Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’ but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic, social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism at the end of the Second World War.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s, blah blah blah- but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written, and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead (including nearly 2 million Jews); Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists.

Coventry was devastated as was London, and most German cities were severely damaged – though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless.

Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking. Primo Levi is quoted as saying, as he travelled across postwar Europe back to Italy, that there was something supernatural, superhuman, about the scale of the devastation the Germans had unleashed.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of anecdotes describing the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe.

Some of the thoughts or ideas struck me more than others:

The myth of national unity

After the liberation the whole continent began constructing myths of unity in adversity. (p.196)

After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another.

But the wish to gloss over inconvenient truths wasn’t particularly French. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood

As a reader of modern newspapers, it’s often easy to think that modern 21st century society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice, and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash, it’s time to stop blaming us for everything, the head of Barclays whined. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or unfairly treated.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘We are only civilians. We never shot anyone’ etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would have. And by sacrificing themselves, they managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on.

Thus Lowe points out how right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres of collaborators carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women.

Similarly, modern right-wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000 (in this version of the story, heroic and patriotic) collaborators. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape

On a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe goes further to point out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions, because the cultural gulf between them and European women who they despised. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators

A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166). Well, maybe Sylvia Plath wasn’t being ironic when she reported that ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos of some of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked, shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’, tarred and painted them with swastikas.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way on appalling behaviour, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, and never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves.

Witnesses report a marked reduction in communal tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint

No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. Very often American or British supervisors gave the victims 2 or 3 days to get it out of their systems, then reimposed order.

The surprising thing (for someone who has such a low opinion of humanity as myself) is the relative restraint. Some victims and camp inmates went made with revenge. But a surprising number didn’t, and even made eloquent speeches saying they refused to lower themselves to the bestial barbarism of the Germans, epitomised by the address of Dr Zalman Grinberg to his fellow inmates of Dachau in May 1945, when he told them not to sink to the level of their German tormentors. Hard not to be moved and impressed.

There’s a fascinating description page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could, and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing

Part three of the book is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers with rifles picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another. One eyewitness said it was like the biggest antheap in history.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes quite clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the Second World War and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror i.e. not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities.

Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism

One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror and the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the utter breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain

Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s.

Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (i.e. killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism

Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’.

It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’.

The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism had taken hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we in the West celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 30 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by nationalism’s ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, in practice against gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, against anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Rassenkrieg

Reading the book made me reimagine the entire Second World War as a Race War to an extent I hadn’t previously realised. At first in Germany and then in all the countries they conquered, the Nazis compelled the entire population to carry identity cards which specified precisely which race they belonged to, and created vast bureaucracies to manage the rights and permissions of every citizen based on the complex hierarchy of racial definitions.

In Poland, for example,

a racial hierarchy was devised which put Reich Germans at the top, ethnic Germans next, then privileged  minorities such as Ukrainians, followed by Poles, gypsies and Jews.

Each group was then sub-categorised, for example Ethnic Germans broken down into Germans racially pure enough to join the Nazi Party, pure enough for Reich membership, those tainted by Polish blood, and finally Poles who could be considered German because of their appearance or way of life (p.188).

In Western Europe this fed into the rounding up of Jews and to a lesser extent gypsies (and socialists, liberals, political opponents and homosexuals). But in Eastern Europe the race basis of the war makes it lunatic. I am still reeling from reading about the Generalplan Ost whose headline intention was to exterminate some 30 million Slavs in Poland and western Russia, laying waste entire regions which could then be occupied by good Aryan farmers, who would use the remaining Slavs as slaves.

This isn’t dealt with directly in Lowe’s book. Instead he deals in detail with the political, psychological and social consequences of this way of thinking. He shows how after the war was over nationalist groups across eastern Europe blamed the Jews for much of the suffering, how anti-semitism rose, how this convinced many Jews to flee to Palestine.

But gives an extended passage describing the ethnic cleansing of Germans in Czechoslovakia but especially from Poland. Poland was also the scene of horrible civil conflict between ethnic Poles and Ukrainians in the disputed south-east part of the country, which led to terrifying, bestial atrocities. And all so Ukrainians could have a ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians’ and the Poles could have a ‘Poland for the Poles’. Their new communist masters stood back and let them massacre each other.

The real point of Lowe’s book is that the evil of the Nazis’ obsession with Race Identity lived on long after the regime was destroyed.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany, but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European values. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they want to or not. And, in communities which had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem that needed solving. (p.188)

Two years after the end of the war regions of Europe were still being racially cleansed. Thus the Slovak government not only set a bout expelling the 40,000 or so Hungarians who had settled in their country after the Germans invaded, but expelling the entire pre-war Hungarian community of some 600,000 souls in order to have a ‘final solution’ to the Hungarian Problem (p.247).

It took a while, and it happened under post-war nationalist and then communist governments, but the savage irony is that many parts of Europe really did eventually become what the Nazis had worked for – Judenfrei. And the toxin of race identity they had unleashed continued to infect the politics of entire nations for decades to come…

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance.

All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo, or the Hutus slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis and Hwa in Rwanda, or the inter-communal violence in post-war Iraq, or post-Gaddafi Libya, or the sudden genocidal attack of the Myanmar military against the Rohynga Muslims, and so on.

By contrast with the time-honoured clichés about the Nazis and Holocaust Memorial Day and so on, which tend to limit the threat and the lesson to a specific time and place long ago, Lowe’s judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much to teach us about human nature everywhere.

It is a history book but it is also a sort of compendium of the thousand and one ways humans can justify to themselves and their communities, the most inhuman bestial behaviour.

Far more than yet another tome about Krystallnacht or the Wansee Conference, Lowe’s book is a far broader study of the pathological forces at work in each and every one of us, in our communities and nations, which need to be identified and guarded against at all times, if we are to live in something like peace with each other.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

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Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby (2006)

‘In politics one should be guided by the calculation of forces.’ (Stalin at Potsdam)

Alliance is a thorough, insightful and gripping account of the wartime meetings between ‘the Big Three’ Allied leaders – Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin – which determined the course of the Second World War and set the stage for the Cold War which followed it.

In actual fact the three leaders in question only met face to face on two occasions:

  1. Tehran 28 November-1 December 1943
  2. Yalta, 4-11 February 1945

The third great power conference, Potsdam July 1945, took place after Roosevelt’s death (12 April 1945) and with his successor, former vice-president Harry Truman

There were quite a few meetings between just Roosevelt and Churchill:

  1. Placentia Bay, Canada – 8 to 11 August 1941 – resulting in the Atlantic Charter
  2. First Washington Conference (codename: Arcadia), Washington DC, 22 December 1941 – 14 January 1942
  3. Second Washington Conference, 19-25 June 1942
  4. Casablanca, 14-24 January 1943 – Roosevelt’s first mention of the policy of ‘unconditional surrender’
  5. First Quebec Conference – 17-24 August 1943 (codename: Quadrant)
  6. Third Washington Conference (codename: Trident), 12-25 May 1943
  7. First Cairo Conference (codename: Sextant) November 22–26, 1943, outlined the Allied position against Japan during World War II and made decisions about postwar Asia
  8. Second Cairo Conference, December 4–6, 1943
  9. Second Quebec Conference (codename: Octagon) September 12-16, 1944 – Churchill strongly disapproved of the Morgenthau Plan, but had to support it in exchange for $6 billion of Lend-Lease aid to Britain

I hadn’t realised that Churchill flew to Moscow not once, but twice, for one-on-one meetings with Stalin. which had some very rocky moments.

  1. Second Moscow Conference (codename: Bracelet) 12-17 August 1942 – Churchill stayed in State Villa No. 7 and, when he told Stalin Britain would not be launching a second front any time soon, Stalin became insulting, asking why the British were so frightened of the Germans. Churchill responded with details of Operation Torch – Anglo-American landings in North Africa designed to open up the Mediterranean, and increased bombing of German cities.
  2. Fourth Moscow Conference (codename: Tolstoy) 9-19 October 1944 – this was the meeting where Churchill and Stalin discussed percentages of influence in post-war European nations: Russia 90% in Romania, UK 90% in Greece, Yugoslavia 50/50, and so on.

(The First and Third Moscow conferences were meetings of foreign ministers only i.e. not directly including Churchill or Stalin.)

These top level meetings are colourful and interesting, and Fenby covers them in minute detail, giving a blow by blow account of what was discussed at each of the conference sessions, on each of the days, but nonetheless, they are like the tips of the iceberg. Nine-tenths of the book is about the exchanges of messages between the Three leaders, by cable and telegram and phone calls, the texts of various speeches and declarations, and the complex matrix of diplomatic missions and exchanges which took place at a lower level, with special envoys shuttling between the three countries, meeting their opposite numbers or conveying messages from one to the other.

Since almost everyone concerned seems to have left diaries of these meetings, plus official memoranda and press announcements, Fenby is able to quote these liberally in order to recreate the complex web of communications which defined the ever-shifting diplomatic relations between the three powers.

The book sticks closely to a chronological account of all these meetings and messages and slowly I began to realise it might more accurately described as a diplomatic history of the alliance. Or a History of Allied Diplomacy During World War Two. And I came to realise the book can be enjoyed on a number of levels:

Character studies of the big three

The opening chapter is a kind of prelude, giving vivid pen portraits of the Big Three leaders:

Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain

The stories about Churchill are often funny and loveable. We learn that he liked to go to bed in silk pyjamas. If he had no meetings he stayed in bed till noon reading all the papers. Time and again eye-witnesses describe him as an over-grown schoolboy, insisting on swimming naked off the coast on a trip to visit Roosevelt, on another occasion arriving at an American military display dressed in a romper suit with his topee brim turned up so that he looked like a small boy going down to the beach to dig a hole in the sand. En route to Yalta, Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, described him as looking like ‘a poor hot pink baby about to cry’ (p.351). After the Yalta conference ended, he ‘walked from room to room, genial and sprightly, like a boy let out of school’ (p.380). Unlike the two other leaders he appeared to have no sex drive whatsoever.

Sir Winston Churchill: Remembering the iconic British statesman ...

Churchill drank like a fish, sherry for breakfast, wine with lunch, champagne, wine and brandy with dinner. On a striking number of occasions he is naked – swimming in pools naked, on one occasion padding round the bomber flying him back from Moscow naked from the waist down, appearing half-naked in front of the Moscow ambassador (who, memorably, drew a sketch of the naked PM), and once – allegedly – when staying at the White House, being caught by Roosevelt emerging naked from the bath and, unabashed, declaring, ‘The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.’ Driven to the newly liberate area around Remagen, Churchill, surrounded by photographers, was caught short and unzipped to have a pee, telling the gentleman of the press that this particular moment of their great victory was not to be recorded. In his diary Brooke records that he will never forget ‘the childish grin of intense satisfaction that spread over his face (quoted page 388). He comes across as the ultimate naughty schoolboy.

Churchill was also given to flights of schoolboy sentimentality; he easily broke into tears, especially about loyal and trusty servants.

  • ‘I love that man’, he told his daughter Sarah, about Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes. (p.224)
  • Telling Moran that night of the [Polish diplomatic leader’s] request to be dropped into his homeland [to die fighting the Nazis rather than acquiesce in a diplomatic sell-out to the Russians], Churchill had tears in his eyes. (p.330)

And of course reams of magniloquent speech emerged effortlessly from his well-stocked mind. All us Brits have been brought up on the key moments from his wartime speeches. But as the book goes on, you come to realise this could also be a weakness. I watched his ‘historic’ address to both Houses of Congress on YouTube and realised that, if the spell drops for a moment, it is possible to see Churchill as a pompous old windbag. During the Tehran Conference, at the end of 1943, Roosevelt is reported as tiring of Churchill’s verbosity (p.236).

There’s lots of behind-the-scenes accounts and one eye witness memorably describes him as a tired old man who keeps going by sheer will power. But the windbag element opens the door to understanding the strong anti-British feeling which was present at all levels of the American administration and society, and grew steadily as the war progressed. In a telling phrase, Fenby says that by the time of Yalta, Britain was much the most junior partner of the alliance and Churchill knew it. Britain had lost its aura of 1940′ (p.353).

Franklin Delaware Roosevelt, President of the United States

It is quite a surprise to read so many of the senior staff who worked with Roosevelt describing him as a heartless SOB – that’s not at all how he comes over in the Pathé newsreels where he’s always laughing and joshing, but the eye-witnesses are 100% consistent.

The laughing and joshing is connected to another of Roosevelt’s qualities, which was his conviction that he could talk round anyone with banter and good humour. This partly explains his relationship with Stalin. a) Roosevelt, being an optimistic, can-do American, couldn’t really conceive the depths of evil which Stalin represented, b) Roosevelt believed he could manage Stalin as he had managed so many opponents in his long political career.

‘I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

What he thought he could do was to outwit Stalin as he had done with so many interlocutors. (Walter Lippmann, political commentator)

During the course of 1943 Roosevelt and Hopkins and their entourage became steadily more pro-Stalin and inclined to cold shoulder Churchill. Fenby records that some, more realistic, American diplomats resigned in protest at their boss’s wishful thinking about Soviet intentions and readiness to brush the show trials, gulags and famines under the carpet.

Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor: More Than Just Politics | National ...

Josef Stalin

It’s sometimes difficult to believe that a man as monstrous as Stalin ever lived and breathed and walked, let alone shook hands with the other two, made jokes and delivered gracious toasts. All the eye witness accounts confirm that he was extremely practical and factual. He had three demands and he made them right from the start –

  • for Britain and America to send more arms & munitions to help the Red Army fighting the Germans
  • for Britain and America to open a second front as soon as possible i.e. invade France
  • after the war to have a guaranteed security zone or buffer comprising Poland and the Baltic states in Europe (the situation in China/Manchuria was more complicated but Stalin’s basic principle was easily applied here, too: he supported whichever solution appeared to give Russia maximum security)

Uncle Joe often had a twinkle in his eye and charmed most of his guests. Only occasionally did the psychopath emerge. At one of the many drinks receptions and dinners accompanying the meetings, a Russian general was showing Kerr how to handle one of their tommy guns, when Stalin seized it and said, let me show you how a real politician behaves, and made a mock gesture of machine gunning everyone else in the room. At Yalta, Roosevelt asked Stalin who the quiet man with the pince-nez was. Stalin saw the president was gesturing towards Beria and laughed, ‘Oh that’s our Himmler’ (p.369). When Churchill explained to Stalin that he might lose the upcoming British general election, as he was only the leader of a particular party, Stalin replied, ‘One party is much better’ (p.377).

International communists on the attack against anti-Stalin lies ...

Character studies of their many subordinates

But the book is by no means only about the Big Three. There’s a also a huge amount of highly enjoyable gossip about the cohorts of advisers and diplomats and military men the Big Leaders were surrounded by. Here are quick sketches of some of them:

The Brits

  • Major Arthur Birse – Churchill’s Russian translator
  • Field Marshal Alan Brooke – Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and, as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was the foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill. He was nicknamed ‘Shrapnel’. In the 1950s his diaries were published which contained scathing criticisms of senior figures of the war, including Churchill. Brooke admired Stalin for his quick grasp of strategy and military reality – but still thought him a cold-hearted, mass murderer. He was a keen birdwatcher.
  • Sir Alexander Montagu George Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 1938 to 1946, kept extensive diaries which were later published.
  • Field Marshal Sir John Dill, May 1940 to December 1941 Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and in Washington, Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though much admired by Americans as senior as George Marshall, Churchill did not like him, nicknamed him Dilly-Dally, and replaced him with Alan Brooke.
  • Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary 1940-45 – Churchill’s loyal lieutenant, principles, vain, self-centred
  • Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, 1941 to 1946 British Ambassador in Washington –
  • Sir Archibald Clark Kerr – ambassador to China 1938- 1942, where he won the respect of Chiang, then ambassador to the Soviet Union 1942- 1946 where his tough approach and broken nose earned him the nickname, ‘the Partisan’.

The Americans

  • Averell Harriman – inherited $100 million from his father and was chosen to manage the massive Lend-Lease programme. US ambassador to the Soviet Union from October 1943 to January 24. Had an affair with Winston Churchill’s son’s wife.
  • Harry Hopkins – gangling son of an Iowa saddle-maker who ended up becoming instrumental in Roosevelt’s new deal scheme, and moved into the White House to become Roosevelt’s adviser throughout the war
  • George Marshall – supremely capable Chief of Staff of the US Army, September 1, 1939 – November 18, 1945
  • Cordell Hull – the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of State, 1933-44, at daggers drawn with his junior, Sumner Welles, who he eventually got fired in 1943. Hull was the underlying architect of the United Nations. Eden described him as ‘the old man’. Cadogan referred to him as ‘the old lunatic’.
  • Sumner Welles – Under secretary of state 1937-43: ‘the age of imperialism is ended’. Hull hated Welles and got him sacked when stories of his gay lifestyle began to leak to the press.
  • Henry L. Stimson – Secretary of War (1940–1945), principled grand old man in his 70s, he vehemently opposed the Morgenthau Plan, and kept a diary full of insights.

Americans in China

  • General Joseph Stilwell – in charge of some Chinese Nationalist forces, adviser to Chiang Kai-Shek, supervisor of American lend-Lease to the Nationalists. Known as “Vinegar Joe” he despised the British in India and Burma from the start, but came to loathe Chiang as he came to understand Chiang’s policies ignored ideas like efficiency and were entirely based on paying bribes to, and keeping in place, administrators and senior soldiers who supported him. This explained the Nationalists’ woeful record at fighting. Stilwell took to referring to him as the Peanut (because of the shape of Chiang’s shaven skull).
  • Claire Chennault – retired from the US Air Force in 1937, Chennault went to China to work as freelance adviser to the Chinese Air Force and after Japan invaded, found himself becoming Chiang Kai-shek’s chief air adviser, training Chinese Air Force pilots, and setting up the so-called Flying Tigers.

Roosevelt wanted to replace Stilwell who, by 1943, hated the Chinese with a passion. But Chief of Staff refused to accept the obvious replacement, Chennault, because he was outside the formal command structure and was far too close to Chiang. So nothing was done, one of several reasons why American policy in China was allowed to drift…

The Russians

  • Vyacheslav Molotov– USSR Foreign Minister. Molotov is a pseudonym like Stalin, it means ‘hammer’. According to witnesses completely inflexible, unbending, unyielding
  • Ivan Maisky – USSR Ambassador to Britain 1932 to 1943
  • Maxim Litvinov – Soviet ambassador to Washington 1941 – 1943

The French

  • Charles de Gaulle – leader of the Free French. A relatively junior officer in the french Army, de Gaulle escaped the German invasion and on 18 June made a radio appeal from London to the French to resist the occupiers. He was a legend in his own mind, remplis with a particuarly Gallic form of arrogance and hauteur, and eventually managed to convince the French nation of his historic uniqueness. But it is very funny to read how powerless he was in the context of the Great Powers, and how he was routinely ignored by all sides as irrelevant. Churchill was, in fact, generally respectful, we had fought side by side the French during the German invasion of 1940. I’d forgotten that Roosevelt hated de Gaulle. He was convinced he was a dictator in waiting in exactly the same mould as Mussolini.

The Americans dislike the Free French Even after the United States declared war on Germany (11 December 1941), it was only the beginning of what turned into a very long haul. Fenby quotes Charles de Gaulle who, on hearing the news of Pearl Harbour, declared (with typically French brio / arrogance) that the war was won, it was only a matter of time. Obviously almost everyone who was going to die over that matter of time was going to be Russian, American and British. It is heart-warming to read how much Roosevelt and the Americans disliked the Free French under de Gaulle. At Yalta, Roosevelt said the Americans would only give the French a sector of Germany to run ‘out of kindness’. Stalin concurred. Both men obeyed the well-known dictum:

Bad mouthing the French always has its appeal. (p.358)

De Gaulle was furious at not being invited to the Yalta Conference – despite the fact that the three participants gifted France control of a sector of post-war Germany – and, in a typical high-handed gesture, cancelled a post-conference meeting that had been arranged with Roosevelt. The president really lost his temper and drafted a flaming reply criticising not only de Gaulle but the entire French nation until his translator, career diplomat Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen agreed that de Gaulle was ‘one of the biggest sons of bitches who ever straddled a pot’. This amused Roosevelt who calmed down and set his diplomats to working on a much toned-down reply.

Like a novel

So this 400-page book is a bit like a 19th century novel. You are formally introduced to each new character, with pen portraits, other people’s descriptions. Then settle in to watch the cast assemble, disperse, meet, take notes, observe each other and generally interact. By half way through, when Fenby describes a meeting involving Eden, Hopkins, you have a good idea of what they all looked like

Big ideas

So much for the gossip, but there’s also plenty of through-provoking stuff about the geopolitics.

I find it fascinating, reading about any war, to learn how war aims change and evolve during a prolonged conflict. History – the passage of time – simplifies everything to black and white, whereas at the time there was a blizzard of conflicting aims and goals on at least four levels:

  • the leaders of the big three nations (USA, Britain, USSR) disagreed among themselves, and as the war progresses, change their minds
  • their advisers often strongly disagreed with their leaders, and also amongst themselves
  • in the democracies, the opposition political parties and voices in the press & other commentators often strongly disagreed with government policy
  • and underlying all this froth is the deep, enduring reality of geography and the geopolitical priorities which that entails

This makes for a fascinating maze, a kind of four dimensional chess, which Fenby confidently steers us through, often with a wry smile on his face.

Stalin wanted arms and Russian security To take the last one first, Stalin knew what he wanted and he largely got it. It is bracing to read the eye witness accounts of the western diplomats who met and admired him. They knew he was a dictator, some were repelled by his history of brutality, but all admired the clarity and conviction of his thinking. When the war was over, Stalin wanted to ensure he had SECURITY in the West and the East. From the get-go he wanted to ensure a geographical buffer from any further attack from East or West. His methods were brutal and disregarded all humanitarian values, but he had the advantage of being absolutely clear about his aims. And he got it. In 1942 he asked for control of the Baltic states and Poland to provide his buffer, and this request caused quite a serious rift between Britain (who wanted to agree in order to pen Russia in) and America (who rejected all plans, pacts and alliances, and was committed to giving every nation ‘freedom’). In the event, he extended his buffer zone half way across Europe to take half of Germany.

And in the East, as I’ve just read in Fenby’s history of China, this simple priority – security – explains why Stalin initially allied with the right-wing Kuomintang against Mao’s communists. Stalin would deal with whoever seemed able to provide security, and the Kuomintang were, in 1945 anyway, the strongest power in China, once the Japanese had surrendered.

But Stalin’s had two more immediate concerns which he hammered away at repeatedly:

  1. More arms – he wanted the allies to send him much much more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fight the Germans who – be it remembered – advanced up to the outskirts of Moscow, up to the river Don and deep into the Caucasus.
  2. Second Front – he wanted Britain and America to invade France as soon as possible, a demand he kept up in every conversation and exchange throughout all of 1942 and 1943 and into 1944.

Winston Churchill wanted to preserve the British Empire This threw up all kinds of problems around the economic and political organising of the British Empire which took up a lot of his energy, and of the other conservative politicians around him – concerns about the preferential trading system within the Empire & Commonwealth which now seems as remote as the Corn Laws – as well as the responsibility of policing and trying to secure an extremely farflung set of territories, which beset the British chiefs of staff.

In the end, it was a failure. Fresh in my mind is J.G. Ballard’s eye-witness account in his autobiography of the seismic impact the loss of Singapore (15 February 1942) had on the British Empire in the East. It lost face. It was seen as defeatable. Everyone realised its days were numbered. In the event, Britain gave independence to India in 1947 just two years after the war ended, and over the next fifteen years the rest of the British Empire unravelled.

And all this comes to seem increasingly obvious when you read this book and see how utterly, helplessly dependent the British government and empire and, Churchill personally, were on the Americans – and then to read in detail, with extended quotes, Roosevelt’s cast-iron opposition to the British Empire.

Arguably, Churchill deluded himself about American intentions. Rather like Kipling, he saw the young United States coming under the tutelage of the wise and mature British Empire to organise a post-war world in which both would exercise the White Man’s Burden to tutor the native peoples of the world to democracy and statecraft.

The Anglo nations would need to be united in order to contain a Soviet Union which Churchill early spotted would try to extend its influence deep into Europe; whereas Churchill was rudely dismissive of China, which had displayed nothing but weakness under its despotic but inefficient Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. (Stalin, it is interesting to note, was just as dismissive of Chiang’s regime and insisted he not be invited to the Big Three meeting at Tehran.)

Roosevelt wanted a post-imperial world of free nations If Stalin’s central inflexible idea was about gaining SECURITY for Russia, America’s was the idealistic notion that, when the war ended, all the old empires and old alliances and old European ideas about ‘balances of power’ – the kind of complex alliances which had triggered the First World War and failed to avoid the Second – would be abandoned for all time and be replaced by a comity of free nations engaged in free trade under the aegis of global governing bodies (United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund). In this world order about four major states would be the top players – US, Britain, USSR, China – and Britain would be one, but only one among many.

Churchill thought the Brits and the Americans were fighting to overthrow the tyrannies of Germany and Japan, and hoped that afterwards extended American power would mesh with a rejuvenated British Empire to promote Anglo-Saxon ideas of law and justice. But the Americans disagreed: they saw themselves as overthrowing all the European empires and establishing principles of democracy and free trade, and Roosevelt is repeatedly quoted telling trusted advisers (specially Harry Hopkins, also Roosevelt’s son, Elliott) that Churchill is wilfully misunderstanding him.

‘I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy? The peace cannot include any continued despotism … Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

‘I’ve tried to make it clear to Winston – and the others – that, while we’re their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we’re in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas … Great Britain signed [sic] the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realise the United States Government means to make them live up to it.’ (Roosevelt to his son, Elliott)

The Morgenthau Plan

An issue which emerged during 1944 was how to treat Germany after the war. Fenby goes into great detail about the Morgenthau Plan named after Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, which planned to hammer Germany, permanently dividing it into smaller states and stripping it of all industrial capacity, denuding the Ruhr industrial heartland, and returning it to a pastoral, agricultural society for the foreseeable future.

Fenby brings out how some of the vengefulness of the plan stemmed from the Jewish ethnicity of Morgenthau and his even more extreme deputy, Harry Dexter White, who was also Jewish. (US Secretary of State Henry Stimson described the Morgenthau Plan as ‘Semitism gone wild for vengeance’ and ‘a crime against civilisation’.) As both men learned more about the Holocaust (initially a top secret known only to the administration) it didn’t soften their determination to destroy Germany. (Morgenthau estimated his model of a deindustrialised Germany would support about 60% of the population; the other 40% would starve to death.)

By contrast, Churchill, when he was presented with the plan at the Second Quebec Conference of September 1944, was extremely reluctant to agree with it and fought to water down its provisions. This was because Churchill could already see, with a clarity the Morgenthau backers (including Roosevelt, who told his cabinet Germany should only be allowed a ‘subsistence level’ of food) lacked, that the immediate post-war problem would be Russia, which was gearing up to conquer half of Europe. In this scenario, Churchill – correctly – predicted that a revitalised and economically strong Germany would be necessary a) to resist Russian encroachment b) to revive the European economy as a whole.

There was another element which is that, when details of the Morgenthau Plan were leaked to the press in September 1944, it had a damaging impact on the war effort.

  1. Goebbels leapt on it, making much of the Jewish heritage of its author, and was able to depict it as evidence for the global Jewish conspiracy against Germany which he and Hitler had been warning about for a generation (p.319)
  2. More significantly, US military figures as senior as George Marshall claimed the plan significantly stiffened German opposition, and directly led to the deaths of American soldiers. Roosevelt’s son-in-law Lt. Colonel John Boettiger worked in the War Department and claimed the Morgenthau Plan was ‘worth thirty divisions to the Germans’.

In the longer term the Morgenthau ideas of reducing German industrial output and deliberately impoverishing the German population turned out to be impractical and counter-productive. During the years of the Occupation from summer 1945 onwards it became clear that Germany was the economic and industrial heartland of Europe and impeding its developing condemned the entire continent to poverty. Plus, preventing the Germans producing their own goods threw the burden of supplying even elementary necessities onto the Americans who quickly realised how impractical this was.

Just a year after the war, the Morgenthau Policy was comprehensively overthrown in a famous speech titled Restatement of Policy on Germany delivered by James F. Byrnes, US Secretary of State, in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946, which became known as the ‘Speech of hope’.

After the war it became known that White, never himself a communist, had been passing classified information to the Soviet Union, enough for him to be given a codename by his Soviet ‘handlers’. Called before the House Unamerican Activities committee in 1948, he denied being a communist, shortly after testifying had a heart attack, and a few days later died, aged just 55, apparently of an overdose.

Thus his enthusiastic support of the Morgenthau Plan could be reinterpreted as aiding the Soviets by ensuring Germany was rendered utterly powerless after the war. A great deal of debate still surrounds White’s role. Stepping back, you can see how the story of the Morgenthau Plan crystallises the complex, overlapping nexuses of geopolitics, economics, ethnicity, conflicts between the supposed Allies, and conflicts within the most powerful of the three, the United States.

Sick men

They were sick men. Several eye-witnesses testify how sick Churchill as and how he kept himself going by sheer willpower. But the facade crumbled after the Tehran Conference. Churchill was exhausted when he flew back to Cairo, and by the time he’d taken an onward flight to Tunis to meet General Eisenhower, he was almost too weak to walk, and was confined to a villa where doctors discovered he had pneumonia. His fever worsened and then he had a heart attack. His personal physician thought he was going to die.

It is amazing that, with rest and injections of the new-fangled drug penicillin, he not only made a full recovery, but after a week was full of energy, firing off messages to the Cabinet in London, to Stalin and Roosevelt and worrying about the next stage of the military campaign to take Italy. And little short of mind-boggling that he went on to live for another 21 years.

And of course Roosevelt was an ill man. In March 1944, shortly after his 62nd birthday, he underwent testing at Bethesda Hospital and was found to have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure. Fenby explains Roosevelt had a cluster of symptoms nowadays referred to as post-polio syndrome (p.280). He went to the estate of a rich friend in South Carolina and ended up staying four weeks, sleeping a lot, cutting down on his chain-smoking, drinking less. But he lacked his former ‘pep’.

The most revealing symptom of this – and typical of Fenby’s semi-humorous, gossipy touch – was that the President stopped tinkering with his beloved stamp collection, up till then a favourite way of unwinding last thing at night. His personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, created a daily schedule that banned business guests for lunch and incorporated two hours of rest each day. But when he returned to Washington, witnesses testify that from that point onwards he was a good deal more flippant and ill-informed. At meetings he lacked focus, increasingly telling rambling anecdotes about his forebears. Churchill thought him no longer the man he had been.

Choosing the vice-president

It beggars belief that this crippled and deeply ill man determined to run for president a record-breaking fourth time and spent a lot of 1944 criss-crossing his huge nation making election speeches. The election was held on 7 November 1944 and Roosevelt won 53.4% of the popular vote and 432 out of the 531 electoral votes. He had campaigned in favour of a strong United Nations, so his victory symbolized support for the nation’s future participation in the international community.

Roosevelt wanted to retain his vice-president, Henry Wallace. A contingent of the Democratic party wanted the Southern Democrat Harry Byrd. Roosevelt was persuaded to nominate a compromise candidate, Harry S Truman from Missouri. Did many people at the time realise what a momentous choice this would turn out to be?

And am I the only person who noticed hat all three contenders for the vice-presidency were named Harry?

One way of thinking about the Yalta Conference in February 1945, is that Stalin dragged a very ill man half way round the world and then, backed by his henchman Molotov, was able to run rings round him. Roosevelt no longer seemed to take in information, or push for solid agreements. His doctor thought his brain was going and gave him only months to live.

Roosevelt clings to Stalin till the last moment

I hadn’t realised the Roosevelt administration became so utterly pro-Soviet, and increasingly anti-British. All discussions about helping Britain after the war with loans were tempered by concern that Britain would rise to become a major economic rival of the US. It came as a big surprise to Roosevelt and his economic advisers when Churchill bluntly told them that Britain was broke, and would go bankrupt without major economic assistance (p.305)

In the last hundred pages Roosevelt’s administration starts gearing up for the presidential campaign of 1944, and for the first time you really hear about his Republican opponents, and suddenly realise that there was a great deal of domestic opposition throughout Roosevelt’s presidency, from Republicans who opposed the state socialism of the New Deal, to isolationists who fought tooth and nail to keep America out of the war, and then to an array of political figures and commentators who accused Roosevelt’s Democrats of being far to supportive to the Communist mass-murderer, Stalin, and not being supportive enough of the right-wing Nationalist government of China under Chiang.

In this context Fenby goes into detail of the diplomatic toing and froing surrounding the Warsaw Rising – not the fighting itself, but the increasingly desperate attempts of the Polish government in exile to get the Allies to support the rising, the repeated requests made by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin to get the Red Army – which had halted its advance only 50 kilometres from the Polish capital – to intervene, or to get permission to land & fly Western planes from Ukrainian airfields to drop supplies to the Polish resistance. All of which Stalin refused and stonewalled. It suited him to have the entire Free Polish Resistance massacred by the Germans, clearing the way for the puppet communist government he planned to put in place. Afterwards the Americans and Churchill fell in with Stalin’s obvious lies that only military shortcomings had prevented the Red Army from intervening. Only the tough-minded George Kennan felt the West should have had a full-fledged showdown with Russia about it.

Same with the Katyn Massacre – in which some 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. The Nazis discovered the burial site and publicised it in 1943, but Stalin resolutely denied all responsibility and claimed it was a Nazi atrocity and Britain and America, once again, went along with his lies, for the sake of alliance unity.

The Cold War

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died just as the war ended. Every day made it plainer that the Soviets were going to ignore all promises and do whatever it took to impose communist governments across Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland whose governance was a running sore between the three ‘allies’ from the start of 1945. Right to the end Roosevelt hoped that, if he ignored this or that broken promise or atrocity by Stalin, the dictator would adhere to the main agreements.

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died and a new, simpler but arguably tougher man took over, Harry Truman, who was plunged into managing the future of the world as the greatest war in history came to a close. Truman had no idea relations with Moscow were so rocky. And he hadn’t been told about the atom bomb. Can you imagine the awesome burden which suddenly landed on his shoulders!

In some ways the last 20 pages are the most interesting: with the war in Europe over, Churchill – as Roosevelt predicted – became yesterday’s man. An exhausted Britain looked to the future and elected the Labour government with a landslide in July 1945. Roosevelt was dead and Truman replaced him as president with a completely new remit, sacking former advisers (e.g. Morgenthau while Roosevelt’s most loyal adviser, Harry Hopkins, retired), very much his own man from the start. The Labour Party leader Clement Attlee replaced Churchill. And on August 6 the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 14 August Japan surrendered, bringing the world war to an end.

A new era had dawned – but Fenby’s highly detailed, fascinating and gripping account helps the reader understand how the outlines of what became known as the Cold War had been established long before the shooting stopped.


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The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard (1991)

The Kindness of Women was marketed as the ‘sequel’ to Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical memoir, Empire of the Sun, his long and gruelling account of the harrowing years he spent in a Japanese internment camp, having been captured and separated from his parents in war-torn Shanghai, but a careful reading suggests it is anything but an ‘autobiography’ and in fact much more like an extremely carefully composed novel which simply incorporates some themes from his life.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun had a tremendous unity of subject, time and location – starting in Shanghai just at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, devoting most of its text to the harrowing experiences and degradations of the prison camp, and ending with a section about the strangeness of the war’s abrupt end – after the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan – and the dreamlike unreality of returning to his pukka, middle-class home at their comfortable home in Shanghai’s International Settlement.

It ends with Jim and his mother leaving Shanghai on a boat with other British mothers and children, bound for an England he had never seen, and so covers his life from just the ages of 11 to 15.

One of the many striking things about Empire of the Sun for seasoned Ballard fans was that… it wasn’t science fiction. It felt like a complete break with the past, with his previous dozen or so novels and scores of short stories, in being based on actual, sensible, real world events.

And yet, in another way, it was of a piece with his previous work in that it gave away or revealed the sources of, his entire worldview.

In the first part of the book the narrator, young Jim, describes the exotic phantasmagoria which was 1940s Shanghai, with its foreign people, food, smells, behaviour and casual brutality (public stranglings) in which he is a permanent outsider, where he is the spectator at wonderful and strange scenes – just as the protagonists of so many of his stories are.

And then, of course, the main part of the text, the description of life in the internment camp, is a prolonged portrait of nominally polite well-educated chaps and chapesses going to pieces, reverting to utter torpor or feral behaviour, while young Jim is permanently starved, covered in sores, feverish and over-excited

That more or less describes the behaviour of the protagonists of the key, hard-core Ballard stories and novels, from The Drowned World to High Rise, especially in the novels which almost all describe the same narrative trajectory – the decline and fall of an individual, or a small group of people, into malnutrition and madness.

In its final scenes Empire of the Sun reaches a hallucinatory intensity as Jim accompanies the other dying internees on a long death march across the Chinese countryside towards another internment camp up country, in which scores of exhausted, ill and dying Brits fall away at each rest stop.

Eventually they arrive at the bizarre setting of an abandoned Olympic sports stadium which has been packed with loot from Shanghai by the conquering Japanese and it is here, more dead than alive, that Jim sees a strange light cover the sky which, he later learns, was the atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki which brought the war in the Pacific to an end, and saved the lives of the remaining internees.

So then, it is a very focused narrative, written with delirious intensity.

The Kindness of Women

The Kindness of Women has many of the same qualities of its predecessor, but is much more diffuse. Basically it’s much broader and wider, covering the whole of the rest of Jim’s life, starting a little before the events described in Empire of the Sun (in starts in 1937, the year the Japanese first attacked China, as opposed to Empire which starts in 1941) and then proceeds up until more or less the time of its writing, in the late 1980s.

No autobiographer can simply describe everything they’ve said and seen and done. Instead you have to choose what to describe, and The Kindness of Women takes this very much to heart. It is very episodic. Each of the seventeen chapters zeroes in on a particular period or moment, on key incidents in Ballard’s life, and gives us a good 15- or 20-page tour of it, before moving briskly on to the next key moment or period.

Thus it has far less unity of time and place, and is therefore less focused and intense than Empire of the Sun. That book was seen entirely from young Jim’s point of view, and he was weak and malnourished even before he entered the camp thanks to spending several months on the run – so it is characterised by a) being seen just from Jim’s point of view and b) Jim being almost continuously feverish and hallucinatory.

By contrast, in most of The Kindness of Women a) the narrator is not just about to faint from exhaustion and malnutrition, and b) it features other people, normal people, people who weren’t locked up during the war, who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and so who ground the story, contextualise and normalise it, as we follow Jim becoming a medical student, learning to fly in Canada, getting married, having children, going on holidays to Spain, and so on.

That said, the trauma of those years, and how the narrator copes with it, remains a central theme, in fact, as the narrative unfolds, you it is increasingly drummed home that the narrator has never really been able to get away from his early trauma. In this respect, as several others, it’s a less melodramatic but more moving narrative than Empire.

It is also episodic in the sense that the chapters really feel like episodes. Each one has the depth and artistic arrangement of short story. Each chapter or section features a central theme, with several sub-themes arranged around it to counterpoint each other, like a piece of classical music.

The same goes for the recurring characters. When we first meet his boyhood friend in Shanghai, David Hunter or the teenage girl, Peggy, who looks after him in the internment camp – or a little later, at Cambridge, Dr Sutherland and his sixth form assistant Miriam – little do we suspect that these characters will recur throughout the rest of the book, popping up at key moments and coming to assume larger-than-life roles, becoming almost allegorical figures which represent certain types of human experience and behaviour.

The more you read on, the more carefully and artfully contrived you realise the book is, a selection of representative scenes, each composed and arranged very carefully, featuring representative types, so that it becomes not just the retelling of a life, but something much more elaborately wrought: something like the explanation or rationalisation or justification of Ballard’s complex and bizarre worldview.

Not only do key events explain his attitudes and beliefs, but they also justify his aesthetic strategies towards them. I realised this in the chapter about car crashes which is centred on the exhibition of crashed cars Ballard put on in 1969, when I noticed that the vocabulary and phrasing of the chapter was suddenly echoing the phrases he used with such intensity in the novel Crash.

So you not only pass through episodes in his life which are relevant to the fiction, it’s as if elements of his prose style change and alter to incorporate the phraseology of the stories and especially novels which he wrote during that period. If the Crash chapters reads like an excerpt from Crash, with all its references to raked dashboards and jutting binnacles, so the chapter in which he takes LSD reads like the novel The Unlimited Dream Company in its images of light, super-colour, and so on.

I’m suggesting that the book not only takes you through the episodes which inspired many of his stories, it also (subtly, not blatantly) takes you through the many styles he has used.

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is that it contains next to nothing about how he wrote his books, where the ideas came from, about his struggles as an unpublished author, the first short stories, the commission for the first novel, pride at being published, the critics, his involvement in what was quickly called the New Science Fiction, his manifesto about exploring Inner Space and so on.

There is nothing about any of that, or the craft of writing, or how many hours a day he puts in, or meetings with other writers, or writer or artist friends, his ideas about what science fiction is, or fiction in general, or art – nothing.

Writing that, I suddenly realise how narrow the book is, narrow and very focused. It only really features a handful of other characters – the ones mentioned above – and insofar as they keep bumping into each other at various stages of their lives, I realise that are, in a sense, walking embodiments of how to cope with trauma and troubled childhoods.

It’s as if Ballard is arranging and positioning the same characters into different painterly compositions, or posing the same half dozen people for the same sort of group photo which they take every couple of years over a forty year period.

By the end I wondered whether anything in this book actually happened, and whether any of these handily emblematic ‘characters’ ever existed.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that The Kindness of Women is much, much more like a novel in conception and execution, than any kind of autobiography. And it is a novel about the lifelong impact of childhood trauma.


Part I – A Season For Assassins

Chapter 1. Bloody Sunday

The narrator is seven years old. He describes a 7-year-old’s eye view of Shanghai, a great deranged city of the future. His nanny is 17-year-old White Russian refugee Olga. His best friend is David Hunter. They both like making model airplanes and along with other boys engage in epic games of hide and seek across the vast metropolis. Jim loves seeing the Hell-Drivers, American dare-devils who crash their Fords and Chevrolets through flaming wooden barricades. Every morning municipal trucks collect the bodies of the hundreds of Chinese who have died during the night.

The Japanese invade China and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek makes Shanghai – or the country just around it – one of his battlefields. Chinese planes fly overhead bombing the Japanese military barracks and the Japanese ships in the harbour.

One of them panics and drops a bomb just by the Great World Amusement Park, which kills just over a thousand civilians, mostly Chinese refugees. Shanghai natives are proud of the fact that this is the biggest death toll from one bomb in the history of human warfare.

Jim is caught in the bomb raid, he hears someone shouting his name, it is the Australian nanny of his rich friend David, calling from their chauffeur-driven car. More bombs fall, he is pulled to safety in a doorway by a British soldier. When he re-emerges and goes over to the car he sees the nanny slumped forward in the front seat of the car, young David in the background staring traumatised into space.

Violent death in cars, trauma, staring blankly, psychotic states of mental withdrawal from traumatic events – it all starts here.

Later the Europeans organise an outing to one of the battlefields outside the city, once the fighting has moved far away. Ladies with parasols walk among the wrecked trenches, among the equipment and ammunition and corpses littered everywhere. Jim hears David tittering to himself, a peculiarly disturbed sound, and sees his ‘jarred eyes’ beneath his fringe.

Chapter 2. Escape Attempts

Jump forward to Jim’s experiences in the Lunghua internment camp described so extensively in Empire of the Sun. It would be tempting to think Ballard is rehashing old ground but having finished the whole book, I realise now that these scenes are vital to his artistic purpose – which is to show the unerasable impact of early-life trauma.

We are introduced to other internees, especially 14-year-old Peggy Gardner, taller than Jim, thin, sensible, who tries to calm Jim’s permanent state of over-excitedness. He often slips into ‘hunger reveries’. He is often feverishly over-excited. Pretty much the whole of his subsequent writing career will be devoted to obsessively repeating and re-examining these extreme mental states.

His relations with Japanese soldiers Private Kimura and Sergeant Nagata.

His obsession with planes and flying, expanding on the model airplanes he and David built, his admiration of the American Flying Tigers who fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but his equal admiration for the Japanese pilots he sees taking off through the camp fence from nearby Lunghua airport.

The reversal of values by which young Jim admires the Japanese soldiers for their discipline and efficiency and also, somehow, for their unpredictable violence. He admires the American prisoners in the camp for their laid-back, can-do spirit, their glossy American magazines, their confidence that America will win the war and they’ll soon be released.

Jim reserves his contempt for the British, mostly sunk in torpor and indifference, slow to make anything happen, but quick to scold and nag. The narrator repeats the insight from Empire of the Sun that the authority of the British Empire was irreparably damaged when the British forces at Singapore surrendered. Every colonised people in Asia immediately realised the British Empire’s days were numbered.

One night Jim is breaking into the brick-built food store, slowly scratching away at the mortar and removing one brick at a time, when the Jap guards send up a flare and reveal half a dozen Brits amid the camp wire trying to escape. Jim gets caught up in the roundup of the escapees. One of them is his boyhood friend David Hunter.  They are taken to the Jap barracks to be interrogated by camp commander Mr Hyashi, a former diplomat. Jim watches brutal Sergeant Nagata slapping and punching the escapees, sees the blood on David’s blonde hair and the bruises forming on his face.

Jim escapes severe punishment because he knows how to immediately kowtow to the Japs and say the right thing, namely that he likes it in Lunghua camp and wouldn’t dream of escaping, which is in fact true.

Chapter 3. The Japanese Soldiers

The war ends. Rumours sweep the camp of an American superbomb. The Japanese guards disappear. Jim walks out the open doors of the prison camp and describes the flat, waste lands around it, rice paddies and canals stretching for miles.

15-year-old Jim plans to walk back to Shanghai and the home of his parents. The eeriness of the empty landscape, apart from a few dead bodies, is brilliantly captured. Over it all hangs a strange uncanny light, which Jim associates with the light from the bomb. Ballard’s obsession with nuclear weapons starts here. Later he was to learn that the Japs had planned to march them inland to a death camp where they would have been liquidated. This didn’t happen because the Americans dropped the bomb.

In other words, J.G. Ballard owed his life to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so when anxiety about the atom bomb and then the hydrogen bomb steadily grew through the 1950s and 60s he was utterly conflicted: on the one hand sharing the acute anxiety of everyone else that the world might be ended by a nuclear holocaust; at the same time owing his actual existence to the very technology which might at any second wipe out mankind.

You can see why the protagonists of so many of his stories are obsessed with the bomb and with the nuclear test sites at places like Enewatak atoll, epitomised by the extremely disturbing story The Terminal Beach. It’s because they all seek to resolve the contradiction of Ballard’s experience, but never can.

Jim stumbles up to an isolated rural station on the railway line and before he can stop realises it is occupied by four Japanese soldiers. Jim knows about Japanese soldiers. Show respect. Never run. Never show fear. Never argue or disagree.

While three of them potter about or lie with their backs against the wooden station building, one of the Japanese soldiers is slowly tying a Chinese peasant to one of the pillars holding up the roof. Slowly coiling him in telegraph wire they’ve cut down from nearby posts. Jim is forced to watch as the Chinese man is slowly bound and garrotted to death, and every second of his agony, and his imploring eyes, and his gargled noises are imprinted on Jim’s mind, in the hot noonday sun, and the complete silence of this abandoned station.

Time has stopped. This action means nothing. The Japanese know that they are dead and so nothing they do matters.

This scene, this moment and this event, the meaningless death of an unknown citizen which he is forced to watch in silence and stillness for over an hour, under a strange white sky, in an alien landscape – the memory of this scene recurs again and again later in the novel as a symbol for the nexus of inarticulable traumas Jim, and the other camp inhabitants and, by extension, millions of victims of the war, suffered.

For no particular reason, the Jap soldiers let him go and Jim stumbles along the railway lines finally reaching Shanghai and stumbling towards his boyhood home where he is reunited with his parents, who have survived the war at a different camp.

Things are restored to ‘normality’. Jim goes cruising the city with David Hunter who, he discovers, has developed a precocious taste for picking up Eurasian prostitutes and somehow making them so furious that they attack him in a mad frenzy. That’s the bit he wants. Replaying endlessly the beating he got in the camp from Sergeant Nagata.

Then Jim and his mother sail back to England. Even at the last moment, on the last page of the China section, Jim witnesses atrocity. The steamer they’re on passes an American landing craft and the homebound passengers see it is full of Japanese soldiers on their knees, wrists tied behind them, and they are being chivvied onto the beach by armed American soldiers towards a line of Chinese soldiers who have bayonets attached to their rifles and are waiting to bayonet the Japanese to death.

Part II – The Craze Years

I was marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class and caste forever enlarging itself from within. The English talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as if they had lost it.

Chapter 4. The Queen of the Night

Ballard is a medical student at Cambridge and his work there is epitomised by the Dissection Room. Groups of students are allotted a cadaver and Ballard’s group is the only one to get a woman. Everything else that happens in this chapter is counterpointed by Ballard’s poetic descriptions of how this woman’s body is slowly flayed, the layers peeled back to reveal fat, muscle, tendons and then the vital organs, and he nicknames her the Queen of the Night, and is aware of a sort of psychological hold she has over him.

Ballard doesn’t like Cambridge, he certainly despises everything about his college (King’s College, the oldest and grandest college in Cambridge), disliking the daily madrigal singing in the chapel, seeing the whole place as a kind of flea-ridden tourist attraction.

‘It’s a glorified academic gift shop for American universities, where they can buy some quaint little professor for a few dollars. You need to be a tourist or an au pair girl top get the best out of it.’ (p.104)

That was in the early 1950s. Later, in 1978, he thinks:

Cambridge had expanded into a complex of industrial and science parks, ringed by monotonous housing estates and shopping precincts. At its centre, like the casbah in Tangier, was the antique heart of the university, a stopover for well-disciplined parties of Japanese tourists stepping from their TV-equipped German buses. As an undergraduate I had prayed for a new Thomas Cromwell who would launch the dissolution of the universities, but mass tourism had accomplished this, overwhelming the older European universities as it would soon destroy Rome, Florence, and Venice.

The narrator is desperate to escape the confines of college and get out to see the American bombers at the vast new airfields built across East Anglia for the fleets of bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and is hypnotised by the sight of rich American USAAF officers driving round in their huge shiny American cars, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles.

Again, this theme is reprised towards the end of the book in a way which sheds light on his lifelong obsession:

I parked in a narrow lane and stared through the perimeter fence at the worn concrete beside the nuclear weapons silos. The unsung and unremembered cement was more venerable than all the primped and polished stone of the university. The runways were aisles that led to a more meaningful world, gateways of memory and promise.

Jim sees Peggy, the scrawny teenage girl who helped him so much in the camp, came home on the same ship, and blossomed at her girls boarding school in Sussex. She pops up to Cambridge where the carries on being an older sister, chiding him about his scruffiness, his anti-Cambridge attitude, his obsession with Americans and the bomb. They discuss all this in terms of their experiences at Lunghua camp.

He meets an academic, a psychology professor Dr Richard Sutherland, who studied in America, has an American car, he has a pilot’s license and at weekends flies a gypsy moth, it’s even rumoured he’s been on television! He is ‘fast’, meaning trendy, before the word or concept had been invented.

One of his assistants is a girl still in the 6th form of her school, but knowing and sexy, Miriam who wears stylish American underwear and, he thinks, is probably sleeping with the Prof.

Nonetheless, Miriam seduces young student Jim into an affair and we have one of the first of what will be many, many coolly clinical anatomically precise descriptions of sex which includes what you might call unusual features, him placing his penis against her breast, kissing her armpit, her steering his fingers towards her anus.

Something about their combination of extreme sexuality and extreme clarity and calculation makes them very erotic, but the way that he describes with every one of the women in the book in the same clinical and geometric style made me wonder whether the sex scenes, like possibly everything else in the book, is stylised and contrived and completely untrue.

They make an odd trio: the trendy psychology professor, the haunted student and the sexy schoolgirl, driving out to the American air force bases to watch the nuclear bombers taking off and landing. Characters from an archetypal Ballard story, while the English around them seem remote and alien, p.94.

Chapter 5. The Nato Boys

Jump forward a few years and we learn that Jim has quit medical school and enrolled in the RAF. Still, as we readers know, Ballard will remain obsessed with the role and character and social position of The Doctor throughout his fiction, which is packed with doctor protagonists.

Jim enrolled because he wants to fly the big bombers which will start World War Three. But instead of learning to fly in tense divided Germany, Jim and his other volunteers are packed off to the frozen tundra of Canada, to Sakatchewan, to be precise. The whole chapter is underpinned by the sense that, in the overlit fields around the Lunghua camp, in the inexplicable silence and eeriness of the landscape, Jim realised that World War 2 had ended but World War 3 had begun, except that nobody else had noticed it. (p.106)

This perceptive but deranged conviction also underpins much of his later fiction – the name-changing central figure in The Atrocity Exhibition is trying to start World War 3, except not as we know it. As a kind of display of psychological extremes.

Also I hadn’t really understood the significance for his fiction of the fact that Ballard actually trained as a pilot. Manned flight is one of the central obsessions which recurs again and again throughout his works.

Jim describes the camaraderie in the mess, the national characteristics of the different Nato pilots training there. The Turks find it hardest because of the heavy North American food (waffles, turkey and milk).

Oh and David has accompanied him, the same David Hunter we met in Shanghai, he is going to haunt the novel like Jim’s alter ego. There is a prolonged section where David Hunter takes Jim to a brothel, they get completely hammered, so drunk we find Jim reeling on a bed before throwing up into his trousers which are lying on the floor, while two prostitutes take it in turns to suck David’s penis. David always insists on watching and being watched. Later he takes one of the whores into the bathroom and somehow makes her so angry that she attacks David, really beating and slapping him around the face. Jim simply points out it’s the nearest he can come to the times Sergeant Nagata slapped him round the face. Jim meanwhile tries to tenderly stroke and caress ‘his’ whore who, he realises, is pregnant.

One of the Turks, Captain Artvin, goes missing on a training flight in the Harvard planes they use. A few days later Jim, ignoring regulations and flying freely across the frozen tundra, see what he thinks might be the cabin of a drowned plane in a lake.

Jim tells David. He goes out on a second trip, taking so long to relocate the lake that, on the way back, he runs out of fuel and crash lands his plane on a road half buried under blizzard snow. There’s a funny moment when a mink farmer drives by, eyes the half crashed plane with Jim sitting stunned in the cockpit, then drives on.

The mink farmers hate the pilots who deliberately dive and scare their animals. No love lost on the bleak Canadian tundra. Jim is disciplined at an enquiry, and realises the air force is not for him. Miriam had written him a letter saying she’d got a job on a Fleet Street paper. He wants to return to England and explore her amazing American underwear.

Chapter 6. Magic World

Jump forward and Jim has married Miriam and they have two small children. He is now living in a modest suburban house in Shepperton. He explains some of the mystique of Shepperton, surrounded by water, the River Thames and the gravel quarries.

He takes his small children to a piece of rough ground behind Shepperton Studios where there are disused props to play with and which they call Magic World.

This chapter contains very beautiful descriptions of domestic intimacy, of them making love, but it is mixed up with her first pregnancy and giving birth in the hospital which Miriam found so alienating she insisted the second one was delivered at home, a process Ballard describes with a wonderful evocation of intimacy.

They watch Prof Richard Sutherland from Cambridge, who is now a TV academic and pundit, reporting from Cape Canavarel, one of the new generation of media academics whose role, Ballard perceptively suggests, is to teach ‘the world to feel more at ease with itself’ (p.127).

David Hunter pops by. He carried on the Canadian training, served in Kenya, then flew nuclear-armed Vulcans, drifted along the fringes of private aviation, then bought an aerial photography company (p.128). He has the air of a man scared the past is going to creep up and tap him on the shoulder. Long-term post-traumatic stress. They sit up late over whiskey. David reminds Jim of his experience at the railway station. He’s going back to Shanghai, does Jim want to come with?

Jim says ‘No’. Later in bed with Miriam they discuss it. They touch and fondle and caress and discuss. It is a beautiful evocation of married life. Then her third labour begins and there is a vivid, intimate description of labour, complete with farts and piles, and then the arrival of their third child who Ballard describes with eerie precision, like a visitor from an era millions of years old.

Chapter 7. The Island

Miriam and Jim and their three small children are on holiday in Spain, a place called Ampiabravura. Jim foolishly tries to swim round the headland but is nearly run over by a ferry and ends up clambering ashore on a long isolated sandbank.

Miriam motorboats out with the kids and they discover a remote half-abandoned building, which seems to be occupied by a group of half naked hippies.

Miriam explains he’s been back in England for eighteen years and it’s become clear he’ll never feel at home here. (So if he returned in 1945 this must be 1963. He says they’ve been married for 8 years i.e. married in 1955 when Ballard – born 1930 – was 25)

There’s an extended passage describing the new sun-worshipping beach culture which was being established along the 3,000 mile littoral of the Mediterranean (a feature, a mindset of many of his story, not least The Largest Theme Park in the World from 1989). He and Miriam have very clinical sex in hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, her adopting gymnastic poses against mirrors, watching his reflection. Maybe this happened but it feels very… male.

When they return to the secret house on the sandbank, other people are there, a tall blonde man with long hair, women swimming naked. Early hippies. The man is Peter Lykiard, teaches at Regent Street Poly, there’s another couple, and a young American student, Sally Mumford. They smoke joints, they have copies of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Groovy.

Jim and Miriam’s little kids love them. Sally is very good with the kids, calls them pixies. Her father is a millionaire, owner of a Boston department store. Miriam feels like a square.

They are all now a big gang and drive to a nearby town to watch a bullfight. Predictably this triggers primeval urges of blood and violence but it triggers Sally to an outburst of insane violence, she goes into the ring at the climax of the fight, tries to ride the bull, gets lots in a melee, they later find her in the compound for bullfighters and their followers being pushed around, her clothes torn, in a daze.

Next day, back at their special beach, the kids are playing supervised by Miriam, Lykiard and the other couple are in the house, Sally comes and lies by Jim, hands him a joint and makes it clear that she is sexually available, resting her breast against his arm. When he doesn’t respond or rise to the bait she simply stands up, not insulted or aggrieved and strolls off.

On page 157 Miriam us skipping down the steps of the villa, when she stumbles and hits her head on the stone edge. The crack is so loud everyone turns. Jim runs over to her as she looks up dazed. They help her into the inflatable dinghy they use to get to and from the sandbank, she struggles to get out at the main beach, they help her to the hotel where Jim calls a doctor. A practicante arrives and at first says they’ll keep her under observation, but only minutes later calls for an ambulance, as Miriam drifts in and out of consciousness, increasingly confused. Jim accompanies her, massaging her legs as she struggles to breathe with an oxygen mask. By the time they reach the hospital she is dead, p.160.

Chapter 8. The Kindness of Women

Miriam is buried in the Protestant cemetery at Fuigueras. All his friends find it hard to look at him. He has the feeling all the women in the world are withdrawing. He packs up their stuff and drives all the way back across Spain and France with a bottle of whiskey between his thighs.

All the past he had tried to reject – all the dead of China and the war, and especially the young Chinese he saw being strangled to death – race up to stare him in the face.

Miriam’s sister, Dorothy and her husband, are waiting to greet them at the Shepperton home. He clears out Miriam’s drawer, underwear and contraceptives. Slowly he reorientates his perspectives to ready himself for a life raising three small children by himself.

In a scene of intense eroticism a hug with Miriam’s sister Dorothy turns into sex as she makes a conscious decision to console him, and partakes of very Ballardian geometric sex in which people position themselves at angles, move penises around, dangle breasts, rearrange thighs and generally come across as pornographic meccano.

Everything I’ve ever experienced of mature English women tells me a) she’d never have done it b) she’d certainly never have had the rather theoretical architectural sex Ballard describes. Can’t help thinking this is utter fantasy.

Ballard describes the everyday misandry of pretty much everyone they know, plus the school and the authorities, all of whom think a father is not capable of bringing up small children. As a househusband who brought up my small children, I encountered exactly the same prejudices in the 2000s.

‘For God’s sake, men are capable of loving their children.’ (p.171)

Peggy drops by for another one of the conversations in which she reviews his life which are a feature of the book. She is now a very self-possessed pediatrician at Guy’s Hospital. They embrace and Jim feels a stirring but Peggy pulls away. She is the sensible older sister in their relationship.

Friends and colleagues are polite, supportive, David Hunter invites him to parties and navigates him towards eligible women, but at the same time there is a conspiracy of silence: none of his friends can bring themselves to mention his dead wife.

The narrator says he almost envies JFK’s widow, at least nobody can try and sweep her grief under the carpet and, in a flash, I realise the vast psychological importance the JFK assassination must have had for Ballard. It happened in the same year his lost his wife – it was a vast public, global outpouring of grief inextricably linked to Ballard’s own domestic private grief.

An English publisher based in New York takes Ballard out to strip clubs in Soho. This gives Ballard an opportunity to mock the explicit but utterly bored, passionless routines of the porno dancers, as formalised as the routines of air hostesses running you through the emergency drill before take-off.

A friend of Miriam’s pops round while the kids are at school and in a mature, open, unembarrassed way persuades Jim to have sex with her while she’s perched on the edge of the spindryer, the vibrations, you see.

Chapter 9. Craze People

It is now the mid-60s and these are represented for Ballard by Prof Lykiard, pipe smoking, running an arts laboratory, exhibitions of Vietnam atrocities, theatre of Cruelty, Burroughs and so on. Invites Ballard to write notes for an exhibition of images based round the JFK assassination. And Sally, who drops by to play with the pixies and is at the epicentre of the 60s maelstrom, high on amphetamines, editing documentaries about warzones, attending spiritualist events, rock concerts.

Ballard is invited to read some of his works at a massive music festival in Sussex. They take the kids, Sally looks after them but she is disconcerted to discover Lykiard having it off with one of the performance artists backstage. Ballard finds her later, beyond the festival boundaries, playing with some horses in a field. Later she insists they drive to the Sussex coast and, while the children watch, she wades out dangerously far into the water, is knocked off her feet and gets into danger of drowning, until Ballard wades out and rescues her. Blankets and the sense that she is a casualty, infinitely vulnerable, psychic damage.

Later that evening, back in Shepperton, the put the pixies to bed, she is bathed and changed and their sitting on the sofa, she snuggles up to him and makes it clear she is available for sex but when it comes to it, asking to be sodomised, turning her buttocks to him, forcing her face into the pillows, offering her hands behind her back so he can grab her wrists and push them upwards, pinning her, hurting her, as she calls out: ‘Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me! Pixie wants to be buggered!’

I found this whole sequence of events intensely erotic, and at the same time you are obviously intended to realise the depth of her psychological damage, her unloving possibly abusive father, her drug addiction, her manic throwing herself into all the hectic art events of the swinging 60s.

And you also wonder, here as in so many other places, whether any of this happened, or it is entirely fictional.

Sally becomes his guide to the heady swirl of the 1960s, and to sexual liberation. He introduces her to Dick Sutherland, the TV scientist, and this allows Ballard to describe his version of the 60s, not a time of utopian hope, but an era when endless images of violence and atrocity blared from TV screens and sex was so blasted in everyone’s faces that emotion and feeling were exterminated.

This, we realise, is the milieu which produced the intense and weird texts which go to make up what I consider to be Ballard’s masterpiece, The Atrocity Exhibition for example he describes Dick Sutherland carrying out trendy psychology experiments such as submitting subjects to intense footage of war atrocities (Vietnam, Congo) and asking questionnaires about its impact on their sex lives.

Well that is exactly the subject of one of the last chapters in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Then one night she is hosting a party at her ramshackle Bayswater digs, packed with performance artists and film-makers, Dick Sutherland and Lykiard are there. But none of them can prevent Ballard stumbling into a spare bedroom where he finds Sally on her back on the quilted top of the laundry basket, her legs hoiked up round the shoulders of a young Spanish photographer whose trousers are round his hips as he steadily, strongly fucks her. Sally stares past the Spaniard at Jim, smiling happily.

That, also, is a lesson about a decade which Ballard sees entirely in terms of its psychic damage and louring threat, atrocity, nuclear war, Vietnam, theatre of cruelty, drugs and betrayal.

Chapter 10. Kingdom of Light

17 June 1967. Under the supervision of long-time friend, TV pundit and psychologist Richard Sutherland, Ballard has an acid trip, described in terms almost identical to the prolonged fantasia which is his novel, The Unlimited Dream Company. He realises that

Shepperton was a solar garden, a sleeping paradise waiting to be woken from every stone and leaf. (p.206)

which is very much the subject of The Unlimited Dream Company.

The kids are taken out by Cleo Churchill, a childrens book editor Jim’s met at one of Sutherland’s many swinging parties who turns out to live locally and be happy to babysit sometimes, and takes them to Shepperton Park by the river. In fact, later on and well into the acid trip, Sutherland takes a phone call in Ballard’s study, taking his eye off his ward, who gets up and sleepwalks, staggers through prisms of light, as far as Shepperton Park where he sees his children, but especially Chloe Churchill, transformed into a Gustave Moreau archangel, sheathed in multi-coloured lights.

By now I doubt whether anything like this happened, but it is convenient because it means whenever Chloe pops up in the rest of the book, Ballard can have acid flashbacks of her as a rainbow angel of glory.

Sutherland had pitched filming Ballard taking the acid as a programme proposal to the head of documentaries at the BBC. This brings out Sutherland’s popularity but he’s not actually a part of the machine. And the text repeats his justification of acid, namely that the world most of us perceive, made up of discrete objects, with their correct places, governed by laws of gravity and geometry and, above all, by a sense of consecutive Time, are entirely artefacts of the central nervous system and brain which we have evolved to help us cope and manage the objects, other people and other animals around us. But they aren’t the truth. Taking acid isn’t like getting drunk or stoned. It goes far deeper than that, it reveals the world the human nervous system spends most of its time hiding us from.

Having taken acid a dozen or so times I couldn’t agree more. One trip is enough to show you the absolute wonder and amazement of what the human senses are actually perceiving every second of every day – but which are repressed, turned off, ignored so we can get on with being the instrumental, purposive, time-focused animals we are.

Delete all those repressive mechanisms and you experience the central nervous system without its locks and gates, you experience ‘reality’ unleashed. More accurately, you experience the overwhelming flood of sensations which are bodies are receiving all the time, but which the evolved CNS suppresses.

From a literary point of view it’s interesting to see that Ballard uses a lot of the phraseology and imagery which made such an impact in The Crystal World i.e. everyday objects are invested with multiple-angled shards of light, as if embedded in jewels.

My arms and legs were dressed in light, sheathes of mother-of-pearl that formed a coronation armour. (p.203)

In the aftermath, everything seems grey and drab. Shepperton has exhausted itself. A few days later Peggy Gardner drops by. She is more than ever the prim, respectable, professional spinster. Predictably she disapproves of the acid trip and especially the way Sutherland uses Jim in his psychological-TV-media experiments.

But Ballard links it back to Shanghai, Lunghua and the primal scene in chapter three, the four Japanese soldiers torturing a Chinese to death while Jim looks on in terror in an alien landscape. Now, when Ballard repeats his characteristically Ballard ideas, we have a much deeper sense of where they come from.

When he speculates that war is how nations escape from time it sort of makes sense. Certainly if you’ve read British war memoirs, it’s striking how many men were drifting or unhappy, and the call-up in August 1914 liberated many of them from the sense of inevitability and duty and failure implicit in the idea of having to get a career, get on in the world etc. For the duration of the war all those worriers were suspended.

But Ballard means something deeper and expresses it with a surreal logic which is distinctively his, the notion that the Japanese soldiers wanted were waiting for the next war, and that their torture of the Chinese was an attempt to provoke the next war into starting, so they could be free again. It’s only as irrational as thousands of other religious rites and rituals and invocations and calls on the gods or the world to do what we want.

If you fully enter Ballard’s imaginative world, if you buy into his premises, if you experience his experiences – then this kind of claim makes complete sense. Otherwise, you remain on the outside.

All that said, a few weeks later Sutherland is due to pop round with another dose of acid. Jim is at the door seeing off Cleo who has, again, obligingly agreed to take the kids to Magic World, she calmly disapproves, the kids run up to Jim shouting, ‘Come on Daddy, come with us’ and… He does. Once was enough. He turns his back on Dick Sutherland’s dubious psych experiments. As they say in Trainspotting – Choose life.

Chapter 11. The Exhibition

Sally Mumford is back. She’s progressed from speed to heroin and her arms are covered in needle marks and sores, but she still lovers the kids. For Ballard she represents all the toxic hysteria of the 1960s (or Ballard has invented her as a symbol of the same):

Like so many others at the end of the 60s, that ten-year pharmaceutical trial, she thought of the media landscape as a life-support system, force feeding a diet of violence and sensation into her numbed brain. (p.215)

In fact reading that quote at the start of this chapter makes me realise that Ballard is artfully introducing his key theme. As I’ve explained in my reviews of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, those books contain fairly straightforward explanations of his obsession with extreme pornography and car crashes, which is that a diet of super-violent war images and atrocities (epitomised by the endless replaying of the JFK assassination) has numbed and desensitised people, so only extremes of sex and sensation can reconnect them.

Reinforcing the mood of hysteria, we are reintroduced to David Hunter who is becoming more deranged. As the years pass he seems to blame Ballard more and more for Miriam’s death. He’s never read any of Ballard’s books, pointing out that he knows the key, the master plot, already. David gives him a lift back from London and goes and parks his car outside a posh Belgravia house out of which emerges a smart little man who David then menaces with his car. It is the Japanese ambassador. And so on.

By this stage I had realised that The Kindness of Women is a kind of handbook, or set of case studies, in post-traumatic stress survivors.

David now flies vintage cars in displays. He invites Ballard and Sally and the kids to one. Although his real passion is saloon car racing at Brands Hatch. He has twice been cautioned for dangerous driving. The reader who knows their Ballard knows where this is all heading.

David is driving Sally back from the air display when they crash, near the approach to Chertsey Road. Ballard follows on later and so is slowed down by the police who are managing the traffic flow past the wrecked cars. David and Sally are both fine, unscathed, but Ballard gets a look of them posed in driving seat and back seat, both frozen in time, staring into space, covered in broken windscreen glass, described in exactly the same phrases which fill Crash.

I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance…the postures they assumed within the cabin of the Jaguar, as if they were memorising for future use the exact geometry of Sally’s exposed thighs and the ribbed leather of the upholstery, the precise angle between David’s crutch and the jut and rake of the steering wheel. (p.219)

Did this ever happen? Or is it an entirely fictional recreation of the scenes and phraseology of Crash? Ballard notices the number of people who’ve stopped to gawp at the crashed cars, some of them have got cine cameras out to film the scene. It is, he realises, a new type of street theatre, hypnotic attraction to a pile-up of technology which is somehow linked to the television and its relentless diet of violence and atrocity.

Subsequently David and Sally make complete recoveries, the latter driving Jim back up to London in her dangerous MG while explaining that the thrill of driving dangerously with the ever-present risk of a crash is identical to the motivation of the bullfight (remember the bullfighting scene back in chapter 7, aha, that’s why that was there: to prepare us for this speech), updated to the late 20th century.

Sally is lost in the maze of streets in Marylebone when a sports car surges out of a side street, nearly crashes into them, and hurtles off. Ballard had just had time to grab the wheel and steer the MG out of its path, while Sally did an emergency brake.

It was David. Sally explains that he follows her around, then she follows him. They pretend to crash into each other. This is the plot of Crash. Really rammed home when Sally takes Jim’s hand, puts is between her legs so he can feel how wet she is, and they proceed to have typically clinical Ballard sex amid the clutter of steering wheels and handbrakes, while both of them are aware of David Hunter (aha! his name! was his bland name chosen to lead up to this scene all along) roams the streets of London in his fast car, hunting for prey.

Hunter is, in fact, recreating the endless games of hide and seek which Ballard described them both playing through the vast metropolis of Shanghai, back in their innocent boyhoods. Or is he? Are both fictional inventions?

Cut to the exhibition of crashed cars which Ballard staged at Dick Sutherland’s experimental Arts Theatre Laboratory for four weeks in 1969. Ballard quotes the program notes which claim the car crash is a vector focusing all the violence and anxieties of the age (not least of thermonuclear war) into an event which happens daily, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands each year, and yet which is celebrated on TV and in movies, is presented as a form of entertainment (p.226).

At the opening night the guests behave appallingly, getting drunk, throwing up on the cars, urinating on and in them, fights break out and Sally is nearly raped in the back seat of the smashed-up Lincoln, until rescued by Ballard and Chloe Churchill, who has come along to be a voice of reason amid the madness, although Ballard, typically listens to her sensible comments but sees her reincarnated as the angle of light he saw during his acid trip.

Driving back from that party, Ballard is following Sally in her MG when he becomes entranced in their game and, accidentally-on-purpose, clips the rear fender of her car. This sends her into a zig zag but Ballard loses control of his own car which, as he brakes, veers into the fast lane, one of its tyres explodes, it crashes against the central reservation, turned onto its side and then upside down, skids at speed on its roof, Ballard hanging upside down from his safety belt, into the oncoming traffic.

The emergency services soon arrive, drag him out onto the grass verge, a figure pushes through the quickly assembling crowd and flicks a cigarette lighter lowering it to his face. It is Sally, forensically fascinated to examine his expression, as clinical as Ballard had been when he flayed and unpeeled the dead carcass back at medical school.

There’s a coda: in the last days of the 1960s Ballard attends a demolition derby held at a disused football ground in the East End, as the drivers crash into each other, one of whom is David Hunter who, after he’s crashed out of the competition lies back in his shattered cabin while Sally Mumford in white jeans and crimson jacket yells at him.

Did any of this happen? It feels very very pat, just so, and when Ballard references the Hell Drivers of Shanghai which he had described in chapter one, the reader wonders whether anyone’s actual life could be so wonderfully choreographed and thematically linked.

Chapter 12. In The Camera Lens

Jim is at a film festival in Brazil with Dick Sutherland, who he first met at Cambridge in the early 1950s and have watched morph into an early example of that new social type, the media don, the science presenter. Dick and Jim are attending a film festival in Copacabana.

This chapter neatly captures the way a lot of the behaviours which (apparently) seemed so liberating in the 1960s when they broke through the grey carapace of austerity Britain, somehow came to seem corrupt and tacky and embarrassing in the 1970s e.g. casual sex, drugs (specifically cocaine), flares, long hair, experimental films, TV and foreign jollies

The festival mainly consists of ogling the stunningly sexy Brazilian women taking part in various parades, and attending endless parties. In two brief surreal scenes he finds himself being introduced to the cast of Star Trek, already grey-haired and uncomfortably acting the roles they’ll be famous for till they die, who look like ‘venerable morticians’ (p.238) and to the legendary film director Fritz Lang.

Both encounters add to Ballard’s sense that we all live in a sort of heightened reality TV show. The centrepiece of the festival is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which, in fact, a glance at Wikipedia tells me was released in May 1968. (Elsewhere in this blog I’ve reviewed the Arthur C. Clarke novel and sequels)

Characteristically, Sutherland is said to be running an alternative festival of science documentaries, and some of these are right up Ballard’s alley. They include a film documenting the treatment of extreme sex offenders, which included varieties of aversion therapy i.e. showing them images of children or vulnerable women and then giving them electric shocks or emetics. Ballard didn’t watch the film, he stood and watched the audience, mainly made up of documentary filmmakers and psychologists who sit entranced, occasionally oohing with appreciation as the patients are given electric shocks or vomit, exactly – says Ballard waspishly – as the devotees in a Soho sex theatre sit entranced, occasionally murmuring their approval at a particularly graphic sex scene.

This leads up to the kind of gnomic remark you suspect Ballard is proud of: ‘In the future everyone will need to be a film critic to make sense of anything’ (p.241). I can see this emblazoned in huge letters over the entrance to the hundreds of Media Studies courses now taught all across the UK and beyond. It sounds good, but it’s not really true. It’s a very dated idea. Nowadays being a data analyst would be more help. As far as I can tell, media studies like gender studies and queer studies and all the rest are stuck in a time warp, still reading Marxist, psycho-analytical, structuralist, post-structuralist and feminist theory, while the world we inhabit has moved on.

A leading film critic on a Rio newspaper introduces our two middle-aged Englishmen to two Rio hookers, Carmen and Fortunata. This is the beginning of Dick and Jim’s ‘odyssey’ which the reader immediately spots is a kind of satirical counterpoint to what Ballard thought was Kubrick and Clarke’s overblown space fantasy.

The Rio hookers take our heroes back to their knocking shop which is two rooms adjacent to a sweatshop in which lots of other poor women manufacture mementos of the film festival, stapling together posters of Robert Redford or Jane Fonda, amid the din of the printworks. The scene also counterpoints the scene in chapter five where David and Jim spent the night with two Canadian whores in a double bedroom.

The general idea is to show the ubiquity of prostitution, and the surprising light it sheds on modern sexuality. There’s a striking moment when Jim’s hooker, Carmen, asks if he wants to film them having sex – a camera and tripod are set up in the corner, obviously it’ll cost extra. That’s not the jolt. The jolt comes when she says, maybe he’d like film of it so he can show his girlfriend. Or his wife. The fact that the equipment is set up and she knows about it, demonstrates that this is common enough to be a commercial venture i.e. it sheds light on modern marriage. Well, some modern marriages.

Dick had (wisely) refused to even enter the ‘bedroom’ of his hooker, Fortunata, it was so filthy, dishevelled, the sheets stained with mucus and lubricant and spermicidal jelly like the car bay at a garage. Instead, when Jim finally finishes fucking Carmen, and she professionally scoops his leaking semen into a succession of tissues, Jim slowly dresses and opens the door back into the workshop to find Richard and Fortunata running round it throwing tatty tourist mementos at each other. A sort of comic counterpoint to the end of the Canada prostitute story in which David provoked his hooker into smacking his face, in memory of Sergeant Nagata.

In a kind of coda, or punchline scene, the Rio film critic hosts a massive party at his mansion, where Jim, sauntering around, comes across a room which has been sealed off, which turns out to be full of lights and technicians and cameramen etc where Carmen is on hands and knees, doggy fashion, and a vexed dog handler is fondling the genitals of a German shepherd. They are trying to get the dog to get an erection and to penetrate Carmen from behind, while she flicks back her hair and looks behind her in boredom, and the host ans various other guests stand around holding their wine glasses and chatting.

Ballard describes all this as if this level of intense pornography is the future, tied to the rise and rise of desensitising TV. But I disagree. I think that vision of a world totally corrupted by TV and pornography is itself very dated, very 70s, dragging on into the 80s, and ended up being a misleading guide to what actually happened.

And now, in 2020, we live in a world where unlimited hard-core pornography is available to anyone at the click of a mouse and yet, the interesting thing about the vast parallel universe of porn on the internet is not that it exists – it’s that so many people choose not to watch it most of the time.

Chapter 13. The Casualty Station

David Hunter has been sent to a mental institute, Summerfield Hospital in south London. Here Ballard visits him, reflecting on the sequence of events that brought them there, and noting the behaviour of the other insane patients. David is pretty compos mentis as mental cases go. Ballard takes a chessboard, they play chess, and David always palms a piece before the end of the game so Ballard will have to come back.

They chat about old times. We are informed that Sally has decamped to Scotland, staying with a friend of her rich father’s trying out the then-new methadone treatment for heroin addiction. This follows her turning up at Shepperton a few months earlier, utterly string out on heroin, refusing to talk or be touched, striding up and down the kids empty bedrooms, ransacking the cupboards for their old toys. Jim takes her to his GP who recommends a specialist who recommends a nursing home on the Thames, and then onto Scotland.

David went back to Shanghai, something Jim says he can’t do, David hunted for the isolated railway station which is the recurrent image of the novel, but couldn’t find it. (The reader suspects this is because it never existed, but was a fictional symbol invented by Ballard.) David points out the car crash exhibition was simply Ballard’s way of re-enacting the atrocity he witness. ‘At a few removes’.

It was car crashing that brought him to the asylum. He and Sally developed a cult of driving up one-way streets the wrong way and one night in London had a head-on collision with a woman cellist who was killed instantly. It was only his demented gibbering at the scene and his RAF record in Kenya which saved him from a manslaughter charge. Instead he was sent to Repton mental home and now here.

In Ballard’s view, David had tried to recreate the cruelty he experienced in China, not realising that the psychopathic, TV-addicted, atrocity newsreel footage-driven 60s was egging him on. He’s just one among tens of thousands of casualties of the 1960s.

The third of Ballard’s representative trio is the TV don, Dick Sutherland and he emerged from the 60s with flying colours, making a series of pop science documentaries, notably one which used the latest fibre-optic technology to film inside the body especially, of course inside the uterus during sex etc, as well as setting up an Institute for Sexual Research, funded by a New York publisher.

It’s a funny thing, but the more Ballard talks about sex and the sex studies and practices of his characters, the more dated the book feels, reminding you that these events happened almost 50 years ago, in a very different time and place, where simply filming sex acts between humans to appear in ‘scientific’ documentaries appeared revolutionary.

When Professor Sutherland sounds off, in one of their stage-managed conversations, telling Jim that there’s going to be more and more sex in the future, so much so that it is going to create ‘new forms of social structure’ – it sounds as dated and, in its way, as childish as Space 1999 or UFO or Joe 90 or all those other TV series for kids which predicted colonies on the moon and everyone wearing zip-up plastic suits by 1999.

Didn’t turn out like that, did it.

We learn that Sally let herself be persuaded to take part in some of Dick’s experiments, let fibre-optic cables be inserted in her vagina while she had sex with a laboratory volunteer, as well as close-ups of every erogenous zone of her body. Slowly she came to think of herself as a set of dismembered parts, eventually expecting to see huge blow-ups of her nipples or clitoris on roadside billboards or upholstering the banquettes of trendy 70s nightclubs. Thus she went to pieces, almost literally.

Peggy Gardner is the last of the set of recurring characters (what David sardonically refers to as ‘the old Shanghai firm’, p.274) which, the reader realises, structure the narrative and allow Ballard to meditate on the fate of his contemporaries.

She turns up for drinks in Shepperton, and they have a couple of pages chatting about how things have turned out. Into her mouth Ballard puts quite severe criticisms of his (Ballard’s) attitude, how he manipulated everyone around him (Dick, Sally, David) to act out his nightmares, how the exhibitions, the drugs, the weird sex and the intense stories are all part of the same indictment. He patronises her a bit, telling her how she’s always looked after her so well and she slaps him in the face, drawing blood.

Rather disappointingly, this leads to sex, described with the same clinical detachment as all the other acts of coitus, and the strange angles of thighs and vulvas and penises as all the other descriptions.

Now this chapter returns to its opening scene, with Jim sitting at a table in Summerfield Hospital playing chess with David. The entire text has been very carefully crafted and arranged as a description of both what happened at the end of the 1960s and how the Shanghai firm had managed.

One of the other patients, a deranged old lady who had been taking daffodils from all the vases in the communal area and laying them carefully in a line at the entrance to a window alcove, has a fit and turns her brimming cup of tea. This is, in a way, a key scene. Jim had observed the woman unable to reconcile the light shining off the brimming meniscus of tea in her cup with the polished glare of the hard floor. Eventually she thinks her way through the problem to the solution and upends her cup, sending tea splashing all over the table and the skirt of the woman handing it out. Who promptly gets furious, grabs the feeble old woman’s wrist and gives her such a push, she sends her collapsing onto the floor.

Ballard is up out of her seat, and goes to her protection, taking her in his arms and then lifting her off the floor, she is so thing and wasted, and taking her down the corridor to the safety of her room. As he carries her, she repeats pitifully, ‘Jesus told me to.’ The point is, if you’ve read enough Ballard, you understand her. You feel, as she did, the mental pain of these conflicting geometries (shimmering liquid v. hard tabletop) and you grasp the Einsteinian brilliance of her solution. To marry hard and soft by spilling the tea, by trying to integrate these conflicting realities.

Jim says goodbye to David, promising to be back in a fortnight and making a mental note to bring daffodils for the mad old lady, and… we understand why.

Part III – After The War

Chapter 14. Into The Daylight

As the 1970s progressed, Sally had disappeared back to America to address her drug habit and other addictions. One day, to his surprise, four years after she left (eight years after the decade’s end so, presumably, 1978), Ballard gets a call and it’s Sally, not only back in the UK, but married! with a child! and living in rural contentment in Norfolk!

Ballard drives out to see Sally, stopping off at Cambridge en route to discover it is now a land of business parks and Japanese tourists. Chez Sally he discovers her little girl, Jackie, is mentally disabled, but is touched by the way Sally is madly in love with her and, when her husband returns from work, with him too.

[Jackie] stared at her father with her trusting, fixed smile, as if she were crossing the world at a slight angle to the rest of us.

The chapter has a second theme, like a piece of classical music, which is that Sally’s husband, Edward, is an amateur archaeologist and along with friends has undertaken a programme of excavating old World War Two airplanes from the mud of Norfolk estuaries where they’ve crashed.

David turns up. He’s been released from the mental home. He’s married an Asian woman and is running an airfreight company in Brussels. The presence of these two leads to nostalgic conversations, with an autumnal feeling.

Then there is the gruesome event at the heart of the chapter. Edward and his hearty beer-drinking team of enthusiasts have hired a hoist which they use to lift their latest find clear of the river mud. It is a spitfire. But as it rises the narrator realises its cockpit glass is unshattered and unopened. The pilot is still inside. Or what’s left of him. Jim and Sally are suddenly stiff with concern as David makes his way over to it and insists on helping to open the cockpit and inspect the insides, which, as they spray cleaning water into it, reveals a rotted uniform, straps and, slowly emerging, a skull and bones.

A week or so later there is an official burial service. Jim attends along with David and is impressed that his old buddy wears his official RAF uniform and stands to attention. In a weird touch, he brings along a Korean he only half knows. Jim realises the Korean is the closest he could find to a Japanese. He needed an Asiatic to bear witness ‘to the interment of all his resentments of the past forty years.’ I found this intensely moving.

Chapter 15. The Final Programme

After a career pursuing TV fame, Dick Sutherland has been diagnosed with cancer and is dying. This gives Ballard the opportunity to put into his mouth a series of witty paradoxes and insights about modern medicine, and the treatment of cancer in particular.

But, trooper to the last, Sutherland has persuaded a TV company to make a documentary filming his last months and persuaded them to take Jim, by now a famous novelist and old pal, to be his interviewer. The idea is that Jim will go to his home, or hospital bed, and interview Dick as he declines.

As you might expect it’s a bumpy ride, with Dick and Jim initially chewing over their glory days in the 1960s, the space programme, adventures in science, but with each successive interview these reassuring totems of the past disappear and the final interview is cancelled. Jim arrives but after a brief conversation Dick dismisses him, the film crew and the outside world and shuts his bedroom door. Two weeks later Jim turns up just in time to see him being wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance, his face sucked into the oxygen mask, his body coiled with plastic tubes like the young Chinese man the boy Jim watched being garrotted to death.

Chapter 16. The Impossible Palace

Paradoxically, Dick’s death exhilarates Jim. He feels liberated, released, energised to pursue his work, It as if the whole of the past has been burned along with Dick’s body at the crematorium. In a sentence which is important for critics or fans of his work, he writes:

 By demystifying his own death he had freed me from any fears of my own. For the first time since the birth of my children I felt that I was wholly done with the past and free to construct a new world from the materials of the present and future.

So was it writing Empire of the Sun which liberated Ballard from the past and left him much more interested in writing stories about the present day? Or was it the death of this old friend which liberated him from his obsessions, set him free to write about the strangeness of the present day? Or are both blinds to something else which happened?

Anyway, in this chapter Ballard walks down to the fair on Shepperton Green. The chapter is written in the style of The Unlimited Dream Company, full of images of light, and beauty, and time suspended. Cleo Churchill, the friend of his wife’s who was such a good friend to Jim and babysat his kids on countless occasions, is with him as he goes through mementos of Dick Sutherland’s life, sent him by Dick’s sister.

This mood of sensitive elegy moves seamlessly into their holding each other, then embracing, then going up to the bedroom and slowly undressing. Ballard has, by now, perfected a peculiarly detached and clinical way of describing sex, which, nonetheless, manages to be touching and affectionate. Maybe because of the complete honesty and openness it implies between the lovers.

I held Cleo’s breasts in my hands, touching the blue veins that ran past her broad nipples, and caressed away the pink grooves left by the wiring of her brassiere. I kissed a small scar in her armpit, relic of a childhood I had never known, and ran my lips through the shoal of silver stretch marks, like seeds of time spilled across her abdomen by Ceres herself as she sowed her fields. She held my penis in her hands, rolling it gently between her palms, her fingers drawing on my scrotum. Phallic corridors receded from us, an erotic labyrinth in an impossible palace. When I kissed Cleo’s nipples a battalion of lovers bent their heads. I sat on the bed as she knelt on the carpet between my knees, her forearms resting on my thighs. She took the head of my penis in her mouth, touching the tip of my urethra with her tongue, then sank deeper to hold the shaft between her teeth, biting lightly on the swollen muscle.

They become lovers or partners or whatever the correct terminology is. Thus on the day that the documentary about Dick’s death is broadcast they decide to go outside and celebrate life by hiring a boat and cruising down the Thames to Runnymede. (Many of the chapters have this structure, of two major themes or events juxtaposed.)

They cruise as far as the Kennedy Memorial (which I have visited and photographed) and which, inevitably gives rise to reflections from Ballard, absolutely obsessed with the Kennedy assassination as his fiction is.

I thought of the role that Kennedy and his assassination had played in my own life, and how his televised images had shaped the imagination of the 1960s. Stills from the Zapruder film had seemed more poignant than a Grünewald crucifixion.

Now they are accidental bystanders of a death and a resurrection. It’s a sunny day beside the Thames and a wife is reversing their car to push the trailer for a speed boat across a narrow beach into the river so that the husband can man-handle the boat, in the water, onto the just-submerged trailer. There is a little girl in the back seat and as the wife loses control of the trailer it drags the car into the river where the tide takes it. The girl is screaming and beating on the closed windows as the car sinks under the water level. Ballard bounds forward and tries to open the back door but the car skews away from him, as the husband leaves go of the boat which drifts across the river, hitting another cruiser, while two or three men steady the car and push it back up onto the shallow beach, no sign of the girl.

When they open the back door the river water rushes out and they find the girl’s body curled up on the floor, lifeless and limp. Cleo is clutching Ballard’s shirt and crying her eyes out, when a bare-kneed, red-eyed, bearded hiker approaches along the Thames-side path (one I’ve walked many times) suddenly grasps the meaning of the scene in front of him, pushes through the crowd, takes the girl, snicks an obstruction out of her throat and pulls forward her tongue, and on one movement, slicks down his beard, covers her nose and mouth in his mouth and breathes out, takes his mouth away, and pushes her diaphragm. She chokes up the water in her lungs, coughs and splutters and her hysterical mothers clutches her, as the hiker clambers to his feet, reclaims his backpack from a nearby couple and walks on along the path while people are still coping with the sudden turnaround in events.

Who was he?

Chapter 17. Dream’s Ransom

The narrator takes part in the filming of a scene from Empire of the Sun on location in a mansion in Sunningdale, fifteen minutes drive from his long-time home in Shepperton. Many of his friends and neighbours in Shepperton have always worked as extras in the films made at the massive studios there, and now, surreally, he finds many of them playing bit parts in a scene from his own boyhood. Is this why he and Miriam chose to live there all those years ago? Did he have a premonition of how are and life would link up? He even meets a bright-eyed twelve-year-old wearing his old school uniform who steps up and brightly says: ‘Hello, I’m you’. It must be the boy Christian Bale who plays him in the Steven Spielberg film version of Empire.

Then (so many of these chapters come in two parts or themes) he and Cleo (who is obviously now his partner) fly to Hollywood to attend the premiere of the film about his boyhood. He has all kinds of mixed feelings.

‘I think the actors felt that I was the odd man out, the only one who wasn’t real. Most of them had been back to Shanghai.’
‘You could have gone with them.’
‘I know, but I hadn’t the nerve. I wasn’t ready to face everything again—I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort it out. This is the right way to go back to Shanghai, inside a film…’

They check into a hotel and drive around Hollywood which, of course, confirms all his fantasies of Americana which he has been besotted by since he was a boy. He is dazzled and bewildered by the forty-foot-high billboards advertising the film version of his own boyhood back at him.

One afternoon Cleo is out shopping when there’s a ring at the room doorbell and a sophisticated lady waltzes in. It is Olga, who was his superior and impoverished nanny all those years ago, back in Shanghai. Now she is married to a rich American ear and nose surgeon (Mr Edward R. Weinstock). She is brisk and businesslike as they review her struggle to survive in wartorn China, he takes her to lunch, back at their apartment she briskly strips him and they make love.

As at other moments in the book, and quite often at moments when he has sex with the various women, you can’t help feeling contrived, just so and pat the patterns he’s making are. It is an artful ending to the book, rounding things out, finally living out the sexual fantasies about his 17-year-old nanny when he had been a pubertal 12-year-old. And he describes it with a bit of gee-whizz Ballard style:

The film of our life rushed backwards through the projector, devouring itself as it hunted for some discarded moment that held the key to our earliest selves.

In the very last scene, a week after the premiere of Empire, Jim and Cleo make their way down to the Pacific at Venice Beach. And as they watch bronzed Californians launch a replica of Thor Heyerdahl’s papyrus ship, Ra, looking at happy people enjoying the free ocean, Jim realises he is healed.

The time of desperate stratagems was over, the car crashes and hallucinogens, the deviant sex ransacked like a library of extreme metaphors. Miriam and all the murdered dead of a world war had made their peace. The happiness I had found had been waiting for me within the modest reach of my own arms, in my children and the women I had loved, and in the friends who had made their own way through the craze years.

It is an immensely satisfying, carefully arranged and moving conclusion to what is probably his best, most wide-ranging, honest and humane book.

CONCLUSION

By the end I suspected that none of these people ever existed (except for his wife and three children, that much is documentary fact) and quite possibly none of these events ever happened (except the car crash exhibition, that much is on the public record.) Apart from those handful of facts, everything else seems just too pat and contrived and perfectly poised to have anything to do with the chaotic sequence of events known as ‘life’.

Anyway, much bigger than the artfulness of its construction, what makes it a really beautiful book, in my opinion, is the breadth of its COMPASSION.

I was in the operating theatre when my wife had our second child and Ballard’s description of assisting at the birth of his daughter is one of the most moving things I’ve read, because of the way it captures complete intimacy between husband and wife.

The portrait of the excitable young woman, Sally, and the sequence of discovering her boyfriend with someone else, then trying to drown herself off the Sussex coast, and then of Ballard rescuing her, bringing her home, bathing and dressing her and then, slowly, making love to her in the stylised way she needs, is full of complexities of compassion and feeling you don’t often read in novels. It is a kind of compromised compassion, a compassion which knows there is something self-serving in its motives but cares and loves nonetheless.

And the on-again, off-again relationship with his best friend and rival and damaged alter ego, David Hunter, this rises to several moments of deep compassion and love.

And it’s worth rereading the passages where Ballard has sex with two prostitutes, one in Canada, one in Brazil, to really process the tenderness which informs his approach. He ends up stroking the small of the back of the hooker in Canada because he discovers she is pregnant and, after their weird Ballardian clinical sex is over, he carries on being interested in her and her life and soothes and strokes her in a companionate, non-sexual way.

And when he goes to the rescue of the stricken old mad lady, Doreen, in David’s asylum, that is a kind of quintessence of compassion, helping the helpless elderly.

In other words, this book contains scenes of horror and atrocity – notably the central event of the young Chinese being garrotted – and it deliberately contains scenes of lucid and detached sexuality which some might find fetishly exciting and some might find cold and repellent…

But, for me, the enduring legacy of the book is an overwhelming feeling of love and compassion, all the more amazing for way these rare plants managed to survive and flourish in a world containing so much violence and atrocity and numbing stimulations and cheap (or expensive) thrills.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

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Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (1984)

Empire of the Sun is by far J.G. Ballard’s best known and most accessible book and was, of course, made into a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg. Cultural success doesn’t come much bigger than that. And, as a result, there are thousands of scholarly essays, as well as Brodie’s Notes and Wikipedia articles about Empire of the Sun, giving you the book’s plot and a standard account of its ‘themes’.

To avoid duplication, the aim of this review is to read the book as it sheds light on the nearly thirty years of Ballard’s science fiction novels and short stories which preceded it.


Empire of the Sun gave the game away. If you’d been reading Ballard’s novels and short stories during the 1960s and 70s you would have been bewildered by the intensity and weirdness of his imaginary world and the obsessive repetitiveness of his basic plot, in which a handful of people experience a catastrophic mental collapse – either in a dystopian future or in an alienated present – becoming steadily more isolated from each other, pursuing their own psychotic fantasies in a derelict landscape of abandoned cities and empty hotels and drifting sand dunes, where maniacs try to turn themselves into birds or paint mandalas on the bottom of drained swimming pools in order to channel the voices of the universe or try to fly microlight planes into the sun.

For nearly thirty years, from his first short story published in 1956 until Empire of The Sun was published in 1984, readers and critics wondered where it came from, this unique, twisted and fiercely compelling psychic landscape which is the subject of most of Ballard’s best stories.

Then Empire of the Sun gave the game away. It describes how 11-year-old Jim, along with his mum and dad, a successful English businessman, were living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in December 1941 when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbour, simultaneously attacking all the allied shipping in Shanghai harbour and moving swiftly to arrest all foreign nationals.

Jim escapes the initial roundup and lives for four months on the run in abandoned houses, eking a living from stagnant water and whatever dry food he can find in the empty larders of the once-rich International Settlement. He has weird encounters with a range of characters whose roles and identities have been turned upside down by the sudden collapse of Western values. Jim is finally caught by the Japanese authorities and spends the next three years in the living hell of Lunghua internment camp, just a few miles south-west of Shanghai, but a million miles from the pampered expatriate life he had grown up in.

So this is where it came from, the deep enduring and viscerally intense mood of world turned upside down and people starving in ruined hotels and abandoning themselves to psychotic fantasies, this is the origin of Ballard’s dazzling and distinctive subject and style!

Part one

Background The Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the Japanese army quickly overran the Chinese Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek whose government retreated far into western China. Meanwhile, China’s coastal regions and ports were taken over and administered by the Japanese who treated the defeated Chinese with great brutality but allowed European and American merchants and officials to carry on their businesses, but with a growing sense of unease.

The narrative starts as 11-year-old Jim watches his parents and their European friends in the International Settlement trying to keep their spirits up with fancy dress parties, tennis tournaments and bridge at the club, and gives us just enough of a description for us to realise the grotesque contrast between the anyone-for-tennis cocktail parties of the pampered westerners and the filthy, teeming, squalid world of the Shanghai slums.

Until one day the disaster they all knew was coming arrives and the bottom falls out of their world. Timed to coincide with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (8am on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941) the Japanese ships in Shanghai harbour open devastating fire on the British ships moored nearby, sinking them and shooting the sailors who try to flee (to be precise, the Japanese cruiser Izumo, the gunboat Toba and Japanese shore batteries in the French Concession opened fire at point-blank range on HMS Peterel which returned fire until it capsized and drifted from its mooring while the crew abandoned ship.)

At the same time Japanese soldiers are sent to the luxury houses of the International Settlement, and rounded up all nationals of the countries Japan was now at war with, starting with the British and Americans. Germans and White Russians were left alone for the time being, though traumatised by watching their friends and neighbours be hustled out of their nice big houses and loaded up into army trucks and driven off to God knows where.

Jim and his dad happen to be on the quayside when the Japanese ships start shelling the British ones, and Jim watches his dad jump into the water, along with some other Brits, to try to help the survivors from the sunk British battleship stagger ashore onto the harbour’s stinking mud. Jim jumps in to help. The survivors are taken to Shanghai hospital, with Jim being put in a children’s ward by himself. A few days later, when Japanese lorries arrive and the walking wounded are hustled into them and driven off, Jim escapes from the hospital and makes his way through the teeming streets, dodging a Chinese teenager who tries to mug him, walking all the way back to the International Settlement.

And what does he find? A world in ruins. A dystopian landscape of empty houses, all power and lights disconnected, defrosting fridges, draining swimming pools and gardens rapidly becoming overgrown. In a key scene, Jim approaches one of the many mute and submissive Chinese servants who had worked in his parents’ house and is now looting a sofa from it, and the man simply punches Jim in the face.

Too stunned to speak or think, Jim retreats and hides, finding refuge in these abandoned, dark and dangerous places, formerly the scene of so much jollity. The narrative shows Jim hiding out for weeks, initially enjoying himself riding his bicycle indoors, up and down the empty hall and into all the empty rooms, until the weeks become leaden, eventually turning – we are told – into four months, scraping a living on cocktail olives and cheese biscuits, drinking increasingly rancid water from brackish water tanks, growing thinner and more feverish.

Aha! So this is where it comes from. Ballard’s lifelong obsession with the ruins of the contemporary world, with abandoned hotels and empty cities and derelict shopping centres and the obsessive, recurring image of The Drained Swimming Pool.

In a flash all his many fans and critics realised that – although many of his novels and stories are set in the future and feature futuristic plot paraphernalia – environmental catastrophe or strange new ‘space sicknesses’ – in fact Ballard’s fiction was always about the past, that like any victim of severe trauma, he was obsessively revisiting the shock, ordeal and suffering of those crucial, decisive boyhood years.

Towards the end of the 160 pages of part one, Jim falls in with a couple of American chancers, Basie, a confident rat-faced man, formerly a steward on passenger liners, who’s made a base in a ruined tanker in Shanghai harbour and sends bigger, tougher Frank out on chores. Jim gets co-opted into their eerie and often pointless survivor lifestyle. Basie makes Frank collect and polish ship’s porthole brasses, though they never manage to sell one. In one scene they go to busy Hongkew market where, Jim realises, they are trying to sell him to the Chinese, but he is by this stage so obviously malnourished, skinny and covered in running sores, that no-one is buying.

Part one ends when they take Jim out for a drive in their truck and he realises they’re simply want to find somewhere to dump him. Jim persuades them to drive to the abandoned houses of the International Settlement, luring them with the fact that one of Jim’s neighbours was a dentist who kept lots of equipment in his house. Maybe there’ll be some gold teeth somewhere in it. But they are caught by Japanese soldiers who are camping out in the abandoned houses and quickly surround the truck, pulling Jim out onto the road, while they surround and batter Frank, and beat Basie with their bamboo staves.

Part two

Part two opens three and a half years later. Jim, who was 11 in part one, is now 14 (p.165). To be more precise, the events of part one were kicked off by Pearl Harbour (December 1941), whereas when part two opens, not only has Victory in Europe day happened (May 1945, p.174) but the Japanese have surrendered at Okinawa (late June 1945) and this section ends with the detonation of the second atom bomb at Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. So it covers a few weeks in July and August 1945.

Anyway, part two (pp.163-260) finds a Jim who has survived three and a half long years in the Lunghua internment camp and been utterly changed by it. It describes in excruciating detail the permanent malnutrition and thirst, the obsession with food, and the countless petty humiliations the internees are prey to. Everyone is thin and emaciated, most can barely be bothered to walk or talk, Jim helps Dr Ransome (another in a long line of doctors in Ballard’s fiction) who not only tends the sick (with no medicine and barely even any water), who also uses the contents of the septic tank to try and grow a few sparse vegetables.

If part one – Jim’s experience of camping out and searching for half-rotten food in the abandoned houses of the rich – lies behind all those Ballard protagonists who camp out and scrape an existence in the derelict buildings of abandoned civilisations, then part two – where Jim watches all the rich and powerful and impressive English ex-pats he’d known from the Settlement slowly decline into malnutrition, fever and mania – lies behind the countless protagonists of his novels and short stories who deteriorate into mumbling psychotics.

Jim lives in a quarter of a bedroom in an abandoned training college which e shares with Mr and Mrs Vincent and their permanently ill six-year-old son. For three years there has been psychological warfare as Mrs Vincent tries to force him out or, at the very least, pushes the sheet they’ve hung as a partition between their three-quarters and his quarter of the space nearer to him.

Beyond the wire perimeter fence is the Lunghua airport and Jim venerates the beautiful fighter planes he watches taking off and landing, and admires the spirit of the steady stream of suicide fighter pilots who carry out their brief ritual of dedication to the Emperor before flying off to fly their planes with their huge bombs directly into the American navy ships in the South China Sea.

In the latter part of this long gruelling section, the Japanese soldiers round up all the internees and organise them for a march. It is quite clear that many of the camp’s 2,000 or so inhabitants are in no fit state to move, but the Japes move them out anyway, a crowd of pitifully thin scarecrows clutching on to their hurriedly packed belongings. Jim is surprised how many seem to have clung on to their tennis racquets and balls all through the three long years of privation.

The march takes a long time and after each rest, there are large numbers who can’t get up. Jim is in a close but strangely dissociated state with Mr Maxted, one of his parents friends, who is in the final stages of emaciation. Eventually, after a long march of intense suffering, the survivors are hustled into the old stadium at Nantao, built on the order of Madame Chiang in the hope that China would host the 1940 Olympics (p.257). Now it is packed with goods the Japanese have looted from the houses of the Westerners, starting with long rows of shiny American cars lined up by the running track, but going on to include all manner of household furniture piled up in the stands and, the presidential box,

where Madame Chiang and the Generalissimo might once have saluted the world’s athletes, was now crammed with roulette wheels, cocktail bars and a jumble of gilded plaster nymphs holding gaudy lamps above their heads. Rolls of Persian and Turkish carpets, hastily wrapped in tarpaulins, lay on the concrete steps, water dripping through them as if from a pile of rotting pipes.

Worn beyond endurance Mr Maxted lies down on the ground and starts to die. Jim dips his fingers in nearby puddles then puts them in Maxted’s mouth which postpones the inevitable for a little. Other British prisoners, right on the edge of death, feebly call for his help. Eventually, Jim, too, squats on the ground patting the earth and dumbly repeating his name over and over. Irritated by this a passing Japanese soldier makes ready to kick Jim, with the casual brutality he has witnessed so many times when all of a sudden… there is a flash of unusually intense white light from the north-east. They all pause, waiting for the sound of the bomb but none comes. Although he doesn’t realise it, Jim has witnessed the blast of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Part three

Part three follows directly from the end of part two and describes what happens after the Japanese surrender. Jim comes to consciousness to discover it is hailing. He tries to capture and drink the water, then stirs himself and totters over to the stands. Slowly he realises the Japanese soldiers aren’t there any more. No-one is guarding them.

A Eurasian soldier enters the stadium, circulating among the dead prisoners and it’s he who tells Jim the Japanese have surrendered. But Jim soon discovers that freedom is far more violent and unpredictable than imprisonment. Life in Lunghua was full of reassuring rhythms and timetables. It was for the most part peaceful. Now they are all entering into a period of unpredictable anarchy. The Japanese simply stop administering anything, many of them taking to wandering the countryside at random or retreating into buildings waiting reprisals. Later Jim is to find a Japanese guard at Lunghua who the released British have tied to a camp bed and bludgeoned to death. Later still, a Japanese fighter pilot savagely bayoneted to death.

Quickly the Chinese Nationalist armies approach to liberate Shanghai, but there also large numbers of Chinese communist bands, as well as forces loyal to various warlords and then and fourth element, small groups of freelance survivors of all nationalities. Violent anarchy.

In the rice paddies surrounding the sports stadium Jim is in the last stages of malnutrition when, in a scene which beggars belief, huge American B29 aircraft fly overhead and drop… not bombs but food packages, hundreds of them, gently falling from the air on their blood-red parachutes. They burst open on landing and spill a treasure of tins of spam, powdered milk, chocolate and copies of Reader’s Digest magazine, all freezing cold having flown for hours miles up in the frozen air, hence the title of this chapter – The Refrigerator in the Sky.

His body sustained by this totally unexpected bounty, Jim staggers back towards Lunghua camp which isn’t in the end, all that far away, but discovers changes: it has been taken over and barricaded by psychotically violent and angry British prisoners, firstly to keep out the growing number of starving Chinese who sit patiently outside the main gate, but also because they know about the increasing numbers of marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Jim argues with a man he knew named Tulloch, the chief mechanic at the Packard agency, and Lieutenant Price, a British soldier who’s been driven mad by years of imprisonment and torture – his body is covered with cigarette burns – on the edge angry all the time ready to kill anyone. Eventually Tulloch lets Jim into the camp when Price isn’t looking and Jim goes and holes up in his old quarters, staying out the way, eating spam and chocolate, carefully arranging the magazines included in all the B29 airdrops in chronological order.

Part of Jim’s uneasy existence with psychotic Price & Tulloch is telling them about the treasure at Nantao stadium and, eventually, a week or so later, the pair and their crew set off towards Shanghai in a truck loaded with food, drinking heavily from the jars of rice wine they’ve bartered with some of the locals for tinned food. On an impulse at the last minute Price veers off the main Shanghai road towards the stadium, where they ask Jim again about the supposed treasures contained inside, park the lorry, get out and walk towards it when…

Suddenly a bunch of men with guns come charging out of the stadium entrance, and next thing they know are firing – Tulloch is shot dead, Price is beaten to death, just like that, just like so many of the random shifts of mood and inexplicable deaths Jim has been exposed to for three and a half years. Some of the armed group are Eurasians, some Chinese, some whites… a Chinese finds Jim in the back of the lorry and is just about to kick him to death when Jim recognises Basie in the oddly dressed, pomaded and talced American sauntering nearby. Basie’s presence just about saves Jim’s life and he lives on in a precarious relationship with them, till they too take off towards Shanghai, leaving Jim once again to travel across country to Lunghua, having further hallucinatory encounters, not least with a dead Japanese soldier who has been severely bayoneted and fallen off an embankment into a reed-filled canal, where Jim blunders into him.

Back at Lunhua Jim discovers the base has been taken over by Americans, who are refitting the runway, landing Mustangs and other planes, and he discovers Dr Ransom didn’t die on the death march after all, but has been fed and restored and is working as a doctor. The cemetery has been razed to the ground as if it never existed.

Part four

It is two months later and everything is disconcertingly back to normal – Jim has returned to the family home in Amherst Avenue to discover his mother and father are still both alive, though, of course, much changed after three and a half years in the Suchoo internment camp – Yang the chauffeur has returned with a limousine. Now Jim is being packed off with his mother to England, the small damp country he’s read so much about but never seen. Traveling to the docks he gets a panoramic view of Shanghai which has returned to its pre-war days, packed with gangsters, criminals, prostitutes and corrupt officials. Above them all are huge screens onto which the Allies insist a never-ending loops of Pathé newsreels tell the story of the entire war, its heroes and villains, in fast-moving black and white images set to rousing music. As Jim boards the steamer which will take him to England he looks down and sees in the water one of the many many coffins which the Chinese consign to the Shanghai river slowly floating around the ship in its corona of soaked flowers.


A boy’s eye view

It is crucial to the book’s success that we see this grim panorama of atrocities through the eyes of a boy. The book brilliantly conveys the way that, although Jim is intelligent for his age, he simply doesn’t understand half of what is happening or why. He reports everything he sees with a kind of wide-eyed candour. He doesn’t filter, he isn’t hindered by good manners or good taste. He tells you what he sees, and half the ‘tragedy’ or emotional aspect of the book comes from the way the reader so forcefully sees how Jim’s values and view of the world have been deeply corrupted. He simply takes it for granted that Chinese peasants are publicly beheaded, Chinese criminals publicly strangled in the street.

Usually Jim would have paused to observe the crowd. On the way home from school Yang would often drive by the Old City. The public stranglings were held in a miniature stadium with a scrubbed wooden floor and rows of circular benches around the teak execution posts, and always attracted a thoughtful audience. The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death, Jim had decided, as a way of reminding themselves of how precariously they were alive. They liked to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world was anything else.

He develops a highly tuned understanding of the strange Japanese mentality, how to pause, stop, bow and show respect, in order to avoid beating, although even then the standard Japanese response to almost everything is anger and beating or kicking anyone more vulnerable than themselves.

This starkness and clarity of vision, a kind of bright-eyed candour, underpins the attitude of most of the characters in Ballard’s fiction to whom often quite drastic things happen before they have any kind of emotional response. Maybe the therapists would say that almost all normal emotional response was burned out of Jim long long ago.

But there’s something else Jim’s character embodies which echoes and re-echoes throughout his stories and novels, which is the way the protagonists are often simply puzzled. They don’t understand other people. They can’t grasp other people’s motives. His stories are littered with the notion of ambiguous and uncertain motives, in fact the characteristic attitude of any of the protagonists towards other people is simply no understanding them.

You wonder whether, at some level, the shock Ballard received as a boy prevented him ever developing a properly socialised understanding of other people, and whether this explains the air of puzzlement all his characters display when they try – and generally fail – to interact with other people. Other people aren’t, pace Sartre, hell – they are just unknowable.

A clear-eyed style for deranged events

The very powerful upside of all this, or strongly connected to it somehow, is the striking clarity and limpidity of Ballard’s prose style.

Ballard’s style in this book is beautifully, beautifully clear and expressive and to the point. The lush exoticism which I pointed out in his earliest novels has been burned away, the psychotic extravagance of the urban disaster novels has been left behind and instead Ballard’s style is clear, grammatically correct and tremendously focused. Sentence after sentence conveys just the right amount of information to make you see the scene and understand Jim’s boyish thoughts. And his style doesn’t need to be florid, because the reality of what he’s describing is so innately colourful and bizarre.

A field of paper flowers floated on the morning tide, clustered around the oil-stained piers of the jetty and dressed them in vivid coloured ruffs. A few minutes before dawn Jim sat at a window of his bedroom at the Palace Hotel. He wore his school uniform and was keen to start an hour’s revision before breakfast. As always, however, he found it difficult to keep his eyes from the Shanghai waterfront. Already the odour of fish heads and bean curd sizzling in peanut oil rose from the pans of the vendors outside the hotel. Tung-stained junks with eyes painted on their bows sailed past the opium hulks beached on the Pootung shore. Thousands of sampans and ferry-boats were moored along the Bund, a city of floating hovels still hidden by the darkness.

The surrealism of the everyday

In every paragraph Jim observes the colourful scenes, the smells, the noise and hustle of this third world city which are already full of hundreds of dazzlingly surreal images – or what, for us, living in our boring western cities – are things amazing to contemplate.

The most notable of these are the streetside executions, the stranglings and beheadings. Small crowds gather to watch some Chinese wretch be forced to kneel by several Japanese soldiers, while an officer wielded his ceremonial sword and cut off the offender’s head. The tram lines run red with blood. The streets packed with endless queues of rickshaws and carts and peasants are also lined with corpses.

In many of Ballard’s sci-fi stories the plots, such as they are, seem contrived and forced, or are strangely implausible. But in Empire of the Sun the weirdness arises naturally from the subject matter because the world Jim inhabits is weird, it’s all weird beyond belief, almost every moment brings a tumbling of strange and uncanny images and impressions.

All this Jim reports in his clear lucid way. It’s the world he grew up in. He takes it as normal. And it’s the simple, blank acceptance of the weirdness all around him which really grips the modern reader – the combination of Jim’s matter-of-fact style and Ballard’s clear prose and the astonishments surrounding him. Remember the first hundred or so pages describe everyday life for an expatriate in Shanghai and much of it is exotic and strange enough.

The mania of war

All that’s before the war even starts and Jim enters a world of permanent malnutrition, infection and fever. From this point onwards the reader is given permission to accept the strangeness of what Jim reports or sees, and Ballard is able to get away with some extraordinary sequences and an increasing scattering of his trademark visionary sentences, because it is understood that he is feverish, delirious, and sometimes hallucinating.

He fell asleep on his friend’s bed, under the endlessly circling aircraft that swam below the ceiling like fish seeking a way out of the sky.

There are lots of sentences like that in the book, visionary sentences made up of the simplest components, simple vocabulary, simple grammar, and the power to transport the reader to another plane of experience. Some are simple similes which make the entire situation spring into horrible life.

The hospital patients lay across each other like rolls of carpet.

At one point there is yet another rest break on the long death march to the Nantao stadium, where an exhausted and malnourished Mr Maxted rests on the running board of an abandoned wagon, and:

Mr Maxted reached out and held Jim’s wrist. Gutted by malaria and malnutrition, his body was about to merge with the derelict vehicle behind him.

It is all clear and factual until that final phrase which shifts into an entirely new realm, of hallucination, of drugs, a perception beyond normal human cognition, telling us something important about the infinite malleability of reality.

Recurring themes

Calm Repeatedly other characters are made to say ‘calm down Jim’, or slap him in the face to snap him out of his hysteria, or give him a hug, or tell him to remember he’s British i.e. to keep a grip on himself.

‘Jim…Jim…’ Tulloch placed his hand on Jim’s head, trying to steady the over-excited boy. ‘It’s time you found your father, lad. The war’s over, Jim.’

These repeated injunctions serve to warn us that Jim spends almost the entire book in a state of nervous over-excitement.

Before the war a small English boy would have been killed for his shoes within minutes. Now he was safe, guarded by the Japanese soldiers – he laughed over this so much that the Dutch woman reached out a hand to calm him.

Dr Ransome reached out and gently pressed Jim’s hands to the table, trying to calm him.

In my reviews of Ballard’s stories of the 1970s I had begun to notice how many of his protagonists need calming, are feverish and delusional or become over-excited. Was it Ballard’s own feverishness spilling over into his texts or is it something about his entire attitude to fiction: that it is, by definition, about over-excited people.

Intoxicated by the fermenting potato, Jim giggled at the thought of the deity trapped in the bowels of the earth below Shanghai, perhaps in the basement of the Sincere Company department store. Mrs Philips held his hand, trying to comfort him.

Distilling water In Lunghua Camp, the narrator explains how, in the early days of the internment, a group of British men were tasked with boiling the water taken from ponds in the camp in order to sterilise it, but eventually let the habit fall into desuetude, preferring to get dysentery than expend so much energy. The ceaseless effort involved in boiling water to make it drinkable resurfaces in part two of The Drought where entire communities have to boil seawater to produce fresh water, for me the most haunting story Ballard ever wrote.

Cramped living space In the camp Jim shares a room in the unheated hall of residence of a former training college, with a young British couple and their six-year-old son. They, especially the mother, really resent his presence and rig up a partition carefully defining his quarter of the space. This stifling claustrophobia resurfaces in Ballard’s classic short story Billennium, set in a grossly overpopulated world of the future.

Old American magazines Jim likes to pore over old copies of Life magazine which the American, Basie, gives him, just as Wayne, the central protagonist of the novel Hello America, pores over old Time and Life magazines in the ship carrying the European scientific team to the dead New World.

AMERICA Young Jim adulates everything to do with America, addicted to their magazines, in love with their huge stylish cars, Packards and Chryslers and limousines. When he sees the B29 bomber planes fly overhead it is immediately obvious that nothing the Japanese have can compete with it.

The adulation of America and American culture, at the same time as satirising it, is something you see in British artists from the late 1950s through the 1960s, a notable example being Richard Hamilton and then, in the next generation, David Hockney. (Hockney became famous, at one point, for his vivid depictions of the lush, lazy swimming pools of Los Angeles; insofar as he obsessively depicts abandoned, derelict, drained swimming pools, Ballard is a kind of anti-Hockney.)

America was so obviously the winner of the Second World War, and the explosion of consumer goods it developed after the war was so much the envy of the world, especially in wartorn, exhausted Europe, that maybe it was impossible to resist. Certainly an obsession with Americana drives The Atrocity Exhibition which, on Ballard’s own admission, was presided over by the assassination of President Kennedy, and features a floating population of American consumer goods and Hollywood movie stars, just as the plot of Crash drives towards the mad protagonist’s attempt to stage a fatal car crash with Elizabeth Taylor.

The beauty of planes and shiny machines Even before the war Jim is mad about airplanes, we learn about the model planes he has made and the even better ones made by his boyhood friend, both of them hanging them from strings in their bedrooms. Suddenly the car fetishism of Crash seems less perverse, when you read a description of Jim running his hands over the hard, cold, smooth, beautifully engineered surface of a Zero fighter plane. Even in decay, it is a thing of unspeakable, dizzying beauty.

Jim stopped under the tailplane of a Zero fighter. Wild sugar-cane grew through its wings. Cannon fire had burned the metal skin from the fuselage spars, but the rusting shell still retained all the magic of those machines which he had watched from the balcony of the assembly hall, taking off from the runway he had helped to build. Jim touched the feathered vanes of the radial engine and ran his hand along the warped flank of the propeller.

Terminal documents In the camp Jim has a box full of a random selection of precious objects:

  • a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura
  • three steel-bossed fighting caps
  • a chess set
  • a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer
  • his Cathedral School blazer
  • the pair of clogs he’s been wearing for three years

The idea of a psychologically significant collection of half a dozen random objects like this occurs in the ‘terminal documents’ collected by Kaldren in the 1962 short story The Voices of Time and similar collections of half a dozen or so random items are collected by all the male protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition stories, beginning with Talbot who owns:

  • a spectrohelion of the sun
  • the front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  • a transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  • ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  • a photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  • a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  • the fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

The idea recurs in 1982’s Myths of the Near Future in which the protagonist Robert Sheppard takes just such a psychic ‘survival kit’, i.e. suitcase of random junk, with him to the Florida jungle.

Random to us. But charged with intense psychological significance for the characters, rescue kits, survival kits, escape kits – talismans to aid mental escape from intolerable situations, such as the one Jim experienced in the camp, and his characters experience in their tortured inner lives.

Magazine pictures are reality Jim cuts out pictures from magazines and pins them to the wall of his little partition. Eventually he confusedly identifies a photo of a couple outside Buckingham Palace with his long-lost parents.

Beside the Packard was a small section that Jim had cut from a larger photograph of a crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1940. The blurred images of a man and a woman standing arm-in-arm reminded Jim of his parents. This unknown English couple, perhaps dead in an air raid, had almost become his mother and father. Jim knew that they were complete strangers, but he kept the pretence alive, so that in turn he could keep alive the lost memory of his parents.

This echoes the mentally ill protagonist of The Terminal Beach who cuts out a photo of a little girl and pins it to the wall of the abandoned bunker he’s living in, using it to channel hallucinatory visions of his dead wife and son.

The sky When all human existence on earth seems to be wretched, diseased and violent, where else is there to turn but the sky. Hence Jim’s fairly rational fantasy of one day learning to fly a plane like the young Japanese pilots he sees climbing into their suicide fighters. Hence the altogether more hallucinatory visions he has at numerous moments of himself or other characters or buildings or the world disappearing up into the sky. On the long death march to the Nantao stadium, Jim looks back.

He looked back at the ammunition truck. He was startled to see that hundreds of suitcases lay on the empty road. Exhausted by the effort of carrying their possessions, the prisoners had abandoned them without a spoken word. The suitcases and wicker baskets, the tennis racquets, cricket bats and pierrot costumes lay in the sunlight, like the luggage of a party of holidaymakers who had vanished into the sky.

The sentences are all reasonable and factual, clear and precise right up until that final phrase where the mania takes over. Similarly calm and simple is this statement, made when Jim, tottering with fever and malnutrition decides to climb up the stands of the Olympic stadium.

Jim left Mr Maxted and walked along the running track, intending to follow them, but then cautiously decided to climb one of the stands. The concrete steps seemed to reach beyond the sky.

The sun And at the centre of the sky, is the great ball of energy which drives all life on earth, the sun. The importance of the sun cannot be over-emphasised – overseeing all things – the blistering force and light and heat – with the result that it’s natural that when he thinks of escape it isn’t to anywhere else on earth – the whole world is a battlefield covered in beggars and starved people beating each other to death – the only path of escape is off the earth altogether, upwards, away from the earth, upwards towards the source of all heat and light and, ultimately, meaning. The sun, father of all things, symbol, of course, of the Japanese Empire, until a greater sun comes to eclipse it, the unwatchable sun o the atomic bomb.

A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn up above them on the Bund were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun.

In the hour before dusk they entered an area of abandoned battlefields nine miles to the south of Shanghai. The afternoon light rose into the air, as if returning to the sun a small part of the strength it had cast to the indifferent fields.

The ubiquity of the sun as a central symbol mirrors its use in scores of the short stories, where umpteen characters dream of being reunited with the sun, flying into the sun, listening to the music of the sun. Ballard is obsessed with the sun and sunlight and sunshine and sunwarmth which makes it that much more ominous when, in a typically limpid phrase he manages to convey the unsettling effect of the Nagasaki atom blast, whose white light for a moment illuminates the Olympic stadium and its field full of dying Europeans.

Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds.

The Mustang crash One of the most intense moments in the book is when Jim witnesses a flight of Mustangs flying low over Lunghua airfield as part of an attack on the Japanese planes, only for one of them to be damaged, and:

Jim had never before seen an air attack of such scale. A second wave of Mustangs crossed the paddy fields between Lunghua Camp and the river, followed by a squadron of two-engined fighter-bombers. Three hundred yards to the west of the camp one of the Mustangs dipped its starboard wing towards the ground. Out of control, it slid across the air, and its wing-tip sheared the embankment of a disused canal. The plane cartwheeled across the paddy fields and fell apart in the air. It exploded in a curtain wall of flaming gasoline through which Jim could see the burning figure of the American pilot still strapped to his seat. Riding the incandescent debris of his aircraft, he tore through the trees beyond the perimeter of the camp, a fragment of the sun whose light continued to flare across the surrounding fields.

‘A fragment of the sun’.

World War III Towards the end of the book Jim ceases endlessly pestering the adults about when the war will end – they keep telling him it has ended and since, if anything, the world has immediately become more violent and unpredictable, Jim starts suspecting that the next war – World War III – has already started.

When Basie and the men had gone, vanishing among the ruined warehouses on the quay, Jim studied the magazines on the seat beside him. He was sure now that the Second World War had ended, but had World War III begun? Looking at the photographs of the D-Day landings, the crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Berlin, he felt that they were part of a smaller war, a rehearsal for the real conflict that had begun here in the Far East with the dropping of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs.

And anyone with a feel for history knows that the next world war did, in fact, start immediately upon the end of the second one. For most of us in the West it was a low-key, almost invisible cold war, although for the next 45 years we all knew that deep down, all it would have taken was a few buttons to be pressed and – bang!

But where Jim is, in the book, it wasn’t at all a cold war: in China it was hotter than anywhere else in the world. In Europe the fighting stopped, even as the Russians and the Western powers regarded each other with suspicion. But in the East the fighting didn’t stop. Across the huge territory of China the civil war resumed between the communists and the nationalists which wasn’t to end until the communists finally secured control of most of China in 1950. And only a few months later North Korea invaded South Korea triggering the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

In his over-excited, confused but prescient way, even right at the end of the novel after he’s been restored to his parents, Jim has the powerful sense that ‘peace’ is not real or normal.

While Yang drove uneasily back to Amherst Avenue… Jim thought of the last weeks of the war. Towards the end everything had become a little muddled. He had been starving and perhaps had gone slightly mad. Yet he knew that he had seen the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki even across the four hundred miles of the China Sea. More important, he had seen the start of World War III, and realized that it was taking place around him. The crowds watching the newsreels on the Bund had failed to grasp that these were the trailers for a war that had already started.

It’s very Ballard to mix the Third World War up with film and newsreels, and brings us much more into the world of his fiction of the 60s and 70s, concerned with the deranging effects of the mass media, movies and advertising on the human psyche.

And it feeds into our understanding of the way the protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition is obsessed with World War III, but not in any way a historian or soldier would conceive it, but as a purely personal struggle, a psychological battle against the self.

What we are concerned with now are the implications—in particular, the complex of ideas and events represented by World War III. Not the political and military possibility, but the inner identity of such a notion. For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display, but for your husband it has become an expression of the failure of his psyche to  accept the fact of its own consciousness, and of his revolt against the present continuum of time and space. Dr Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.’

Like Jim, Ballard’s protagonists know that the next war will take place in their heads.

Novel or autobiography

So how true is Empire of the Sun, how accurate is it? How much is truth and how much carefully orchestrated, re-arranged, reconfigured in order to make it into a readable work of fiction? The book has a preface in which Ballard wrote:

Empire of the Sun draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Lunghua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942-45. For the most part this novel is based on events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua.

This sounds candid and open enough. But as you read through the book all kinds of suspicions arise. The overall structure is shaped just so, and designed to foreground highly charged or symbolic incidents – the scene where he watches an American fighter plane crash in a sheet of flames on Lunghua runway; the scene where he confronts the single Japanese pilot walking in despair around the airfield after the army has left; the scene with the Japanese corpse, the scene where he enters the prison hospital to find it an abattoir of rotted flesh infested with swarms of black flies.

And it’s pretty handy that Jim happened to be a) outdoors and b) conscious enough, to witness the white light of the atom bomb. Convenient for an author intent on his symbolism.

Above all there is the suspicious way that the same small number of characters – specifically the American chancer Basie and the good English doctor, Ransome, manage to survive and crop up in successive setups.

The question

After reviewing just the dozen or so more obvious ways in which Empire of the Sun touches on themes and images which recur throughout Ballard’s entire oeuvre, the question is:

Does Empire of the Sun touch on so many of the themes and images which dominate Ballard’s other books because the wartime, boyhood experiences it describes laid the basis for Ballard’s entire imaginarium? Are all the other stories and books attempts to work through, in disguised fictional form, the true-life experiences which are for the first time described in Empire of the Sun with unflinching documentary accuracy? Or –

Does Empire of the Sun contain so many of the themes, images and hallucinatory turns of the phrase that occur in all Ballard’s other fiction, not because it is the source of them – but the exact reverse: because he had to spend all those years developing the obsessive imagery and coolly visionary turn of phrase as ‘objective correlatives’, developing the haunting images and crisp prose style in which he could express the things he saw and lived through?

When Ballard writes that Lieutenant Price, emaciated, with bloodied fists, permanently enraged after years of torture:

calmed himself. He touched the cigarette burns on his chest, tapping out a secret code of pain and memory.

Did he? Did he touch the cigarette burns as if tapping out ‘a secret code’? Or is that the kind of thing Ballard thinks that kind of character ought to do? Is it a true memory, or is it an example of the stylised way Ballard has, over the previous thirty years, come to conceive and write about human beings and which he now systematically projects back onto his experiences, embroidering them, expanding them, elaborating them, posing and positioning them in order to fit the highly artful aesthetic he had developed over all those years?

Was there ever a Lieutenant Price at all, cigarette burns or not – or is he a creation of Ballard’s later, more highly wrought, imagination?

Is Empire of the Sun the truth, which all his other works are based on? Or an extremely artful fiction, which all his other books were a careful preparation for?


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Reviews of other prison camp books

Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard (1982)

‘There is a way out, doctor, a way out of time.’
(Slade to Franklin in News From The Sun)

Ten short stories from Ballard’s middle period, a mixture of contemporary satire, some macabre horror stories and a preview of what would turn out to be Ballard’s breakthrough novel, Empire of the Sun. But at its heart are a couple of Core Ballard tales which perfectly capture his distinctive dystopian landscape of rusting rocket gantries, tropical forests full of jewelled creatures, abandoned motels and drained swimming pools.

1. Myths of the Near Future (1982)

If you’d never read any Ballard before, this 35-page-long story would blow your mind. If, on the other hand, you were familiar with Ballard’s earlier writing, the most striking thing is the repetition and recapitulation of some very familiar images and themes. It’s like a medley of greatest hits.

It’s set in the near future. Some kind of space sickness is afflicting mankind. More and more people experience the same symptoms, avoiding exposure to the sunlight and falling prey to obsessive behaviour. In their final days they become convinced that they were astronauts.

Sheppard was a successful architect. His wife, Elaine, comes down with the illness and is bed-bound in hospital under the supervision of a short, intense physician, Philip Martinsen.

Next thing he knows, Martinsen has absconded to Florida with his wife, who wants to be near the rusting gantries of the old space centre at Cape Kennedy. She writes him letters describing visions of the wonderful jewelled tropical forest which has reclaimed the abandoned towns surrounding the derelict space centre, the empty motels and drained swimming pools.

Sheppard, who had been showing less and less interest in his architecture practice, abruptly closes it, fires everyone, packs a psychic ‘survival kit’ and travels from Toronto down to Miami to try and find Elaine. Here he goes mad. He finds a room in an abandoned motel with – of course – an empty swimming pool littered with broken sunglasses.

But Sheppard is not alone. He is approached by a government psychiatrist, one of a team who’ve been sent by the government to cope with the increasing numbers of deluded folk who think they’re astronauts and who are flocking to the area, Anne Godwin.

She becomes increasingly drawn into his intense and damaged psychic world, eventually posing naked for his pornographic movies, which are more interested in discovering the weird geometries underlying the female body than sex, as such. At night they watch these avant-garde porno movies projected on the bedroom wall.

He explains to Anne that the suitcase of bric-a-brac he’s brought with him is a machine, a time machine, and how it runs on power from the drained swimming pool out front of the motel room. As he climbs down into it, Sheppard explains that the drained pool has a door which opens into another dimension of time, if only he can find it.

At the climax of their relationship he appears to strangle her. All he wants is to set her body free from its constraints of space and time. We are told she fights him off, kicking and biting, and runs off to fetch the police. Later, we are not so sure.

By day Sheppard rents a Cessna light aircraft and skims low over the abandoned territory surrounding the Cape Kennedy space centre which has been completely repopulated by tropical forest. Finally he discovers a strange modernistic nightclub in a clearing and is about to investigate when a man-made glider rears up in front of him, putting him off his flying so he nearly crashes into a tree and only just makes it back to a nearby beach.

This is where the story begins, with Sheppard sitting in a trance state in the cockpit of the wrecked plane and the incoming tide slowly laps at its wheels and then starts rising. He is only saved by Anne Godwin who followed out to the beach in a government Land Rover.

Next day Sheppard sets off by car along the remains of roads through the forest, until he’s forced to abandon the car and continue on foot, in search of the nightclub he saw from the air where he’s convinced that Martensen is keeping Elaine. Here he discovers a submarine world where each twig and branch hangs weightlessly, where light flashes from every leaf in some kind of process of ‘time-fusion’.

The luminosity of everything – the trees, the animals, the plants – seems to derive from the simultaneous existences of multiple moments of time. Everything has become a vision of itself at all moments of its existence.

He could feel the time-winds playing on his skin, annealing his other selves on to his arms and shoulders…

He discovers the forest is covered with man-sized traps Martensen has made. He trips one and Martensen comes running out of the jungle wearing a bird suit, complete with feathered head-dress and wide feathered wings attached to his arms.

Sheppard finally reaches the nightclub and in a dingy room out the back discovers his wife lying in a cage made of polished brass rods. She is extremely malnourished, wasted away, virtually a skeleton. Sheppard knows she is dead, yet she opens her eyes and her skeleton-hand reaches out to seize his arm.

As he unlocks the cage and touches her time floods back into her withered body and she becomes young and beautiful again.

Already her arms and shoulders were sheathed in light, that electric plumage which he now wore himself, winged lover of this winged woman.

Next thing, young Elaine is running along the surface of the river which has frozen solid because of the accumulation of all its moments in time into one concentrated moment, the time-fusion. She is learning to fly. She beckons him.

Sheppard walks towards her through the forest, stopping to pluck birds frozen in time out of the air. One by one he sets them free, then embraces Martensen and sets him free. By this stage the reader strongly suspects that ‘setting free’ means strangling to death. In this life. In this realm. In Sheppard’s realm, he is liberating these time-bound creatures so they can fly free into the multi-dimensional realm of fused space and time which is created by the abandoned space gantries.

Thoughts

Feels like a medley of greatest hits: the bejewelled forest come straight from The Crystal World, the intensity of light-filled hallucinations is the central theme of The Unlimited Dream Company, man-sized gliders appear in The Ultimate City and Hello America, the abandoned gantries of Cape Kennedy appear in numerous stories such as The Dead Astronaut, drained swimming pools appear in countless stories, and the psychic survival kit – a list of five disparate items which includes on Surrealist picture, is a direct repeat of the collection of ‘terminal documents’ which appear in The Voices of Time (1967) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-69).

The interesting question is: What purpose does this repetition serve? Does it matter that Ballard was repeating himself, writing the same obsessive sort of story, using the same peculiar imagery? Is it in some ways a plus, an interesting artistic strategy to repeat himself so narrowly and so exactly? Does it give the reader the eerie impression of really becoming caught up in a demented world which extends outwards from Ballard’s texts into the real world?

2. Having a Wonderful Time (1977)

An effective little chiller which combines satire with something more creepy, this story consists of postcards home from Diana who’s gone on holiday to Spain with her husband, Richard, middle manager in a supplier to a Leyland car manufacturer. The beach resort is packed with activities and she has a great time. When the two weeks is up the coach to the airport fails to arrive. As it does the next day, and the day after that. She and the other holidaymakers pass through irritation to anger but then to a kind of acceptance. The days go by, then the weeks. The weather is excellent, there’s lots to do, Diana joins an amateur dramatic society and she gets swept up in the succession of productions they put on.

Meanwhile Richard gets nervy, then causes a big scene with the hotel management, demanding answers, is hustled away and disappears. Weeks later Diana meets him again, innocently sunbathing on a lounger by the beach. He explains to her that the entire Canary Islands have been converted into a dumping ground for the unemployables of Western Europe, not only the huge numbers of working class but the unneeded middle managers as well. The plan is for them never to go home. Richard calmly announces he’s going to recruit a resistance movement and fight their way through to the airport and hijack a fight home.

In her postcards (presumably to a woman friend of the same mentality) Diana dismisses all this as preposterous poppycock. In the next postcard she sadly announces that she’s just attended Richard’s funeral. He had been living in half-built hotels trying to recruit his resistance movement, then had stolen an old motorboat and tried to steer it to Africa, but his body was washed ashore.

Anyway, she’s over her grief and is excited about her next role, playing Clytemnestra in her am-dram society’s next production, Electra (Clytemnestra, be it remembered, murdered her errant husband).

Thoughts

In another short story, Ballard speculates what would happen if the entire middle class of Europe went on package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean and refused to come back. Beaches and hotels hold a real obsession for him, as zones of transit, as completely artificial environments, as the location of fake lives and fake dreams and fake existences produced on a kind of industrial scale.

Possibly I’m not the ideal audience for short stories. I couldn’t work out whether this was a clever little time-filler such as you might find in an upmarket fiction magazine, or a ludicrous piece of heavy-handed satire.

3. A Host of Furious Fancies (1979)

Ballard applies his very literal-minded approach to Freud to the Cinderella fairy story.

The narrator starts by telling his presumed companion in a French café not to look at the young women and shuffling old man who have just walked in. He knows the story behind them, which he will proceed to tell:

It’s set in France. The narrator is a dermatologist (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who specialises in eating disorders, working in the American clinic in Nice. He is intrigued by the client of a colleague of his, a teenage girl, Christina Brossard, who has been referred by a hospice run by nuns. The girl’s father, a successful building contractor and friend of the French President’s, had committed suicide a few years earlier, and the girl had been admitted under the influence of various compulsions, and suffering from skin diseases. Hence the referral to the narrator’s clinic.

He drives up to see first the Mother Superior of the hospice and then the girl. She is on her hands and knees obsessively scrubbing the floor. Later he discovers she’s been obsessively burning all the books in her family mansion and putting them in refuse bags and scrubbing out the fireplaces. The nuns had let her be treated by a trendy psychotherapist who had experimentally used the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin on her. Then the narrator gets a call from the distraught Mother Superior telling him that the therapist and Christina have run off, the girl returning to her ancestral mansion.

To cut a short story shorter, the narrator brings all these elements together to conclude that the girl is suffering from a Cinderella complex: the nuns are the ugly sisters, the hallucinogen turned the pumpkin into a coach and white mice into horses. After the phone call from the Mother Superior he drives out to the girl’s mansion, in the hallway he discovers the huge ornamental clock has been defaced as its hands reached midnight.

This is because a Freudian interpretation of the fairy tale is that, at midnight, the girl’s young and innocent fancy of balls and gowns etc had to give way to the hard reality of sexual intercourse. She had defaced the clock in a confused attempt to stop that moment arriving.

The narrator now believes that the teenage Christina lured her father into an act of incest, making him play out the role of Prince Charming, after which the old man felt so guilty he committed suicide. At which point the girl herself fell prey to immense feelings of guilt and remorse, hence the obsessive cleaning and the skin condition for which the nuns first called him in for his advice.

Now he enters the bedchamber of the rich father to find it covered with pornographic images of centaurs frolicking with naked women. Christina is there, still wearing her hospice tunic, high on the latest dose of psilocybin, scrubbing the fireplace.

The narrator reminds us of the Freudian interpretation of the imagery of the old fairy tale. What is the glass slipper but a transparent and therefore fleshless, guilt-free image of the vagina? And the foot which slips into it? What else but the erect male member? And how else to cure the ill young woman except by… re-enacting, fulfilling and thus purging the fairy-tale narrative?

The narrator crosses the floor of the bedroom, lifts Christina to her feet, and leads her by the hand over to the bed, whispering ‘Cinderella.’

So far, so contrived. Now the story reverts to the present and in an abrupt switch of perspective, we realise that the decrepit old man we’d had pointed out to us, and the confident young woman who is guiding his steps… are Christina and the narrator. Instead of being in control of the situation, somehow, in some spooky, undescribed femme-fatale kind of way, she has sucked him dry and reduced him to a husk, a shadow of his former self: she is the one who became strong and commanding, he is the one who has been reduced to a shambling wreck, forever telling his pitiful tale to whoever will listen.

4. Zodiac 2000 (1978)

This is interesting: a brief introduction explains that it’s intended to be a supposed update of the signs of the Zodiac to be more contemporary i.e. Ballard replaces the conventional Zodiac signs with symbols of contemporary life. But it’s more than that: it’s a reprise of the Atrocity Exhibition technique of making short sections intensely charged with narratives which have been cut back to the bone to make them intriguing and puzzling. Thus each sign doesn’t give a passive definition of the computer or polaroid camera or whatever as it is found in contemporary society. Instead each section tells part of what appears to be an ongoing narrative, featuring the same characters, but in events which are deliberately jumbled up and confused. As in The Atrocity Exhibition I found this a powerful and persuasive technique.

  • The Sign of the Polaroid
  • The Sign of the Computer
  • The Sign of the Clones
  • The Sign of the IUD
  • The Sign of the Radar Bowl
  • The Sign of the Stripper
  • The Sign of the Psychiatrist
  • The Sign of the Psychopath
  • The Sign of the Hypodermic
  • The Sign of the Vibrator
  • The Sign of the Cruise Missile
  • The Sign of the Astronaut

Not only is the structure a rehash of the Atrocity technique but so is the prose style. In these texts we meet old friends like the overuse of the word ‘geometry’ to describe faces and, especially, women’s naked bodies; everyone’s movements are heavily ‘stylised’; and at several points people are caught listening to ‘the time-music of the quasars’.

Again, if you hadn’t read The Atrocity Exhibition I think you’d find this story astoundingly experimental; if you had, then you’d find it an almost nostalgic reprise of those 1960s motifs.

5. News from the Sun (1981)

The longest story in the collection at 41 pages, and another reprise of well-established Ballard motifs.

It’s set twenty or so years in the future when the world is coming down with some kind of sleeping sickness. Everyone is slipping into ‘fugue’ states, at first for only a few moments, building up to hours at a time, then leaving only minutes of consciousness left and then – boom! – you are in a trance forever.

The fugues came so swiftly, time poured in a torrent from the cracked glass of their lives.

Those who enter this final phase are, inevitably, referred to as ‘terminal patients’.

Former NASA psychiatrist Dr Robert Franklin (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) works at a clinic for victims and was one of the first to identify the new ‘time-sickness’. He takes a special interest in Trippett, who happens to be the last astronaut to have walked on the moon. He is visited by his daughter, Ursula, a dumpy member of a nearby hippy commune which has taken over the abandoned site of a solar-based nearby town, Soleri II (‘the concrete towers and domes of the solar city’) named after their architect, Paolo Soleri.

It’s an orgy of Ballard motifs: a doctor running a clinic for people who are conscious less and less of the time is the central narrative of his classic short story The Voices of Time. Franklin drives Trippett out into the desert, as the doctor protagonist of The Voices of Time does. And what do they find? Ballardland:

He had taken a touching pleasure in the derelict landscape, in the abandoned motels and weed-choked swimming pools of the small town near the air base, in the silent runways with their dusty jets sitting on their flattened tyres, in the over-bright hills waiting with the infinite guile of the geological kingdom for the organic world to end and a more vivid mineral realm to begin.

And the Antagonist, there’s always an Antagonist, since at least The Illuminated Man of 1963, there’s always an irrational Opponent. In Myths of the Near Future it’s Dr Martensen, here it’s Slade, former air-force pilot and would-be astronaut, who dive bombs Franklin, Ursula and Trippett as they wander among the fields of derelict solar panels. And this antagonist, like all the others, is trying to seduce and/or kidnap the protagonist’s wife, in this case Marion.

Slade is, of course, flying a microlight, the man-sized flying machine which is the obsessive central image of The Ultimate City and Myths of the Near Future and Hello America. Endless dreams of flying. All the microlight pilots in these stories wear old-fashioned aviator goggles.

Slade had arrived at the clinic seven months earlier and charmed the director, Dr Rachel Vaisey (a feminist thought: it is noticeable that many of the characters in these stories of the 1970s are professional women: the psychiatrist Anne Godwin, the therapist in the Cinderella story is a woman named Dr Valentina Gabor, and now the clinic is headed up by a woman). He starts creating ‘shrines’ to the future from bric-a-brac, the final one being a characteristic assemblage of random elements, exactly the same ‘terminal documents’ which appear in The Voices of Time (1967) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-69) and Myths of the Near Future. It consists of:

  • a labelled fragment of lunar rock stolen from the NASA museum
  • a photograph taken with a zoom lens of Marion in a hotel bedroom
  • a reproduction of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory
  • a set of leucotomes whose points were masked by metal peas
  • an organ donor card giving permission for his brain to be transplanted

Vaisey slipped into an affair with Slade which she quickly realised was a mistake and tried to extricate herself. At their last meeting, in her office, Franklin was present and watched while Slade took his penis out, masturbated, then insisted on examining his semen under a microscope.

Franklin feels guilty over his complicity in the space programme which seems to have triggered the epidemic.

As a member of the medical support team, he had helped to put the last astronauts into space, made possible the year-long flights that had set off the whole time-plague, cracked the cosmic hour-glass…

One by one every astronaut involved in the space programme had slipped off into a private reverie, many of them weeping in their sleep, as if the space programme had committed some cosmic crime. And all humanity has been damaged by it:

The brute force ejection of themselves from their planet had been an act of evolutionary piracy, for which they were now being expelled from the world of time.

As regular Ballard readers know, his imagination was liberated by discovering the Surrealist painters as a young man and he often makes reference to them, as Dali above. In this story he twice references the nude women paintings of Paul Delvaux.

Not far away a strong-hipped young woman stood among the dusty pool-furniture, her statuesque figure transformed by the fugue into that of a Delvaux muse.

The Great Sirens by Paul Delvaux (1947)

On the car journey back from the desert, Trippett momentarily comes out of his fugue and speaks for 30 seconds before reverting into trance. This gives Franklin hope. Back at the office he is reprimanded by his boss, Dr Vaisey. He drives back to the abandoned motel with a drained swimming pool which he’s made his base. His wife, Marion, has left cigarette burns and used dresses all over the floor. Franklin drives off and finds her being persuaded by Slade to get into his parked microlight. Franklin’s arrival frightens Slade off, and Marion goes running among the abandoned cars.

At the story’s climax Franklin manages to make it, through the ever-increasing blizzard of blackouts and after crashing his car in a fugue, out to the futuristic solar city. Here he discovers Ursula looking after her father, Trippett and the last four or so pages describe in more detail than any previous Ballard story has, what he’s on about, what the fugues mean – that primeval man lived in a continuous present – that the invention of time was the meaning of The Biblical Fall, a fall into time consciousness which parcels everything out into arid, waste moments – but all the characters’ efforts, no matter how crackpot they may seem, are towards reintegrating all of time past and time future into one multi-faceted permanent moment of transcendental perception.

As the fugues increase in duration, as Franklin and Ursula are reduced to only moments of consciousness per day, they learn to navigate the fugue time, permanent time, with its incandescent light. In other words, in many of the other time-stories you are left with the sense that the characters are mad; but this one gives the most persuasive case yet that they are not, that there really is something to their hallucinations and delusions, and that there really is a way out of time, out of the time psychosis most of us are trapped in and regard as ‘normal’.

Thoughts

Well, it’s a reprise and a rehash of extremely familiar motifs from Ballard’s stories of the 1960s, but as I’ve just said, it takes these ideas and makes a substantial progression on them, shedding new and interesting light onto Ballard’s eerie otherworld.

It adds an extra layer of eeriness to the text that it is made up of so many fragments from previous stories, like a collage, like one of the experimental collage texts Ballard made back in the late 1950s.

So you can either see stories like this as Ballard rehashing old material, or as him using each story to approach the same central insight or tackle the same neurotic symptoms, from different angles, using the same methods and materials, but each time rearranged in a new pattern; rather as the first ten chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition approach the same outline of events, using different characters and incidents, but with the continual sense that you are approaching some huge and overwhelming secret.

This is Core Ballard and even rehashed Core Ballard is a better, more absorbing and more uncanny read than his more straightforward Hammer Horror stories like A Host of Furious Fancies or Having a Wonderful Time. It tends to show them up for the cheesy magazine-fillers that they are.

6. Theatre of War (1977)

A variation on 1967’s The Killing Ground. That story raised the possibility of a worldwide rebellion against the hegemony of the USA, and that American troops were sent in to quell an anti-American government in Britain, and described a small battle which takes place behind desperate English rebel fighters against a bigger, better-armed force of Yanks all taking place, incongruously enough, at Runnymede island by the River Thames.

Ten years later Ballard returns to the same idea, with the notion that the extreme polarisation of British society which took place in the 1970s has led to the outbreak of civil war and that American forces have been sent in to support the unpopular right-wing government (as it had been in Vietnam).

The 22-page-long story is laid out in the format of a shooting script for a World In Action documentary, with sections describing clips of footage, intercut with interviews with GIs or citizens, politicians and insurgent left-wing fighters etc. At first I thought this format seemed dated and contrived, but as I read on it turned out to have a real pull and depth.

The reason why is revealed on the final page in a brief acknowledgements section. All the quotes from the various figures, including the American and British leaders of a government ‘pacification’ expedition to a rural village are actual quotes from Vietnam, pulled from news and magazine reports of the time.

7. The Dead Time (1976)

Unlike anything else Ballard had written, this is a twenty-page description set in a civilian internment camp run by the Japanese just outside Shanghai, China, at the very end of the Second World War. In fact the story begins with the usual Japanese guards who man the gates into the barbed-wire compound mysteriously vanishing, and the unnamed first-person narrator emerging to explore the wartorn landscape around the camp and into the ruined Chinese city.

Quite obviously this was a try-out of some of the material which subsequently was included in Ballard’s full-length, prize-winning account of his experiences as a boy in a Japanese internment camp from 1943 to 45, Empire of the Sun which was published eight years later.

8. The Smile (1976)

One of Ballard’s horror squibs, about a middle-aged narrator who buys a shopwindow mannequin, albeit an arty one found in a junk shop in the King’s Road and named Serena Cockayne, a snip at £250.

He falls in love with it, making the macabre discovery that in fact it is less a mannequin than a stuffed human skin, complete with various imperfections including a mole on her breast.

The story takes a gruesome twist when the narrator calls a young and, he thinks, gay beautician in to freshen up the mannequin, only to come across the said man, a few days later, kneeling at her feet and making some kind of improper suggestion. The narrator throws the man out and slaps Serena in the face, but from then on her swollen lip and distorted nose reproaches him, the years pass, she decays and he feels an increasingly impossible guilt.

At just about this time (1978) Ian McEwan published a short story, Dead As They Come, about a wealthy businessman’s bizarre obsession with a fashion mannequin, which he buys and takes home with him. There was obviously something in the Zeitgeist, some twisted combination of perverse sexuality and anti-consumerism.

9. Motel Architecture (1978)

It’s a little way into the future. Most people live in ‘solariums’, self-contained circular units with a main viewing room containing a battery of TV screens, with a small kitchen and bathroom off to one side. This is where Pangbourne has lived for over twelve years, slowly losing touch with anyone outside, slowly ceasing to take the prescribed physical or psychological exercises.

He is supposedly a TV critic which, as Ballard satirically puts it, is one of only two jobs remaining, the other one being TV repair man. Pangborne long ago lost interest in sex, despite the collection of sex toys in his bathroom, or in his body as a whole. He is happy to sit in his automated wheelchair for the entire day, reviewing classic movies which appear on the large screen in front of him, with multiple copies in the smaller screens constellated around it. In particular he is obsessed with playing the famous shower scene from Psycho over and over again, leaving it freeze-framed at differing moments of the frenzied murder.

His sealed-off little world is disrupted when a new cleaner arrives. The TV screens need periodic cleaning and retuning and this is mostly done by faceless women who’ve never disturbed the even keel of his self-absorption. Until Vera Tilley arrives, over-made-up and loud and brash.

Her arrival coincides with his conviction that there is someone else in the solarium. He can hear breathing, heavy breathing, can almost smell the sweat of some hot intruder. He sets all the CCTV camera on and records flashes of a shoulder, the reflection off a bald head disappearing through a door. There is someone else in the solarium with him.

Long story short: the intruder is himself; he has become schizophrenic (like the murderer in Psycho); thus he finds the body of the young cleaner, Vera, hacked to death in the shower and at first blames him, the intruder. Only on the last page does he realise that it was him all along, that he has become so alienated that his senses detect his body as another person.

Only one way to put an end to this endless intrusion into his peace of mind. And so he raises his knife to stab himself through the heart.

So this story comes under the heading of shilling shockers. I haven’t read many of Roald Dahl’s adult stories but I imagine this is what his Tales of the Totally Expected are like – contrived, atmospheric, at moments genuinely spine-chilling but, in the end, somehow, shallow and silly.

10. The Intensive Care Unit (1977)

The story opens with the narrator warning of ‘a second attack’, looking around at his family strewn around the blood-stained living room, and wondering if they can survive. What is going on? What has happened and is about to happen?

The narrative goes back to establish that it is set in a techno-dystopian future where people live their entire lives via TV screens. The narrator is a doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has never had contact with other people. All his clinics are held via TV screens. When he ‘meets’ his wife-to-be it is via a TV diagnosis of her possible breast cancer. Their relationship progresses to them going on dates (i.e. watching the same operas or theatre via TV) going to restaurants (i.e. having the same restaurant-prepared food sent to their sealed apartments). They get married via a multi-screen ceremony with their friends and family all watching from their homes. When they have sex it is screen sex with climaxes tactfully conveyed via cartoons (they never even actually strip off). She is impregnated via artificial insemination and has two children who are both taken away and raised in creches. And so they live their happy screen-based lives for years, each wearing generous amounts of make-up to preserve appearances, as their children grow. The general aim is to create a perfectly affectless society, in which people have no emotional reactions.

But, fatefully, the narrator decides to try an experiment – to meet in the flesh. He has never met anyone in real life before, neither has his wife. On the first attempt, she stops dead in the entrance hall to his apartment block. She turns out to be much smaller, stoop-shouldered and thin-thighed than she appears on TV. Panicking, she flees before they can exchange a word. But the narrator presses on and arranges a second meeting, this time with their children present, 7-year-old David and younger sister Karen.

If the main part of the story is a reasonably traditional dystopia, depicting a future of drones each stuck in their own sealed apartments watching TV screens all day long, the second theme is very different. For the ‘attack’ the narrator mentioned now turns out to be the fact that the four members of this ‘family’, once they met in the flesh, turn out to have murderous intent to each other, and instantly attack each other. The living room is sprayed with the blood they have spilled from each other, attacking each other with knives and scissors. The story had opened in the calm after the initial outburst of ferocious violence and now the narrator is lying seriously injured, wondering when his stabbed son will manage to crawl across the room and make a second assault on him.

The idea implicit in this is that (as per Freud) humans are violent animals and require a lot of socialising via the family unit, a great deal of effort needs to go in to repressing our matricidal, patricidal, and prolicidal urges. Having never met any other humans face to face, this ‘family’ has never had any training in managing these urges and so, the first time they meet triggers an explosion of psychopathic violence.

Commentary

Now, if you are predisposed towards Ballard and his worldview, then you could make the case that he predicted and foresaw a world in which people increasingly live via their screens. If he didn’t, at this stage (1977) have an inkling about the internet, nonetheless his description of the ease and convenience of relationships carried out via screens, in which people do everything up to and including having sex via screens without ever meeting, is eerily prophetic of the way that some, at least, of us live today, 40 years later.

However, like the story which precedes it, Solarium, it fails when set against the real world. For although people in 2020 may to a large extent live via their screens and mobile phones, they still, as far as I can see, go out of the house, go to work, go to the shops, go to pubs and clubs and bars, and actually meet people and interact.

Ballard carries his stories of this type to extremes in order to make his futuristic, satirical point as strongly as possible; but it is this very quality of exaggeration which renders them, after a moment’s reflection, silly and inapplicable. The very purity of the idea renders them irrelevant is useful diagnostics.

I’m writing this in the lunchbreak at my workplace, which about 100 people have commuted to this morning and, although the sales staff are all sitting in front of computers, they’re also continually on the phone to clients or asking each other questions, or walking through to the warehouse to give instructions to the loading crews who themselves spend their entire day discussing the day’s work, allotting roles, co-ordinating with other departments, discussing problems with the pickers and then giving instructions to the drivers: there’s a lot of people running round talking to colleagues and fixing things.

In other words, when reading stories like this, at home, by a computer, in your bedroom, it’s possible to delude yourself that the kind of atomised, alienated, screen-based world Ballard is predicting has somehow come about.

But as soon as you talk to your partner or children, open the door to the Ocado or Amazon delivery guy, speak to neighbours, talk to someone at the supermarket or library or gym, go to school or college or, in particular, get to work and start interacting with hosts of other people, you realise that these alarmist predictions of a totally self-contained, antiseptic, hermetically-sealed TV world are – although they contain a kind of fable or fairy-tale type of imaginative charge – simply not true of the world we live in or are ever likely to live in.

The world Ballard lived in then, and that we live in now, is much more subtle, nuanced and complicated than these short, sharp, shocking and rather silly stories allow.

Conclusion

I may have quibbles with each individual story, but there’s no denying that, taken as a collection, these stories have extraordinary range and diversity, from Second World War China to the overgrown gantries at Cape Kennedy, from the streets of London to the deserts of Nevada, from a future where mankind is afflicted by space disease, to an alternative present where the sleepy Buckinghamshire village of Cookham is caught up in a Vietnam-style war.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Human: An exhibition of modern sculpture @ Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

‘Can sculpture capture what it is to be human?’ That is the question posed at the beginning of this small but varied and high-quality exhibition at the Bristol Art Gallery.

Spread over two floors, Being Human shows a selection of very different twentieth century sculptors (and a brace of film-makers) have conceived, worked, shaped and reproduced the human body.

At the traditional end of the spectrum, there are female nudes such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Small female torso (1910). Wearing its Greek origins on its (armless) sleeves, the hair braided like a statue of Aphrodite, looking demurely down, her diaphragm and belly button nicely defined, the nipples oddly burnished as if generations of gallery goers have touched them for good luck or other purposes.

La Jeunesse by Robert Wlerick (1935)

Whereas only a few yards away, and well on the way to the abstract end of the spectrum, is Ken Armitage’s Moon Figure of 1948. This was my favourite piece in the second room, although a moment’s reflection suggests it is less a bold leap forward into modernity than an appropriation of Cycladic art from around 3,000 BC – even down to the crossed arms, which feature in so many really ancient Greek statues.

Moon Figure by Kenneth Armitage (1948)

More thoroughly abstract were Yee Soo Kyung’s Translated vases number 8 of 2012. Yee has smashed up ceramics into fragments which she then reassembles using the traditional art of kintsugi, visible repairs in gold, to create something which is only vestigially ‘human’ at all in form.

In the first room is maybe the best, or my favourite piece, from the exhibition, Help by Bernard Meadows. It’s from as long ago as 1966, and is one of a series Meadows began to make in the mid-60s expressing ‘human fear and anxiety’. The idea is that crushed sphere is crying for help, and that the piece pays tribute to the harrowing existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Does it, though? If you hadn’t read all that, might you not mistake it for a bit of sculptural fun by a jokey modern artist like Anish Kapoor?

Help by Bernard Meadows (1966) Tate

The wall labels tell us that at the core of the exhibition is a set of works associated with the so-called ‘Geometry of Fear’ school of British sculptors. According to the Tate website:

Geometry of Fear was a term coined by the critic Herbert Read in 1952 to describe the work of a group of young British sculptors characterised by tortured, battered or blasted looking human, or sometimes animal figures. 

Read used the phrase in a review of the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale of that year. The British contribution was an exhibition of the work of the group of young sculptors that had emerged immediately after the Second World War in the wake of the older Henry Moore. Their work, and that of Moore at that time, was characterised by spiky, alien-looking twisted and tortured figures.

They were executed in pitted bronze or welded metal and vividly expressed a range of states of mind and emotions related to the anxieties and fears of the post-war period. The artists were:

  • Robert Adams
  • Kenneth Armitage
  • Reg Butler
  • Lynn Chadwick
  • Geoffrey Clarke
  • Bernard Meadows
  • Eduardo Paolozzi
  • William Turnbull

Of their work Read wrote:

These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, or ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.

Possibly the most ominous figure here is one of Elizabeth Frink’s many space-age, sculpted heads, brooding and minatory.

Prisoner by Elisabeth Frink (1988)

To quote the wall label:

As a child in the Second World War, Elisabeth Frink witnessed falling planes and burning soldiers in the airfield near where she lived. On a holiday in Devon she had hidden in the bushes to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of a battle. These visions haunted her sculpture which examines the human capacity for cruelty. She was taught by Bernard Meadows, one of the postwar ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists. Frink added pity to their earlier generation’s images of alienation. Prisoner has a hypnotic vulnerability.

Maybe all this angst is true of half a dozen of the works on show here, but there are plenty of other utterly angst-free enjoyments of the physical heft and thews of the human body conceived as a big solid object in space.

Thus there is nothing particularly fearful about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s bust of Horace Brodzky. Brodzky was an artist and critic, and Gaudier-Brzeska made the work as he was falling under the influence of – or influencing – the pre-war London movement known as Vorticism, which was much fascinated by planes and lines and angular shapes, cubes and squares.

Horace Brodzky by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1913, cast 1956)

And what could be more prosaic than a sculpture of a woman bending over to dry her feet, which combines a posture from degas with the clunky clayiness of Rodin’s sticky fingers.

Woman Drying her Feet by Hubert Dalwood (1955)

And the curators astonished me by singling out as one of the most sexy or erotic statues, this exercise in elongation by Reg Butler, one of the geometry of fear sculptors who didn’t let his existentialist alienation stop him from producing numerous sculptures of naked or nearly naked girls.

Girl by Reg Butler (1953-4)

An example of post-war deformation, influenced by Alberto Giacometti’s walking stick people, her head worryingly disappearing into a blunt dollop, her bulemic pre-pubescent body scrawny with malnutrition… but sexy? Not to my mind.

Featured sculptures

Drawings

Films

Two films are included. What have they got to do with sculpture? Nothing whatsoever, that I can make out. A film is a film is a film, although they are both about ‘the body’.

Conclusion

Curators have to come up with themes and ideas for exhibitions, and ‘twentieth century sculptures of the human body’ is a reasonable enough theme – although it is odd to include a couple of very average drawings, and some completely off-the-wall videos into the mix.

But then its quirkiness is, maybe, the appeal of this small-ish exhibition. Coherence is over-rated. The very fact that the pieces are so disconnected and random creates more space for the visitor to wander around them and relate to each one individually, trying to figure out which ones you like, and why.

And, incidentally, hints at the extraordinary explosion in ways of seeing and conceiving and making art which occurred in the twentieth century and which this tiny but intriguing selection represents.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

Other blog reviews with ‘human’ in the title

Dóra Maurer @ Tate Modern

This is a lovely FREE exhibition on the third floor of Tate Modern. It is the first UK survey to celebrate Dóra Maurer’s five-decade career, bringing together 35 works, ranging from:

  • her conceptual photographic series
  • the experimental films
  • her colourful graphic works
  • and the striking large geometric paintings

Potted biography

Dóra Maurer was born in 1937 in Budapest, capital of Hungary. She was a child during the Second World War and grew up in a society dominated by the Soviet-supported Communist Party. She came to adulthood just after the failed Hungarian Rising of 1956 led to Russian tanks being sent in to repress the uprising and demands for greater democracy.

It was during the 1960s that Maurer emerged as part of a generation of neo-avant-garde Hungarian artists who produced highly experimental work in parallel to the ‘official’ art system of the socialist regime.

Photographs

She trained as a graphic artist and printmaker in the 1950s and quickly began pushing the medium to its limits in her early works. She had an eye informed by questions of design and layouts.

From early on her main interest was in movement, displacement, perception and transformation. The exhibition includes a set of photographs she and a colleague took of each other across the courtyard of a tenement building as they moved along the gallery thus creating a series of variations. Another set shows a series of hand gestures: same hand, infinite variation of gestures, titled, in a suitably technocratic way, Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.6.

She was interested in taking shapes and patterns and subjecting them to set changes and transformations, a fascination which resulted in probably her best known work, Seven Twists.

Seven Twists V (1979) by Dóra Maurer © Dóra Maurer

Experimental films

One room is devoted to five of her experimental films. This short clip gives you a feel.

She’d wanted to experiment with films since the late 1960s but didn’t have access to the equipment. Then in 1973 the state film organisation made its facilities available to artists and, voom! she was off.

Again she is playing with repetition, variation, and displacement. Relative Swingings splices together three separate strands of film to create a dizzying disorientation, shot in her own flat, some of the scenes more or less static, others made by lying on the floor and swinging the camera back and forth to create a blurred image of the ceiling.

Repetition with distortions

In 1974 she placed a coil of wire under a thin metal printing plate and pressed down so that it left a mark on the plate. The plate was inked and a print was made. The coil was then placed under the same plate and pressed down and a new print was made. Doing this in succession recorded what she called ‘phases of displacement’.

Traces of a Circle (1974) by Dóra Maurer. Tate

As her work became more geometric and abstract, Maurer explored system-based painting and the way in which geometric forms are affected by colour and perception. Some of these were exercises set for her students for she was now teaching in the Creativity Exercises Circle.

The third room explores her large-scale experiments with repetition and distortion. The most striking example is a set of four rectangular wooden panels suspended from the ceiling and part covered in mirrors, with a distinct gap between them, titled 4 out of 3. It’s the four panels hanging in mid-air at the right of this photo.

Installation view of Dóra Maurer at Tate Modern. Photo by Matt Greenwood

As you walk around, or as you observe other people walking round, they enter the reflective surface of the mirrors and leave them. It’s a simple, unpretentious and beguiling invention. Note its relationship with the coloured squares hanging on the wall behind it  (5 out of 4), which clearly show the way Maurer takes a pattern and then subjects it to variations and displacements.

The Schloss Buchberg commission

In 1983 Maurer was awarded a commission for a site-specific project at Schloss Buchberg, near Vienna. For this she needed to think big, big spaces to cover, and an opportunity to play with colour. As she covered corners, curves and vaulted ceilings she began to appreciate the three-dimensional visual distortions they created on two-dimensional designs.

In the late 1970s Maurer had developed personal rules and techniques for producing varied shapes (such as 5 out of 4 and 4 out of 3, above) which included the strict use of just eight specific colours.

The Schloss Buchberg commission prompted her to expand her colour palette and experiment with three-dimensional affects, playing with perspective and perception. Thus some of her new works in the 1980s require the visitor to stand in just the right place in order to appreciate the optical illusion being created. In this respect she reminds me a bit of Bridget Riley’s Op Art.

Installation view of Dóra Maurer at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

The huge colour shapes

The show culminates in the fifth room with a display of Maurer’s most recent works, half a dozen enormous bright colour paintings with no frames, which are just coloured shapes mounted on the walls.

These are, quite simply, marvellous. Who would have thought there was still the scope to create objects which are, in a sense, so simple, but yet so inspiring. They are entirely flat – the impression of curving, of shape and shadow is created by varying the colours.

Stage II (2016) by Dóra Maurer. Photo by the author

Somewhere there’s a reference to Matisse’s late cutouts, but Maurer has reached this point entirely by herself, and by following a fascinating evolution through successive theories and experiments with shape and variation, with pattern and displacement, which the exhibition has traced so well.

Dora is still alive and producing new work at the ripe age of 82. May she long continue to do so. This is a really fascinating exhibition which leads to a completely unexpected and uplifting conclusion. Lovely!

Promotional video

Curator

  • Juliet Bingham, Curator International Art and Carly Whitefield, Assistant Curator Film

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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