusting journalist persona quizzing the old, super-annuated man of letters – the youngster’s aggressive questions in bold, the old man’s often defensive answers in indented paragraphs.

She fell into them instantly, and he felt the soft, warm pressure of her breasts through his thin summer jacket as she clung to him. (p.209)

Sex

Given that Wells was a self-taught polymath with a vivid interest in the scientific and social developments which took place during his adult life – essentially the 1880s through to the Great War – it is disappointing that Lodge chooses to make the central concern of this long rumination on Wells’s life and achievements his SEX LIFE.

They embraced and lay in each other’s arms, exploring and gently stroking each other’s bodies like blind people. ‘Is that your…?’ Amber whispered. ‘That is my erect penis,’ he said, ‘a column of blood, one of the marvels of nature, a miracle of hydraulic engineering.’ ‘It’s enormous,’ she said. ‘Will it hurt me when you…?’ ‘It may hurt a little the first time,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind anyway,’ she said. ‘I want it inside me. I want you inside me.’ (p.292)

It’s true that SEX – the persistent urge to seduce as many women as possible – dominated his life, led him to have over a hundred sexual partners, to be unfaithful to all his wives and lovers, to break with his comrades in the Fabian movement, and to be publicly shamed and humiliated on more than one occasion. His last meaningful lover, Rebecca West, spoke bitterly about Wells’s ‘sex-obsession’ (p.397).

He could see she was excited by this badinage and soon they were entwined on the bed in vigorous and joyful intercourse. (p.391)

Certainly the book contains some accounts of his political interventions:

  • his difficult relationships with the stuffy old Fabian Society (which he joined in February 1903) led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw
  • his involvement writing propaganda during the Great War

and occasionally refers to the science behind some of his novels:

  • there is a particularly interesting page on his meeting with an aeronautical engineer involved in early airplane flight which inspired The War In The Air (John William Dunne, p.247)

but the overwhelming theme of the book is his relentless pursuit of female flesh and the countless sexual encounters which Lodge depicts with his characteristic, unnervingly clinical detachment.

They sat down together on the sofa and began to kiss and fondle each other, getting more and more exited. Soon he had her blouse undone and his lips on an exposed breast, while his hand was under her skirt and between her thighs. Rebecca began to moan and heave her pelvis against the pressure of his forefinger. ‘Take me, have me!’ she whimpered. (p.427)

The turbulent political climate during the Edwardian Era, the crisis over Irish Independence, the clash between House of Commons and House of Lords over the Liberal budget, the campaigns against poverty, any reference at all to the vast British Empire? Barely mentioned, if at all. Instead the central revelation of the book is that Wells had an unusually large penis, something which comes as a surprise – painful or delightful – to the numerous women he beds and bonks.

‘My, you’ve got a big one for a little chap,’ the woman said, as she lay back on the bed and spread her knees. (p.80)

Wells’s wives

Wells married his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, in 1891 but she never showed the slightest pleasure in sex, regarding it as a male conspiracy against women. When he fell in love with one of  his students in 1894, he and Isabel agreed to separate and Wells went on to marry the student, Amy Catherine Robbins, in 1895. But then, although Amy worshipped his mind, she also turned out to be less than imaginative or enthusiastic about sex. Instead Wells developed the habit of getting sexual satisfaction wherever he could. He he is taking one of the maids.

The sight of her standing there, demurely bloused from the waist up, wantonly déshabillé below, inflamed him further and he knelt to pull down her drawers and bury his face in her belly. She laughed as he did so – laughed! Isabel never laughed when he made love to her; nor, for that matter, did she speak or move. This girl raised her hips to meet his thrusts and cried aloud, ‘Oh! Lovely lovely lovely!’ as she reached the climax of her pleasure, doubling his own. (p.84)

Wells gave Amy the nickname ‘Jane’ and Jane she remained until her death in 1927. Jane was passionately in love with the older, brilliantly clever and charismatic writer but she also, alas, wasn’t that interested in sex and so the novel chronicles the evolution of their relationship towards an ‘open marriage’ i.e. Wells agreed to tell her all about his numerous affairs and Jane agreed to accept them, maintaining hearth and home and a secure base from which the predatory author could go on the prowl.

After which there was nothing to do but take Dusa to Eccleston Square in a brougham and quell his jealousy and his doubts by possessing her with as much violent passion as she could bear. In the cab he whispered to into her ear exactly what he intended to do, and felt her trembling with a mixture of excitement and fear. She fought him with spirit, and afterwards they kissed each other’s scratches and bite marks tenderly, and cuddled like babes. She was a girl in a thousand. (p.316)

Sensible though this set-up sounds, it didn’t prevent all kinds of complications and unhappiness, especially when the 40-something and world-famous author had a succession of affairs with women young enough to be his daughter – and their parents found out. This was the case with Rosamund Bland (daughter of the children’s author E. Nesbit), with Amber Reeves, a precociously brilliant student at Cambridge, the daughter of a Fabian Society colleague, and most fierily with Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield). They were all around 20 when the affairs began, meaning the book is full of descriptions of taut young naked bodies and lingers over the moments when they lose their virginities.

Amber was wonderful. In the daylight that filtered through the thin curtains her body was as delectable as it had promised to be under his blind touch in Spade House, shapely but lithe, with a delta of dense black pubic hair that set off her milk-white skin. She gave a cry that mingled pain and pleasure as he penetrated her, and when he had spent she wanted immediately to do it again. (p.292)

Scores of pages are devoted to the time and money it took to set up these lovers in country cottages and hotel rooms and loaned apartments and London flats, so they can be readily accessible to Wells’s outsize member.

They met perhaps half a dozen times in the cottage that summer, and on the last occasion she forgot to worry about whether she was doing it right and came to a genuine, uncontrollable climax, crying out in surprise and joy. (p.217)

These women’s impressive busts, their limber figures, their handling of Wells’s large member, their copulations furious, tender, loving, innocent, depraved, in cheap hotels, rented rooms or holiday cottages, provide the main current and theme of the book in a welter of orgasmic gasps and spurts, and the text pays obsessive attention to the curves and shapes of almost every female character. Take young Rosamund Bland and her bust:

Rosamund was an attractive and outgoing girl, with a well-developed figure for her age (p.158)… Rosamund, now eighteen and a striking young woman, with a pretty face and a buxom figure (p.168)… wearing a straw hat and a loose blue muslin dress with a neckline that showed her remarkable bosom to advantage… (p.177)

It’s a relief when the book tears itself away from Wells’s groin to deal with some of the other aspects of his life and other aspects there are. The book is stuffed with biographical information distilled from the many works by and about Wells which Lodge references in the five-page acknowledgement. In fact, by half way through I wished it had an Index, as in a standard biography or textbook – which the book itself resembles for long stretches – to help you refer back to the many anecdotes about George Bernard Shaw or Joseph Conrad or Henry James or E. Nesbit or any of the other notable figures who appear in the account conversing, dining, debating and, if they’re women, subject to Wells’s ever-ready urge to copulate.

They were truly two in one flesh at last, with no membrane of rubber between them. Amber gave a great shout when she climaxed, and afterwards, as she lay limply in his arms, she said: ‘I’m sure I’ve conceived.’ (p.323)

Wells’s books

One of the interview sections describes Well’s early life as the son of a hard-up couple – a gardener and domestic servant – who worked at a grand country house in Sussex, Up Park, and his early apprenticeship to a chemist in nearby Midhurst and in a draper’s shop in Southsea – experiences which shaped his sense of society’s unfairness, fuelled his political beliefs and gave his enemies countless opportunities to belittle his humble social origins.

At that moment, euphoric with the success of his speech, adrenaline still coursing through his veins, nothing would have pleased him more than to discharge his excitement in a bout of passionate copulation with Rosamund. (p.231)

Luck, innate talent and hard work won Wells a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, now part of Imperial College London).

She [Countess Elizabeth von Arnim] was petite, with a neat figure that curved in and out at the right places in spite of all her childbearing… ‘Au revoir,’ she smiled, and walked away towards the turnstiles, her neat rounded rear swaying under her tailored coat. (p.385)

The meat of the third-person narrative kicks in after Wells has found fame with his early scientific romances – the clutch of works in the mid and late 1890s which virtually invented modern science fiction – The Time MachineThe War of The WorldsThe Invisible Man – and these, along with his prolific journalism, have established him as an author. It is 1902 and Wells has designed a house with all modern conveniences (insisting on a lavatory for each bedroom) – Spade House overlooking Sandgate, near Folkestone on the south coast.

‘I never felt such sensations before,’ she sighed after a gratifying orgasm. ‘And I never realised a man could go on for so long.’ (p.388)

From 1902 onwards the novel – like a critical biography – namechecks every one of Wells’s works, frequently stopping in its tracks to describe the germination and writing of each book, with a summary of the plot and, a few pages later, a page or so of the contemporary reviews.

  • The Sea Lady, 1902 (summary pp.145-148)
  • Kipps, 1905 (summary p.162)
  • A Modern Utopia, 1905 (summary pp.163-164)
  • In the Days of the Comet, 1906 (summary p.176, pp.202-204)
  • The War in the Air, 1908 (origins p.247)
  • Tono-Bungay, 1909 (summary p.246, reviews pp.317-8)
  • Ann Veronica, 1909 (summary pp.300-305, reviews p.355)
  • The History of Mr Polly, 1910 (summary p.375)
  • The New Machiavelli, 1911 (summary p.p.376-80)
  • Marriage, 1912 (summary p.387, reviews p.395, Rebecca’s review p.396)
  • The Passionate Friends, 1913 (summary p.407-8, reviews p.423)
  • The World Set Free, 1914 (summary p.408, reviews p.441)
  • Mr Britling Sees It Through, 1916 (summary p.408, reviews p.441, p.464, 472-6)
  • Boon, 1915 (summary p.472)
  • The Research Magnificent, 1915 (summary p.476)
  • The Secret Places of the Heart, 1922 (p.496)

I knew already that Wells’s novels moved sharply away from the classic sci-fi stories of his initial success at the turn of the century and that he frittered his energies away writing long novels dramatising his own life and the social issues of the day, which are a lot less remembered these days.

It was interesting to read that even Wells himself referred to some of these as ‘prig’ novels, in which the hero is taller and handsomer than their author, and possessed of various high-minded ideals which are blocked, or encouraged, by the great love of his life etc. No surprise that they’re little read today.

Free Love and feminism

What interests me in Wells’s novels is the visionary power of the sci-fi stories, the cheeky humour of the comedies, and the social criticism of Edwardian England scattered throughout.

Amber he had always thought of as an athlete of sex, a kind of Atalanta, clean-limbed, agile, pagan, whereas there was something feral about Rebecca when she was stripped and hungry for love. Her body was less classically beautiful than Amber’s, but it was sensual, with a full bust, small waist, broad hips and a generously curved bottom. She had a luxuriant bush of pubic hair. (p.428)

What interests Lodge is the theme of personal relations. In novel after novel from 1902 onwards Wells worried away at the problems of the relations between men and women, the problem which dominated his own private life. These find their focus in the new ideas of ‘Free Love’ which were (apparently) much discussed at the turn of the century. And it’s this issue of Free Love which really bedevils his life, features again and again in his novels, and dominates this book.

They spent their days hiking through the foothills and pin woods, taking a simple picnic with them in their rucksacks, and making love after their lunch on mattresses of pine needles covered with their clothes. Little E enjoyed sex in the open air as much as himself, and relished the sensation of sun and breeze on her naked skin. (p.394)

The aim of Free Love movement appears to have been to free the practice of love and sex from the imprisonment of marriage, seen as a patriarchal male institution. Some Free Lovers wanted to abolish marriage altogether, as did many feminists. Most insisted that men and women should be free to love who and where and when and how they wanted, untrammelled by the restrictions of (a patriarchal) society.

She would crouch on the bed, naked, like a panther couchant, with her head up, following him with her eyes as he, naked too, prowled round the room, emitting low-pitched growls, and then he would suddenly pounce, and locked together they would roll about on the bed, or on the floor, licking, biting and digging their claws into each other before he mated with her and they came to a noisy climax. (p.433)

In this respect one of the interesting revelations of the book is just how many of the women of the era thought of themselves as feminists, or hold feminist beliefs. It was of course the heyday of the Suffragette Movement, itself split into extreme and moderate wings. All the educated women Wells encounters have views about the Suffragettes, and about the issue of ‘the New Woman’, and Free Love, many very fierce and passionate advocates of women’s liberation and the overthrow of tyrannical patriarchy, and a surprising number of them have or will write their own novels on the subject.

Their sexual life remained as exciting as ever, and as her belly swelled it became more comfortable as well as conducive to their private fantasy to come to climax in the natural position of feline copulation, Rebecca crouched under him as he covered her from behind, with her head buried in a pillow to muffle her yowls. (p.441)

But if this issue – how to be free to love wherever you will and to have sex with whomever you want – dominates Wells’s life and writings, and conversations with umpteen intelligent women – Beatrice Webb, Edith Nesbit, Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnem, Viola Hunt, Rebecca West – what the book shows us happening in practice is that the person who is free to love is the man in the situation – Wells – and that the people who suffer again and again are his women lovers, all of whom – once the affairs are revealed:

a) suffer intense social stigma and shaming (starting most intensely in their own homes, with their furious parents)
b) get pregnant – Wells impregnated Amber Reeves, Dorothy Richards and Rebecca West
c) and so end up as second-best mistresses, shacked up in love nests with their love children, feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, while Wells continued to enjoy all the advantages of married life, socialising and entertaining, provided with clean shirts and regular meals, by the ever-uxorious Jane

No matter how hard he protests that they seduced him, took advantage of him, waylaid and wanted him, there’s no avoiding the strong feeling that Wells lived his life selfishly, taking his pleasure where he wanted, and leaving a trail of damaged lives and embittered women behind him.

Wells and James

Henry James was the subject of Lodge’s long historical novel before this one, and there is a pleasing element of overlap in the books because the two authors knew each other and were in regular correspondence right up to the end of James’s life (1916). They could not have been more different as men and as writers: Wells the unstoppable sex machine contrasted with James a lifelong celibate; and Wells with his ‘instrumental’ view that the novel should do something, promote an idea or explore an issue or share a vision of the world and its future

To me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. (p.469)

compared to James’s well-matured view that the aim of the artist is to raise the tone of the culture through the presentation of finished works.

‘The job of the artist is to enlighten and enrich the collective consciousness by the exercise of his imagination in his chosen medium.’ (p.223)

They eventually fell out after James published a sustained attack on Well and Arnold Bennett, grouped together with John Galsworthy as the representatives of ‘The Younger Generation’ (p.442) and Wells replied by including a lengthy satire of James’s ponderous manner in his wide-ranging satire on the literary scene, Boon. The latter represented a final break in an unlikely relationship, which Wells came to regret.

Enough of men

As I write it’s not clear whether this will be Lodge’s final novel. It certainly represents a climax of many themes in his work, the two leading ones being:

  • teaching, the factual presentation of literature
  • sex, all his books are full of clinically described erections and couplings

What’s missing from it is the agonising over Roman Catholic theology which flavours most of his novels. And although I emerged from these 560 pages just about managing to like still Wells as much as I had before, the reader’s super-saturation in the Male Gaze – the controlling, shaping, sexually predatory way of eyeing up every single female as a potential sexual conquest – has made me heartily sick of male writers, male comedy writers in particular. Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Howard Jacobson, their novels show a relentless obsession with sex and a relentlessly objectifying, exploitative and abusive view of women which has come to sicken me.

She [Moura Budberg] had the softest skin he had ever encountered. She murmured incomprehensible but exciting Russian words and phrases as she reached her climax and he released the pent seed of three weeks’ abstinence into the sheath he had prudently brought with him from England. (p.493)

When I put down the book I knew I was meant to feel moved by the picture of the old lecher hunkered down in his World War Two eyrie which Lodge leaves us with.

In fact I was much more intrigued by the women mentioned in the text: the women who experienced a dose of Free Love with Wells before going on to become authors and creators in their own right – Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, Violet Hunt, Amber Reeves – women who tried to crack open the masculine domination of literature (and everything else) and strove to create new ways of writing and thinking and expressing themselves, free of the tyranny of male concupiscence, the type of lecherous gaze which, alas, dominates this book.

Hedwig Verena opened the front door, dressed in a filmy tea gown and little else, and led him immediately upstairs to the bedroom. (p.503)

[Odette Keun] had a supple, slender body and she was like a monkey on heat as a lover. (p.509)

So I’m grateful to Lodge for opening such a big window on Wells and his time and also for introducing me to a number of interesting and new (to me) women writers.


Credit

A Man of Parts by David Lodge was published by Harvill Secker in 2011. All references are to the 2012 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of ten young Catholic students in the 1950s, following their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, with extensive commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous, married cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger seduces bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and difficult family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, an initially humdrum tale which moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts – A very long novel in which science fiction pioneer, novelist, political columnist and all-purpose social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells, looks back over his life and recounts in squelchy detail his many, many sexual conquests.

My Enemy’s Enemy by Kingsley Amis (1962)

Meanwhile I put to myself the question whether the removal of all social workers, preferably by execution squads, wouldn’t do everyone a power of good. (Moral Fibre)

Amis wrote short stories throughout his career, often experiments for, or by-products of, the longer fictions so that the Complete Short Stories is 550 pages long. This is an early collection, published in 1962, of stories from the 1950s, the first three all based on Amis’s wartime experience in the Royal Signals Corp, several others referencing characters from the contemporaneous novels, and the final one – unexpectedly – showcasing Amis’s enduring interest in science fiction.

My Enemy’s Enemy (1955) A rather complicated story about British soldiers in a wire maintenance unit during world war II. When Oxford-educated Thurston hears that a line engineer he respects, Dalessio, is being set up by the jumped-up Adjutant to fail an inspection of his rooms by the General, Thurston knows he ought to tip him off but doesn’t. In the end, Dalessio is tipped off by another officer, his quarters are spotless, the Adjutant is furious blames Thurston, despite the latter having done nothing – and feeling bad about it.

Court of Inquiry (1956) Another Army story, with some of the same characters from the Signals unit featured above. During a move from one base to another, a soldier mislays an out-of-date power charger, and his superior takes the opportunity (unnecessarily and vindictively) to hold a court of inquiry about it. This, however, fails embarrassingly when one of the witnesses admits it was his fault, not the man being blamed.

I Spy Strangers – The third Army story set in the Signals Corp and featuring some characters from the above. Starts one week before the 1945 General Election which swept Labour to power and one of the officers has set up a dummy ‘Parliament’ in which the men take sides and debate the issues at stake in the election. The issues arising here (the men ranging from Communist to proto-Fascist) become entangled with personal conflicts and resentments between seven or eight officers which, to be honest, I didn’t really follow. The story progresses to the night of the Election when it is clear Labour has won its historic landslide and this prompts a drunken confrontation between some of the officers, one of whom is knocked off the stairs, breaking his arm.

Having just read David Lodge’s first novel, The Picturegoers, with its priggish revulsion from the contemporary world (his comments on 1950s rock’n’roll are amusingly short-sighted but especially the brutality of National Service – the latter of which goes on to be the subject of his second novel, Ginger You’re Barmy) I realise that, while the young Lodge (b.1935) prissily spurns modern life, cleaving to his high-minded Catholicism and to ‘Literature’, all evinced in an oddly formal prose style, Amis (b.1922) had the impact he did because he embraced the reality of life as it was lived in the mid-1950s, and did it in the prose style, the stroppy speaking voice, of his contemporaries.

[The unit debating club] resettled itself sulkily, feeling and muttering that it was always the bloody same: the moment you got a decent row going, some pernickety sod piped up with some moan about order. Might as well be sitting in the billet reading last week’s paper. (p.56)

Why Amis was publishing stories about the weeks before the 1945 General Election, in 1955 and 1956. Was it just a question of being famous and publishable and so clearing out his backlog? Did they actually date from the 1940s? The theme of all three is the petty bureaucracy of the Army and how the military environment gives perfect scope for people to cultivate petty rivalries, jealousies and vindictiveness.

Moral Fibre (1958) John Lewis, the protagonist of The Uncertain Feeling (published three years earlier in 1953) is living in shabby digs with his wife, Jean, in the south Wales town of Aberdarcy. A friend of hers is the self-righteous social worker, Mair, and John gets dragged in to her ‘treatment’ of a local delinquent, Betty. Betty has twin kids by one man, is shacked up with another (a Norwegian sailor) and at one point, when the sailor is away, goes out on the streets as a prostitute. –Throughout the story John is driven by the characteristic bolshie male idea that Mair the social worker and all her works are awful, but is uneasily conscious that he doesn’t have any alternative. The outrageousness of his attitude and his seething dislike of Mair made me laugh out loud.

Interesting Things (1956) A short short story about young Gloria Davies from the tax office, being asked out by old Mr Huws-Evans, twice her age, on a date at a cinema. As in David Lodge’s contemporary novel The Picturegoers (1960), the cinema is depicted as a kind of Sodom of snogging couples and people stuffing their faces noisily with peanuts and sweets. Huws-Evans bores her with speeches about tax affairs, takes her back to his house so he can have a shave (there to be met by his disapproving mother), then into a park where he makes a very clumsy move to kiss her and she realises in a flash that, for all his knowledge of personal tax allowances, he is in fact an unattractive sad old man. They continue on to the swanky party he’s been invited to where she immediately takes up with a young attractive man.

The most interesting part of the story is its references to other Amis texts: to an Italian restaurant called Dalessio’s – a Dalessio whose Dad runs a restaurant in south Wales is a key character in the first story in this collection, he is the man the Adjutant tries to get dismissed; and Huws-Evans describes the party they’re going to as featuring posh folk, including a dentist with an, er, sort of friend. This must be the dentist who keeps a mistress who hangs around with the ‘fast set’ attending the parties given by Mrs Gruffydd-Williams in That Uncertain Feeling.

Glimpses like this, of interconnections of characters across novels and stories, give a pleasing (and comforting) sense of the interconnectedness of stories and – we wish – of the world.

All The Blood Within Me (1962) A gloomy story about two men aged around 64 who catch the train to a town a bit north of London, there to attend the funeral of a woman, Betty, they were both friendly with. Slowly it emerges that the mousy, unsuccessful one of the pair, Alec Mackenzie, had – he thinks – a thirty-year-long, unexpressed but deeply felt, love for Betty. At the funeral service and at the burial, Alec is transported by fond memories of her but at the wake in a nearby pub, drunk, he foolishly has a bit of a go at the Italian man who married Betty’s daughter, Annette.

This prompts Annette to follow Alec outside when he goes for a fag, and to give him a piece of her mind. She dismays him by laying into her mother, into Betty, revealing that she was a spiteful mother to her and her brother who couldn’t wait to escape home, that she disliked the Italian husband, that she disapproved of the grand-children because on their Italian blood, and that she maliciously and cruelly dangled Alec himself on a chain, all the time laughing behind his back. His saintly image of his beloved shattered, Alec is devastated.

Maybe the moral of the story is the unknowability of ‘other people, Amis’s fundamental subject.

Something Strange (1960) Out of the blue, a science fiction story. Two couples are isolated in a metal sphere millions of miles from earth. Their monotonous routine of fixing equipment has recently been interrupted by strange happenings, sightings of objects speeding towards them, the suddenly enclosing of the sphere by an unknown substance etc. I was totally captivated and in the story when…

… they see a new ‘happening’ as if a door is opening and human shapes are approaching. Who unlock the sphere and lead them out. And reveal to the dazed and uncomprehending foursome that they have been part of a long-term psychological experiment, carried out by a fiendish regime which has now been overthrown by the chaps liberating them.

Like a lot of science fiction it is powerful and disturbing in the way it directly invokes basic fears and archetypes – yet silly and superficial at the same time, in being so easily explained and resolved…


Tricks and tics

Whatever Amis’s habit of writing ‘blah blah blah or something like it‘, ‘… or something’, ‘or whatever’. Deliberate posture of shrugging his shoulders, it’s too complicated, I’m a normal-bloke-not-a-ruddy-expert.

Ordinary speech The narrating voice has the ring of ordinary speech even when that involves clumsiness and repetition. He has the confidence to write down what people actually say: not all the time, but often enough to be striking. (Compare and contrast with David Lodge’s style which is always studied, limpid, classical and often a little dead.) It is light, flexible, funny.

The first person he saw on entering the dining-car was Bob Anthony, wearing a suit that looked like woven vegetable soup. (p.141)

Tones of voice Amis is extraordinarily sensitive to tones of voice and the countless ways there are to adjust tone and register for different situations or phrases. His lead characters, the narrator-substitutes, are phenomenally self-aware, full of words and strangled emotions but often speechless while they agonise about precisely which of the many available tones to say it in. They are also super-acute at noticing similar shifts of register in the people they’re listening to, detecting and categorising them with the precision of a collector.

The man spoke again. He was plainly drawing to a close, and now the hint of a new tone was heard, the detached disgust of a schoolmaster reading out some shameful confidential document he has snatched from the hot hand of one of their number. (p.151)

(I like ‘hot’. Adds precise detail to the thought.) But the main point is that, as Alec listens to the vicar’s long elegy for the departed Betty, he not only hears the words, he registers the changes of tone with which the vicar delivers them. Similarly, when her daughter is criticising the dead woman, Alec notices acutely how her voice changes.

At the mention of anger, anger itself returned to her voice, which had softened in the last minute or two. (p.163)

Bewilderment His heroes are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by life. There is a particular shape of Amis paragraph which describes a person or activity in acute detail only to end, ‘Why?’ Why? Why does he say that? Why do they do that? Why does he wear that? etc.

Alec found nothing to say; his attention was like a weight too heavy to move from where it had landed, on Bob’s suit. Why was he wearing it? He must have others. Where were they? (p.143)

An air of permanent amazement at other people’s sheer inexplicability – sometimes blank, serious and unnerving, but on many other occasions giving rise to a kind of hilarious exasperation, the fundamental tone and worldview of Amis’s fiction.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy's Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy’s Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

Not only Walter, she realised suddenly. They would all be out looking for her, cruising the road with flashlights, spotlights. How could they let her get away and tell? Every man was a threat, every car a danger. (p.124)

Plot

A clean-cut, white, all-American young family move out of the big bad city to the idyllic small town of Stepford. The lead character, Joanna Eberhart, is oppressed by how domestic and submissive so many of the other wives are. Her husband joins the men-only Men’s Association, vowing to change it from within. Slowly, through an accumulation of details, Joanna begins to suspect there’s something actively wrong with all the other wives.

Eventually, as her two closest friends are transformed overnight into compliant, characterless housewives, she – and the reader – realise they have all been murdered and replaced by robots, androids created by the town’s menfolk, in order to create a race of ideally servile, completely submissive, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Satire

Obviously the novel is a satire on a certain kind of male backlash against the women’s rights, women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s, combined with equally topical anxieties about androids, robots, artificial intelligence, to create a short powerful horror story-cum-parable. It had a big cultural impact on its publication in 1972 though it is a little hard, in 2015, to recapture the thrill of either strand.

It could be (and obviously was) read as being ‘about’ Women’s Liberation, as Rosemary’s Baby is ‘about’ Satanism and The Boys From Brazil is ‘about’ ex-Nazis. But all three novels are also canny commercial moves to exploit hot cultural issues of the day in order to create thrilling narratives – and make money.

Points

The main things I noticed are:

  • it’s short and quick, as the best parables often are (eg Animal Farm), a brisk two-hour read
  • it’s another novel told largely from the perspective of a young woman (cf Rosemary’s Baby)
  • it takes the classic narrative template of the narrator arriving in a new community and slowly realising it is the setting for a horrifying conspiracy (cf RB)
  • a surprising number of the secondary topics and issues which it references are still with us
  • Levin’s casual, make-it-up style is fresh and easy compared to the stodgy prose of contemporary English writers

Women’s Liberation

Apparently the term Women’s Liberation refers to the late 1960s/early 70s, early forms of the feminist movement, nowadays referred to as second wave feminism. 1970 was a pivotal year:

– A snapshot of some of the events and books published 45 years ago, as Levin was writing this novel.

According to Wikipedia, 45 years later, we are currently in third wave feminism. Compared to the post-structuralist, Derridean deconstruction of gender, race and identity stereotypes implied in TWF, the discussions of Levin’s lead character, Joanna, seem rather simplistic – her most articulated concern is simply that it’s unfair and out of date to have a men-only club. Then again, she’s not a tenured academic expert in Queer Studies, and a lot, an awful lot of thinking – academic and political – has taken place in the 43 years since the novel’s publication.

Other issues

Town versus country The Eberharts have made a decision to leave the big bad city (‘the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city’ p.8) now their children are 7 or so, a debate had by almost all the parents of children of the same age who I know. The city is polluted, stressful but exciting; the country is peaceful, clean but boring.

There is a familiar Gothic strand to the story: in how many novels and movies have a young couple moved into their ideal suburban house only to find it contains dark secrets?

And in a way the sci-fi fantasy element of the story is not only about mad male scientists concocting sexist robot slaves; it is the uncanny way the stress and inhumanity of the city follow urban exiles, revealing the country to be even more artificial, constructed and manipulated than the city.

Androids Androids have appeared in a range of 20th century novels, movies and TV series with increasing frequency from the 1970s onwards – in Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Terminator franchise, to name some obvious ones. Almost always they are bad.

As to the thinking about artificial intelligence at the precise moment when Levin published this novel, it is tempting to link it with the sci-fi movie Westworld (1973) in which the androids in a futuristic kind of Disneyworld malfunction and start attacking the paying guests. Though the plot and even the plot archetype are different, novel and movie both share an anxiety about the anti-human, destructive potential of lifelike robots.

Feminism and a male backlash against feminism; the perils of artificial intelligence; the suburban Gothic horror story – The Stepford Wives can be viewed as a text where a number of contemporary anxieties or tropes meet and up the ante on each other.

(I note that female androids have been named gynoids.)

Pesticides and pollution As topical as women’s liberation – the ostensible subject of the book – was concern about pollution. The early 1970s not only saw the formation of the first women’s groups, but were also a period when the first Green parties were set up to reflect widespread concern about the destruction of the natural envinronment, and all forms of industrial pollution.

Levin is, therefore, tapping into another very newsy and hot topic when he makes Joanna’s only friend among the wives, Bobbie, as she begins to realise something is wrong, point the finger at the local drinking water supply. She suspects there is effluent from the industrial estate just outside the town which has got into the water and is causing the zombification of the women.

She’s right to be afraid of industry – for these are the computer and tech companies where the men work and have realised they have the combined skills to create lifelike androids – but just wrong about which aspect to be blaming.


Style

As usual the style, the way with words, interests me as much as the subject matter. Levin is bright and breezy, coining neologisms and phrases with Yanky confidence.

She was about a third of the way down the stairs, going by foot-feel, holding the damn laundry basket to her face because of the damn banister, when wouldn’t you know it, the double-damn phone rang.

She couldn’t put the basket down, it would fall, and there wasn’t enough room to turn around with it and go back up; so she kept going slowly down, foot-feeling and thinking Okay, okay to the phone’s answer-me-this-instant ringing. (p.19)

As with Rosemary’s Baby it’s partly the jazzy modernity of the characters’ attitudes and phraseology which makes the story all the more plausible, and the heavy leaning on the female protagonist’s point of view, as the walls close in, which make it all the more terrifying.


Conclusions

From one point of view Rosemary’s Baby and this are identical: the husband in a young married couple completely betrays his wife into a horrifying conspiracy. In Rosemary the husband betrays her to satanists in order to further his acting career; this one goes further as the husband, Walter, acquiesces in the murder of his wife.

The novels are pulp, or horror, or genre fiction because no consideration is given to the husband’s character or motivation. The plot is purely a pretext to create (again) the character of a vulnerable young(ish) woman and then terrify the daylights out of her (and the audience). It’s intelligently and precisely done, but it’s exploitative nonetheless.

References to the story (and the title, after all) generally focus on the perfect wives; but all the wives are dead. It’s actually about a town of male murderers, about a community of men who have ganged together to murder all of their wives. Imagine what JG Ballard would have made of that – I can’t believe they wouldn’t all be pretty damaged by the act, some of them would become unhinged, and therein would lie some really interesting fictive material.

But the purpose of this book is to be a quick, intense jolt of horror and so the entire psychology of the men is excluded; in the final hunting down of Joanna, who goes on the run across country in the winter snow, the men appear (very effectively) just as silhouettes holding the bright torches which surround her, simply as ‘shapes darker than the darkness’ (p.126).

They are the eternal bogeymen of our childhood nightmares.


The movie

Two movies have been made: the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; and the 2004 version, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)
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