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

Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is a really wonderful exhibition. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a struggle dragging myself away. And it’s FREE!

Luchita Hurtado has had the most extraordinary life and career. She was born in 1920, in Maiquetía, Venezuela, and is still working and painting, 98 years later! In fact the last section of the exhibition features a dozen or so works from just the past twelve months. But let’s start at the beginning…

The 1940s

Untitled (1949) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Private Collection. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

This is Hurtado’s first solo exhibition in a public institution, which seems amazing given the quality of everything on show.

The 95 or so works featured here are arranged in a straightforward chronological order to help the visitor make sense of the astonishing range and variety of styles and approaches to making art which have characterised her career.

Very broadly her career seemed to me to break down into two parts: in the 1940s and 50s she experimented with the type of abstraction which was very much in the air, a kind of post-war, atom-bomb modernism.

I can’t put into words how attractive I found many of these works, which are dated but in a good way, deeply evocative of the period, and executed with just the right quality of roughness and exuberance. The oil paint which is applied roughly, in dabs and swathes barely filling in the angular abstract compositions, so you can see the canvas through it, with a casualness which bespeaks its own process of creation, which captures the post-war mood of ruins and survival.

Joropo (1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Moving to California

Hurtado moved from Venezuela to the United States in 1928, first freelancing as a fashion illustrator for Condé Nast in New York, before relocating to Mexico City, where she joined a group of renowned artists and writers who had emigrated from Europe in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and who were working under the banners of Surrealism and Magical Realism. By the late 1940s, Hurtado had moved to Mill Valley, California, where she was closely associated with the Dynaton Group.

The work from this early period reminds me of the artists featured in a book about Mexican artists of the 1940s and 50s which I reviewed a few months back, particularly the work of Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

These first couple of rooms reek of the visual world of the soft-modernist 1950s, but in a good way. I found lots of paintings to really like here, I really liked the combination of abstraction with the rough, pastel-sketch kind of finish. In 1951 Hurtado moved to Santa Monica, California, where she has lived and worked ever since.

Untitled (c. 1951) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

Strip paintings

It’s in the next section, titled ‘Experimentation’, that you see her start to flex her wings, ready to establish her own identity. I especially liked a number of works where she painted an abstract design then cut it up into ‘strips’ and rearranged it. The effect is compared by the curators to a film strip, which is not untrue, but doesn’t convey what I felt to be the terrific dynamism and energy of some of the results.

Untitled (1967) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a little further along this gallery that Hurtado suddenly springs beyond abstraction with a series of paintings which incorporate depictions of the body – in a kind of rough, naive style: sometimes chopped up, sometimes reduced to Matisse-like cutouts silhouettes, sometimes morphing into Georgia O’Keeffe-style landscapes. There’s one (Untitled, 1965) where two sandy-brown mountain peaks run smoothly down to a mound which has three or four blue rivers flowing out of it, and between the peaks is descending an equally sandy-brown protuberance, which you don’t have to be an art critic to see as a pair of parted legs, revealing a mound of Venus which is being approached by a male member. It was the 1960s, after all, and sex was bold and new.

The ‘I am’ works

By about 1970 this interest in the body had led her to totally abandon the complex abstraction of the previous decades in favour of a highly simplified and figurative depiction of her own body. To be precise, she produced a whole series of works as she looks down over her own naked body.

Her body appears as a highly simplified, Caramac-brown pair of breasts, with the tummy and tummy button beneath and maybe the thighs or knees or feet also peeking out. What a complete change of style from the dirty expressionism of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s!

The most distinctive of these idiosyncratic self-portraits also feature one or other of the native American rugs which Hurtado collected. And, adding a peculiar, Surrealistic touch in almost all of them, there is a fruit – most often an apple or a pear – floating in this hyper-real, abstract space.

The result is highly distinctive and visually impactful and extremely beguiling.

Untitled (1971) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

‘Sky skin’ paintings

In the mid-1970s she took this same stylised figurative approach and turned it outwards and upwards, into a series which feature skyscapes, blue blue sky and clouds, but framed by simplified rocky terrains which may, or may not, refer to the human body. Just as the downwards ‘I am’ paintings often feature a fruit incongruously floating in mid air, so the Sky skin paintings more often than not feature bird feathers, floating in almost identifiable patterns.

The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon (1977) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

The way a vista of objects gives on to a startlingly blue sky suddenly reminded me of Magritte and his stylised use of the sky. And then I thought of the famous painting of the man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face, and saw a strong connection between this series and the work of the earlier Surrealist. (In fact that painting by Magritte, Son of Man, is from as late as 1964.)

Word paintings

Meanwhile, in a separate room, is displayed a series of canvases from 1973 and 1974 which are BIG and which return to a language of abstraction, but radically simplified from her 1940s and 50s work. You wouldn’t guess it if the wall label hadn’t told you, but in all these works, the abstract compositions, the expressive lines and the geometric shapes are in fact fragmented lettering.

First of all she chose a text. Then she generated an abstract composition from the word or words. And then she cut the canvas up and rearranged the sections into a new pattern, which deliberately disrupts the original composition.

Thus Self Portrait from 1973, actually conceals the words ‘I live’, rendered in a half abstract style, then cut up.

Self Portrait (1973) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a simple enough approach, but one which grows organically out of all her earlier interests, from the 1950s abstracts, through the 1960s strip paintings and then her growing sense of her ‘self’, and her subjective consciousness, as the subject of her art. It also confirms – if it wasn’t obvious already – her interest in seriality i.e. in making series of works which systematically explore a new idea or approach.

This serial approach gives each individual work added resonance and interest, and because the curators line up half a dozen or more works in each series, it lets you a) share the sense of fun and experimentation and trial and error which has gone into them b) gives you the simple pleasure of deciding which one from each series you like best.

White word paintings

In the next room along is another recognisable series, this time crated by applying white acrylic paint to raw, unprimed canvas, with the focus of each work being one or two resonant, highly meaningful words. Thus entire works are made out of the words EVE, ADAM, WOMB or WOMAN.

I have a soft spot for art works which are still fragmentary, unfinished, minimalist 1970s art or Italian Arte Povera, made from industrial leftovers, art where you can see the canvas, or is rough and unfinished. I think it’s partly because I warm to the fundamental idea that artworks only emerge from a troubled world with great effort. I like to see the sculpture emerging from the stone, a few lines beginning to create volume and shape, sketches and half-finished artifacts.

Anyway, that might be one reason why I really, really liked all the works in this room.

Untitled (WOMAN/WOMB) (c.1970s) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Feminist art

Obviously there are vast tracts to be written about Hurtado’s feminist consciousness, and about her feminist journey from the early entirely abstract work which (possibly, arguably) was made in the shadow of the more famous American Abstract Expressionists and male Mexican artists of her day – through the breakthrough in the mid-1960s where she suddenly dropped abstraction in order to produce a series of very simple self-portraits – then all those simplified paintings looking down at her own boobs and tummy – through to these works of the feminist 1970s, which use big female concepts, rallying cries and credos, as the basis for artworks.

Or, in the words of American art writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer:

Hurtado’s word-subjects tend to foreground a woman’s subjectivity (at least partly self-referential as verbal self-portraits) and echo her figurative strategies in the pulsation of line, pattern, and evocation around the perimeter, once again expressing an allegiance to looking at and living in relation to the periphery, the margin, the recesses, the acute edge of things.

Eco art

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to a series of new paintings produced by Hurtado in the last twelve months and displayed here for the first time. These are deliberately rough and ready placards, poster art, protest art, political art, devoted to raising awareness about the environment and the world we are destroying.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

To be honest, I liked these the least of all the works on display. I joined the World Wildlife Fund in the 1980s. My flatmate became a leading figure in the green movement, campaigning to save the rainforest in the 80s and 90s, another friend works for the European Development Bank, channeling Western investment to environmentally-friendly development schemes, Mrs Books and Boots helped to launch the Forest Stewardship Council in the mid-1990s, and I myself worked for the UK Department for International Development from 2008 to 2009.

In other words, I’ve been plugged into environmental activism for over thirty years and have got pretty tired of people crapping on about global warming and the environment and doing absolutely nothing whatever to improve the situation.

Become a vegetarian, sell your car, never fly again, review all your investments and divest from any which are involved in carbon industries – these are just the basic steps everyone needs to take, but I know no-one who, in the past 30 years since we first started hearing about global warming, has made any of these elementary changes to their lifestyle.

We were told that Luchita Hurtado had flown to London specially to attend this exhibition, as had at least one of the curators, who was American, accompanied by who knows how many assistants, PR and gallery people. And the pictures themselves, of course. Which were all shipped to London. In airplanes.

This is why we are doomed. Everybody talks the talk, everybody agrees this is a world-shattering crisis, everyone paints placards, wears t-shirts, goes on marches – but nobody, nobody at all, is prepared to get out of their car and walk away and never use it again. To forswear meat and dairy for the rest of their lives. To vow never to catch another airplane, never to take another foreign holiday. Nobody.

Pretty much everyone attending the press launch was tapping away on their mobile phones, mobile phones which contain rare and irreplaceable metals, are manufactured in the suicide factories of China, and then shipped half way round the world in gas-guzzling super-tankers, and which use a global digital infrastructure which now produces more greenhouse gases than the entire aviation industry.

How easy to give a Facebook ‘like’ to Luchita Hurtado’s worthy eco-art, or to retweet about it. How impossible to give up your mobile phone, all your other hi-tech gadgets, your car, your barbecue, and your next foreign holiday.

Which is why we’re going to burn the world.

That’s what I feel about the subject of environmental art. But I also just didn’t like Hurtado’s eco art as art, that much. The sentiments seemed to me trite and obvious and the execution, although I can appreciate that it is deliberately rough and home-made and in the style of handheld placards, just didn’t pull my daisy.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

All that said, on the upside, don’t you think it is absolutely remarkable that a person can be this engaged with a very contemporary issue at the age of ninety-eight!

Although these pieces didn’t do it for me, I was still awestruck by her ability to be open to the modern world, and engage with it, this vividly and vehemently, at such a very advanced age. The sentiments and the handmade placards perfectly chime with the activism of Greta Thunberg and all the other schoolchildren who’ve come out on strike against climate change, holding home-made banners and placards very like Hurtado’s.

If not as actual art, then as tokens of Hurtado’s lifelong commitment to being alert and alive and exploring and expressive, I couldn’t help being deeply touched by this final display.

Conclusion

This is a fabulous exhibition. There are lovely works to savour and enjoy from every part of her long and varied career – from the 1950s abstractions, through the 1960s film-strip pieces, the floating apple and caramac boob period, the sky paintings, the abstract hidden word paintings, and then the white feminist word works, as well as several other series I don’t have space to describe.

But it was, on reflection, the late 1940s, early abstract work which rang my bell most. As you walk in the door of the Sackler Serpentine Gallery this is the first work you see, and this is the work I found it hard to tear myself away from, a classic example of her early abstract period which I just found beautiful beyond words.

As usual, a photographic reproduction doesn’t do it justice. In the flesh you can go right up close and appreciate and enjoy the supreme confidence with which she has painted and etched and scratched and roughed in the colours of the wonderfully weird and evocative sci-fi, Juan Miro-esque, zoomorphic design, in order to create something which I found utterly compelling and persuasive.

Untitled (c.1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England in 1873, at the age of 20. He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo priasing numerous aspects of English life and London – and contains several rooms full of the English paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I looked at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered.

It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to paint a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison but in his own blocky style, to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job with the art dealing firm Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for the popular prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’.

VanGogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he included their names and his responses to their works, in his many letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not Van Gogh’s last painting! The painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. And so the aim of the display is to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

Promotional video


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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper. (p.17)

It is the start of 1951 (p.36), some prisoners are discussing what will happen now that China has joined the Korean War, will there be a world war? (p.124) and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, 40 years old (p.39) is prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team at an unnamed forced labour camp somewhere in Siberia, where the daytime temperature is -27 degrees C.

Daily life is about survival, decent boots, making the most of the pitiful thin fish soup and magara porridge, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to wangle your way out of the physically most draining labour and into something cushy like cleaning the floor of the guards’ room (nice and warm), trying to wangle a puff of someone’s cigarette butt, a fragment of extra food.

Shukhov has woken up feeling feverish so goes along to the camp doctor but is too late; only two prisoners a day are let off work and the two slots are already taken. Back in the barrack he and the rest of the 104th are told to dress, line up and march to the camp gates where they are thoroughly searched, before marching off to the building site of a new power station, rags and muffles pulled to cover as much of their faces as possible from the biting wind.

Solzhenitsyn emphasises that Shukhov is an ordinary guy, ‘a man of timid nature [who] knew no way of standing up for his rights’ (p.24). He is not educated, not an intellectual, thus the poem which the medical assistant Vdovushkin is writing ‘is beyond Shukhov’s ken’ (p.22) and he doesn’t understand the two men in the building site office who are discussing the merits of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

When Shukhov gets out, in two years time, he hopes to be a stove-setter or a carpenter or a tinker (p.39). He is meant to be everyman or, in this case, everyzek (zek being an abbreviation for the Russian for prisoner). He is a Christian, is surprised anyone isn’t, but right at the end tells the Baptist prisoner, Alyosha, that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. And he seems to half believe the folk myth that each month God creates a new moon. Why? Because he crumbles the old one up to make stars. (p.94) In his village they call the moon ‘the wolf’s sun’ (p.134).

Shukhov hasn’t been back to his home village of Temgenovo (p.84) or seen his wife since 1941 when he marched off to war. Ten years absence. During the war, in 1942, his unit was surrounded and captured by Germans. After a few days five of them managed to escape back to Russian lines. Three were shot dead by sentries, and the authorities considered Shukhov and his comrade must be spies. So they were convicted of treason and given ten years (pp.58-59).

He met team leader Tiurin in his previous camp, at Ust-Izhma (which is where he made the hand-made spoon which he still uses and hides carefully in his boot). Shukhov spent seven years in the far north, logging.

Well, a zek’s belly can stand anything. Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow. (p.72)

The simple format of a day in the life allows Solzhenitsyn to describe a surprising variety of people, and the work they have to do, and the world of dodges and scams the zeks pull on each other and the authorities. Anything for extra food. Anything to be near a fire or – God be praised – inside out of the sub-zero cold

He describes the crucial relationship between a team leader and his men, in fact the complex web of networks a prisoner finds himself in. He casts an experienced eye on those around him, from the 16-year-old Ukrainian Gopchick, who is quick and savvy and will survive, to the recently arrived naval captain who still thinks the world owes him a favour, is not adjusting quickly enough to the necessary posture of complete submission.

They are marched out of the camp to the power station and, by the afternoon, have got stoves going to heat up the sand enough to make mortar and actually get so into their work, priding themselves on working as a team to send up mortar and bricks to the third story which they’re building, that they’re late finishing.

At going home time, just one zek who’s dropped off somewhere means the entire contingent of 463 zeks have to wait stamping their feet as the sun disappears and the stars come out. After a lot of pushing and shoving, they’re allowed through the wire perimeter fence and march back to camp. While standing around Shukhov spots a bit of hacksaw blade lying in the snow and quickly palms it. There’s a tense moment when each zek is searched before entering the main camp, but he successfully smuggles it through in his mitten and slips it in a crack in his bunk. Later he’ll find a stone, whet the blade, and make it into a cobbler’s knife. He earns a little bit of cash making slippers for zeks with money from rags and waste bits of wood.

Back inside the main camp, Shukhov carries out a number of complicated manoeuvres. He offers to stand in the cold queue for parcels for a posh zek named Tsezar, who turns up late and takes the place Shukhov has kept. In exchange Tsezar says Shukhov can have his portion of skilly for dinner. Graphic description of the mob of zeks trying to get into the hot filthy canteen, where the harassed cook serves out skilly which is glorified dishwater with a few fragments of rotten fish or vegetables.

Fine details of how you have to scrounge a decent tray to collect the bowls for your team. There are 24 in the 104th. Shukhov and Gopchik pinch trays, and bring the bowls to a section of bench where his ‘brothers’ are sitting. His body rejoices as the tepid skilly slips down into his belly, and he takes the old zek’s precaution of sucking the fish, its bones and gills and eyes, slowly and methodically. Calories in every slurp.

Then over to Hut 7 to swap a few hard-earned roubles for a tiny glassful of excellent tobacco from the Lett. Back to his hut to listen to Tsezar excitedly open his parcel (after it had been opened and rifled through by the guards, of course), and discuss it with the naval captain.

But the latter irritated Lieutenant Volkovoi, the Security Chief, at roll call. Now he is taken away for ten days in an isolation cell. Skilly only every other day, the walls covered with ice. Not everyone survives.

Then they’re turfed out of the huts for a final head-count, all five hundred of them under the frosty moon, with more swearing from the guards, and the hut-commander beating the slowcoaches. Shukhov gives Tsezar good advice about hiding the contents of the parcel and makes sure he is first back to protect its hiding place for him. Good to have someone like Tsezar as a friend.

He climbs up to his bunk, belly full of two helpings of the wretched skilly, Tzesar’s ration of bread hidden in his jacket to be enjoyed next morning. He lies on the hard mattress, no sheets, head on the pillow full of wood shavings, feet in the sleeves of his jacket to stop them freezing, grubby blanket pulled over him, and his coat laid on top of that.

It has been a good day.

People

  • the old artist with a grey beard who touches up the prisoners’ numbers
  • Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin, team leader of the 104th
  • Alyosha the Baptist, who’s hidden a copied-out manuscript of the New Testament
  • Buinovsky the ex-naval captain, only been in the camp three months, has a lot to learn, imprisoned because a british admiral he was seconded to during the war sent him a thank you gift, which led to his trial and imprisonment
  • Der, B 731, a convict-supervisor on the power station building site
  • Eino, an Estonian on the 104h
  • The camp security officer, known as ‘the Father Confessor’
  • Fetiukov, a snivelling sneak and hanger-on in the 104th
  • Gopchik, Ukrainian lad of 16
  • ‘One and a half’ Ivan, a thin weedy camp guard
  • Khromoi, the mess orderly
  • Kilgas the Lett in Hut 7, always has good tobacco
  • Kolya Vdovushkin, medical assistant to the camp doctor, who is writing a long poem
  • Panteleyev, member of the 104th
  • Pavlo, deputy of the 104th, with his rolling West Ukrainian accent
  • Stepan Grigorych, the camp doctor
  • Senka, deaf member of the 104th, he’d survived Buchenwald
  • Shkuropatenko B219, a supervisor at the building site
  • The Tartar, lean violent disciplinarian guard
  • Tsezar, team-mate of Shukhov’s who receives impressive parcels from home
  • Lieutenant Volkovoi, Security Chief, who used to use a thick bullwhip on the prisoners
  • S 123, a stringy old man serving a 25 year sentence

Demotic style

The translation by Ralph Parker dates from 1963. English writers, even up to the present day, especially if they went to private school, still think it is acceptable to write about ‘one’ doing this or that, and break the back of sentences in order to avoid ending a sentence with a participle (preferring to write ‘the man about whom I told you’ rather than what every normal person would say, ‘the man I told you about’).

Presumably Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is pretty demotic, capturing the everyday speech of the zeks, the swearing of the camp guards, and the thoughts of the profoundly uneducated Shukhov – and all this has forced Parker to be more demotic than, maybe, his natural English would have permitted.

Thus it would be ludicrous to have prison camp inmates saying ‘one does’ and one does not’ all the time and so, very sensibly, Parker uses the phrasing most ordinary people would use, using ‘you’, you have to look sharp, you have to keep your wits about you, you have to know when to bend to authority etc.

And he uses ‘fuck’ sparingly, for example when Solzhenitsyn conveys the attitude of the zeks to the guards and petty officials who lord it over them. Fuck ’em, is the attitude. I imagine camp inmates swore all the time. Maybe this was Solzhenitsyn’s own restraint, and maybe he knew what would bear publication in 1962. The subject matter was controversial enough, best not to offend the literary sensibilities of the editors and writers he was trying to recruit to his cause.

Proverbs

Instead of learned quotations, the poor and illiterate have folk wisdom and proverbs. Shukhov’s mind is full of them.

  • You’ve only to show a whip to a beaten dog. 53
  • Thrift is better than riches 71
  • A man with two trades to his name can easily learn another ten.
  • Hasty work is scamped work. 89
  • A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing. 96
  • The quickest louse is always first to be caught in the comb. 131

In The Great Gatsby F.Scott Fitzgerald makes the simple observation that there are only two kinds of people, the sick and the well.

In Denisovich Solzhenitsyn divides people into two further categories – the warm and the freezing.

Also: the hungry and the full. As in Primo Levi’s accounts of Auschwitz, concentration camp inmates may not always be cold, but they are always hungry, permanently surviving on the verge of malnutrition.


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Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Fiction

Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002)

It is Tokyo, December 1941, and Harry Niles is a fast-talking, streetwise American nightclub owner, one-time American movie importer, gambler and fixer with friends in low – and high – places. He was brought by his parents (Roger and Harriet Niles) to Japan soon after the First World War. They were Southern Baptist missionaries who came to convert the Japanese and left young 10- and 11-year-old Harry in charge of drunk Uncle Orin while they went off for long journeys around the country.

So while uncle was off drinking, Harry grew up speaking fluent Japanese and running wild in the red-light district of Asakusa. The book opens with a scene of the boy Harry being chased by his Japanese schoolboy friends as they re-enact an ancient Samurai legend (which requires an inordinate amount of fighting with bamboo sticks), running through the streets till they tumble through a building, and up against a closed door which, under pressure of their fighting bodies, springs open and lands Harry and the most aggressive of his native Japanese pursuers, Gen, suddenly into the dressing room of a small theatre, the Folies.

Harry and Gen become friends with the manager, with a camp artist Kato who hangs around the theatre and draws and sketches the clientele, and some of the showgirls at the theatre, and are quickly running errands for them and gaining all kinds of new insights into adult life. He develops a crush on the beautiful actress and sometime geisha Oharu, who is fond and kind to him in return.

This is all set in 1922 in the opening chapter of the book, and the narrative for the first half of the book alternates chapters between grown-up Harry, ‘now’, in 1941, and boy Harry, ‘then’, back in 1922, giving us more of Harry’s childhood memories, which explain his character, and also relationships with some of the central adult characters.

But the ‘now’ of 1941 is where most of the narrative takes place and which entirely takes over the second half of the story. It is December 1941, in December. Tension between Japan and America is becoming intense. America has long since imposed an oil ban on Japan, along with a ban on a wide range of modern textiles and produce, but it’s the oil ban that’s hit hardest, with the result that all cars are having to be propelled by charcoal-burning stoves set up in their rears.

All the talk is of conflict, and most of the Americans who can leave Tokyo have already done so. But Harry remains, a puzzle to his acquaintances, happy-go-lucky, blessed with an intimate knowledge of Tokyo, not so lucky in his mistress, Michiko, a fervent communist who he rescued from being beaten up by the ferocious Tokyo police after a protest march some two years earlier, and who latched onto him ever since. He has installed him as the Record Girl in his bar, standing by the jukebox, changing records and mouthing along to the words, dressed in a dinner jacket and sexy stockings. Give the place sex appeal. Encourages the male clientele to buy more drinks. Unfortunately, Michiko is fiercely almost insanely jealous, continually threatening either to shoot Harry or kill herself. Yes, she is quite a strain to be with.

The last plane to leave Tokyo is scheduled to take off on Monday December 8. Unfortunately, as we the readers know, the Japanese launch their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, so we know the plane will probably be cancelled and Harry trapped. Ooops.

So the book follows Harry through three or so days of feverish, against the backdrop of mounting war hysteria, as half a dozen or more complicated plotlines meet and clash to provide a complex plot and mounting tension. Among these are:

Eight months earlier Gen, now a lieutenant in the Japanese Navy, introduced Harry to a man in the back of the geisha house opposite Harry’s Bar who turns out to be Admiral Yamamoto. As a notorious con-man Harry is taken to see the experiments of a certain Dr Ito to turn water into oil. These are impressively staged with lots of electric arcs and sparking, but Harry immediately sees it is a confidence trick and helps Gen expose it.

Now, eight months later, Harry repeatedly makes it clear to anyone who will listen that any coming war will be entirely decided by access to oil. America has vast supplies of it, not least from its own Texas oil ranges. Japan has no oil in its territory but will have to invade and conquer the oil-producing islands of the Dutch East Indies. Hence the willingness of the desperate High Command to believe in the ridiculous Dr Ito and his experiments.

Now we discover that Harry has been involved in falsifying the shipment papers of American oil tankers coming to Japan, to the harbour of Yokahama. He makes it look as if they set off with ten thousand barrels of oil and arrive with only one thousand. Where do they stop off? Hawaii and the naval base of Pearl Harbour. So Harry’s fiddling with the accounts seems to imply that the Americans are building up stocks of oil in secret oil storage tanks somewhere at the harbour. But are they?

Why is Harry bothering to do this? We learn that nobody is paying him to. In fact, he is definitely persona no grata with the American authorities, a position he consolidates by making an outrageously anti-American speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, the club for Tokyo’s most important businessmen and politicians. Here Harry makes a big speech explaining why there is no need for a war. This is because he genuinely doesn’t want there to be a war, but it has the effect of setting both the American and powerful British community against him as a traitor.

As a sideline, there is the thread of Willie Stauber, a German emigre, fully paid-up Nazi, but who Harry worked with in Nanking four years earlier, and who returned from China with a Chinese bride in tow. He is desperate to get out of Tokyo but to make sure his Chinese bride can accompany him. At odd moments, in the midst of his other concerns, we see Harry purposefully working to try and help Willie, eventually by securing faked official documents, into which he, Harry, writes an official text declaring Iris a fit person to travel, sealed with an official seal which he himself makes and stamps, using one of his many underworld skills, this time as a forger.

Colonel Ishigama 1

But the central driving force of the narrative is definitely is the fact that, right from the start of the book, Harry is being hunted by a certain Colonel Ishigama, who has vowed to kill him. Why?

Their paths have crossed twice before. Once, back in 1922, the artist Kato had asked Harry to deliver a fine print to a client. Harry had already taken several to the tall severe figure inside an opulent-looking house. This time he wants to see a new movie so asks his friend Gen to take it. Bad mistake. Hours later, when Gen has not returned, Harry goes to the house and is invited in by the forbidding owner. He finds gen lying sideways on a large pillow with an odd look on his face, while the owner proceeds to show Harry his collection of antique swords, and then to demonstrate samurai moves with it. Eventually, he ushers both boys out of his house, giving Gen a white chrysanthemum as he leaves.

Back at Kato’s studio, the artist explains that this is because Colonel Ishigama (for this is the man’s name) has deflowered Gen, taken his homosexual virginity. This is why he had wanted Harry to take the print; Harry is too ugly for a connoisseur like Ishigama to be attracted to. Now he has spoilt everything.

Kato and Oharu

In fact Kato is so disappointed with Harry that he decides, on the spot, to sever friendship with him, to see him no more. Harry is devastated. the past few months have given him a wonderful insight into art and adult life, and wonders and mysteries. But Kato is unbending and Harry is kicked out to wander the streets in tears.

That night boy Harry tracks down Kato to a walled garden. Sneaking over the wall Harry is transfixed to discover that Kato is sketching Harry’s beloved actress Oharu being fucked in various positions by one of the comedians from the Folies theatre. Having become drenched in Japanese aesthetic values Harry is able to appreciate the subtlety of the positions, and the rapid way Kato sketches lines and form, writing scribbled notes in the margins indicating what colours later to use when he works them up to prints in his studio.

But a sudden flash of lightning reveals Harry standing in the garden watching the scene. Quick as a flash he turns and leaps back over the garden wall, scampering way through the alleyways of Asakusa in the pouring rain back to the house where he’s meant to be supervised by drunk Uncle Orin, but where he is, as usual, alone, and hunkers down into his bed cold and wet and miserable. Except that, a few minutes later, Oharu knocks meekly at the door, comes sits by the bed and apologises. ‘It was only sex, Harry,’ she says, voicing the very different attitude the Japanese take to copulation from us shame-filled Westerners. it was just poses and positioning for her friend the artists, Kato, nothing more. She strokes his head. He is cold and feverish. She insists on getting him out of his wet things. She climbs in behind him and Harry feels her nipples hardening. She takes his hand and guides it between her legs. In short, she guides him through the mysteries of sex, and takes his boyish virginity.

All novels are, at some level, wish fulfilment. The wish fulfilment and fantasy is nearer the surface in ‘genre’ fiction. What man reading this could not be transported and wish this was how he lost his virginity.

Unfortunately, Harry is just falling asleep in Oharu’s arms when the light is brutally turned on to reveal Harry’s parents standing over them, unexpectedly returned from a long missionary tour, accompanied by the bleary-eyed and mortally embarrassed Uncle Orin.

Harry’s father brutally yanks Oharu by the hair out of Harry’s bed and when Harry protests belts him so he reels across the room. He would have pushed Oharu naked out into the street, except that his wife points out the neighbours will see, the humiliation etc, so they let her hurriedly dress in her kimono before kicking her out then Roger Niles takes his belt to Harry and beats him till he bleeds.

Suffice it to say this experience crystallises Harry’s love for everything fine, refined and Japanese and his contempt for everything big, blundering and brutal about America. Within days they are on a boat sailing back to the States. A few months later Tokyo is devastated by the vast earthquake and firestorm known as the Great Kanto earthquake, an appalling disaster in which some 144,000 people lost their lives in the unimaginable holocaust of out of control firestorms. Harry later learns that Kato died trying to protect his prints, and nothing was heard of Oharu: like so many other she simply disappeared, burned without trace.

Colonel Ishigama 2

Anyway, it is only two-thirds of the way into the book that we discover the cause of Ishigama’s ire and why Harry has been trying to evade him for the first 300 pages, in a prolonged flashback. The story is actually told by the German Willie Staub. Four years earlier Willie had been in China when the Japanese invaded. He had been in the capital Nanking when the Japanese arrived and began their reign of fear. They gang raped all the women they could find. they rounded up men and shot them in squads of up to a hundred. NCOs arranged for the still raw recruits to use live Chinese as bayonet practice in order to perfect their technique.

In the midst of this holocaust Willie and the handful of other Europeans tries to set up a safe quarter of town to protect the Chinese fleeing there. From nowhere appears an American who can speak fluent Japanese and becomes Willie’s driver. He tells several stories about how Harry used his con-man confidence to interrupt executions and gang rapes.

Best technique was to muscle through the Japanese soldiers holding down the woman, take out a stethoscope and examine her groin (having first gotten the Japanese penis removed) and announce confidently that she had venereal disease, reminding the soldiers that they don’t want to infect themselves and bring this pollution back to their wives and sweethearts. The Japanese desisted. Harry and Willie took the traumatised woman to their lorry, to join all the others, and, once the lorry was full, be driven back to the (relative) safety of the European zone.

Anyway, one day on their tour of the atrocities, they come across a crowd of soldiers surrounding a line of ten Chinese civilians who have their hands tied behind their backs and have been made to kneel in a line. At the end of the line is Colonel Ishigama. Harry recognises him instantly. And recognises the beautifully crafted, infinitely sharp samurai sword he is holding. He is about to see if he can behead ten people in a row in under 60 seconds. As he flexes his wiry forearms, and as his aide de camp prepares the bucket of water and cloth with which he will wipe the sword between strikes, Harry grabs all the cash he and Willie have in the cash box in the lorry, jumps down and walks confidently into the ring of soldiers, yelling that he will give Ishigima 100 yen and every man in the watching soldiers ten yen each, if Ishigama can behead them all in under thirsty seconds, those left unbeheaded to walk free. The soldiers cheer for the money and Ishigama reluctantly agrees (refusing would lose face) and Smith then describes the grisly decapitation of the first five civilians, with Ishigama losing time because he’s flustered, because the aide de camp drops the wiping cloth, accidentally hitting his own aide de camp on one backswing: the upshot is that Ishigama only manages five before the thirty seconds is up.

The crowd of soldiers roar, Harry gives them the huge bundle of yen to distribute and hustles the surviving five civilians – including a 13-year-old boy who has pooed and peed himself – into the back of the lorry alongside the raped women, and they carefully reverse, through the cheering soldiers and drive off before Ishigama can do anything.

This is why, when Harry hears, right at the start of the story, that Ishigama is back from China in Tokyo, it fills his mind with anxiety and drives the narrative.

Ishigama’s revenge

There are a lot of other plot strands. Harry meets with his mistress (Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, the British ambassador), tries to hide the fact from Michiko, runs his bar, the Happy Paris, makes his speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, meets other friends Japanese and American, for drinks and gossip, is present at the small group for drinks where Willie tells the story about Ishigama, meets his schoolboy friend and nemesis Lieutenant Gen, now in the Japanese Navy, for conversations about oil or lack thereof for the Japanese war effort.

In a separate plotline he is being investigated and followed by Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police, also known as the Thought Police, and his goon assistant Corporal Go. They have been tipped off about his involvement in the Magic Oil experiments of Dr Ito, and turn up at the Yokohama dockside offices of one of the oil companies whose books Harry is fiddling to make it look like oil is being offloaded in Hawaii.

Also we run into several of Harry’s small gang of boyhood Japanese friends, and discover how they’ve turned out. One is a sumo wrestler, Taro, twin of Jiro, who had joined the navy and been killed and who, in a series of scenes, Harry promises to accompany to the office where they collect his ashes and official war box (containing the ashes, military citation and so on) to be given to the dead hero’s family.

Plus involvements with various local gamblers and a strand where Harry swaps all the cash he has for gold from a friendly pawnbroker.

Altogether, these intertwining plotlines and strands form a wonderful fabric, a tapestry of stories and adventures and scams, each of them shedding light on different aspects of Japanese culture, and tradition, building up a persuasive sense of life in Japan of the period.

But it is only in the last 100 pages or so that Ishigama finally catches up with Harry. It is in the willow house, a geisha house opposite his bar. Harry has returned from various meetings and adventures to discover his own bar dark and locked up. Unusual. He didn’t give instructions for this. And the willow house opposite is strangely quiet. It is unlocked. He takes his shoes off and tiptoes along the hall until he hears a voice calling his name.

In a genuinely bizarre scene, he discovers Colonel Ishigama quietly kneeling at a traditional Japanese table with his immense super-sharp samurai sword lying on it, attended by an immaculately painted geisha girl. Harry knows everything about Japanese culture and so this scene is stuffed with facts about geishas and the intricacy with which they are painted, their social and cultural role, as well as lots of information about Ishigama’s background.

Ishigama is infinitely polite and solicitous. He asks the geisha for hot sake. They drink each other’s health. Harry knows that if he makes one false move or says something wrong, Ishigama will whip up the sword and behead him faster than he can move.

It is the standout scene in a novel full of strikingly vivid, beautifully imagined scenes. Ishigama calmly and politely informs Harry that he (Harry) owes him (Ishigama) five heads, the five heads he never got to take off back in China. Of course Harry’s will be last, but he, Harry, will select the identities of the other four. Harry’s mind races…

At which point one of Harry’s acquaintances, Al DeGeorge, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, knocks on the door. He is drunk as a skunk. He stumbles inside shouting Harry’s name wanting to know why his bar isn’t open. He makes it right up to the entrance of the back room when Ishigama abruptly swoops to his feet, with one stride is at the doorway, and with one enormous sweep of the sword cleaves DeGeorge from shoulder blade to belly button. the dying man grunts a last syllable and falls in two halves.

Neither Harry nor the geisha has moved. As I say, powerful scene. In the event it slowly dawns on Harry, to his amazement, that the geisha is none other than his fierce lover, Michiko. All kinds of speculation goes through his mind. Was she always a geisha on the side. Who painted her so elaborately, every geisha needs an assistant? Was it Ishigama, a psychopath famed for his aesthetic abilities? In which case, did she service the brutal sadist?

Harry’s mind is swimming while he all the time makes no movement as Ishigama ritually cleans his sword and returns to the kneeling position opposite Harry at the low table. More sake! And the three toast each other as if nothing had happened. Then suddenly Michiko has a small dagger at Ishigama’s throat. She makes him put down the sword and Harry grabs both it and the smaller ceremonial sword from Ishigama’s sash.

Ishigama is neutralised. He smiles. Now he knows Michiko’s true relationship with Harry. Then he stands up and, of course, Michiko can’t bring herself to stab him. Before they can stop him he leaps through the paper wall of the room and is into the garden and beyond. Harry collects up the swords, grabs Michiko’s hand and they run back across the road towards his bar, letting themselves in, locking the door, Harry fumbling for the pistol he has hidden under the floorboards.

Then Harry is picked up by the Thought Police and taken to a prison where he sees the manager of one of the oil companies whose records he had faked, bound to a table and beaten senseless with bamboo rods. Sergeant Shozo is very polite, offers him a cigarette, says this will happen to him unless he tells them what he knows about the secret oil tanks at Pearl Harbour. They only beat Harry a little and eventually (and a bit inexplicably, to me) they let him go.

Harry makes his way back to central Tokyo and spends the remaining 100 or so pages of the book in increasingly desperate attempts to inform the American ambassador, and then his mistress, Lady Beechum, that he is now convinced a Japanese attack is coming very soon. The ambassador, cornered at a swish Japanese golf course, simply pretends to ignore him. Lady Beechum tells him noone will believe him; he is the most discredited man in Tokyo.

Then there is another encounter with Ishigama, in the street which is interrupted by news announcers blaring from every streetside loudspeaker – that Japan has launched a surprise attack on the American fleet and utterly destroyed it. People stream out of their houses, cheering. Ishigama is lost in the torrent of people. All the plotlines come together. Harry drives through the throng to the American embassy only to discover, amid scenes of panic as all the embassy staff gather and burn all their secret information, that Harry’s name is not on the list of Americans who will be repatriated. His old schoolboy friend Hooper explains it is partly because he is persona non grata with both the American and British ex-pat community. But more because the Japanese want him.

Finally Ishigama catches up with him, helped by his oldest schoolboy frenemy, Gen, giving rise to a prolonged chase through shops and back alleyways until Harry finds himself, unwittingly, tumbling once again through the door into the dressing room of the Theatre Folies, where he had tumbled all those years ago. Now it is dusty and abandoned and now, on its empty stage, the last gruesome scene of the novel takes place.

You will not be surprised to learn that heads roll. But I think you should read this immensely enjoyable to find out whose.

Dramatis personae

Whites

Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, British ambassador, Harry’s sexually athletic mistress, who has also worked in the British code room for two years, very well informed about international affairs

Sir Arnold Beechum – purple faced blimp who knows full well Harry is having an affair with his wife and, late on in the novel, ambushes Harry with a cricket bat, knocking him unconscious, as if Harry didn’t have enough to worry about already

Willie Staub – member of the Nazi Party, former managing director of China Deutsche-Fon – who was with Harry back in Nanking, China, then married Iris, a Chinese woman, who he is desperate to help get away with him back to Europe

Al DeGeorge – sceptical journalist for the Christian Science Monitor

Japanese

Agawa – keeper of a local pawnshop who exchanges Harry’s cash for small gold ingots

Corporal Go of the Thought Police, a grinning sadist

Goro – reformed pickpocket friend of Harry’s, gone straight and married the owner of a stationery shop he once tried to rob

Haruko – waitress at Harry’s bar, the Happy Paris

Ishigami – the young army officer who deflowers the boy Gen, and gives him and Harry a display of samurai swordsmanship, who Harry cheats out of his Chinese beheadings in Nanking, and then pursues Harry implacably through the second half of the novel like an avenging Fury

Kato – artist and printmaker, who teaches Harry (and the reader) the aesthetics of Japanese prints and design; after Harry lets Gen take a print to Lieutenant Ishigama – who seduces him – Kato drops Harry as unreliable

Kondo – bartender at the Happy Paris

Michiko Funabashi – young woman communist who Harry saves from a riot, sleeps with and thereupon becomes  his fiercely jealous mistress, she serves as the Record Girl in his bar, and pops up unexpectedly painted as a geisha girl in the central scene with Colonel Ishigama

Oharu – actress in the theatre who wipes the boy Harry’s face when he tumbles into the changing room, and becomes his muse, and who later takes his virginity: lost in the great earthquake of 1922

Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police – thoughtful and playful officer who unwaveringly pursues Harry to find out if he was lying about the oilfields at Hawaii

Taro – sumo wrestler, twin of Jiro, who joins the navy and is killed, whose ashes Taro receives on the main day

Tetsu – one of their boyhood gang who becomes a yakuza and is covered in tattoos

Gen – the leader of their gang when they were boys, now a lieutenant in the Japanese navy

Admiral Yamomoto – head of the Imperial Japanese Navy who Harry is introduced to by a nervous Lieutenant Gen eight months earlier, whose trust Harry wins by playing poker with him, and who then asks for Harry to come and watch the conman Dr Ito perform his fraud of supposedly turning spring water into oil

Cruz Smith’s prose

Cruz Smith’s writing has two obvious pleasures: one is that he really transports you to his locations, making you feel and smell and breathe them. The bustling, noisy cityscape of 1940s Tokyo is vividly conveyed, from the pomp of the British Embassy, via the top businessmen at the Chrysanthemum Club, to the umpteen bars and pawnshops and sumo training gyms and artists studios which Harry’s numerous interests take us to.

Second is the way he can make language jive and shimmy. I’ve just read a couple of thrillers by the Englishman Robert Harris, which are written in clear efficient journalistic prose, the text’s ‘grip’ deriving from the mounting tension implicit in the increasingly fraught situations he describes. the prose is meant to be transparent as a reporter’s and let the fraught scenarios snag the reader.

By contrast Cruz Smith is a poet. He can make the language jive and shimmy in totally unexpected ways. You know the old archive footage where an artist like Picasso draws a couple of lines onto paper and… it is a bull! Same with Cruz Smith. A couple of ordinary words are arranged in a novel combination which opens up an entirely new idea or sensation.

In this way, not only are the novels exciting and informative but they supply a steady stream of moments when the prose leaps up and performs tricks for you. I’m not saying he’s Shakespeare. Just that he can do in a phrase what other authors need a paragraph to do, and then injects something extra.

For example, here is Tokyo as the loudspeakers at every road corner blare the news that Japan has launched and won the Pacific war.

Each radio report began with the opening bars of the ‘Warship March’, and with every account, Tokyo seemed to rise farther above sea level. (p.407)

When Harry is planning to ditch Michiko in order to be on the last plane out of Tokyo sitting next to his mistress, Lady Beechum, he thinks:

He’d garb his betrayal with small decencies… (p.233)

Lady Beechum is all-too-aware of Harry’s crooked shortcomings, as she sums up in a Wildeish paradox:

‘Harry, it’s a fantasy. You and I were not meant to be with anyone. it’s sheer incompatibility that keeps us together.’ (p.172)

Sometimes it’s more in the zone of American street smarts, descended from a long line of pulp writers, and crafted to reflect Harry’s own rueful self-awareness.

A crow trudged up the road and shared a glance with Harry, one wiseguy to another. (p.330)

It was one of those moments, Harry thought, when your life was put on the scale and the needle didn’t budge. (p.342)

But at others, it’s poetry, moments when you see a new aspect of human behaviour.

The man spoke with such intensity that it took Harry a moment to find the air to answer. (p.191)

Sometimes it’s the poetry of description.

Every few minutes a fighter plane would pass overhead, towing its shadow across the baseball diamond and up over the slope to the airfield across the road. (p.130)

This immediately and vividly made me recall all the times an airplace shadow has passed over or near me. I was there.

Maybe my favourite is the moment when the boy Harry pops over the wall into the garden of the house where he is to discover Ohasu having sex and being sketched by Kato, in a heavy summer downpour of rain, and:

The house was larger than it had appeared from the street, with a side garden not of flowers but  of large stones set  among raked pebbles. In a brief illumination of lightning, Harry saw the garden as it was meant to be contemplated, as small islands in a sea of perfect waves. The pebbles chattered in the rain. (p.250)

‘The pebbles chattered in the rain.’ Not show-offy, witty or paradoxical. Only six common little words. But which convey the moment perfectly, the garden of Japanese pebbles glistening and minutely jostled by the heavy downpour. You are there. With Harry. At the heart of the story. And Cruz Smith does this again and again with acute details and snappy phrases. His books are not only gripping and thoroughly researched, but deliver a really verbal, literary pleasure.


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Other Martin Cruz Smith reviews

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’

Also:

1986 Stallion Gate

The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze (2006)

If we are to do justice to the Third Reich we must seek to understand it in its own terms. (p.147)

This is a massive book – 676 pages of text, 10 pages of tables, 84 pages of notes, a 25-page index = some 800 pages in total.

Tooze deploys a mind-boggling amount of research and analysis to give a really thorough economic history of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945. After a brief review of the economic woes of the Weimar Republic (huge reparations to the Allies, hyperinflation, the Dawes Plan) and the complicated series of events around 1931 when America and Britain came off the gold standard, devalued their currencies and began to enact protectionist policies – we arrive at January 1933 when a small group of Germany’s ruling class decided to make Hitler Chancellor on the assumption that they’d be able to control him.

The next 500 pages give a minutely detailed account of the Nazis’ economic policies, from the fiscal or financial level (they reneged on reparations to America, Britain and France, although the details are fiendishly complicated), through industrial strategy (subsidies to industry which then, however, had to do the Nazis bidding in areas like car and airplane manufacture) and agriculture (where Tooze sheds fascinating light on the problems of a still mostly agricultural economy, split into millions of small farms, with an ageing population).

Like anyone who studies a subject really intensively, Tooze’s account tends to undermine accepted myths or accepted wisdom if in part simply because accepted wisdom, by its very nature, tends to be simplistic – in order to be teachable, in order to be memorable – whereas the level of detail Tooze goes into reveals every element of Nazi policy to have been more complicated, contingent and compromised than we read in textbooks or watch on documentaries.

Agriculture

And Tooze takes evident pleasure in overturning received opinion. For example, he says the Nazis’ emphasis on ‘blood and soil’ has for a long time been interpreted as a regressive, turning-the-clock back fantasy on the part of an alienated urbanised society which wanted to return to some kind of peasant utopia. But Tooze devotes a chapter to explaining that Germany was, despite our generalised images of the Nazis’ massed rallies, of bully boys smashing Jewish shop windows in Berlin or Munich, associations of big factories and BMWs, still a predominantly agricultural society in 1939. Factoring in small shopkeepers and workshops who provided goods and equipment to farmers, around 56% of the German population worked on the land. So the Nazi rhetoric of blood and soil was addressing an actual economic and social reality.

Lebensraum

Tooze is at pains to explain Nazi economic policy in the context of the wider system of global capitalism and imperialism, and this is often very illuminating.

Tooze gives a sympathetic reading of Hitler’s analysis of the global economy in the 1920s as expounded in Mein Kampf (1924), and also in ‘Hitler’s Second Book’ (1928), a follow-up full of more anti-Semitic rantings, which he wrote but which was never published. A manuscript was discovered in a safe in Germany in the 1960s and published.

In these works Hitler acknowledges that America has become by the 1920s the dominant economy in the world because its settlers were able to expand across its enormous land area and the huge amount of natural resources it contained – coal, iron, all the metals, endless supplies of timber etc, all of which could be utilised by a population twice the size of Germany’s (America’s 130 million to Germany’s 85 million).

The next greatest economic power was Britain which, although it had a smaller population (46 million) of course possessed a vast and farflung empire a) from which it imported a cornucopia of raw materials b) to which it could export a) its goods, at a guaranteed profit and b) its surplus population, with hundreds of thousands leaving to find a better life in Australia, New Zealand or Canada (where my aunt and her new husband emigrated just after the war).

Even France, Germany’s neighbour, had only half the population of Germany (41 million) while being twice the size (France today is approximately 551,500 sq km, Germany approximately 357,022 sq km), plus the advantages of an overseas empire from which it imported cheap raw materials and to which, like Britain, it could export its surplus population.

Thus, by the mid 1920s, Hitler had reached a simple conclusion – Germany needed more land – and a simple strategy, the Drang nach Osten or push eastward.

In fact this was quite an old idea, having originated among a number of nationalist and right-wing German thinkers in the late-nineteenth century. What was new was Hitler’s determination to carry it out by violence, and the extreme brutality of his plan to not only conquer Poland and push into western Russia, but to subjugate their native Slavic populations as slaves as part of the horrifying Generalplan Ost.

Hitler’s success

As it was, by mid-1939, despite the mire of economic challenges the regime had faced (poor balance of payments deficit, lack of raw materials, housing shortage, crisis in agricultural production, and many more), by a series of extraordinary diplomatic bluffs, Hitler had achieved what no other Germany leader, even the great Bismarck had managed, namely the creation of the Greater Germany of the nationalists’ dreams (incorporating Austria and the Sudetenland), and all without firing a shot (it took Bismarck two wars to create a united Germany, climaxing in the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War).

But all the time Tooze is showing the toll it took on the domestic economy and the frantic juggling behind the scenes among ministries and officials, to try and prevent inflation, preserve the value of the Reichsmark, ensure a decent standard of living for the population while all the time trying to fulfil Hitler and Goering’s enormous wishes for wholesale rearmament.

Familiar and unfamiliar

So Tooze points out counter-intuitive facts (the largely agricultural nature of Germany) which you hadn’t quite grasped before. He goes into massive detail about, for example, the various policy options open to Germany’s finance minister to try and boost exports, improve balance of payments, bolster the currency, and sets all these amid the wider and constantly changing international economic scene, from the gold standard crisis of 1931, through the revival of the global economy in the later 1930s, and then the beginnings of a slowdown in 1939.

All this is new, and puts the main events in a rich and thoughtful context. Also we are introduced to a range of Germany businessmen, financiers and party officials whose internecine fights and feuds helped to shape the Nazi regime, men like the famous Ferdinand Porsche, but also Hjalmar Schacht, President of the National Bank (Reichsbank) 1933–1939, who opposed the scale of Nazi rearmament, was eventually dismissed in 1939, then arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1944. Or Richard Walther Darré, Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942 and also a high-ranking functionary in the SS.

The pen portraits Tooze gives of these key players, and the extraordinary depth with which he describes and investigates the Nazi economy, enrich your understanding, really bring it to life not as the dark legend we carry in our minds, but a congeries of overlapping and competing bureaucracies, the jostling for money and influence, all set against the fraught context of Hitler pushing the pace and ratcheting up the tension in international affairs.

And yet, stepping back, I didn’t feel Tooze changed the overall narrative much. Germany is prostrate from depression and reparations. Hitler comes to power in the back of mass unemployment. The backroom deal which made him chancellor turned out to be a wild miscalculation. He blames all Germany’s woes on the Jews and immediately sets about overthrowing the Versailles agreement. Through the mid to late 1930s he calls the bluff of the Western powers (Britain and France). Astonishes everyone with the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the invasion of Poland. During the war, from humble makepiece beginnings, a vast network of forced labour and concentration camps is constructed, which is never as productive as its planners hope. Defeat in Russia in 1942 leads inexorably to the defeat of the Reich, but the war is prolonged by the superb fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht and the ability of German armaments industries to struggle through their chaotic mismanagement by the Nazi hierarchy and pour out an astonishing stream of tanks, guns and ammunition almost until the very end.

Tooze’s book deepens and complexifies your understanding of these events, gives names and biographies of the key players, in the Nazi Party, the world of finance and the industrialists who made it possible and, at various key points (what I found most interesting) puts you in the shoes, enters the mindset of the Nazi leaders, to help you understand the choices they faced once they’d set off down their fateful road.

But stepping right back, I don’t think this long detailed and rather exhausting book fundamentally changes your overall understanding of what happened, or why.


Related links

Related reviews

Holocaust literature

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

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

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

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

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

The unaffordable British Empire

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

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

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

It was, in sum:

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

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

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

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

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

So why carry on paying for this expensive empire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empire instead of investment

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

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

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

A debt that was only paid off in 2006.

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

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

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

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

Empire instead of Europe

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

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

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

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

New Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

Case studies and proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As to these knackered old industries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnett

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

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

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

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

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


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