Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

‘Entre deux amants il-y-a toujours un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth in 1897, the 23-year-old William Somerset Maugham optimistically abandoned his career as a trainee doctor to become a professional writer. Later in life, Maugham considered this to have been a bad mistake, for literary success came only slowly and he spent nearly a decade churning out ten novels which sold little or poorly.

All the time his real ambition was to be a playwright, but none of his plays were accepted either. It was only in 1907, ten years after Liza, that his play Lady Frederick was finally staged and, to his own surprise, became a runaway success, transforming his reputation and fortunes. Within a year he had four plays running in the West End and had arrived.

Mrs Craddock

Mrs Craddock, from 1902, is a product of his lean early years, and you can see why. It is a long and uneven narrative, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, covering ten or so years in the life of Bertha Leys:

  • from when she is a head-strong, romantic orphan under the guardianship of her aunt Mary living in the family home, Court Leys in Kent
  • through her infatuation for and marriage to the virile local farmer Edward Craddock
  • her slow realisation that Edward is conventional, unimaginative and boring and cares more about his wretched cows and pet dogs than about Bertha’s feelings
  • (something she starts to suspect on their honeymoon in London where he laughs at crude vaudeville and can’t see the point of the art galleries which Bertha adores)
  • she is mortified when he humiliates her at tennis at a big party of the local gentry
  • she hopes that getting pregnant and having a child will bring them close together again, or at least provide a focus for her thwarted love
  • but, inevitably, she has a long, drawn-out miscarriage and the baby is still-born
  • but worse than anything is the calm, sensible way Edward accepts this and its corollary, the doctor’s conclusion that she will never again be able to have children – news at which while Bertha is, understandably, distraught (chapter 17)
  • their married life becomes a series of niggling arguments – like the one about whether the farm workmen should chop down some beech trees which overshadow an important field (Edward) or should not, because they are old and beautiful (Bertha)
  • these escalate into flaring rows and, slowly, Bertha is forced to admit that she can no longer stand her husband
  • so she leaves Edward and Kent to go travelling with Aunt Mary on the Continent for months
  • on her return to London she has an ill-advised but madly passionate fling with a distant cousin, Gerald Vaudrey

But when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty.

Ironically, throughout the novel, we have watched as Edward’s career has gone from strength to strength. He manages the Ley property superbly, making a hefty profit and buying up surrounding land, restoring the house, building a tennis court in the grounds, and becoming the life and soul of local North Kent society.

It’s just a shame that Bertha loathes and detests local North Kent society for its parochialism and small-minded snobbery. In the final chapters of the book Bertha and Edward live together but utterly separate in spirit. Bertha, bored out of her mind, walks the local countryside, watches the changing seasons, goes down to the sea and stares for hours at its endless waves, dreaming of escape, dreaming sometimes of suicide or some kind of painless dissolution, anything to make the dreary routine of morning, noon and night, boring dinners with her husband or dreary visits to the local vicar or other landowners, all go away.

Then Edward, stubborn and confident to the end, takes out riding a horse which has already thrown him once and broken his collarbone. The horse shies at a fence, falling on top of him and he dies. Stunned, Bertha staggers to her bed and reviews her life. Shocked and dismayed, she realises that she is… free!

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about the order of precedence among the various organisations Edward was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party). But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ or giving in to contemporary fashion but which really don’t come off. One half way through occurs where Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

The book is also heavily garlanded with over-ripe passages describing the Kent countryside or the romantic air of Italy, which go on for pages.

That said, the book has two obvious virtues or strengths.

One is the effectiveness of the social comedy generated by the stiflingly conventional provincial society of Blackstable (the thinly disguised version of Whitstable where Maugham was brought up in the 1880s).

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community are often very funny. The vicar’s sister Miss Glover is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It reappears in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, in his short stories of the 1920s.

Another is his knack for beginning or setting his stories in very mundane settings, and often mundane incidents, but from this base working up passages of tremendous emotional intensity, which stay with the reader.

Thus, for example, Bertha’s passionate lust and master-worship of Edward are described with real heat, as is her second great infatuation, the sensuality leading to inflamed lust for young Gerald. You can almost smell the sex.

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving. And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

So far so good. But whether all these passages really come together to form a convincing description of a plausible personality, such as literature is meant to, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure and I’m not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say? For seconds, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

What can be confidently made is the criticism that the number two figure in the story – Edward Craddock – never really comes alive. Tall, strong and good-humoured he remains throughout the novel – admittedly putting on weight and growing red-cheeked as the years pass – but remaining an unbendingly good, honest, efficient and utterly boring man, the straight man to Bertha’s fireworks display of emotions.

Maybe it’s the failure to bring the man in this novel fully alive which has contributed to it being more or less forgotten.

But what is good, I think, in the novel, is the slow, slow pace at which Maugham describes Bertha’s slow, slow, slow loss of her infatuation, then loss of her love, then her loss of respect for her husband. The book has to be long because Maugham set out to describe the very slow erosion of her love in great detail. In this respect, in the care with which Maugham has plotted the decay of passionate love, I think the novel works.

Sex and lust

Without much by way of introduction or preparation the book launches us straight into the flustered mind of twenty-one-year-old Bertha – living calmly and respectably with her aunt in the family home Court Leys – and her fiercely physical infatuation with the tall, strong, dark local farmer, Edward Craddock who is a tenant farmer on the Ley family land, at Bewlie’s Farm.

He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap – all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring… His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

Although it’s hard to imagine, a number of later writers, in the 1930s and 1940s, paid tribute to the way Maugham broke free of Victorian restrictions about sex, and wrote with a new openness and candour about passionate, physical love.

This fierce physicality was there right from the start, in the powerful descriptions of Liza’s pulse racing and her swooning against the tall, strong, masculine figure of Jim Blakeston in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), and exactly the same thing is repeated here, as impressionable young Bertha thrills at the touch and swoons against the tall, strong, masculine figure of young Edward.

When he put it round her shoulders, the touch of his hands made her lose the little self-control she had left. A curious spasm passed through her, and she pressed herself closer to him; at the same time his hands sank down, dropping the cloak, and encircled her waist. Then she surrendered herself entirely to his embrace and lifted her face to his. He bent down and kissed her. The kiss was such utter madness that she almost groaned. She could not tell if it was pain or pleasure. She flung her arms round his neck and drew him to her.

When at last he bade her good-bye and shook hands, she blushed again; she was extraordinarily troubled, and as, with his rising, the strong masculine odour of the countryside reached her nostrils, her head whirled.

In a field she saw him, directing some operation. She trembled at the sight, her heart beat very quickly; and when, seeing her, he came forward with a greeting, she turned red and then white in the most compromising fashion. But he was very handsome as, with easy gait, he sauntered to the hedge; above all he was manly, and the pleasing thought passed through Bertha that his strength must be quite herculean. She barely concealed her admiration.

‘I’m rather frightened of you, sometimes,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re so strong. I feel so utterly weak and helpless beside you.’
‘Are you afraid I shall beat you?’
She looked up at him and then down at the strong hands.
‘I don’t think I should mind if you did. I think I should only love you more.’

‘Let me look at your hands,’ she said. She loved them too. They were large and roughly made, hard with work and exposure, ten times pleasanter, she thought, than the soft hands of the townsman… She stretched out the long, strong fingers. Craddock, knowing her very little, looked with wonder and amusement. She caught his glance, and with a smile bent down to kiss the upturned palms. She wanted to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him. She would have been his handmaiden, and nothing could have satisfied her so much as to perform for him the most menial services. She knew not how to show the immensity of her passion.

It’s a commonplace enough word but in Maugham’s hands ‘thrill’, more nakedly than in other writers of the time, describes the physical impact of sexual arousal and lust.

Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure…

Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her…

He took her hand and the contact thrilled her; her knees were giving way, and she almost tottered.

His letters had caused her an indescribable thrill, the mere sight of his handwriting had made her tremble, and she wanted to see him; she woke up at night with his kisses on her lips.

It gave her a queer thrill to see him turn white when she held his hand, to see him tremble when she leaned on his arm.

It’s a striking paradox that such an externally polite, formal, correctly dressed, well-mannered and self-contained man as Maugham wrote so obsessively and fiercely, throughout his career, of complete sexual abandonment and the heart-stopping power of sheer physical lust.

Never before had she experienced that utter weakness of the knees so that she feared to fall; her breathing was strangely oppressive, and her heart beat almost painfully.

And the candid way he describes the wish to be mastered, dominated, controlled, owned and directed by a powerful strong man.

For the moment Bertha forgot her wayward nature, and wished suddenly to subject herself to his strong guidance. His very strength made her feel curiously weak.

‘Shut your eyes,’ she whispered, and she kissed the closed lids; she passed her lips slowly over his lips, and the soft contact made her shudder and laugh. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling those masterful scents of the countryside which had always fascinated her.

Later in the book, the same all goes in spades for her infatuation with Gerald. In addition there’s something you don’t quite usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable. You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, towards a final night together when they are just about to do something unforgiveable under Victorian custom – she was, of course, still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son, when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary appears in the nick of time! Still. These descriptions are almost pornographic in their blood-heating intensity.

Later, in the 1920s, Maugham met D.H. Lawrence (but then, he met everyone). From the limited knowledge I have, I can’t help thinking that this story about a passionate young woman’s lust for a farmer prefigures Lawrence’s novels of love among the haystacks, and I wonder what the younger man thought of the trail Maugham had blazed with his shocking-for-their-time descriptions.

The battle of the sexes

Arguably the central subject of ‘the novel’ since its birth has been the battle of the sexes, to be precise the struggle to find and keep the perfect partner.

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man and a woman about sex and the rest of ‘serious’ literature continued the theme for centuries – the sly marriage markets of of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James, and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus Sterne, Dickens or Conrad stand slightly to one side of the Wedding theme.

Love, marriage, infidelity, these are the topics which fill vast warehouses of ‘serious’ literature. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina.

Mrs Craddock is smack bang in the middle of that tradition for which marriage is the sole interest of human life and, in particular, unhappy marriage. Unhappy, mismatched and ill-fated love was to be the central theme of Maugham’s long career.

And Mrs Craddock amounts to a very extended early exploration of this theme.

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Gartsin getting bored of her square husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom. Mismatches, all of them. And women all.

In his theatrical social comedies, there is a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’. Amazing that women arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel). Sometime in his student years his Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century. What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel. It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the weight placed on them.

Miss Ley

But all this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever she does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – it is to cheers from the reader.

Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin gray hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, becoming – especially in the first half – the comic and tart centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-in-Italy stories). Whenever she appears it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains through Miss Ley’s quiet, tight-lipped, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments – throughout Bertha’s early infatuation – then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband – and then throughout the Gerald affair – her role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective. It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of them are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness.

For this, he is eventually bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant, on he one occasion when Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, good-for-nothing idler mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

Thus, one cannot help thinking, Literature’s attitude – whether the author is male or female – to mundane work and to those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.


Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles, rights and women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, this is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit And there’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable gray streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which taper off, and ends with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric. Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Plus ca change…


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

A Man of Parts by David Lodge (2011)

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

Wells’s significance

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

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

The novel

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

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

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

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

Sex

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

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

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

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

Certainly the book contains some accounts of his political interventions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wells’s wives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wells’s books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Love and feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wells and James

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

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

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

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

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

Enough of men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

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

Jake’s Thing by Kingsley Amis (1978)

The thing about you and your wife making love was that it made things all right, not often forever but always for a long time and always for longer than the actual love-making. In that it was unique; adultery could make life more interesting but it couldn’t make things all right in a month of Sundays. And as for booze you must be joking – as well expect a fairly humane beating-up to do the job. (p.180)

Jake Richardson is 59, a grumpy Oxford don who lives in London outside the short Oxford terms, with his ‘fat’ wife Brenda. It is a narrow, comfy, settled-down kind of life, trips to the supermarket, to the off-licence, dinner in front of the TV, never any entertaining, rarely going out to parties, never to the cinema or theatre. However, the novel opens with Jake seeing his GP because something’s wrong: he has of late lost all interest in sex, he knows not why, it has just evaporated – disconcerting for a man who’s had several marriages and countless affairs, a man hitherto obsessed with girls and sex. What’s his problem?

Answering that question sparks the quest which underpins this relatively long novel (280 pages) and whose main purpose, on the face of it, is to take us into the world of 1970s sexology for primarily comic purposes. Jake is passed from his GP to a sex psychologist (Dr Rosenberg) who prescribes various ‘wacky’ activities, like non-sexual stroking and companioning sessions (‘non-genital sensate focusing’) with his wife, to a hilarious scene where he is fitted up with a device to his penis in front of a number of medical students and shown various pornographic photos and texts to measure his (negligible) arousal, through to an encounter group (run by long-haired ‘Ed’) where he and Brenda are meant to share their problems with a selection of complete, and predictably off-the-wall, strangers.

Plot

A lot of the plot is taken up with Jake grumpily going about his usual tasks and responsibilities, punctuated by the escalating sex therapy ie trips to the psychologist, the humiliating trip to the lecture theatre, the first encounter group and so on. But three sub-plots emerge which flavour the narrative:

One Eve is the college secretary. He had a fling with her a decade ago (as did many men) but she’s been happily married for ages and is now very respectable. A casual, everyday hello leads to her spotting Jake is not, in fact, OK and this leads Jake to half-heartedly invite her out to dinner, where she makes her position as a married woman plain, he says of course we’re just old friends chatting and then, at the start of the next chapter, there is a long, comically inevitable and bitterly funny description of his shattering hangover and his slow realisation that he’s in an unknown bed, his head on an unknown pillow and he stretches his hand out to encounter – an unknown buttock. Yes, he got so drunk he ended up pleading to sleep with Eve but, once the deed was done, in true male chauvinist pig style, turned over and started snoring. The next morning Eve lets him have both barrels of her contempt and he crawls away feeling like a worm (although, in a not very funny follow-up chapter, we see him retelling the whole story to a gay don, maliciously exaggerating Eve’s awfulness and, more germane to the novel’s theme, wondering what’s gone wrong with his radar, with his normal sense of decorum, with his life?).

Two One of the more florid members of the encounter group, Kelly, follows him and Brenda home after the first session, invites herself in, and recounts a cock-and-bull story about trying to incriminate Ed, the encounter group facilitator – though when pressed on details she backs down and Brenda eventually persuades her to leave. Clearly deranged. Weeks later she turns up uninvited in Jake’s rooms in Oxford and makes a pass at him, which he vigorously rejects, whereupon she hurls an impressive array of modern abuse at him before collapsing in tears etc. Deranged and dangerous.

Later still it is through her that Jake learns that the encounter groups, which Brenda has continued going to, are building up to an encounter weekend. Mildly disquieted that Brenda hadn’t told him about it, Jake finds himself asking the shrink to be re-included in the group and invited to the weekend.

Barely have they arrived at the hotel-cum-conference centre than Kelly corners Jame again, making him promise to come up to her room soon after midnight. Jake wisely tells all this to Brenda who wisely advises him not to go – and so he doesn’t. Which is regrettable because in the early hours Kelly is discovered having taken an overdose and scribbled a suicide note; presumably she intended Jake to find her soon after she’d swallowed the pills and so his decision not to go put her life in real jeopardy.

a) This suicide bid ie real psychological pain, has a damping effect on the comic tone (as it does in Malcolm Bradbury’s classic of just a few years earlier, The History Man). Even before this development, Jake (and Amis) had found themselves noting the depth of Kelly’s misery with unsettling acuity. When Kelly bursts into tears after he’s rejected her,

Jake had come across lachrymose females before too, but never one who gave such a sense of intolerable pressure within, as if what was being wept over was growing faster than it could be wept away. (p.216)

Real misery is often uncomfortably close in Amis, despite the comic ranting, the bleakness of the human condition emerging into the light of day in novels like Girl, 20 and Ending Up. Being forced to see view world from this perspective forces the fully adult reader of this novel to see Jake as the spoilt, overgrown schoolboy he actually is; it is the triumph of Amis’s style and its vigorous, insulting humour to conceal this obvious conclusion for such long stretches of the novel.

b) Kelly’s suicide attempt prompts the climax of the main thread of the novel, because Jake is genuinely outraged at the matter-of-fact way his psychologist and the group facilitator blandly discuss the Kelly situation as just one more piece of interesting case study, even as she’s being rushed off to hospital in an ambulance. So he has a king-size go at both of them, a set-piece speech criticising their supposed ‘method’, the main thrust of which is his attack on the basic premise of therapy, that dragging everything out into the light of day will make it better when, he asserts, more often than not it does the opposite. He cancels all his sex therapy and storms out.

[In its way this big anti-therapy speech struck me as being as incoherent and unimpressive as the other set-piece scene, Jake’s ‘playing devil’s advocate’ speech in front of the college Governing Body. That scene is complicated because Jake starts out arguing (against his own beliefs) in favour of admitting women, but then finds himself being goaded by a few donnish questioners into eventually dropping his allotted role and delivering a fiery diatribe against women and against admitting them to male colleges. Jake’s rant boils down to saying, ‘Do you really want loads of nattering gossiping chattering women everywhere who will destroy the cosy, all-male cameraderie we all enjoy’? Hardly earth-shattering arguments and not a very persuasive performance and not particularly funny. For a woman reader, inoculated against its immature boyish humour, probably very offensive. The same happens here in the anti-therapy speech. Is this the best Amis can do, is this the strongest case he can make against the 1970s fashion for therapy? Jake is meant to be a clever academic, and Amis was a very clever man, but his attempts at consecutive argument are generally dire. He is always better, much more persuasive, powerful and funny, at his true métier, comic abuse.]

Three There is a very effective dramatic moment early in the novel when, after his and Brenda’s first joint meeting with Dr Rosenberg, Jakes continues about his day doing odds and ends and then goes to bed and various stuff goes through his mind and then, only as he is dropping off to sleep, has he got nothing left to keep him from facing the Big Revelation of the day: that after he had had his say to the therapist about not fancying women any more, Brenda had flabbergasted him by delivering a coherent and deeply-felt, fifteen-minute-long monologue about how he didn’t care for her any more, never showed any affection or interest in her doings, how any shared interests they had had evaporated, how their marriage had become an empty shell. The way this thought, and the anxiety it causes him, is held back and revealed only late in bed as something Jake has been repressing from himself all day, is very effective. But in terms of plot or theme it introduces the idea that it’s not just Jake who’s unhappy.

Therefore, when Jake drops out of the weekly encounter sessions after just one visit but his wife continues going, I thought, hello: suspicious. Other things happen (the fling with Eve, the don’s meeting and suchlike) but when, a lot later, Kelly tells Jake about the long weekend encounter meeting at a retreat in Gloucestershire and Jake realises Brenda hadn’t told him, aha, my suspicions revived. And although Brenda acquiesces in Jake’s decision to go along (once he’s learned about it) and although, once they’re there together, she sticks by him pretty firmly after Kelly’s suicide bid and even after the earlier stuff about Kelly trying to seduce him in Oxford (which Jake hadn’t told her about) comes out — well, even so, I wasn’t at all surprised when, once they are back in London, recovering after this traumatic weekend, Brenda simply announces she’s leaving him.

That she’s doing so to move in with the gimpy husband (Geoffrey) of her unbearable best friend (Alcestis) is a surprise and a kick in the teeth for Jake, but his emotional response is very underplayed: he is mostly concerned about who will do the housework and prepare the meals. Maybe he is the unfeeling, self-centred, male chauvinist pig everyone says he is. Oh well. So be it.

What was before him left him cold, and he didn’t mind. (p.33)

The novel ends with Brenda moved out, the awful friend coming round to offer to do their shopping together but – fortunately – nothing more, no hint of a pass or them shacking up, and Jake settling in quite well to living on his own and eating heated up dinners in front of the telly.

Attitude

So much for the plot which boils down to clever elaborations or examples of two related themes – male impotence and the battle of the sexes. Or the awfulness of middle-aged men…

But the engine of the book, the reason for reading it and the main source of enjoyment, is less the ostensible ‘plot’ but Jake’s Amis-like disdain, contempt and exasperation at almost every aspect of modern life and every other living soul, a rage expressed at numerous levels of the text, from long set-piece scenes designed to highlight the rubbishness of today’s youth or whatever, to conversations discussing the multitudinous forms of modern crapness or themselves demonstrating the inability of anyone to understand anyone else, down to casually satirical or dismissive turns of phrase – this attitude saturates the book on every page and is often very, very funny.

The fundamental comic trope is the howling disjunction between Jake’s well-educated mind, manner, clothes and pukka tone of voice — and the roaring, raging, spitting fury at the shabbiness of the modern world and the vast stupidity of everyone else which seethes inside his skull, constantly expressed in fantasies of Neanderthal violence:

To distract himself from restraining himself from kicking Geoffrey in the balls Jake said, ‘What’s whatsisname like, Ed, the fellow who runs these do’s?’ (p.158)

It was all that training with Miss Calvert and some of his other pupils, all that not going for them with the sitting-room poker at each new display of serene apathy, which restrained him now, he would have alleged, from jumping feet first at Ed’s face. (p.166)

It is exaggerated for comic effect but it makes it even funnier to think that Amis the author means it too, that such appalling curmudgeonliness and omni-directional enfuriated exasperation once walked the earth (as a glance at either his Letters or biography swiftly confirm).

Oxford

There is, of course, another big side or aspect to the novel: Oxford. Jake is an Oxford don and this entails scenes set in Oxford: a total of one (I think) actual tutorial, a lot of tasty lunches and dinners, high-falutin conversations with other dons etc. But the Oxford sections are, on the whole, weak and boring. Unless you are going to make them grotesques from the start (as Tom Sharpe does, in Porterhouse Blue his satire on Cambridge), then you have to spend a bit of time, and take reasonably seriously, dons and their subjects and the bitching and back-biting over sherry in their rooms or over rack of lamb at high table, and so on and so on. And this has all been done before, a thousand times: Jake’s irritation at college life feels clichéd (after all his debut novel, Lucky Jim, is one of the original taking-the-mickey-out-of-higher-education novels). It lacks the wild energy of, say, the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Decline and Fall and certainly lacks the originality and bite of his virulently expressed dislike of other aspects of modern life. The energy level drops in these scenes.

They are given coherence of a sort by making them address one of the ‘issues of the day’, the aggressive campaigning by young women to be admitted to all the (then) male-only colleges. This results in a string of would-be hilarious scenes based on this theme: for example, on his arrival back at Oxford for the new term, Jake has to run a gauntlet of bra-less feminists blockading the entrance to his (fictional) college, Comyns, who rub their breasts against him and tweak his pecker through his trousers. And, as mentioned, he then gets lumbered with representing the womens-admissionist point of view in the debate the dons stage. And the one tutorial we witness is him trying not to slap a slack, lazy, dim woman student of his. Interspersed are scenes of him discussing these incidents or others like them in rooms or over dinner with the other dons, which are a festival of sexist comments about women this or women that, the casual misogyny and sexism of male academics talking safely among themselves. Which we know were pretty similar to Amis’s own attitudes, the ones he exaggerated more and more coarsely as he grew older.

But, no matter how offensive, most of the Oxford scenes felt slack and half-hearted. For example, his college has a porter, Ernie, who talks with a funny west country accent and always manages to block the narrow gateway into the college whenever he’s in a hurry to get in or out. The accent is quite funny, funny voices having been an Amis speciality right from the start of his writing career, but the idea itself somehow doesn’t get traction.

Not only are the silly traditions of Oxford colleges remote from most people’s experiences, but the entire women’s-lib-era issue of whether to admit women to the male colleges is a fight which is of purely historic interest now, which seems immeasurably distant, like the suffragettes. This also dims its relevance for a contemporary reader.

Anger and energy

What the Oxford sections for the most part lack is the comic edge provided by the real anger Amis generates about his other targets: like young people, juke boxes in pubs, ‘convenience’ food, jet airplanes, the modern design of anything, modern architecture, modern trains, buses, bus conductors, shop assistants, children, trendy psychologists and so on. And on.

All the dishes were firmly in the English tradition: packet soup with added flour, roast chicken so overcooked that each chunk immediately absorbed every drop of saliva in your mouth, though the waterlogged Brussels sprouts helped out a bit there, soggy tinned gooseberry flan and coffee tasting of old coffee pots. (p.246)

In the pub, Jake pulls over a stool,

finding that its top was covered with the same stuff as the bench. Apart from being so covered it was too convex to suit a normal bum like his, pleasing as that convexity might well have been to the trend-blurred eye of whatever youthful fart had designed it. (p.91)

Not to say that some of the Oxford moments aren’t very funny. Before the Governing Body of his college gets round to debating the admission of women, they deal with other relatively insignificant issues, including the purchase of a new set of chairs for the library, an example being brought in and all the dons liking it, until they are told the cost – £125 per chair!

… and all over the room there were wincing noises, rather like but in sum louder than those made by Brenda on getting into a cold bed. For a chair! they all kept saying – for a chair? Not quite all. Of course it seems a lot, said Jake to himself, but haven’t you noticed that everything seems a lot these days, you fucking old fools? (p.205)

(The swearing, the intemperate use of language, is intrinsic to the comic effect, and it is noticeable that Amis uses the f word a lot in this book.) You almost wonder whether Amis had compiled a list of targets and was working his way through it with the aim of insulting just about every category of person and object in existence. Grumpy old man doesn’t begin to capture it.

Funny how everything horrible or foolish was worse if it was also American. Modern architecture – modern American architecture. Woman who never stops talking – American ditto. Zany comedian. Convert to Buddhism… (p.154)

Conclusion

Outrageously (ie rudely, abusively) funny for the first 100 pages, the novel loses energy in the Oxford scenes which appear in the middle, and then the group therapy weekend – which I was hoping would provide a farcical apogee – is instead a depressing anti-climax, Kelly’s suicide attempt too close to the bone and Jake’s ‘sod psychotherapy’ speech not as coruscating or persuasive as it should have been. Plus the fairly intense misogynistic sentiments expressed throughout the text might well put off a lot of women readers or reasonably-minded readers of any gender.

That said, it still contains hundreds of burningly funny, violently contemptuous, frustrated, angrily witty and humorous scenes, asides, turns of phrase or moments of dialogue which are hugely enjoyable. And the best joke is saved for the very last line of the novel, which wonderfully sums up Jake’s situation, his attitude, his plight, and his bloody-mindedness. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

The title

The apparently throwaway title, Jake’s Thing, has at least four meanings that I can think of:

  • the overt subject, his medical issue, his impotence
  • a slang expression for his penis
  • in the argot of 1970s therapy lingo, his thing, man, his (generally very negative) attitude
  • and his ‘issues’ with women ie his deep-seated misogyny

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

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

Thinks… by David Lodge (2001)

‘Imagine what the Richmonds’ dinner party would have been like, if everyone had had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kids’ comics, with “Thinks…” inside them.’…
‘I suppose that’s why people read novels,’ she says. ‘To find out what goes on in other peoples’ heads.’
‘But all they really find out is what has gone on in the writer’s head. It’s not real knowledge.’
‘Oh, what is real knowledge, then?’
‘Scientific knowledge.’ (p.42)

The plot

Self-doubting and recently bereaved lady novelist Helen Reed hesitantly takes up a position teaching creative writing at the (fictional) University of Gloucester. Along with the rest of the faculty she meets cognitive scientist and media star, Ralph Messenger, secure in the bosom of his rich American wife, four kids and big house in the country. He gives her (and the reader) a Brody’s Notes-level introduction to the newly fashionable sciences of artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology and so on, touching on other topics which came to popular attention in the 1990s, such as chaos theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Helen is not only a novelist but a lapsed Catholic and so, rather predictably, responds to Messenger’s confident scientism with her belief that you can’t reduce consciousness to algorithms, graphs and charts -surely there is some meaning to the universe, what about our feelings etc.

Via the stream-of-consciousness tape recordings Messenger is making to ‘capture’ his thoughts in flight, we learn the rather predictable fact that he is scheming to screw Helen. Via her sensitive diary, we learn that Helen is tempted but recoils, but is tempted again, but recoils etc. No but yes but no.

The text consists of Messenger’s tape recordings, Helen’s diary, and a third-person omniscient narrator, often covering the same incidents from different points of view. This is a fairly interesting idea, but in practice a little dull, since it is devoted entirely to the subject of middle-aged academics pondering at great length their adulterous affairs.

The text is also interspersed with essays and assignments by Helen’s creative writing students. These score ten on the clever-clogs-ometer for being done in the style of a range of bang-up-to-date 1990s authors, such as Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Salman Rushdie et al.

Halfway through the novel Helen discovers that her dead husband – an award-winning BBC radio documentary maker and hitherto a mournful memory – had been systematically unfaithful to her. This is cleverly (and amusingly?) done, because Helen reads an account of her husband’s sexual technique and peccadilloes in a piece of fiction written by one of her students. A bit of clandestine digging reveals that the said student was a ‘research assistant’ to her husband in the early 1990s. When she confronts her student, the latter confesses all and implies that her husband was notorious for seducing his research assistants and having it off whenever he was away on location.

All this comes as a devastating thunderbolt to Helen but made me laugh out loud. Because a) in terms of her character, it shows that being a sensitive lady novelist with two published books does not make you a lofty exception to the human race, does not mean you are especially intelligent or have special insight into other people. In fact, the opposite.

He must have been very, very careful. Or perhaps it was just me who was very stupid, very unobservant, very trusting. (p.202)

Quite. b) In terms of the plot, it very conveniently means that she is not only now ‘available’ for sex, but vows to make up for lost time. Messenger’s boat has come in.

Common themes in David Lodge’s fiction

This is David Lodge’s 11th novel and certain patterns in his fiction are very apparent:

  • there will be a lot of embarrassingly blunt sexual descriptions
  • one or more of the protagonists will be experts on an academic subject and not shy about lecturing the reader on it
  • one or more of the characters will be a Roman Catholic liable, at the drop of a chasuble, to conjure up memories of their cramped, traditional religious upbringing and how they heroically overcame it
  • there will be ‘formal’ tricksiness ie Sunday supplement experimentalism (eg the deployment of the clever literary pastiches mentioned above)
  • a male and female character will journey towards reconciliation and love

Sex

Oh dear. The male lead, cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger, is randy as a goat on heat. The novel opens with a transcript of him recording his secret, innermost thoughts, trying to catch the free association of ideas in action:

I recorded us in bed to test the range of the condenser mike, left it running on the chair with my clothes without her knowing… she made a lot of noise when she came I like that in a woman… What a lot of pubic hair she had, black and springy and densely woven, like a birdsnest, you wouldn’t have been surprised to find a little white egg warm inside her labia… (p.2)

Maybe I’m very prudish but I think the novelist has to earn the right to be this blunt about sex in general, and have the good manners to introduce us to the characters as human beings before giving us dreamy descriptions of their labia. D.H. Lawrence takes a long time setting the scene and ambience before the famous rude scenes in Lady Chatterley. By contrast, opening a Lodge novel is like turning on a TV to be instantly confronted by a big close up of penises shoving into vaginas amid howls and grunts. Maybe that is progress.

As the novel progresses Messenger gravitates from using a tape-recorder to a computer transcription program. When he’s wondering what to describe to test out the new transcription device, he was a brainwave – he’ll describe his ‘first fuck’ (p.73) – which leads him into a sequence of reminiscences about being in a strip joint, being discovered swimming naked when he was a teenager, and so on, complete with plenty of erections and ejaculations.

she laughed softly and came over and stood in front of me so I was staring straight at her crotch sparsely fleeced with ginger pubic hair veiling but not concealing the pinky-brown crease of her cunt… (p.78)

A little later, he ponders the plight (as he sees it) of being homosexual:

What a deprivation, not to find the bodies of women attractive, their curves and their cunts and all the other fascinating differences from women… (p.116)

The novel is divided broadly into three points of view: the prim and proper diary which Helen Reed is keeping; an objective 3rd-person narrator; and Messenger’s stream-of-consciousness passages. The heart sinks when you come to every new Messenger section, for we are never very far from pricks and cunts.

It is odd that Lodge’s later novels regularly include figures who worry about the high moral purpose of art, of the value of the soul, of the imagination etc, sometimes almost as if they mean it – but the texts themselves routinely return us to an unpleasantly male gaze, a coarse objectifying of women, the brutal use of the crudest possible language.

I had time for a quick appraisal as she shrugged off her robe and climbed into the tub.. the tits are a little low slung and wide apart, but shapely and firm… they bounced perceptibly – with their own elasticity, not the cotton latex, as she stepped into the tub… in fact only a tiny strip of material, not much more than an inch wide, prevented me from staring right up her fanny… (p.117)

Comments like that, if written or even spoken aloud, would get you sacked for gross misconduct in most modern work-places. Yet slip them into a cleverly-structured, large-format Penguin paperback and this kind of vulgar language and grossly objectifying attitude wins literary prizes.

I’d like to fuck Emily [his step-daughter]…. Helen Reed, yes, I’d like to fuck her too… (p.118)

Speaking of his teenage step-daughter:

That time I saw her naked about a year ago, when I walked into the family bathroom, looking for something, and she was having a bath… just glimpsed her taut adolescent breasts gleaming wet with big brown aureoles and pointed nipples before I turned on my heel and walked out… (p.117)

No doubt the defense is that the very point of the stream-of-consciousness is to reveal everything, no matter how embarrassing, about a character. OK. But it seems to me a failure of imagination to think that revelations, secrets and embarrassments have to and can only be sexual revelations, secrets and embarrassments. There is more to human beings than screwing. On top of which, it feels lame that this extremely limited view of human nature can itself only be expressed by the monotonous repetition of the crudest language.

my tumescent cock… given me a tremendous hard-on (78)… panting for breath and with an erection like a broomstick (118)… I had to stay behind in the tub till my hard-on subsided (148)… if it happened that he lost his erection it didn’t matter (177)… How eager the young men were, how impatient their quivering erections (178).. It isn’t easy to drive with an erection (p.256)…

Male and female

Changing Places was structured around the comparison between go-getting American academic Morris Zapp and shy, bumbling English lecturer Philip Swallow.

Nice Work was structured around the contrast between high-falutin’ literary expert Robyn Penrose and hard-headed industrialist Vic Wilcox.

Thinks… is another dichotomy built around the opposition of Dr Ralph Messenger (male, scientist, rational) and Helen Reed (woman, novelist, feeling). Ralph is all aggressive rationalism and long lectures about current thinking in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. Helen was already a deeply sensitive person, and is now prone to even more intense feelings due to the recent, unexpected death of her husband (which also, of course, makes her conveniently available for a love affair).

Woman meets man = Sex. Or 300 pages of well-mannered foreplay rotating round and round the subject of sex. Again and again, I thought: Just get on and fuck him, for God’s sake, and then progress to the next, equally predictable stage – reams of high-minded literary regret.

Cognitive science

In his 20s the novelist Aldous Huxley set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 30 volumes of it. Nancy Cunard said you could tell which letter he was up to by his conversation. If it was all about hormones, horses and hysteria, he was up to… H! Something similar can be applied to Lodge. What has he been reading up on to turn into the theme of his next novel?

In his previous novel, Therapy, Lodge had obviously been reading the work of Søren Kierkegård because the protagonist of that novel gives us frequent expositions of the Danish philosopher’s theories, ethics and religious beliefs, as well as his biography, and indeed ends up travelling to Copenhagen to visit the Kierkegård museum and the places where the Great Dane lived and loved. Lodge is nothing if not thorough.

In the run-up to this novel Lodge has read intensively around the subjects of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence and related fields. We know this because of the two-page acknowledgement at the back of the book which thanks various cognitive scientists for their help and encouragement, and includes an impressive reading list.

The novel is, therefore, an exercise in weaving Lodge’s characteristically clear, plain and forthright expositions of this branch of science into the more mundane love story between the randy science professor and the sensitive lady novelist.

Will there be misunderstandings and arguments? Will they squabble about the relative importance of science versus art, of evidence versus emotion? Will there be a lot of expository prose about cognitive science and artificial intelligence and qualia and affective modelling and genetic algorithms? Yes. Lots.

  • Genetic algorithms are computer programs designed to replicate themselves like biological life forms (p.45)
  • Affective modelling is computer simulation of the way emotions affect human behaviour (p.45)
  • qualia – the specific quality of our subjective experiences of the world – like the smell of coffee, or the taste of pineapple (p.36)
  • ‘Mentalese’ – some kind of preverbal medium of consciousness which at a certain point, for certain purposes, gets articulated by the particular parts of the brain that specialise in speech (p.37)
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma (p.51)
  • Schrödinger’s Cat (p.54)
  • Locked-in syndrome (p.86)
  • Very small particles behave like waves, in random and unpredictable ways,’ says Douglas. ‘When we make a measurement, we cause the wave to collapse. It’s been suggested that the phenomenon of consciousness is a series of continuous collapses of the wave function.’ (p.127)
  • ‘Heisenberg demonstrated that you cannot accurately specify both the position and the speed of a particle. If you get one right, you get the other wrong.’ (p.128)
  • ‘Chaos theory deals with systems that are unusually sensitive to variations in their initial conditions or affected by a large number of independent variables. Like the weather, for instance.’ (p.128)
  • ‘TOM. Theory of Mind. Knowing that other people may interpret the world differently from yourself. The ability to lie depends on it. Most children acquire it at age three or four. Autistics never do.’ (p.134)

My son’s doing philosophy A-Level and I am surprised at the high standard of information and debate required for the subject. This novel is not pitched as high as A-Level. It raises various school debating society issues, but almost all in conversation, in dialogue, briefly, without going into depth: Is there a soul or are our minds just complex computers? Is life meaningful if there is no afterlife, or is it horribly pointless? —

When Lodge quotes from his sources (as above) the text is densely factual. But when he dramatises them into the mouths of his characters, especially the dim lady novelist, they are all too easily dumbed down into jokey dialogue. One of the characters has an autistic son: when Helen has one of the AI programs explained to her (it can process information but has no emotions) she quips that it is autistic. Having had chaos theory explained to her, she watches the annual rubber duck race on a nearby river, held for charity: and points out to the prof that what determines which duck gets into the lead is tiny variations in the initial conditions: Helen’s Chaos theory of Ducks! Boom boom. See how the novelist has dramatised these complex scientific theories for the benefit of us stupid people.

Is all this thorough learning integrated into the narrative of the novel? No. It would have been riveting if the plot had somehow turned on developments in AI, if one of the computer programs or experiments had somehow caused a crucial plot development. (Something like this in fact happens in Robert Harris’s thriller, The Fear Index, where an artificially intelligent algorithm designed to play the stock market starts to flex its muscles.) But here? No. The core of the novel is simply about a randy male academic who wants to sleep with an attractive female academic. The scientific elements appear from time to time as topics of conversation like any other, in among the hum of chat about the General Election or young people these days or the future of higher education or nice pubs in Gloucestershire.

Roman Catholicism

There’s always at least one Catholic character in a Lodge novel (some are entirely about Roman Catholic teaching and its recent history, such as The British Museum Is Falling Down or How Far Can You Go?).

The Catholic in this novel is the creative writing teacher, Helen Reed. She abandoned her faith decades ago, when a student, but her husband recently died of a brain haemorrhage and she now finds herself (very predictably) attracted to the campus chapel, nostalgically hankering for the religious certainties of her childhood faith. Yawn. When she visits her parents at Easter she is drawn back to the elaborate rituals of the weekend of special services. And when she discusses the mind, consciousness and fiction with her polar opposite, the alpha male scientist, Helen draws on convenient snippets of Christian belief to perform her allotted role in the novel’s scheme: as representative of the “lady novelist / emotions and empathy / but surely the universe has some meaning?” school of argument.

‘But aren’t there areas of human experience where scientific method doesn’t apply?’
‘Qualia, you mean?’
‘I suppose so,’ [Helen] said. ‘I was thinking of happiness, unhappiness. The sense of the sublime. Love.’ (p.229)

Dear oh dear. She is made out to be laugh-out-loud dim and – the point of her not realising her husband was unfaithful – completely unperceptive about other people. But like many dim people, she takes her own inability to follow an argument or to weigh the evidence systematically, as a virtue, as a proof that her own vague post-Christian vapourings about souls and spirits and the universe and feeling, are somehow more true, more authentic, more real than yukky science.

Bourgeois world

After Small World, Lodge appears to have made a conscious choice not to return to the cartoony, comic exuberance of that and its predecessor novels. Although comedic in structure (they have happy endings) and often funny in occasional details, Nice WorkParadise NewsTherapy and Thinks… address more ‘serious’ subjects and seem to be trying to treat them in a more adult style. Lacking the zany improbabilities of the comic novels, they become more ‘realistic’ in tone and approach.

1. I read the news today… One sign of this is the foregrounding of contemporary news and issues in the text. All these novels are set in very carefully defined time periods. Often (in Therapy and here) the majority of the text consists of journals or diaries where Lodge is able to tie the characters’ thoughts or events to specific dates in specific years, and to reference the political events, the economic background and the news stories to create a ‘realistic’ timeframe for the narrative (the Jamie Bulger case, Squidgygate, the bombing of Sarajevo etc in Therapy).

In this novel it is the build-up to the General Election in May 1997 which ended 18 years of Conservative government, and inaugurated 13 years of New Labour rule. (Typically, Messenger and Helen have sex on the momentous night itself. Sex overrides every other value in these novels.)

However, I’m not sure this tactic really works. I argued in my review of Therapy that just referring to contemporary events without somehow integrating them into the plot or narrative has the paradoxical effect of making the narratives appear shallower, as if the stories are themselves as trite and throwaway as the daily papers.

2. But the other noticeable trend in these post-comic novels is the increasing embourgeoisement of the characters. The clever grammar school boy swept up into National Service in Ginger, You’re Barmy or whose childhood and youth are sensitively described in Out Of The Shelter are exceptional, maybe, in their precocious intelligence, but act as windows onto a broader social scene, the working class squaddies in Ginger or American-dominated post-war Germany. The academic world of Changing Places and Small World is deliberately exaggerated to cartoon colourfulness for our amusement, and generally features comically poor, struggling, up-and-coming, frustrated, stymied and accident-prone academics.

But in these later novels the characters have made it. They are successful and they enjoy the conventional trappings of success. In Therapy the protagonist has a big house in the Midlands (with four loos), a flash car and a handy flat in central London. In Thinks… the lady novelist’s books have won prizes, she has a house in London, her parents have a nice retirement home in Southwold; the male protagonist, Ralph Messenger, has a house on the university campus and another fabulous house in the country, with a hot tub set on a slope with a commanding view, which the characters luxuriate in while discussing the nature of consciousness and the problem of point-of-view in fiction. (Or looking at the women’s tits, if you’re Messenger.)

There is lots of fine dining. More attention is paid than before to the brands of food and – maybe the most salient marker of English bourgeois life – of wine. Messenger likes his wines and, characteristically, uses them to try and get women drunk and into bed. In line with her role as the representative of Henry James and religious feeling and fine sensibility, it is the lady novelist through whose eyes we see the middle-class dinner parties and cocktail parties and birthday parties, the lovely house in the country, the charming town of Cheltenham with its lovely Regency architecture and charming curio shops which sell such lovely trinkets and the charming pubs in the lovely villages around Gloucester which serve such wonderful lunches.

After Helen has visited the wonderful church of Ledbury and communed with the soul of Henry James, who also visited it and left such an exquisite diary entry about it, she returns to a just adorable pub she spotted in the village.

Logs smouldered in the big open fireplace, and there were spring flowers on every table – solid, unpolished wooden tables, with comfortable Windsor armchairs. Blackboards over the long bar listed an enticing and adventurous menu. I ordered garlic and herb tagliatelle with chilli prawns and sun-dried tomatoes, reserving the possibility of an orange truffle pot with Grand Marnier sauce for dessert. A smiling motherly waitress took my order, to which I added a large glass of the house Chardonnay. The first course, when it came, was as mouth-watering as its description promised. I could hardly believe my good fortune. (p.233)

The scene, the prose are like something from Cotswolds tourist board, like an upmarket review on TripAdvisor.

But it is, with thumping inevitability, on this little pilgrimage to an out-of-the-way church, in this well-appointed pub with its wonderful cuisine that Helen spots Messenger’s wife and another man clearly having an illicit meeting, obviously carrying on an affair.

It is the inevitability of the way that, in middle-class novels, it is always the formal dinner party or the lovely meal with the Chardonnay (or was it that wonderful Pouilly-Fuissé, darling?) or the trip to the exquisite restaurant, where one or other married character makes a pass at another married character, or so-and-so’s affair is discovered and there is the most horrendous scene.

I find this world – real enough as it is, and as I’ve experienced it at numerous tense dinner parties – narrow, limited, sticky and thick with hypocrisy, full of successful bankers and lawyers and academics guffawing and pouring you some more Beaujolais and telling you why Tony just has to support George because there definitely are weapons of mass destruction, you know, a good friend in the FO told me it’s all true, and Saddam Hussein is just such a beastly man. A hermetically sealed world of People Like Us who never let the ugly, uncongenial facts of existence disturb their cosy groupthink.

It is a world and a class which are hard not to find repellent in its cosseted smugness. I preferred Norman the pig man in Ginger, You’re Barmy – his memory makes me smile because he represented something unsmooth and rebarbative, something which couldn’t be bought off with another glass of this rather fine Nuits-Saint-Georges, a working-class aggression which turned out to have an oddly endearing sweetness about it, something unexpected and which therefore stretched my imagination and human sympathies. A rude honesty which reaches back through Shakespeare to Chaucer and medieval gargoyles.

More plot

But there’s more. Once she’s discovered her (now dead) husband was unfaithful to her, Helen – on the rebound – of course makes herself available to the nearest thrusting alpha male, Dr Messenger. She prepares carefully for a scene of touching and sensitive seduction, cleaning her small flat, changing the sheets, washing and putting on one of her nicest outfits. So far the female point of view. Messenger records it on his tape thus:

This afternoon I fucked one of England’s finest female novelists… She looked so attractive at Bourton-on-the-Water, in a close-fitting pair of white jeans that showed her shapely bum to advantage, and her breasts moving about interestingly under her sweater… I didn’t want to give her any time for second thoughts, and I soon discovered that there was no need for elaborate foreplay. In fact she came with astonishing rapidity, almost as soon as I entered her. (p.257)

(It helps for practical purposes that Messenger’s wife has been called to America to the bedside of her ailing father.)

Thus Helen allows Messenger to fuck her and, like millions of women before and since, wonders whether she is truly in love with him and just what her feelings are and whether she has somehow betrayed her loyalty to her dead husband and is there still some vestige of sin in adultery etc etc etc etc for page after page of her dim-witted self-absorbed journal — while Messenger just calculates all the different ways and places he can fuck her – in the jacuzzi, high on a sheep-covered hillside, in their country retreat quietly when the kids are asleep, in her flat, on top, from behind, ringing the changes and treating her like a hank of meat.

[Messenger] liked to get inside her quickly and copulate in various positions before he achieved his orgasm, bringing Helen to several in the meantime. He was immensely strong in the arms and shoulders, and flipped her effortlessly this way and that, over and under him, like a wrestler practising ‘holds’. (p.263)

All of which crude abuse we read Helen rationalising to herself as just a rather boisterous expression of his love for her, his emotions for her, of the deep spiritual bond they have forged together. Pathetic stupid self delusion.

Crescendo and climax

After a fairly leisurely 280 pages the last 60 pick up speed as a number of plot strands converge:

  • In chapter 23 Messenger had visited Prague, where his publisher had fixed him up with a slender beauty to show him round (and what do you think they do that night? Fuck? Correct.) Messenger vaguely promised her she could attend the summer conference at his university. Now she writes, taking him up on his promise and eventually threatening to reveal their affair (one fuck) to his wife.
  • More dramatically, Messenger is diagnosed with a lump on the liver which dominates the final chapters. It is eventually revealed to be benign, a cyst caused by a parasite picked up during a youthful holiday working on a sheep farm. But the fear that it is cancer casts a pall over everyone. With crashing inevitability, it brings him and his wife closer together. He realises what a fool he’s been (lol), screwing around with the Czech woman, and then this crazy affair with Helen. He completely disengages from her. For her part, Helen is beside herself with concern and can’t understand why Messenger is suddenly so stand-offish (being unable to imagine that she was, all along, a glorified sex doll for a middle-aged sex maniac).
  • On the night of the big conference a small plot strand explodes when the Child Pornography Unit of Gloucestershire Police arrive to announce that someone in his department has been downloading child pornography – an investigation which quickly takes them to Messenger’s number two, the angry, frustrated Professor Duggan, a perennial loser who never got over Messenger being appointed to the job he thought was his by rights and who – in a surprise move – hangs himself from shame.
  • All of these incidents rushing together make Messenger immediately and logically realise he wants to terminate the fling with Helen. Apart from anything else, it is his American wife who is the rich one – in a divorce she would probably keep all the money, the house and the children. Yes, but better break it to her gently, old chap. Helen, characteristically, takes a lot longer and invokes the soul, art and Henry James before reaching pretty much the same conclusion. Her heart says one thing, her head says another – ‘I fear I love this man!’ (and so on).

In the final scene Messenger goes to her flat to tell her it’s over. She is late back from work. At a loose end he opens her laptop, starts to read her journal and is thunderstruck to discover that his wife, Carrie, is herself having an affair (from the entry Helen made about seeing Carrie with the man at the pub in Ledbury). Turns out Messenger doesn’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads, either.

Or: it turns out that just about every superior middle-class person in the book is totally available for affairs and flings, adultery and betrayal. It is a dispiritingly shallow view of the world and human nature, that all this expensive education, all this knowledge and insight, is put almost exclusively to the service of furtive fucking.

Morality and irresponsibility

Helen, in her high-mindedly self-deceiving way, thinks that all her windy hand-wringing about whether to fuck Messenger is essentially a moral question and (God help us) what novels mostly are and should be about. After the biggest computer in the world replicates all human thought processes, she states,

‘The same moral problems of love and lust, fidelity and betrayal, will remain’ (p.299).

No doubt morality will remain, but I find the notion that morality is exclusively concerned with sexual behaviour – as this statement (and the whole novel) implies – to be constrictingly narrow and unattractive.

Freud, who knew a thing or two about human sexuality, says ‘morality is simple’. Are you going to betray your marriage vows, yes or no. If you think it will make you unhappy and is ‘wrong’, don’t do it.

This novel reminded me of Woody Allen’s films (not just because of the scene where he sexually fantasises about his step-daughter) but also because the characters can’t seem to behave like adults, can’t live by simple rules, can’t – and this is the point – deny themselves any pleasures they set their eyes on. It is a world where everyone wants to be happily married but also screw anyone they want to. Aaaaaaw mom, I wanna ice cream!!!

Like Allen’s films, this kind of novel teaches us nothing about ‘morality’, but a great deal about the self-centred, spoilt, childish kidults from the 80s and 90s who dress up their inability to act their age in fancy words and long-winded monologues about self-expression or life choices or qualia.

Morality is about respecting other people and helping and supporting them through a life which can often be difficult and painful, through bereavement and accident and disease and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, through the natural stages of loving and committing and parenting and caring for children, for your partner, for your parents when they become old and ill. It is about behaving with generosity and kindness, giving, helping, acting responsibly and rationally, overcoming difficulties and – through all of this – accepting that a large part of being an adult means self-denial.

Morality is not about having a well-paid job, a loving partner, living in a big house overflowing with food and over-educated friends – and agonising about who to fuck next. That is self-indulgence, indiscipline and decadence.

Satire?

The concluding question is: is this novel a satire? Does Lodge intend us to dislike and despise these characters as much as I do? The scientific gobbets are presented at face value. And so are the characters’ discussions of them. Helen’s upset at her husband’s death, and then of discovering his betrayal, seem serious. The child porn addict hanging himself – is that utterly serious, or does it smack a little of the savage farcical angle of a Tom Sharpe satire? Carrie’s father’s illness, Messenger’s own diagnosis with a liver condition – these are both presented ‘straight’, as if in a completely realistic novel where we are meant to sympathise with the characters’ plights and problems.

But surely Lodge cannot have created such a rapacious monster of egotism (Messenger) and such a self-absorbed, self-deceiving ninny as Helen, without realising it?

Lodge has been studying, teaching and writing novels for 50 years. Is he cannily creating space within the text for the reader to create the story they need? Some will warm to Helen’s tender-heartedness and read it as one woman’s journey to self-realisation; others might take from it the clever interweaving of up-to-date science with contemporary characters; randy men might warm to, or at least find hilarious, Messenger’s uninhibitedly frank sex talk.

Is a consistent take on the characters and the ‘story’ difficult because Lodge is deliberately deploying the material over a spectrum of ‘seriousness’, from the entirely heart-felt to the savagely ironic. The text very obviously consists of three main ‘voices’ (Messenger’s tape recordings, Helen’s diary entries, the omniscient narrator linking it all). Are there also different ‘registers of seriousness’ weaving across all three voices i.e. sometimes we’re meant to take their feelings and ideas seriously but at other times they are meant to be laughable and at other times… somewhere in between?

In the final page, looking back from some years later, the narrator records that Helen settles down with another writer and wins prizes for her novels, while Messenger is awarded the CBE for services to science. Is the novel serious in intention and satirical in outcome – both at the same time? Is official society’s recognition of this fine pair of boobies (prizes, honours) a parting gesture by Lodge which unmistakably marks the text as a satire on our values today, the way we live now? Or is the whole novel a sophisticated litmus test in which the reader’s response reveals more about him or her than about the author or his ‘intentions’?

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Thinks...

Penguin paperback edition of Thinks…

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, amid numerous lectures on artificial intelligence, cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Therapy by David Lodge (1995)

One of the depressing things about depression is knowing that there are lots of people in the world with far more reason to feel depressed than you have, and finding that, so far from making you snap out of your depression, it only makes you despise yourself more and thus feel more depressed. (p.107)

This is the story of TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore, who’s riding high on the success of his soap opera The People Next Door. He is the archetypal middle-class middle-aged successful man who has it all – big house, lovely wife, kids launched into life, fast car, successful career, lots of money – but is unhappy and doesn’t know why.

How many novels are written about this figure? If there’s such a thing as the ‘campus novel’, is there the ‘depressed-middle-aged-successful-professional-man’ novel? Maybe it’s the ‘menopausal man’ novel.

A new kind of character

For thirty years (1960-1991) Lodge had been getting into the minds of academics and intellectuals, literary critics and theologians, in texts which were never far from detailed considerations of literary theory, Catholic theology, or sex. Certainly the combination of literary high-mindedness with graphic sexual description is the tell-tale sign of his previous five or six novels.

Which makes Therapy a welcome change, at least initially. The story is told in the first-person and TV scriptwriter Passmore’s voice is refreshingly different in tone and idiolect from anything that’s gone before. Unlike the over-educated but under-worldly figures we’re used to in Lodge’s fiction, Passmore is a convincing portrayal of a much more middle-brow character: more or less the first Lodge character to be interested in sports, to be happily married and faithful to his wife, who swims confidently in the demanding but relentlessly unintellectual world of popular TV. (In the middle section we find out from  his wife that although he attended a grammar school, he was always bottom of the class, and left with just a couple of O levels – p.196)

In an amusing character trait he enjoys looking up words and sharing their definitions with us, and his nickname in the TV industry, since he put on quite a lot of weight and lost most of his hair, is Tubby. All of this is broadly funny in a tolerant, grumpy-old-man kind of way.

Part one (pp.3-129)

The first 129 pages consist of a diary or journal which Laurence starts in order to keep track of the painful twinges he’s getting in his knee. He has a keyhole operation to cure it which, alas, doesn’t work, but the diary goes on to record his visits to a psychotherapist, an acupuncturist, a physiotherapist and an aromatherapist as he searches for a cure to his physical ailments but also, it emerges, the undefined malaise nagging at his soul. He has everything. So why does he lie in bed at nights, unhappy?

His platonic mistress (female best friend) Amy, in London, describes his condition as Angst and, in looking it up, Laurence stumbles across the writings of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegård (1813-1855). Intrigued he buys some of his works in the Charing Cross Road and begins to explore Kierkegård’s philosophy (as expressed in the great man’s rather confusing works). Ideas around what attitude we should take to life, to decision-making, how to avoid a permanent feeling of dread, how to live an authentic existence. In a biography he discovers how much SK’s philosophy was prompted by the one great love of his life, Regine, who he rejected in an agony of indecision, a moment he regretted for the rest of his life.

A great deal else is covered in this opening part, painting in Laurence’s everyday life and down-to-earth character, from his regular tennis games with friends to moans about his ongoing medical problems, a lot of detail about the different therapies and the idiosyncratic therapists who perform them, the day-to-day business of being married, and quite interesting insights of how his scripts are written, produced, rehearsed and directed into the thirty-minute sitcom which is the basis of his fortune.

But as he becomes more intrigued and beguiled by Kierkegård’s writings, Laurence begins to sound like many another Lodge intellectual, sometimes less a character than an idea with legs. After a few months he has understood Kierkegård well enough to be able to explain to us his rather arcane notion of repetition – that repetition is the ultimate form of existential fulfilment, that in it we find ourselves.

And exposition of this rather abstract idea leads Laurence into an eloquent hymn to married life, to its rhythm and predictability, to the virtues of getting to know someone inside out, relishing their character and tastes and the little things that please them, through the repetition of day-to-day tenderness and love.

Which makes it all the funnier, and the more heart-breaking, when this whole section ends on the bombshell that his wife, Sally, wants to divorce him.

Part two – dramatic monologues (pp.133-198)

Very confidently and amusingly (Lodge has done this so many times before) the entire middle section of the novel is made up of dramatic monologues from the ‘secondary’ characters. We read:

  • A court deposition from Brett Sutton, Sally’s tennis coach. Laurence had begun to suspect his wife of having an affair with Brett, so he starts stalking him, making silent phone calls to him at all times of day and night, occasionally pretending to be Sally’s mother and putting on a high-pitched voice, damaging his greenhouse and then – in the climax of this strand – breaking into his bedroom with a pair of garden shears to cut off his…. ponytail. It’s only when Brett wakes up and turns the light on that a horrified Laurence sees that he is in bed with… his boyfriend. He is gay. He emphatically has not been having an affair with Laurence’s wife.
  • Plump Amy, Laurence’s platonic girlfriend in London, a skilled casting director, explains in a series of monologues (each one representing a session with her therapist) how she hears about the news of the separation, how she comforts Laurence but fears he might now want to sleep with her, and how she is persuaded to go with him on the worst foreign holiday of all time to Tenerife, to the hotel from hell, where they push together the two single metal bunk beds and, despite all his efforts, Laurence turns out to be impotent. In its depiction of Playa de las Americas as hell, this is very funny.
  • Louise, a high-powered Hollywood producer who once, five years ago, on Laurence’s one trip to the States to discuss creating a US version of the sitcom, took a bit too much cocaine in the ladies’ loo and made a blunt pass at Laurence. We hear her phone conversation to a fellow American media woman – frequently interrupted by other important calls from Hollywood contacts – in which she describes her astonishment that Laurence flies out to California, solely to meet her, solely to recreate that long-vanished evening, solely to try and seduce her. She is flabbergasted, gets him drunk, and kicks him out of her car at his expensive hotel.
  • Ollie Silver, the middle-aged producer of The People Next Door, meets an old pal from Current Affairs in the pub and chats about work and especially the problem he has: Deborah Radcliffe the star of the sitcom, wants to leave and he needs Laurence to write her out of the series. But Laurence, caught in his mid-life meltdown, refuses all the suggestions he and the Head of Comedy have made. If he continues to refuse, they’ll invoke his contract, cut him out of the show and hire a more compliant writer.
  • Samantha Handy, the hilariously self-centred young script-editor, hired by Laurence’s lecherous agent, Jake Endicott, visits a work colleague whose mouth is wired shut due to recent dental work, and breathlessly describes being invited by Laurence on a trip to Copenhagen to research his quixotic fantasy of creating a new drama series based on the life of Kierkegård, where she expects to have to sleep with him as a return for his recommending her to Jake – but is surprised when he turns down her increasingly blunt offers. Turns out visiting the sites of Kierkegård’s life make Laurence feel genuinely philosophical, make him think much more seriously about life and the choices you make.
  • Sally Passmore, his estranged wife, meets Laurence’s therapist to emphasise that the marriage really is over, kaput, finished, but finds herself drawn into reminiscing about how they met and the constraints of their very different families in the late 1950s, which drove them to seek escape by marrying.

All very persuasive and entertaining, sometimes very funny.

Part three (pp.201-282)

Back to Laurence’s diary, recommencing on Tuesday 25 May, and almost immediately he reveals that he wrote the dramatic monologues listed above, as an exercise for his therapist (and Lodge’s joke at the reader’s expense). Unexpected as this twist is, I think it ultimately detracts from the novel. It would have been far more interesting to have been the genuine views of all these characters. Knowing they were done by him somehow narrows them.

Barely has Laurence explained this, than he tells us he’s been musing more and more frequently on his first girlfriend, Maureen Kavanagh, back in impoverished south-east London where he grew up, and this is the pretext for a freestanding section, titled ‘Maureen: A Memoir’, which makes up most of this part.

It is a long section (pages 222-258, inclusive), quite a change of tone and a complete change of setting: from the heady delights of Soho’s medialand circa 1993, to schoolboy days in black-and-white post-war Charlton, 1952, with our hero attending Lambeth Merchants’ grammar school, playing in the school soccer team, and doing a star turn at the Catholic youth club dances, holding his Maureen tight as they smooch to Nat King Cole.

Maybe this whole section – presumably indebted to Lodge’s own upbringing at the same time and in the same place – is intended to be a symptom of a man unable to face his life in the here and now, escaping back to idealised memories of halcyon innocence. But it also reads like a stand-alone short story which has been inserted, not totally convincingly, into the longer text. Also, it reworks themes familiar to any reader of Lodge: the precocious 16-year-old echoes the identically aged protagonist of Out of the Shelter; the link between teenage Catholicism and sex are unhappily present throughout his work.

The story itself starts out as the sweetly innocent romance between Laurence and local Catholic girl, Maureen. After a year of catching trams to school at opposite stops, they finally bump into each other and speak, and then Laurence starts attending the Catholic youth group in order to be close to her, especially at the Sunday night dance (supervised by a priest). And then he gets to accompany her on the 15-minute walk home. And then they kiss, a radiant memory. And then a little more than kissing. And touching. And every week thereafter, a little further, until Laurence attains every schoolboy’s Holy Grail and, in the cold damp area under the steps to Maureen’s house, he gets to feel the curve of her teenage breast. Eureka! Which goes on for several weeks.

But then they both become involved in the Church Nativity Play in which Maureen is cast as Mary. The priest directing it emphasises to her that she must not only play the role she must pray the role, aspiring to be as chaste and pure as the Virgin. And so she shyly and embarrassedly asks Laurence to stop, to stop the fondling and the kissing. And he is angry.

And I was embarrassed. I felt increasingly like a voyeur at the violation of a teenage virgin. After the slow, sweet build-up, the story unravels quickly from that point onwards. As they go on to perform in the Nativity play, Laurence puts increasingly genuine contempt for his one-time sweetheart into his performance as Herod. And as soon as the productions are finished, he publicly humiliates Maureen, quits the Catholic social club, gets a job in a West End theatre, and quickly leaves his boyhood world behind.

Now, 40 years later, as he continues using the journal to search his soul, he realises he is still haunted by his heartlessness. On the spur of the moment Laurence revisits his childhood neighbourhood, tracks down the house where he grew up, then Maureen’s house and then the Catholic church which oversaw the youth club. Here he meets the modish young priest struggling with Excel spreadsheets, and makes enquiries. Turns out Maureen married the director of the youth club nativity play – Laurence’s much despised rival, Bede. Further investigation turns up that this rather pompous young man went on to become a civil servant in the Department of Education, ultimately playing a key role in the implementation of the new National Curriculum.

So Laurence rings Bede up out of the blue and goes to visit him in his plush home in Wimbledon. Here he discovers that Bede and Maureen’s eldest son was recently murdered in Africa. And for this and other reasons Maureen, still a devout Catholic, has undertaken the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

And, on impulse, his present life in ruins, seeking, searching, yearning for the certainty of those vanished days – Laurence decides to track her down.

If all this feels rushed and against the grain of the leisurely and fairly comedic opening sections, that’s because it is.

Part four (pp.285-321)

He tracks her down. He spares no expense driving up and down the autoroutes of southern France and Spain, stopping at every pilgrim’s lodge, searching for her name among the registers of overnight guests. He eventually finds her trudging along a busy A road, weary and foot-sore. After her initial amazement, she allows him to take her bags to the nearest hotel, but she insists on walking. And quite quickly he falls in with her plans, driving her backpack ahead to the nearest town, then walking back to meet her, as she slowly, painfully completes every step of the pilgrimage.

Lodge includes a lot of tourist colour, describing the landscape, the other pilgrims, the lodges and rest-houses, as if he himself has done the route or researched it pretty thoroughly. It has stopped in any way being a detached, amusing comedy. It feels more real and urgent than that. She is not the trim schoolgirl of his memory. She is a baggy, paunchy, wrinkly, tubby middle aged woman gone to seed. But it doesn’t matter to Laurence, driven by his obsession.

Finally, when Maureen has walked all the way to the cathedral and taken part in the necessary rituals and then attended the big celebration Mass – finally they repair to a swanky hotel where Laurence finally gets to make love to her (he had been offering to all the time, but she had refused while she was making pilgrimage). And thereafter, like spring chickens, like fit young 20-somethings, they make love every siesta and every night. He offers to marry her but she says, No, she must go back to Bede.

And so they make their respective ways back to London. In a tearing hurry Laurence drives up to Rummidge to try and effect a reconciliation with his wife, but she says she has now fallen in love with another man and slept with him. Game over.

As the book ends Laurence explains that the problem with his sitcom, about the actress leaving – that was all sorted out; the money is still pouring in; he’s now the best of friends with Bede and Maureen, he’s going to move to Wimbledon and join the golf club; and he and Maureen still enjoy fairly regular ‘siestas’, her ongoing marriage to Bede not appearing to trouble her at all. And the problem with his knee, which prompted him to start the journal? All cleared up, old boy. Maybe there is something in these pilgrimages.


Conclusion

There is something profoundly wrong about all this. It is fine for Lodge’s characters to fall in and out of bed with each other when they are in one of his obvious comic-fantasies. But the backdrop to this encounter is Laurence’s genuine cruelty of 40 years ago, Maureen’s bereft mourning for her dead son, the complex and real damage this has done to her marriage to Bede, and the long, agonising, physically draining experience of the pilgrimage, not easy for an out-of-shape housewife in her late 50s.

I just don’t believe a woman like that would simply open her arms and say Yes to sex. And that they would then shag like teenagers every afternoon and every evening. It feels too much like male wish-fulfilment, the need of Laurence’s penis over-riding every other real-world consideration.

From the moment in Part Two that he introduced the Maureen memoir, it began to feel like a different novel from the first half, one dealing with potentially much more serious and upsetting themes. And yet it is embedded in the increasingly inappropriate chatty, upbeat tone of his middle-brow TV scriptwriter. Subject matter and tone feel at odds.

And the facile capitulation of Maureen to his childhood fantasies – seems too much like fantasy, in the negative sense. Or that the fantasy seems cheap and easy, compared to the short but powerful scenes about the son’s death and the pilgrimage itself. These threads hint at the much deeper complexity of human nature, at enduring issues of tragedy and loss, of age and decay, of lost loves and lost hopes – which can’t just be reconciled and sorted out with a few fancy meals and improbably athletic sex in an expensive hotel room.

It feels like Lodge’s comic instincts do a disservice to his deeper intuitions about human nature.


Social history

Lodge’s previous novels are all very specific about their location in time, and all contain references to contemporary events (in the case of How Far Can You Go? almost obsessively so). Laurence’s diary commences on Monday 15 February 1993 and the last entry is on September 21.

The advantage of the diary format is you can make passing comments on anything which takes your fancy without disturbing the flow of ‘plot’ (if there is a plot). Thus Laurence bolsters the ‘realism’ of the text by including numerous references to contemporary events and trends:

  • global warming (have we really been worrying about it for 20 years?)
  • British Rail introducing the irritating phrase ‘station stop’
  • the well-publicised case of Jamie Bulger, abducted from a shopping centre and murdered by two young boys on 12 February 1993
  • on the train to and from London he works on his laptop computer (the etymological dictionary says the word was first used in 1984)
  • he hears about the death of Bobby Moore (24 February 1993) on the evening he’s gone to see Reservoir Dogs, and contrasts the dignity and heroism of the footballer with the cynical, squalid hyper-violence of the Hollywood movie
  • Diana’s Squidgeygate tapes are in the news, making him feel sorry for the Royal Family
  • the Serbs are bombing Sarajevo
  • John Major has the lowest popularity rating of any Prime Minister since records began

This deployment of background chronology has been Lodge’s practice since his earliest novels, but I question why. Ezra Pound said an ‘epic’ is a poem with history in it, and proceeded to shove his long poem, The Cantos, full of historical references, but himself ultimately judged the poem a failure, because of its lack of coherence.

Something similar is going on here. The history has to be woven into the pattern of the narrative. The history has to engage with the plot and the characters. Just noting what’s on the radio or in the papers that day – Jamie Bulger, John Major, Sarajevo – certainly matches the story against a chronology of the times – but it doesn’t integrate history into the narrative, doesn’t dramatise it. The two strands run on parallel lines without ever touching.


Mid-life crisis

Thirty seconds on the internet showed me that novels about a middle-aged man who feels he’s missing something is a well-established and thoroughly defined genre – the ‘mid-life crisis novel’ – and that Therapy is routinely included in them.

Nat King Cole – Too Young

This is one of the songs to which the 16-year-old Laurence dances with his childhood sweetheart, all those years ago, back in post-war south-east London. My mother (same generation as Lodge) had a big collection of original Nat King Cole records which my Dad bought her, and which I inherited.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art @ British Museum

Fear of sex in the Western tradition

The Positions (I Modi or The Sixteen Pleasures) a 16th century Italian book of engravings of various sexual positions, was for a long time notorious for being the most sexually explicit book in the tradition of European art. It was banned by the Pope in 1524 and its author, Raimondo, imprisoned. Discouraged by this example and the repressive laws of their various countries, few European artists made sexually explicit images until the dawn of the modern age – with notable pioneers including Aubrey Beardsley in the 1890s and Egon Schiele in the 1910s.

This wasn’t a consequence of one Pope’s diktat, but because fear of the body as one of the chief enemies of godliness, of holiness, of the individual’s hopes of getting to heaven, is deeply embedded in the Christian traditions which frame our culture. From the Church Fathers down to the 4th century theologian Augustine, the earliest Christian thinkers were repelled by the human body. They sought martyrdom as quickly as possible, or tried to starve and subjugate the bodies which they saw as the enemy of their immortal souls. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731) is a list of the holy men of Ireland and Britain, all of whom starved or scourged their bodies to achieve holiness.

The exhibition

This stunning exhibition at the British Museum is a comprehensive overview of the amazingly graphic and explicitly sexual imagery produced in Japan between 1650 and 1900, known as shunga art. Shunga are beautifully crafted paintings of sexually explicit images of great delicacy and refinement, usually created in sets of 12. During that period, virtually all artists in the Japanese tradition were expected to produce shunga.

The sequence of 12 varied scenes could be taken as a guide to lovemaking or as an aid to stimulation, for solitary readers or for couples. Over the centuries, hundreds of artists made shunga images and the genre spawned scores of variations, including the comic, the satirical, the grotesque and so on.

Shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

A shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

The floating world

The earliest surviving examples come from the period 1600 to 1650. The high quality materials used in their creation indicate the artists were commissioned and patornised by the very richest in society. It wad during t his period, with the growth of cities, especially Edo, that the Samurai government presided over the growth of a so-called ‘floating world’ of pleasure-seeking, brothels and the immensely popular kabuki theatre. From around 1650 cheaper woodblock-printed shunga were produced in large quantities for townspeople, showing more ordinary folk in a wide variety of sexual activity, alongside the continuation of high quality painted items for aristocrats.

The exhibition covers all this and more, reaching back to earlier periods. Among the myths of Japan’s religion, Shinto, is the story of the Japanese gods of creation Izanagi and Izanami who learn lovemaking from a wagtail (!) and whose lovemaking produces the island of Japan itself.

I was riveted to read that Japan’s creation myths are recorded in histories dating from the 700s ie exactly contemporary with the struggle to bring Christianity to the illiterate Germanic pagan tribes of these islands which the Venerable Bede’s History describes.

Poem of the Pillow

Poem of the Pillow

There are 100 or more images and each one is labelled with detailed notes and an explanation of the artist, the date, the precise sub-tradition they were working in, the ways in which they were manipulating the genre. It is a lot to read and take in, a whole new world, an entirely new tradition.

Health, equality and homosexuality

The cumulative impression is that there was no Shame. Sex was for pleasure and for health. Some of the texts which accompany the images recommend sex as a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, to keep the heart and other organs functioning correctly, or as the key to eternal youth. In one image a man is stimulating a woman and catching the waterfall of her juices in a jar which he will later drink as the elixir of eternal youth.

And the Equality of Pleasure. Women are depicted as enjoying sex, as achieving climax, as being just as cheeky and naughty as the men. In some scenarios one or more women trick a visiting man to have sex with her or them. A man is conned into a sack from which his dangling penis protrudes so he can have sex with a succession of women, all shown with their very hairy vulvas exposed and without any hint of Western concealment or embarrassment.

Man with seven women

Man with seven women

And there’s a large amount of homosexuality – some lesbianism, but mostly a lot of men buggering each other. Again, despite our liberal times, I felt a frisson of concern or fear, at acts which in my lifetime were still completely illegal in Britain, being displayed so brazenly. But here they are, depicted openly, frankly and humorously. A scroll portrays with beautiful detail and humour, sex between Buddhist priests and their acolytes from the 1300s. Apparently it was known as the ‘way of youths’ or shudo.

The exhibition includes a medieval scroll in which a bathhouse full of men compare the sizes of their comically enlarged penises, which need tables to rest on. This is followed by a section where they compare farts in a contest. All reminiscent of Chaucer and Rabelais.

Gigantism

One of the most striking things throughout is the contrast between the perfectly white and perfectly unblemished skin of the Japanese figures, with their stylised eyes, noses and mouths, the cleanness and purity of line with which they are portrayed – and the exaggerated, donkey-size penises and violently red vulvas which they display. The figures are often shown in anatomically impossible poses to ensure the penis and vulva are blatant, the unmistakable core of the image.

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

After the initial shock wore off, after I became a little inured to so many penises and vulvas, I found myself noticing the beautiful kimonos and silk clothing of the protagonists, depicted in stylised folds and with loving attention to pattern and material. Also to the backdrops and settings, to the scrolls and wall hangings in the rooms, to the cherry trees outside with their immaculately rendered petals.

There was one whole type of books which started with sets of portraits of individuals, done with great elegance and solemnity, and which ended with big close-ups of their penis or vulva – the reader was expected to match the face with the genitals.

According to the wikipedia article on shunga ‘the genitalia is interpreted as a “second face,” expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.’

This is so far from Western ideas of decorum, or art, as to be quite bewildering, dazzling.

A brief history

Shunga existed in the Middle Ages, became widespread as high-class paintings in the 1600s, then as mass-produced woodcuts from the 1650s. There were attempts to ban them in the 1720s and periodically through the 1700s, but all indications are that they continued to circulate widely and be very popular. Only in the early 1900s, as Japan’s leaders embarked on a course of self-conscious modernisation, was shunga really systematically banned, and thereafter became a taboo genre for most of the 20th century.

It’s fascinating to see the influence of Western traditions intrude as Japan began opening up to the outside world from the 1860s onwards. Western Victorian gentleman begin to feature in the illustrations, with precisely the same engorged organs and hairy tufts as the Japanese, but wearing incongruously prim frock coats and hats.

The most regrettable western import is the total nude. All of the Japanese images portray their figures semi-dressed, with fabrics artfully falling away to reveal the genitalia, and the combination of lovingly depicted fabric with the raw genitals creates a wonderfully dreamy ‘floating world’ fantasy, a pornotopia of cost-free, riskless sexuality.

In the photographs which Westerners began to take in the late 19th century and which are exhibited here at the end of the exhibition, we see all too clearly the actual reality of Japanese women – prostitutes – stripped to the waist and exhibited like cattle. It’s impossible not to feel the heavy hand of Western sexual repression and its opposite – crude and exploitative pornography – crushing the delicacy and gorgeous detail of the native tradition.

Haiku

Many of the images were carefully designed to accommodate texts – poems, moral advice, spiritual quotes or jokes. Some of the shunga artists were also masters of haikus, the famous short verse form. Among many more explicit examples, one relatively restrained one caught my eye:

Onto his silent lap
she lowers
her eloquent hips

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (Hokusai)

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Hokusai)

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