Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (1994)

He even became quite fond of several of his pupils, and described to like-minded friends the pleasure he took in caning them.
(Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, page 139)

Evelyn Waugh 28 October 1903 to 10 April 1966 (aged 62)

This is a long book, 724 pages, 627 of actual text i.e. without notes and index, but a hugely enjoyable read. I began to write my review as a chronological account but, as with my reviews of lives of Ian Fleming and Somerset Maugham, it just got too long. Too much happened to these fascinating authors. Instead I’m going to do it by themes.

Selina Hastings

It helps that Hastings is herself part of the posh world she describes, being the titled daughter of an earl – Lady Selina Shirley Hastings, eldest daughter of Francis, 16th Earl of Huntingdon – herself educated at private school and Oxford. (Indeed, according to her Wikipedia entry, ‘She and her sister, Lady Harriet Shackleton, are in remainder to several ancient English baronies, including those of Hastings and Botreaux.’) Hence the ease and confidence with which she writes about Waugh’s world, and the aristocratic characters and notable dynasties in it. She writes about this or that eminent personage of Waugh’s generation as if they’re old friends.

‘That’

After a while I noted a stylistic tic Hastings has which is to say of this or that person of the time (the 1930s, 40s and 50s) that they are ‘that noted figure’, ‘those notorious sisters’, and so on. She is signalling that she is inside this world, she is part of this world, that for her, with her privileged upbringing confidently swimming in the world of the English aristocracy, these figures from the literary world or aristocratic world are so well known that she assumes everyone knows about them.

  • …that most influential reviewers, Arnold Bennett (p.180)
  • Peter Rodd’s father was that exquisite flower of diplomacy, one-time ambassador in Rome, Sir Rennell Rodd. (p.260)
  • Evelyn, together with Duff and Diana and Chips Channon, stayed at the Palazzo Brandolini as guests of that indefatigable social climber, Laura Corrigan… (p.265)
  • Gabriel Herbert was 22, a handsome, amusing, athletic girl, daughter of that dashing adventurer, Aubrey Herbert 285
  • the fourth Earl of Carnarvon had purchased a large expanse of that beautiful peninsula 287

This biography puts forward no great theories or revelations, but invites you to immerse yourself at great length (the Minerva paperback edition is 724 pages long) in Waugh’s world. It is a big, juicy Christmas cake of a book and a hugely enjoyable read. I like biographies which give you the confident feeling, no matter how spurious, that human beings and the society they move in can be understood.

Father, Arthur Waugh

Evelyn’s father, Arthur, was a author, literary critic, and publisher. Arthur attended Sherborne public school and New College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry for a ballad on the subject of Gordon of Khartoum in 1888. Arthur wrote a biography of Tennyson and achieved notoriety by having an essay included in the notorious Yellow Book magazine. From 1902 to 1930 he was Managing Director and Chairman of the publishing house Chapman and Hall, the publishers who were to publish most of his son’s novels. In 1893 Arthur married Catherine Raban and their first son Alexander Raban Waugh (always known as Alec) was born on 8 July 1898. Our hero, Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh, was born five years later on 28 October 1903.

Bad relations with father

Evelyn’s relationship with his father was difficult and strained for at least 4 reasons:

1. Arthur idolised his first son, Alec, who went on to fulfil every paternal dream, becoming head boy at his school, playing for the First XI and First XV, writing poetry and generally being an all-round star pupil. For his boyhood and adolescence Evelyn was always in the shadow of his brother, a situation he exaggerated and dramatised in the short story ‘Winner Takes All’.

2. Arthur didn’t hide that he wished his second child had been a daughter.

3. As a young man Arthur delighted his friends with reading from literature in which he did all the voices. As a father of small children this was entertaining, but as he got older his manner hardened into a perpetual playing, mimicking, quoting and play-acting. After dinner the whole family would be taken to the ‘book room’ and subjected to readings from Pinero or singalongs from Gilbert and Sullivan. This began to grate on Evelyn’s nerves when he was a boy and by his later teenage years he had developed a real antipathy to his father (p.449). He hated the way it was impossible to break through Arthur’s pose of bonhomie to have any genuine communication. When he was irritated with him, Waugh referred to his father as ‘Chapman and Hall’, the publishing firm he was managing director of.

4. Easygoing, joking, Gilbert and Sullivan Arthur found his son’s character unnecessarily hard, haughty, vindictive and cynical. Once he became successful and well known Evelyn In the manner of the Bright Young Things he often said the kind of wounding and hurtful things which his hardened peers accepted and enjoyed, but which made Arthur very uncomfortable.

Home in North London

Initially the family lived in Hillfield Road, West Hampstead but in 1907 moved to a house Arthur designed and had built and named Underhill in the London suburb of Golders Green, which still abutted farms and fields. From 1910 to 1916 Waugh attended Heath Mount preparatory school. Although physically on the short side, Waugh didn’t lack confidence in his intellectual powers. He was a bully, he physically bullied smaller boys, including the famous photographer Cecil Beaton who never forgot or forgave him.

Family holidays were spent with the Waugh aunts at Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Here Waugh became deeply interested in high Anglican church rituals and served as an altar boy at the local Anglican church.

Waugh’s diary

But the key fact about him is that he wrote: he kept a detailed diary (which has survived), he wrote stories and poems which were published in the school magazine, which he edited, he wrote all the time, perfecting a style of clipped, witty gossip.

Lancing College

Alec had been sent to the same public school as his father, Sherborne, but in 1915 he was discovered in a homosexual relationship and expelled. All would have been hushed up if Alec hadn’t gone on – after joining the army and in intervals of officer training – to write a novel, The Loom of Youth, openly describing the gay affair at a school which was recognisably Sherborne. The result was that Waugh , much to his irritation, couldn’t go to Sherborne and instead was sent to Lancing public school on the South Downs (just the kind of aggrieved second bestness which he dramatised in ‘Winner Takes All’).

These days a year at Lancing College costs £37,000 plus all the extras (uniform and kit) x 6 years = easily £225,000.

Hastings is very good at conveying the atmosphere of Lancing which was founded in 1848 by Nathaniel Woodard, a member of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church which aimed to reintroduce the pageantry and beauty and mystery which had been lost at the Reformation. The school is noted for the enormous chapel which dominates all the other buildings and, being built on a hill, the entire locality. The foundation stone was laid in 1868 but wasn’t completed and dedicated (to St Mary and St Nicholas) until 1911, shortly before Waugh arrived.

What comes over from Hastings’ evocative account is:

  • the extreme religiosity of the school, with compulsory attendance at daily prayers plus the full roster of Anglican feasts
  • the fantastic complexity of the rules and regulations which governed every aspect of dress and behaviour, with different rules for each year group and even for each of the four houses within the years – reading Hastings you begin to understand why order and ritual in every aspect of their lives, continued to structure the perceptions and ideas of this generation for the rest of their lives
  • the boys were treated as ‘men’, and much was expected of them in terms of duty and responsibility
  • the variety and eccentricity of many of the masters
  • the overwhelmingly arts and humanities nature of the syllabus
  • the surprising amount of homosexuality: it’s hard to understand why Alec was expelled from Sherborne when Hastings describes in detail, with quotes form letters and diaries, intense love affairs which Waugh had with a number of his fellow pupils: pretty younger boys were liable to be courted and wooed by rivalrous older boys, which resulted in all kinds of emotional tangles

Maybe what comes over most, though, is that although Waugh write continuously, pouring out stories and poems which populated the school magazine and continuing his astonishingly precocious diary, his first love was art and design. He was extremely interested in calligraphy and scribing. He was encouraged by masters of an artistic bent and spent some time visiting an eccentric aesthete who lived near the school and owned a full range of pens and knives and inks and precious papers. Waugh developed a real skill for art and design, designing the covers for books and magazines. He was thrilled when one of the masters took receipt of an old-style luxury printing press and was allowed to use it.

All of this is described in detail in the abandoned fragment ‘Charles Ryders’ Schooldays’ which appears to be a straight from life description of a few days from Waugh’s last year at Lancing.

Hertford College, Oxford

The drinking and writing continued on to Oxford. Waugh attended Hertford college. What surprised me is the extent of the homosexual activity. There are lots of descriptions of parties where the men danced with each other or snogged in corners or on sofas, descriptions of Evelyn rolling on sofas tickling the tonsils of another undergraduate. He had intense, long affairs with Richard Pares and Alastair Graham.

Graham was a small, beautiful young man who matched Evelyn in drinking but with pronounced aesthetic tastes. Graham sent him love letters with photographs of himself naked. It is from the period of this affair that Evelyn based his image of perfect, heady Romantic Oxford, and the portrait of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead is based on Alastair Graham.

Waugh did next to no work, no one ever saw him with a book open or reading and repeatedly came close to being expelled. He had won a  £100 annual scholarship to study History, a subject in which, it turned out, he had absolutely no interest, to the immense frustration of the senior history don C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. The pair quickly came to dislike each other, Cruttwell’s lofty criticism of his attitude driving Waugh to real hatred. Hastings amusingly shows that Waugh got his revenge by naming a whole series of negative characters Cruttwell, for example the murderous lunatic in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing was originally named Cruttwell.

Instead of reading and studying, Waugh drank heavily all the time (see his recommendation to Tom Driberg to be drunk p.91 and his advice to be drunk all the time p.97).

Hastings describes the immense influence on his peers of the aesthete Harold Acton, part of the set of rich young aesthetes known as the Georgeoisie, also featuring Brian Howard, founder member of the Hypocrites Club. Acton dedicated his 1927 book of poems, Five Saints, to Waugh and Waugh dedicated his first, breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, to Acton. As the years went by Acton was to surprise everyone who knew and adulated him at Oxford by never really making his mark in the world of letters, whereas Waugh surprised everyone who’d known him as a hopeless drunk at Oxford by turning out to be one of the most notable writers of the mid-century.

In the summer of 1924 Waugh took his final exams and got a solid Third after which his tutor cancelled his scholarship for the ninth and final term which he required to qualify for a degree. He left in high dudgeon with no prospects of a career.

Nicknames

Hastings brings out the way this post-war generation revelled in consciously infantile behaviour and language. They gave nicknames to each other and wrote and talking in a deliberately juvenile manner. Waugh loved nicknames, which pack his letters and diaries and fictional characters. As examples, he nickamed:

  • his father ‘Chapman and Hall’, after the firm he worked for
  • his brother ‘Baldhead’ or ‘Baldie’
  • among the Lygon set Waugh nicknamed himself ‘Boaz’ or ‘Bo’, Maimie Lygon became ‘Blondy’, Dorothy Lygon ‘Pollen’ or ‘Poll’, Maimie’s Pekinese dog was ‘P.H.’ (standing for Pretty Hound)
  • in his letters to Diana Cooper he was known as ‘Mr Wu’
  • his future wife’s mother, Mary Herbert, was known as ‘Mrs What What’ as this is what she said all the time
  • once remarried, Waugh’s pet name for his second wife, Laura, was ‘Whisker’
  • the house he bought at Stinchcombe was nicknamed ‘Stinkers’
  • it ran in the family: in letters to Alec’s wife Joan, Arthur Waugh refers to his wife, Kate, as ‘Mrs Wugs’ (p.412)

Teaching

Waugh left Oxford in the summer of 1924 with no plans and no career and no training. Exactly like the hero of his breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, he looked for work as teacher in the kind of private school he attended and an agency found him a post at ‘Arnold House’, a preparatory school at Llandullas on the ‘bleak, beautiful Denbighshire coast’ where he commenced duties in January 1925 (p.127).

Thus commenced four years of drift and unhappiness. He was alright at the teaching although useless at games which never interested him. He savoured the quirkiness and eccentricities of the other masters, all fodder stored away for his first novel, but he was miles away from his partying friends in Oxford and London.

What made things worse was that when, during the holiday, he returned to London he had gotten embroiled in a love affair with the sexy, promiscuous, hard drinking but aloof Olivia Plunkett-Greene who slept with everyone but him, making him fall deeper and more bitterly in love with her. She was the basis for the fabulously fearless Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies.

‘Olivia as usual behave like a whore and was embraced on a bed by various people.’ (Waugh’s diary quoted p.141)

He took with him to Wales the manuscript of a novel titled The Temple at Thatch, but when he sent a copy to his friend the influential aesthete Harold Acton, Acton’s comments were so critical and dismissive that Waugh burned the only manuscript in the school furnace (p.135).

What really comes over from Hastings’ account of this period is the intensity of Waugh’s drinking. He got very drunk every night, and often started during the day. Some friends were scared by the intensity of his intake and his diary records thoughts of suicide. His autobiography records a particularly vivid suicide attempt, where he went down to the Welsh coast, stripped off and waded out to sea intending to drown himself (p.136).

All this was expressed in the relationship with Olivia, who herself drank till she passed out (by 1936 she had become an alcoholic and retired from society to live with her mother).

Writing

Waugh quit the post at Arnold House in order to be closer to London and took a job at a school in Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. His diary records that his status among the boys was transformed when he bought a motorbike (p.143) but he had only been here a few weeks when he sacked for allegedly making a drunken pass at the school matron (p.149).

He then secured a teaching post at a school in Notting Hill at £5 a week. Between all these short jobs he came home to stay with his parents at Underhill, the family home in Golders Green, under the increasingly disapproving glare of his father.

He still regarded himself as first and foremost a draughtsman, and enrolled in London courses in printing, cabinet-making and carpentry. Throughout his life Waugh applied metaphors and similes from carpentering and cabinet making to constructing well crafted novels.

His writing career didn’t exactly blossom. Having destroyed his draft novel, he managed to get a highly experimental short story, ‘The Balance’, published in a 1926 anthology published by his father’s publishing house, Chapman and Hall (p.145). He researched and wrote an extended essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was printed privately by his lover, Alastair Graham. And it was on the basis of this that an Oxford acquaintance, Anthony Powell (Eton and Oxford) now working for the publishers Duckworths, commissioned a full-length biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which Waugh wrote during 1927 (pp.158 to 160).

It’s worth pausing at this point to reflect on how he got started as a writer. Obviously he had to be able to write and to have written things worth reading, but he had huge advantages: his father was managing director of the publishing house which published his first short story; his brother was an established novelist ready with tips and advice; his lover privately published his first extended work; and a friend from Oxford commissioned him to write his first published book.

The Establishment

That is how it works; the network of families and friends met through public school and Oxford which dominated the literary world, the professions, politics and the City for most of the twentieth century. Arguably Waugh’s main subject was also the focus of his life, which was gossip and stories about the intricately interlinked network of aristocratic families which dominated English life, linked via marriage, school, Oxford, the army, business and politics into a great matrix of power and influence wielded to protect and promote each other. The network of power and influence which satirists of the 1960s called ‘the Establishment’ and which still dominates English to this day: David Cameron Eton and Oxford; Boris Johnson Eton and Oxford.

Giving individual examples is not very impressive because it’s only the sheer number of examples of the intermeshing of families of power and influence on every page, it’s the cumulative affect of the matrices of power, which really conveys the ubiquity and control of this class.

Journalism

Waugh was never a qualified, full-time journalist. During this unsettled period he spent a couple of months (April to May 1927) as a trainee journalist at the Daily Express, during which, by his own account, he filed no stories and spent a lot of time at the cinema. Or, as usual, getting drunk (p.151). It was the first of several skirmishes with journalism which were to build up to his comic masterpiece, Scoop. The general conclusion is clear: the journalists he saw in action were lying scoundrels who mostly fabricated their stories or exaggerated trivial events into ‘stories’ using a defined and limited set of rhetorical sleights of hand. He wrote pieces for magazines and newspapers to the end of his career, but never lost his amiable contempt for journalism and journalists.

First marriage, to she-Evelyn

In 1927 he met the honourable Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner, the daughter of Lord and Lady Burghclere, who was sharing a flat with Pansy Pakenham (p.153). Waugh was on the rebound from the final failure of his intense and troubled relationship with Olivia Plunket-Greene, Gardner was tiring of being pursued by half a dozen suitors. Photos of her at the time confirm written accounts that she was boyish in appearance and no conventional beauty. She’s was described as unusually immature, almost childish (‘young for her age’, p.155), she referred to Proust as Prousty-Wousty, to all her acquaintance as angel face or sweety pie – and this in a generation which Hastings goes out of her way to describe as consciously, modishly immature and childish.

Portrait of the two Evelyns by Olivia Wyndham (1928)

Hastings gives a fascinating account of Evelyn’s proposal which was so casual as to be barely noticeable, along the lines of, ‘Why don’t we try it and see how it goes?’ Gardner, who had (allegedly) already been engaged nine times, thought about it over night and next day replied, ‘Yes, why not?’ (p.163).

They were both 24, very immature, on the rebound from other relationships and also both wanted to escape the smothering tutelage of their parents. They both thought that getting married would set them free of parental restraint and define their adult identities.

Unfortunately, it didn’t, but first ‘the Evelyns’ had to negotiate permission to marry with Gardner’s mother, the formidable Lady Burghclere. She successfully blocked Waugh getting a job at the BBC (p.168). When Waugh submitted the MS of Decline and Fall to the publisher Duckworth’s, the head of the firm, Gerald Duckworth’ brother was married to Evelyn Gardner’s aunt, Margaret, and was well aware of the family’s snobbish disapproval of Waugh, and so turned the novel down. This is how it, the English establishment, works. Someone’s cousin, brother, sister, mother, friend they were at public school or Oxford with intervenes to help out, give a leg up, or block their ambitions, in which case your turn to another set of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts or uncles to help you out.

27 June 1928 the Evelyns got married despite all Lady B’s objections, almost on a whim, in a disgustingly low church (St Paul’s, Portman Square, p.175)), with few friends or family present. The writer Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) gave Gardner away. Harold Acton (Eton and Oxford) was the best man. Brother Alec (Sherborne and Oxford) was a witness. A friend, Joyce Fagan, had moved out of a bijou little apartment in Canonbury and passed it on to the newly-married couple at a rent of £1 a week.

September 1928 Decline and Fall published to universal good reviews, from old timers such as Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestly to new kids on the block like Cyril Connolly (Eton and Oxford). Waugh invited these important contacts to dinner or luncheon at the flat, and they were all enchanted by the 25-year-old pixies.

Literary agent

Alec introduced Waugh to his literary agent, A.D. Peters ( Haberdashers’ Aske’s and Cambridge) who was to be central to his career (p.182). Peters immediately started finding Waugh commissions to write articles about the younger generation for magazines and papers. Hastings features numerous passages describing Peters’ complex and aggressive negotiations on his client’s behalf with newspapers, magazines and publishers, both in Blighty and America. Several themes emerge:

  • the books were divided into two categories:
    • hardly anybody liked his travel books, they didn’t sell, and Peters failed to find American publishers willing to take several of them on at all
    • the novels were mostly well reviewed and received but during the 1930s he never had a bestseller and so was permanently strapped for cash
  • this explains why Waugh continuously hustled for jobs from papers and magazines, endlessly coming up with ideas for features and articles: the problem here was that he often knocked them off at such great speed that magazines (such as Vogue, Harpers, Nash’s and so on) quickly became cautious and took to turning down Waugh articles and stories
  • and this relates to something Hastings doesn’t explicitly state, but which becomes apparent as you read through the book, which is that Waugh didn’t really have many opinions about anything, or not opinions that could be translated into interesting articles; fresh off the back of Decline and Vile Bodies he could make some quids by claiming to be a spokesman for the generation of Bright Young Things; but by mid-1930s his actual opinions – conservative, reactionary Catholic in thrall to a rose-tinted image of the landed aristocracy was not very saleable

Travel books

Waugh came up with the idea of writing articles about a cruise, which could then be compiled into a book as he was, throughout the 1930s, to come up with wizard wheezes for travel books. A number of his pals were good at this – Hastings refers to ‘the intellectual avidity of Robert Byron…the exuberance of Peter Fleming’ (p.269) [both of whom went to Eton and Oxford] – and it was an obvious way to go on an adventure and be paid for it.

The odd thing is that Hastings makes it crystal clear that Waugh hated travelling. He invariably ended up feeling sad and lonely and was often excruciatingly bored. In fact the account of his first trip to Abyssinia, Remote People, includes three short interludes entirely devoted to the problem of boredom. Reviewing the book Rebecca West made the witty point that a writer who writes about boredom almost invariably creates boredom in the reader (p.240), but I found this to be wrong.

I have travelled widely on my own (Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Thailand) and can vouch for the fact that there often are moments or days of excruciating loneliness and boredom. So I found the short passage in Remote People about boredom more interesting than some of the straight travel writing. It felt more personal and more true in much the same way as his reporting on the coronation of Haile Selassie was painfully accurate about its shabbiness and lack of glamour, or his description of the ‘famous’ monastery at Debra Lebanos as sordid and squalid.

Although he fibbed about some of the details, there is, overall, about the travel books, as the letters and diaries, a fundamental honesty, a self-exposing, excoriating, merciless honesty about himself and others  in Waugh’s writing which is, even when it’s unattractive, admirable.

Anyway, it’s interesting to learn that his four travel books were not well received. Publishers and reviewers didn’t like them as much as the novels and they didn’t sell anywhere near as well. I agree they don’t have the well wrought artfulness of the novels but I enjoyed the three that I read for what you feel is the blunt unvarnished truth of Waugh’s reporting and therefore accurate descriptions of faraway places in a long ago time which will never return.

His wife’s betrayal

Wasn’t a sudden, impulsive thing. Hastings gives good reasons why the Honourable Evelyn Gardner became unhappy.

  1. She never really loved Waugh, she liked him and admired him.
  2. She was a sickly child. In February 1929 they boarded the Stella Polaris for a cruise round the Mediterranean. This turned into a nightmare as Gardner fell very seriously ill and by the time they reached Port Said was taken off the ship and stretchered to the British hospital with double pneumonia and pleurisy. Despite his intense concern and nursing his sick wife every day, Waugh managed to turn in a creditable travel book, Labels, but Gardner continued to be frequently ill when they got back to London. A subconscious plea for more attention? Or indication of underlying unhappiness?
  3. Trouble in the bedroom: Hastings doesn’t give details but quotes Gardner saying Waugh was no good in bed and her suspicions that this was because he had learned all his sexual technique from sex with men (p.196); elsewhere Hastings links this with his sexual shyness and lack of confidence around women.
  4. Both Gardner and Waugh married to escape from being at home and dominated by parents. They thought it would make them free and independent. Instead, once the initial euphoria had worn off, they realised they were alone and in difficult financial straits, as neither of them had a job.
  5. Gardner’s loneliness. Precisely in order to earn some money Waugh had to take himself off to a study or, more often, go out of London altogether, to stay with friends or in country inns, so he could concentrate on writing. Gardner was a fun-time 1920s party girl, and hated being left at home all alone night after night.

Hence, Waugh encouraged her to go out and socialise, recommending a close cadre of ‘safe’ male friends, one of whom was John Heygate (Eton and Oxford) (p.192). She spent more and more time with him, dashing, clever (job as assistant news editor at the BBC) and eventually, in July 1929, sent Waugh a letter saying she’d fallen in love with Heygate and wanted a separation (p.193).

Waugh was devastated. The cosy new base he’d built for his professional and personal life came crashing down. Hastings quotes friends who say that from that point onwards, a new note of cynicism and anger entered his personality and his work. Disgusted, he managed to see Gardner only once more in the rest of their lives (at the legal divorce proceedings).

Waugh based the very commonplace, drab and casually immoral character John Beaver in A Handful of Dust on Heygate. It is interesting to learn from Heygate’s Wikipedia article that:

  1. He did marry Gardner, in 1930, which was jolly decent of him – but they were divorced in 1936.
  2. He was very right-wing, a Nazi sympathiser, and attended the 1935 Nuremberg Rally in the company of his friend the writer Henry Williamson, next to Unity and Diana Mitford. Lovely people.

Childishness

Hastings repeatedly emphasises the childishness of Waugh and his friends (p.251-25 3). From one point of view the whole affair with and marriage to Gardner was an apotheosis of childishness. She was famous in her circle for her lisping childish pronunciation, for giving everyone nursery nicknames, for looking and dressing like a pre-pubescent boy (a page boy, in Diana Mitford’s description).

But it wasn’t just them. Hastings considers their entire generation cultivated a childish irresponsibility. Maybe it was a rebellion against their heavy Victorian and Edwardian parents, and against the enormous tragedy of the Great War which their older brothers fought and died in. But calculated frivolity and heedless hedonism was, of course, the signature mode of the bright young things of the 1920s, and much of this had a deliberately childish aspect, a refusal to grow up or take anything seriously.

In Waugh’s fiction this is probably best exemplified in various plotlines in Vile Bodies but in his social life Hastings shows how it was a deliberately cultivated pose in some circles of friends, for example the Lygon sisters. Hastings quotes postcards and letters they sent each other written in fake baby language, or with the interpolations of a fictional stupid character named Tommy (actually a joke at the expense of a neighbour of the Lygons, Tommy MacDougall, ‘a dashing master of foxhounds’, p.252) who interrupts the main text to ask stupid questions rendered in misspelt capitals:

When we meet again it will be gay and terribly exciting and not at all like a biscuit box
WY LIKE A BISKIT BOCKS PLESE?
Wait till you are a little older Tommy and then you will understand.
(quoted page 252)

I am going to live in Oxford all the summer and write a life of Gregory the Great.
WHO WAS GREGRY THE GRATE?
He was a famous pope, Tommy.
(quoted page 301)

This style of gushing naivety is used by Waugh in the funny short story ‘Cruise’ which consists of postcards from an archetypally dim, naive, semi-illiterate flapper on a cruise back to her parents. The story uses a phrase which recurs in the actual Lygon correspondence, obviously a catchphrase of their group or the time, which is to use the gushingly simple-minded phrase ‘God how sad’ for anything which goes wrong from tea not being nice to riots in foreign cities (eventually abbreviated in letters to ‘G how s’.p363). If you say it in a posh 1920s flapper voice it is quite funny.

Another notable group slang phrase was ‘lascivious beast’ for priest. For the rest of his life, in letters to close friends, Waugh regularly referred to priests he was meeting in England or abroad and even in Rome, as ‘lascivious beasts’ or just ‘beasts’.

The three Lygon sisters and their fabulous country estate at Madresfield were very important psychologically to Waugh after the trauma of his divorce from Gardner. He recreated a fake childish world with them, which was maintained in their lively correspondence, and he dedicated Black Mischief to ‘Mary and Dorothy Lygon’ when it was published in October 1932.

Conversion to Catholicism

Obvious roots:

  1. He was a very earnestly seriously Christian schoolboy.
  2. Many people of his generation and in his immediate circle converted to Catholicism in the late 1920s.

The most interesting thing about Waugh’s conversion is that it wasn’t romantic or mystical, it was entirely intellectual (pp.225, 227, 229). Talking it over with Catholic friends and then with one or two high society Jesuits he came to the intellectual conviction that:

  1. Christianity explained the world, humans and morality
  2. Catholic Christianity, established in Rome by the martyr Saint Peter, was the oldest, truest, most universal, most enduring form of Christianity (p.225)

And that was it. From this intellectual conviction he never strayed. Details of liturgy and practice, aspects of theology, his emotions or feelings about religion, all these could change and he could happily take the mickey out of them because none of it altered his deep intellectual conviction about the fundamental truth of Roman Catholicism.

Evelyn always insisted that his response to his faith was purely intellectual and pragmatic. (p.487)

Thus Waugh could jokingly refer to priests as ‘lascivious beasts’ and any amount of levity and satire about individual churchmen without a qualm because it wasn’t a question of respecting this or that piety; for Waugh Catholicism simply was the universal truth about the world, whether he was serious and solemn about it or messing about with friends. His own personal attitude didn’t change the Truth. The Truth carried on regardless of anything he wrote or thought or said, that was its appeal.

It didn’t do any harm that entering the Catholic church meant joining a small, embattled, unfashionable elite, and that Waugh identified solely with the old, aristocratic Catholic families and with only the best high society Jesuits – that suited his snobbish elitism very well. But it wasn’t the fundamental motive.

Politics

Waugh wasn’t very interested in politics (‘contemptuous as he was of political life and all politicians’, p.495). Arguably the one enduring subject of his work, diaries and letters was Gossip about people he knew or knew of. Even when he was ‘reporting’ from Abyssinia what excited him most was the court gossip as bruited among the catty diplomatic circles.

His politics followed his religion in the sense that he believed that Absolute Truth resided elsewhere, the human nature is fallen and deeply flawed, that perfection can never be achieved in this world and all attempts to achieve it inevitably end in repression. He handily defined his credo in an extended passage from the travel book he was commissioned to write about Mexico, Robbery Under Law, published in 1939 just as the world plunged into another world war. Because it’s so central to everything he wrote it’s obviously a carefully worded and thorough credo, it’s worth repeating in full:

Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.

I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth; That his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives; That the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm; That sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons; That the intellectual communists of today have personal, irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit.

I believe in government; That men cannot live together without rules but that they should be kept at the bare minimum of safety; That there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other; That the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace.

I believe that the inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of elimination; That men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; That such a system is necessary for any form of co-operation work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together.

I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or of divine commissions for world conquest, but simply thus: mankind inevitably organizes itself in communities according to its geographical distribution; These communities by sharing a common history develop common characteristics and inspire local loyalty; The individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits.

A conservative is not merely an obstructionist, a brake on frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do.

Civilization has no force of its own beyond what it is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all.

Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity.

Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace.

Fascist Spain and Italy

This explains Waugh’s support for Mussolini, when Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, and for the forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Waugh visited Abyssinia three times and was appalled at the poverty, cruelty (read the description of Addis Ababa prison in Remote People) and barbarity of much of the country, which wasn’t a country at all but an empire of subject peoples held together by force. He saw Italy as bringing European law and order and culture and, above all, Religion, to a corrupt and failing country.

I was shocked when I first read of his support for the ‘noble cause’ of Franco and the nationalists in Spain but it, of course, makes perfect sense. The Spanish socialist government may have been democratically elected but it embarked almost immediately on a campaign of closing churches and arresting priests. If you believe the Catholic Church is a vital connection between the creator God and his people, as Waugh very deeply did, then this simply could not be allowed and Franco’s intervention to restore law and order and preserve the church of course received Waugh’s initial support. Until it became clear that the Franco forces were committing atrocities every bit as bad or worse than the communists he vilified – at which point he washed his hands of the whole affair.

Waugh’s Second World War

One quote says it all:

The ordinary soldiers disliked [Waugh] to such an extent that for a time [his superior officer, Lieutenant] Laycock felt obliged to set a guard on his sleeping quarters. (p.445)

Despite being every bit as committed to the war effort as his alter ego, Guy Crouchback, in the Sword of Honour trilogy, and despite showing real bravery in the face of enemy attack (Stuka divebombing in Crete) Waugh was universally disliked in the army. He had no idea how to deal with the ordinary working class soldiers, veering between heavy sarcasm and shouted orders, both of which failed to command affection or respect (‘He bullied and bewildered them’, p.445). His commander in 8 Commando, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock (Eton and Sandhurst), told him he was so unpopular as to be virtually unemployable in the army (p.445).

He was an outsider to all the regular soldiers, bluff philistine types who instinctively took against this ‘bookish chappie’ with his smart repartee and corrosive cynicism. And when he did manage to wangle a place in a commando unit (as Crouchback does) Waugh was easily outclassed by genuine aristocrats such as Lord Randolph Churchill. His brown-nosing snobbish hero worship of these real blue blood types was so obvious, and repellent to onlookers, that Hastings is able to quote several written accounts describing it. His toadying to anyone with a title was a running joke with the WAAFs at the headquarters of Combined Operations (p.419).

Lord Lovat (Ampleforth and Oxford), the deputy brigade commander, wrote of Waugh:

‘I had known him vaguely at Oxford, and, while I admired his literary genius, had marked him down as a greedy little man – a eunuch in appearance – who seemed desperately anxious to “get in” with the right people.’ (quoted page 450)

I was surprised to learn that when Lovat ordered the scruffy, ill-disciplined Waugh to go to a barracks in Scotland to re-undergo basic training, and Waugh objected and took his complaint to Lovat’s superior, General Haydon, the latter sacked him on the spot for insubordination. This was August 1943. Waugh remained in the army but without a post or position. This marks the end of his romance with the army. From now on he just wanted to get out, to return to civilian life and resume his career as a writer.

This disillusion and demotivation is strongly conveyed in the short prologue and epilogue to Brideshead Revisited where it is assigned to the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder.

Waugh’s real wartime career closely followed the narrative of the Sword of Honour trilogy, or the trilogy was very closely based on his own experiences. But having read Hastings’ account makes you realise that Waugh’s greatest achievement in the novel was putting Crouchback on the same social level as the blue blood heroes he describes, and accepted by his fellow officers. Waugh was an outsider because he was a social-climbing, bookish cynic. In the trilogy Waugh converts the reasons for Waugh’s outsiderness – bookish, sarcastic, cynical, bad at handling soldiers – into the far more noble and romantic and acceptable reasons for Crouchback’s outsiderness, namely long-running depression over being dumped by his wife and a stern commitment to Catholic values which none of the other officers understands.

Sex

It’s strange that sexual problems in the bedroom appear to have contributed to the swift collapse of Waugh’s first marriage, and that Hastings periodically thereafter describes him as lacking sexual self-confidence, strange because his diaries and letters are full of sexual encounters – homosexual ones at school and Oxford and for a while afterwards in London, and then various encounters with prostitutes abroad. In Tangier, January 1934, Waugh explored the red light district and visited a brothel where he bought a 16 year old girl for 10 francs:

but I didn’t enjoy her very much because she had a skin like sandpaper and a huge stomach which didn’t show until she took off her clothes & then it was too late.
(Diary quoted p.297)

He then takes a 15 year old concubine whose face is entirely covered in blue tattoos and he thinks about setting up in an apartment of her own for his sole use (p.297). I was very struck by Waugh’s own account of being in an Italian brothel and paying for a big black guy to sodomise a white youth on a divan, all artfully staged and arranged for the viewing pleasure of Waugh and his friends.

I suppose there’s all the difference in the world between staging such events or, in more general terms, paying for sex, and having to manage consensual sex with a female partner, with someone you have to talk to later, arrange all the domestic chores, go out to dinner with and so on. That is an infinitely more complex situation to deal with and Waugh wouldn’t be the first man to find it demanding and intimidating.

Waugh writes the word ‘fuck’ quite a lot. One of his female correspondents deprecated his use of the word in a letter to her, so it was obviously not freely used in his posh circles. I was struck by the bluntness of a letter Waugh wrote his second wife, Laura, about taking leave from the army at Christmas 1942, just after she had given birth to their third child:

There is an hotel at Shaftesbury with a very splendid sideboard. I think we might take a week end there soon when you are fuckable. (quoted page 444)

which certainly gives an indication of the way he wrote to her, and maybe spoke to her, but it is not necessarily indicative of the bluntly physical attitude he actually took to sex because we know from his countless other letters, that he cultivated a range of voices and styles (baby talk, high gossip, satire, facetious descriptions of army life) in his letters, depending on who they were written to. Everything he wrote was written for effect.

(The really surprising thing about that letter is that it was preserved and published. Who gave permission for it to be published? I wouldn’t want my casual notes or texts to my wife to be published for the world to read.)

Music

Strikingly, Waugh had no feel at all for music and hated almost all forms of it. At one point he comments that listening to Palestrina was purgatory while, at the other end of the musical spectrum, he loathed the loud jazz which became more and more dominant in London nightclubs as the 1920s progressed.

If you don’t perceive music as the complex interlinking of melody, harmony, rhythm and syncopation, you tend to register it simply as noise and ‘racket’. Waugh’s loathing of music took most concrete form in his detestation of the ‘wireless’, the new-fangled radio which came in during the 1920s and became more and more and more popular during the 1930s and 40s. His was one of the few middle class households in the country which didn’t possess a wireless and so didn’t listen to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast about the outbreak of war in September 1939 (p.383).

Witness his short story ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’, lampooning a man who hates the wireless; or the scenes in Unconditional Surrender where Guy is convalescing in an RAF hospital whose ‘long-haired boys’ have radios everywhere in the building cranked up to full volume blaring out jazz music which drives Guy so mad he phones a friend and begs to be taken away.

Anti-Americanism

‘God, I hate Americans’, quoted on p.299

The brash, superficial, loud, vulgar consumer capitalism of America came to epitomise everything Waugh hated about the modern age (p.221). Like most British writers he came to rely on sales in America to keep him solvent but that didn’t stop him being very rude about America and Americans in correspondence and, sometimes, to their faces.

Evelyn had always referred with patronising contempt to Alec’s fondness for America, and since the war had come to regard the United States as the apogee of everything that was tasteless, vulgar and barbaric. (p.511)

This is exemplified in the easy-to-overlook joke at the start of The Loved One where the two British protagonists are depicted on the verandah of a rundown bungalow at dusk, surrounded by decay, thick vegetation and the sound of cicadas, so that you think they must be in some god-forsaken colony in darkest Africa or the Far East and only slowly do you discover that they are in fact in Hollywood. Hastings pulls out some choice quotes from his huge correspondence:

The great difference between our manners and those of the Americans is that theirs are designed to promote cordiality, ours to protect privacy. (p.512)

My book [Brideshead Revisited] has been a great success in the United States which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste before and now I know it can’t be. (letter to John Betjeman, quoted p.512) [Betjeman went to Marlborough and Oxford]

Post war

The last 100 pages of the novel are marked by three themes:

1. Writing for money

Waugh continued to write a lot but the quality was often poor. Hastings records the umpteen commissions he received from magazines and newspapers, driving a very hard bargain, demanding the maximum rate possible, and then very often disappointing with work which was so hurried or roughshod, the magazines quite frequently refused to publish it or asked for their money back.

Of similar dubious or debatable quality are his handful of post-war stories, the novellas ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ (genesis, writing and reviews summarised pages 500 to 502) and ‘Love Among the Ruins’ (in Hastings’ opinion, ‘a nasty little tale’, p.553) and the oddity which is The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (origin and writing described pages 560 to 567).

The Loved One is another oddity, which begins well and is full of lusciously funny details, but somehow fizzles out: he fails to find a plot to match the comic richness of his subject (American funeral homes). (Its genesis, writing and reception described on pages 514 to 522.)

Students and fans often overlook the overtly Catholic books he wrote, such as the novel about the Roman Empress Helena, discoverer of the ‘True Cross’ (1950) which was slammed in his own day and has never sold well (described pages 538 to 541). The 1930s biography of the Elizabethan martyr Thomas Campion (1935) and the biography he promised to write of his good friend, Catholic convert and Jesuit priest Ronald Knox (The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox, 1959) [Knox attended Eton and Oxford].

Then there were two poorly received travel books ‘The Holy Places’ (1952) and ‘A Tourist in Africa’ (1960). In 1961 he was paid £2,000 by the Daily Mail to go back to British Guiana on the eve of independence and write five articles on his impressions. These were so flat and incurious the Mail printed only one and demanded their money back (p.606).

The exception to all of this, and all the more remarkable for the mediocrity of the rest of his post-war output, are the three novels of the Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, described page 546 to 551; Officers and Gentlemen pp.571 to 573; Unconditional Surrender pp.594 to 599) which I find magnificent, richly funny, fascinating with social history, and deeply moving.

2. Comic dislike of his children

Waugh genuinely disliked small children and his own were no exception.

I abhor their company because I can only regard children as defective adults, hate their physical ineptitude, find their jokes flat and monotonous…The presence of my children affects me with deep weariness and depression. (quoted op.527)

The Waugh children (all 6 of them) were exiled to the nursery and, as soon as possible, sent off to prep schools. Waugh hated Christmas because of all the noise and disruption and had a little private party when they went back to their schools (p.527ff.). Waugh cultivated the pose of a father who detested his children and, although this must have been horrible to experience, it is often very funny to read about, especially when expressed in his deliberately outrageous letters.

His eldest son, Auberon Waugh (1939 to 2001: Downside and Oxford) went on to become a novelist, journalist and literary editor. He wrote an autobiography describing his unhappy childhood in detail and said that, as a boy, he would happily have swapped his father for a bosun’s whistle (p.528).

3. Boredom and depression

Above all, Waugh was bored bored bored, often bored to death. He drank to excess to stave of boredom and depression, and the against-the-fashion pose of young fogey he cultivated in the 1930s, and which came to seem out of place during the People’s War, crystallised into the persona of an angry, overweight, red-faced old buffer after the war. Waugh knew what he was doing; the persona he cultivated is described with precision in the self-portrait which opens The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:

It was his modesty which needed protection and for this purpose, but without design, he gradually assumed this character of burlesque. He was neither a scholar nor a regular soldier; the part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality. When he ceased to be alone, when he swung into his club or stumped up the nursery stairs, he left half of himself behind and the other half swelled to fill its place. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass.

Hastings picks up the word ‘pomposity’ and quotes a passage from a letter to Diana Cooper:

Women don’t understand pomposity. It is nearly always an absolutely private joke – one against the world. The last line of defence. (p.568)

All this is interesting because you don’t find in fiction, or anywhere nowadays, a sympathetic explanation of the quality of pomposity. The idea of it being a sort of private joke is thought provoking, an insight into the way all kinds of people’s odd manners might be taken as very personal jokes against the world…

Hastings gives example after example of Waugh’s astounding rudeness to everyone he met, no matter how powerful and influential – the bitter arguments he had with even his closest friends, and the well-attested rows he had with his long-suffering wife, Laura.

One of the most loyal friends of  his later years was the tough-minded socialite Ann Charteris (1913 to 1981) who had three husbands, first Lord O’Neill, secondly Lord Rothermere and then the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming (Eton and Sandhurst). Hastings quotes comments about Waugh from several of his close woman friends such as Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford, but Ann Fleming put her finger on it when she wrote to her brother, Hugo, in 1955:

‘Poor Evelyn, he is deeply unhappy – bored from morning till night and has developed a personality which he hates but cannot escape from.’ (quoted p.558)

Not only was he a martyr to boredom but to insomnia and since the late 1930s had been taking various sleeping draughts which he mixed, against all medical advice, not in water but with creme de menthe. It was when he began, in addition, dosing himself with bromide that he developed first the physical and then the mental symptoms so accurately described in Pinfold.

He was invited to stay at the Flemings house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica where he was irascible and ungrateful. Ann Fleming again: ‘Poor Evelyn – killing time is his trouble and not a night without sleeping pills for twenty years’ (quoted p.571).

And when Nancy Mitford asked him, after he had paid her a bad-tempered visit in Paris, how he could reconcile behaving so badly and speaking so spitefully about everyone with his religion’s words about  loving your neighbour as yourself:

‘He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible…& anyway would have committed suicide years ago.’ (quoted p.505)


Credit

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (1994) was published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1994. All references are to the 1995 Mandarin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952)

‘I’m what’s called a “conducting officer”. I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity.’
(Lord Ian Kilbannock explaining to Guy the importance of getting on in a war, Men at Arms)

Men at Arms is the first in what developed into a trilogy of novels about the Second World War which Waugh named The Sword of Honour trilogy. It tells the story of devout Catholic, conservative, standoffish but honourable and frequently depressed fellow, Guy Crouchback:

Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young, now, in heart and step…

The novel starts with the outbreak of the Second World War and follows Guy’s long, clumsy and sometimes very funny progress through the military machine, with a world of details about the farcical bureaucratic aspects of army life.

But the book also includes, like a persistent background hum, Guy’s deep Catholic faith and his feel for the ‘old’ values of religion and an older traditional way of life embodied in the figure of Guy’s venerable father, Mr Crouchback.

And the book’s other understated but persistent theme is for Guy’s loneliness and isolation, his unhappiness, sometimes sinking as low as actual despair. For too long, the narrative tells us, Guy has inhabited a ‘dry, empty place’ of the soul.

The Crouchback family

How so? Well, Guy’s character is carefully constructed to evoke the same kind of pity and compassion he was seeking to evoke in Brideshead Revisited, the sense of the decline and fall of a once noble family, the sense of quietly heroic old buffers trying to keep up ancient values and dignity in a world gone to hell.

Guy’s father is over 70, a quiet, decent man of deep devout Catholic faith who has nobly weathered a series of setbacks. He is the representative of a family which can trace its lineage back to the time of Henry I. For centuries the Crouchback family have lived in a country estate named Broome, somewhere in north Devon. But the family suffered a) personal and b) financial setbacks.

On the personal front, Mr Crouchback’s wife gave him four children then died young, leaving him with a permanent sense of sadness. Worse was to come because, at the outbreak of the Great War, the eldest son and heir, Gervase, went straight from his Catholic private school, Downside, into the Irish Guards, where he managed to get himself killed on his first day in the trenches. Then the second son, Ivo, always a loner and oddball, when he was 26 went missing from home and was discovered months later, holed up in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was deliberately starving himself to death. He was brought home but the damage was done and he died soon after.

There was an only daughter, Angela, who married a non-Catholic, an ambitious chap who’s gone on to become a successful Conservative MP, Arthur Box-Bender.

And Guy himself. Guy also ‘married out’ of the family religion, marrying the beautiful non-Catholic socialite, Virginia. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune and settled in Kenya, running a farm beside a mountain lake where the flamingos rose at dawn first white then pink. Wow. But his wife pined and said she needed to go to England for a break and then, after 6 months or so, wrote to announce she was leaving him, for a mutual friend named Tommy Blackhouse.

‘Poor Guy, you did get in a mess, didn’t you? Money gone, me gone, all in one go. I suppose in the old days they’d have said I’d ruined you.’
‘They might.’

Now, Guy is a Catholic, his father is a Catholic, his sister is a Catholic and so they all take it for granted that, although he can get divorced according to the law of the land, he cannot be divorced in the eyes of God. In other words, he will never be able to remarry, never be able to have children, in particular a son. Therefore the family name is doomed to die out. This is the pessimistic scenario Waugh has engineered for his characters, one source of the sense of loss and mild depression which hangs over the figure of Guy Crouchback.

His non-Catholic brother-in-law Box-Bender is just the most prominent of their friends who think this is all nonsense: Guy should just remarry, have children, reclaim the home farm, revive the estate and the family name. Where’s the problem? When Guy meets up with his ex-wife again in London, she also is blissfully light-hearted about it all:

‘You never married again?’
‘How could I?’
‘Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life.’
‘Apart from my heart, Catholics can’t remarry, you know.’
‘Oh, that. You still keep to all that?’
‘More than ever.’

But Box-Bender, Virginia and all the rest of them are pagans, non-believers, not part of the clique, not part of sinn fein (Irish for ‘ourselves’), of the cosa nostra (Italian for ‘our thing’), of the special ones. They are not Catholics, and Catholicism, at least in Waugh’s hands, is not only a theological but a sociological marker, which sets the believer apart and, though he doesn’t overplay this, pretty obviously marks them as morally and spiritually superior to everyone else around him.

So much for a) the personal; as to b) the financial situation, in the aftermath of the First World War the estate became slowly too large and costly for Mr Crouchback to run. So he sold off the contents (attending the auction himself), let the house to a convent and retired to a hotel in Matchet, a nearby seaside resort.

However, it is important for Waugh and his characters that the ancient rituals do not completely die out and so ‘the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old’ and Guy’s father attends mass there once a year.

So, both financially and personally, the Crouchback family has fallen a long way and Guy is its embattled, lonely, often depressed last representative.

Guy is a loner

Guy’s Kenya period is underplayed, referred to only in a couple of sentences. Much more is made of the family’s Italian property, ‘Castello Crouchback’, on the idyllic Italian island of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, a property bought by Guy’s grandfather back in the time of Queen Victoria. In fact the novel opens with a historical passage describing the first arrival of those grandparents on a yachting holiday at the island and their decision to buy the run-down ruins.

You might have thought these opening passages would afford luxury descriptions of pre-war Italy, and they do, a bit, but what they’re really for is to establish a) the penumbra of sadness which hangs over Guy ever since his wife left him eight years earlier, and b) the way he can never really make friends. He’s always an outsider. The Italian villagers take to nearly all the other expats on the island, they are sympatico, but Guy is not simpatico.

He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico.

Guy is lonely. Inside him is a blankness, an emptiness he can’t put into words, his imagination a prey to mournful images:

Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.

It is against this complex family and personal background that the declaration of war comes on 3 September 1939 and (like many other men) Guy is hugely relieved to escape the frustrations and unhappiness of personal life, and make a clear and unambiguous commitment: to return to England to serve his king and country and fight against unambiguous evil.

Guy back in England

All the above is explained in a sort of prologue to the book. The main action of the novel opens with the declaration of war and Guy packing his stuff to return from his Italian island home to England to serve king and country.

Guy arrives in London hoping to find a role in the army straightaway. He goes to his club, Bellamy’s, every day. Everyone is in turmoil. Everyone has evacuated their families from their London places and sent them down to the country. Box-Bender is locking up his London place and moving in with two male friends. Guy embarks on a campaign to get himself into the army, buttonholing military friends and writing countless letters to ministries and old contacts. No joy.

So he goes to stay with his sister Angela at her home in Gloucestershire.

Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz.

In a typically comic/farcical detail, their hallway is stuffed with crates of ‘Hittite tablets’ evacuated from the British Museum.

Guy is impressed by Arthur and Angela’s son, Tony, young and keen, who’s already got himself a place in the army, lucky blighter. They gossip about all the local families, some who’ve left the country altogether (the Abercrombies have decamped to Jamaica) and about the numerous accidents resulting from the blackout. Scandalised reports of the crime wave prompted by the blackout, lots of muggings.

After staying the night Guy travels down to see his father at the pub, the Marine Arms, in Matchet, where he took rooms as a long-term resident after he relinquished the estate at Broome. Like everywhere in England it’s in a tizzy because of the war, packed with an unusual numbers of guests, some of the staff have been conscripted etc. In the dining room, his father introduces him to Tickeridge, a hairy old cove who’s a major in the Halberdiers. When Guy expresses a genuine wish to be in the army, Tickeridge says he’ll see what he can do. Ha! Contacts. It’s not what you know, or who you know – it’s who your father knows!

Guy joins the army

And so Guy finds himself one of a new cohort of officers in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, nicknamed the Apple Jacks and the Copper Heads, a fictional regiment which is going to be central to his career in the army and all three novels. His closest associate is a lightly eccentric fellow called Apthorpe.

Both being that much older, they find themselves referred to as ‘uncle’. Lots of detail of army protocol, an extension of the strict rules around correct dress which were drummed into him at school, then university. Regimental traditions. Pen portraits of the other new officers, namely de Souza, Sarum-Smith, Leonard and a slightly shifty chap called Trimmer.

Guy joins his regiment

Guy joins the Halberdiers at their peacetime barracks. There is basic training and squarebashing i.e. drill on parade grounds. There is a lot of fuss about dressing correctly for different functions at different times of day, for example, the officers have to dress appropriately, and immaculately, for dinner in the mess hall.

It is obvious to me, at any rate, how life in the army follows naturally from life at prep school, life at private school, life at Oxford or Cambridge, and then life in the kind of upper class country house which Waugh idealises. What they all have in common are servants who do all the drudgery, change bedding, do all laundry, clean shoes and boots and cook and bring drinks. Their country houses are full of servants, their junior boys fag for the seniors at private school, there are ‘scouts’ to clean their rooms at Oxford and waiters bring meals in hall dinners, but on the other side of the ledger, in return for all these privileges, it is expected that the beneficiary, the boy growing up in a country house, at private school or Oxford, and then an officer in a good regiment, will follow the rules and there are lots and lots of rules governing all aspects of behaviour, dress, speech and thought.

It is a world of huge privilege but also of tremendous constraints. There is often no legal punishment for breaking the rules, but the army has a wide variety of sanctions for chaps who do not behave like an officer and a gentleman, and the narrow society of London clubs which Guy moves in also has its sanctions, its ability to cut or snub anyone who behaves incorrectly.

Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook

We are introduced to the feared and renowned figure of Ben Ritchie-Hooke, who will become their brigadier. I don’t really understand the structure of the British army, but I think what is happening is that , now war has been declared, all regiments, which had been allowed to dwindle in peacetime, are being rapidly up to full strength, recently retired officers asked back in and new officers being recruited. This is the new intake of officers which Guy is part of. First they will be trained, then newly recruited and conscripted ordinary soldiers will arrive and be put in their charge. At some point the regiment will become fully operational and Ben Ritchie-Hook will come into full command.

Throughout the first part of this novel this process takes place, observed from Guy’s point of view, sometimes, confusing the reader, sometimes confusing even Guy who’s in the thick of it.

Anyway, Ritchie-Hook is an almost Monty Python level of a caricature of a senior army officer. He wears an eye patch and a black leather glove on one hand, having lost an eye and fingers and thumb in battle. A sharp line is drawn between the initial commander in chief of the barracks who oversees thorough but pedestrian training, and the terrific change in mood which takes place when Ritchie-Hook arrives and takes over. He is all about biffing the enemy.

For example, the initial rifle range practice consists of long boring afternoons loading your gun, lying down, firing at a distant target, and having the target monitor flag whether you got a hit, a bullseye etc. By contrast, under Ritchie-Hook the brigadier himself runs up and down the trench at the end of the range waving a stick with a tin hat on it above ground level and defies his men to hit it. Later they have to crawl on their hands and knees just under a barrage of live fire.

Ritchie-Hook is a wonderful comic creation and the trigger for a series of comic incidents. For example he first appears at a drinks party held by a senior officer where, through a series of verbal misunderstandings, he mistakes Guy for Apthorpe the fellah who was in Africa for years, gruffly dismissing the fact that one of his officers seems to have spent the 1930s in Italy, no good that, don’t like the sound of that – which of course refers to Guy who keeps very silent about the fact for the rest of the evening. Comedy of manners.

but he also allows Waugh to create the kind of war he wants, which is farce. If you read war books from the Great War you are left in no doubt that it was a tragedy of enormous scale. Anyone coming to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy expecting the same will be surprised. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the boring humdrum details of training and office politics (as officers jostle for promotion) and bureaucracy and pettifogging rules, interspersed with moments of ludicrous farce. Only at the very end are any guns fired in anger and then only a dozen or so and for a few pages, on a tiny night-time excursion onto a beach in Africa which is over half an hour after it began and achieves nothing.

Southsand prep school

The officers are sent to a place called Kut-al-Imara House at Southsand-on-sea. It is a preparatory school, vacated by staff and pupils so the army can take over. Its rooms are named after World War One battles and, as Guy explores it on arrival, he paints a very vivid picture of a certain kind of lower league school, redolent of embarrassment and shame.

He leant against a coil of antiquated iron pipes and was surprised to find them hot. They seemed to lack all power of radiation; a yard from them there was no sensible warmth. He could imagine a row of little boys struggling to sit on them, tight-trousered boys with adenoids and chilblains; or perhaps it was a privilege to sit there enjoyed only by prefects and the First Eleven. In its desolation he could see the whole school as it had been made familiar to him in many recent realistic novels; an enterprise neither progressive nor prosperous. The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster; half the boys were taken at surreptitiously reduced fees; none of them ever won a scholarship or passed into a reputable public school or returned for an Old Boys’ Day or ever thought of his years there with anything but loathing and shame. The History lessons were patriotic in design, turned to ridicule by the young masters. There was no school song at Kut-al-Imara House. All this Guy thought he snuffed in the air of the forsaken building.

It’s one more image which brings the reader up short and makes you realise just how much Waugh was writing for readers of his own class and not for the humble likes of you and I. And also one more example of the way this class obsesses about its prep and private schools. It’s a common observation that Waugh’s generation of writers – including George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden and many others – never really seem to have escaped the clothes, drill, mannerisms and world view inculcated by an English public school system which reached a kind of acme in their day.

And then the equally commonly commented-on fact that so many of the institutions of English public life – the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the quadrangles of the inns of court for lawyers, the quads and committee rooms of Westminster, the parade grounds and officers messes of the army – are a continuation of that ordered, regimented, elite, blinkered, narrow but highly effective view of life.

The characters frequently compare this or that army regulation to ‘school’, the narrator compares this or that situation to something similar at a public school. It comes as no surprise when a prep school moves into Malchett and hire old Mr Crouchback as a supply teacher, teaching, of course, not maths or geography or something useful, but, of course, Classics, ancient Greek to be precise. Apthorpe even takes Guy, one drunk night, in a taxi out to the location of his prep school Staplehurst, now, he discovers to his horror, demolished and a modern estate built over it. Sic transit…

Anyway, life at Southsand is the backdrop for Waugh giving a thousand and one little details of army life, starting with the typical ‘foul-up’ that Guy and his cohort of officers arrive at Southsand station an hour after the bus arranged to pick them up had left and having to make their own way by taxi. Bureaucratic cock-up typical of hundreds and hundreds more which Guy will become used to in army life.

There are comic incidents. At a guest night for the regiment the officers end up getting drunk and playing a game of rugby with a waste paper basket and when everyone piles onto Guy his knee is painfully wrenched. It swells up and so for weeks afterwards, he wears a bulky dressing, needs a cane to walk and is excused drill practice.

When his fellow older officer, Apthorpe also manages to injure his leg on a drunken night out, the two eldest new officers, who had both already gained the ambivalent nickname ‘uncle’, both appear limping and using canes, to general hilarity. The comedy is like that. Schoolboy comedy.

Similarly, Guy discovers he can’t actually see the targets at the firing range at the statutory 300 yard distance, thus discovering that he needs glasses, but on a whim, instead has a monocle made by a local optician, which solves his firing range problem but, of course, also contributes to making him a figure of fun.

Another little plot strand is the Italian restaurant kept by Mr Pelecci which they take to frequenting, chatty Mr Pelecci often sitting with them and chatting about the news. They don’t at first realise that he is a spy.

Catholic theology on Guy’s marriage

The officers are allowed out to explore the town. Guy and Apthorpe join the town yachting club, chiefly for its bar. He meets a Mr Goodall, Ambrose Goodall, who turns out to be a Catholic convert with a hobby of studying the old Catholic families of England. They have lunch and dine and go to the yacht club bar and it emerges that Goodall knows the history of Broome and Guy’s own family. And then, in the context of another family, in passing remarks that, theologically, it is no sin or crime for a man to have sex with his divorced wife as, in the eyes of God, she has never been separated from him. Although Virginia has been unfaithful, he hasn’t, and so the marriage is still, theologically speaking, valid.

Seduction of Virginia

This leads to disastrous episode where Guy tracks Virginia down in London. She is, typically for him and the circles they move in, staying at Claridge’s hotel. He moves into a room down the hall and she is initially delighted to bump into him, as she is delighted to bump into everyone, darling, during this beastly ghastly war. He invites her round for drinks and it is then that he puts his arm along the back of the sofa and makes an attempt to kiss her. Virginia thinks he’s being ridiculous. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and puts down her drink and kisses him back.

But then she asks what’s brought this one and Guy makes the disastrous mistake of explaining the theological position i.e. she is still his wife in the eyes of God and it is still theologically permitted for him to have sex with her. This shocks and horrified her much more than if it were a casual attempt at sex and she stands up and moves to the fireplace expressing horror, at which point Guy really screws things up by venting 8 years of frustration and accusing her of being a tart. Then there is a big silence when they both react to what has happened and been said.

Virginia: ‘You take too much for granted.’
Guy: ‘That’s an absolutely awful expression,’ said Guy. ‘Only tarts use it.’
Virginia: ‘Isn’t that rather what you think I am?’
Guy: ‘Isn’t it rather what you are?’

Guy grovellingly apologises, more because it’s bad form and poor manners than untrue, and they sort of patch things up. But, later, leaving Claridge’s, the incident does have the positive effect that it seems to have laid a ghost. His true feelings for Virginia have come out and he feels some sense of closure. It is  14 February 1940.

Apthorpe

His fellow ‘new’ officer, Apthrope, is arguably the dominant figure of the novel. Indeed the three main sections the book is divided into each use a Latin word to describe the three stages of Apthorpe’s progression, namely: Apthorpe Gloriosus, Apthorpe Furibundus and Apthorpe Immolatus where gloriosus is self evident, furibundus means ‘frantic, frenzied, maddened’ and immolatus means ‘having been immolated or sacrificed’.

Apthorpe’s character fascinates Guy from the start, his comic obsessions and behaviour. Thus, when Apthorpe is promoted to rank of captain ahead of Guy, he insists Guy salute him, and asks him to ask all the other new officers to do so, too. This, apparently, was technically correct but not necessary and makes Apthorpe look like a pedantic fool; in fact his fellow officers play various games with the act of saluting or not saluting when Apthorpe expects it which drives the poor man into a frenzy.

A platoon of signallers are billeted with the Halberdiers and Apthorpe insists they conform to Halberdier discipline and procedure, which leads to a long and increasingly embittered feud with their commanding officer, Dunn, which eventually escalates up to commanding officer level. Although he has been promoted. Apthorpe is acquiring a reputation as an eccentric.

Apthorpe and the saga of the Thunder-Box

One of Apthorpe’s eccentricities has been carrying round an enormous amount of lumber and ‘kit’ and ‘gear’ with him which he insists was vital to his much-mentioned but obscure ‘time in Africa’. ‘Somewhere among these possessions lay something rare and mysterious which Apthorpe spoke of as his “Bush Thunder-box”.’

This develops into the book’s best-known comic sequence, the kind of extended comic digression which characterised the best of his 1930s comic novels, reminiscent of Basil Seal’s scams in Put Out More Flags. The thunder-box is a beautifully made Edwardian chemical toilet, a cube of solid wood, which opens to reveal a porcelain seat and bowl. But why? asks Guy: there are toilets just down the hallway. ‘The clap old chap,’ Apthrope confidently explains. ‘A chap can never be too careful.’ So Guy watches Apthorpe surreptitiously, one evening, when the other chaps are in the game room, haul this big box out of the general lumber room and drag it across the prep school playing fields into a little games storeroom hidden among the bushes. For a couple of days Apthorpse disappears for ten minutes at a time and only Guy knows where he’s going.

However, disaster strikes when one evening Apthorpe encounters fearsome Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke exiting the clump of bushes which conceal his secret. Both are forced to salute each other but very uneasily. Apthorpe tells Guy the terrible news but worse is to follow. Next day Apthorpe goes for his daily evacuation and is horrified to see a sign pinned on the little outhouse saying the place is out of bounds to everyone below the rank of brigadier.

Apthorpe anxiously discusses the situation with Guy and ropes him into moving the dread device. So one evening they sneak down to the outhouse and manhandle it some distance away to another hiding place, returning very satisfied with their work. A few evenings later Apthorpe makes his usual excuses and slips off and a few minutes later Guy hears a muffled explosion. He knows at once what it is, and sets off running across the playing fields and into the bushes. He discovers a dazed Apthorpe sprawled on his face a few yards from the thunder-box which is now a splintered smoking wreck. Ritchie-Hook, in one of his famous practical jokes, had rigged the thing with a small explosive device.

The sequence of events themselves are fairly funny, but what turns it into award-winning farce is the tremendous seriousness with which Apthorpe takes it all, and the completely straight-faced way Guy plays along with him.

Penkirk

The regiment is moved to Penkirk not far from Edinburgh in a camp of tents. A castle is nearby. Here Apthorpe’s eccentricities continue to flourish. It is here that he commences his long-running vendetta against the officer in the Signalling regiment.

It is here that the first division of commands is given and Guy is bitter to be given only a platoon while Apthorpe is promoted above him. Only later does a friendly superior explain this is because Apthorpe is actually fingered for promotion into purely administrative positions whereas the Brigadier doesn’t want anyone in command of actual fighting units who hasn’t started out with experience of commanding a platoon. That cheers him up a bit.

A new commander is assigned, one Hayter, who Guy comes to dislike. There is a great deal about relations between the new officers of his rank and the complex array of commanding officers who come and go as the regiment is restructured and reorganised.

There is a long sequence which Waugh cleverly arranges around the one hundred and forty-three questions in the Army Training Memorandum No. 31 War. April 1940 which all the officers receive and are ordered to complete.

On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing the hapless Neville Chamberlain. It is worth lingering over what Waugh, or at least his character Guy, thinks of him:

Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.

He thinks he’ll be better than the other chap. But this is a novel and another character, Major Erskine, who, in the dim-witted nature of these characters is thought to be ‘brainy’ because he reads novels and is a bit scruffy, this Erskine is made to say, prophetically:

‘Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war.’

The difference between history and novels is in novels opinions, ideas, perspectives are distributed among different characters for dramatic effect. Might be worth also quoting the place where Waugh gives his clearest explanation of Guy’s motive for fighting, for taking part in this war:

[Guy] was a good loser, but he did not believe his country would lose this war; each apparent defeat seemed strangely to sustain it. There was in Romance great virtue in unequal odds. There were in morals two requisites for a lawful war, a just cause and the chance of victory. The cause was now, past all question, just. The enemy was exorbitant. His actions in Austria and Bohemia had been defensible. There was even a shadow of plausibility in his quarrel with Poland. But now, however victorious, he was an outlaw. And the more victorious he was the more he drew to himself the enmity of the world and the punishment of God.

Note the complete absence of political analysis. Waugh doesn’t, for example declare his protagonist an enemy of fascism or Nazism (in fact, having lived in Italy for most of the 1930s, Guy has a relaxed attitude to the reality of Italian fascism on the ground). Certainly not in the way that English left-wing or liberal thinkers thought of Nazism as unambiguously evil and a threat to all notions of freedom. Guy just seems to think that in invading Poland, Nazi Germany has gone a bit too far. And then this phrase ‘the enmity of God.’ Is Waugh serious? Well, his character probably is. Guy is a devout and in many ways simple Catholic, with a simple sense of right and wrong.

The flap

All this is taking place in the spring and early summer of 1940 which saw, in the wider world of war, the Russian invasion of Finland and the German invasion of Norway, this latter prompting a badly organised and chaotic British attempt to land troops and hold the German advance. (Waugh’s earlier novel, Put Out More Flags, includes towards the end a passage describing the ill-fated involvement of one of the characters, Cedric Lyne, in this badly organised fiasco.) And then, of course, the evacuation of Dunkirk, 26 May to 4 June 1940.

All kinds of rumour reach our chaps and this is a useful social history aspect of the novel, what makes it more than history, that it doesn’t record what happened, but what educated people of the time thought was happening and was going to happen.

Aldershot

So they’re sent to Aldershot in Surrey, with some description of the surrounding sandy heathland. Apthorpe distinguishes himself again by, the second he’s put in charge when the commander in chief is briefly absent, causing a great panic when he claims he has reports of German paratroopers landing.

Maps of Calais are issued as if they’re going to be shipped across to fight there, the officers memorise them, discuss lines of defence and so on. Guy’s platoon is dominated by the impressive figure of Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Guy leads his men on a training exercise on the big barren heathland, everyone gets lost, some men go absent without leave, no-one knows what is going on, rumours fly in all directions.

Tony

Guy receives two letters from his father, the first one (2 June 1940) lamenting that his nephew, Tony, appears to be missing presumed killed in France, the second one (12 June 1940) with the reassuring news that he is in fact a prisoner of war, but the doleful commentary that a) it was shameful that his regiment surrendered to the Germans, but they were ordered to and b) it is likely to be a long war and so a shame that such a fine fellow is going to spend the best years of his young manhood behind bars. He receives both letters on the day the Germans march into Paris, 14 June 1940.

The world has shifted on its axis. Nobody expected France to fall at all, and certainly not so quickly. Now Britain really is alone. Churchill gave his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940.

North Cornwall

The regiment is moved to Cornwall. Waugh details the boredom of hanging round not knowing what the future holds. There are wild rumours that the Germans are about to take Limerick in Ireland and the Halberdiers are about to be shipped over to defend it. Much studying maps of Limerick. Nothing happens. The officers have to cook up ways to keep the men entertained, lectures (Guy gives a well received one about wine making, knowledge he gained in Italy). Football. Evening games of bingo which, surprisingly, Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke recommends and calls ‘housey-housey’.

Extraneous figures came to add to the congestion. An odd, old captain like a cockatoo in the gaudy service-dress of a defunct regiment of Irish cavalry. He said he was the cipher officer and was roped in to lecture on ‘Court Life at St. Petersburg’.

Seen from Waugh’s perspective, army life is one surreal and farcical event after another. This is what makes the books so supremely readable and enjoyable, the tone of quiet humour which suffuses them, occasionally rising to moments of supreme farce.

South Cornwall

Then they are ordered to pack up everything and shunted on a series of trains across to the South Cornwall coast where they are ordered to guard several miles of heavily barbed wired beach. Top brass come for an inspection and one of the intelligence officers goes out of his way to emphasise the risk of fifth columnists, a concept and phrase which had only recently been coined, by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This leads to an incident when Guy has a touch of the Apthorpes and reacts with paranoia when two officers turn up at his HQ (a requisitioned hotel) claiming to be from A Company, the 5th Loamshires. Guy suspects them of being fifth columnists, is impressed by their accurate seeming papers and posh English accents, but nevertheless instructs the sergeant major to take over the bren gun next on the clifftop and cover the pair as they’re taken down for a dip in the sea by a soldier he deputes for the job. If they make one funny move, the sergeant major is to shoot them. The dismay of Sergeant Major Rawkes who had, until this moment, thought Guy wasn’t too bad, for an officer, is very funny.

Brook Park

They’re ordered to pack up yet again and entrain for Brook Park in Surrey. Here occurs an event which the sardonic and witty fellow officer, de Souza, nicknames ‘the Languishing of Leonard’. Early on we had met officer Leonard’s wife, Daisy, who is distinctly not the right class, who drops her aitches and speaks out of turn at dinners or drinks for the regimental officers. She has followed her man from base to base, taking hotel rooms and now announces that she is pregnant. She kicks up an immense fuss and wants Leonard seconded to a safe domestic posting so he can be with her. Very sheepishly Leonard falls in line with her demands, secures his posting, from which point onwards the Adjutant, or acting head of the regiment, requests that his name never be mentioned again. Shame.

Liverpool

Next thing they know they are given two days leave (Guy goes to visit his father and finds him, of course, knee deep in the classics text he’s teaching the little chaps at the evacuated prep school) before returning to barracks at which point the entire regiment is packed up and sent to Liverpool.

After the usual chaos, embarking, disembarking and so on, they finally set sail to the Bay of Biscay, are joined by a fleet and sail on to the coast of Africa, near Dakar, to be precise (capital of what is now Senegal).

Here the fleet moors and numerous high level meetings are held. Initially Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is excited because they are finally going to get to land and biff the enemy. But this turns to bitter frustration when the raid is called off. The ordinary soldiers celebrate but Guy is called to a meeting of senior officers, namely the Brigadier, Colonel Tickeridge and the ship’s captain.

The beach raid in Africa

Ritchie-Hooke is furious that the raid has been called off because naval intelligence has some aerial photos of the beaches which could be interpreted to indicate that they’re criss-crossed with wire. But in this little meeting he is gleeful because he and Tickeridge have persuaded the captain of the ship to let them send a tiny little landing party to ascertain whether this is true. And Guy is to lead it.

He is told to go and choose a dozen men who will be taken aboard a launch by a navy captain, shuttled ashore under cover of darkness, faces blacked, carrying minimal equipment. Their mission is to ascertain the existence or not of ‘wire’ and capture a souvenir, a coconut, say, as proof of their trip.

The atmosphere of tense excitement is beautifully conveyed. There’s a beautiful little description as Guy and his men wait in the hold for the little sally-port, or door low down in the side of the ship, to be opened so they can climb a short distance down a rope ladder into the launch:

The lights were all turned off in the hold before the sally-port was opened by one of the crew. It revealed a faintly lighter square and a steamy breath of the sea.

Well, to be brief, they chug onto the beach, slip over the side and wade through the warm water, tiptoe up the ashore and do, indeed, find wire, rows of wire amateurishly strung across it. Then sounds and someone starts firing and then lots of guns start firing. Guy blows his whistle for general retreat but one of his chaps goes haring forward into the darkness. The rest return to the boat unharmed and the sailor captaining it reports everyone present and correct but Guy knows he saw someone else and goes back to check.

Just as well he did, for he discovers one of his men crawling back through the dunes, wounded in the leg. Guy curses, runs forward, supports him arm over shoulder back to the launch, heaves him in and the launch turns and putters back to the ship. As he helps him Guy realises this disobedient man is none other than… Ben Ritchie-Hook. Not only that, but after he is manhandled into the launch he slips into Guy’s lap the object he’s been hugging close all this time. It is the severed head of an African soldier.

The ‘gruesome’ in Waugh

What to make of this? It is at the same time farcical, comic and gruesome. But readers will remember this is the sometimes puzzlingly extreme tone he takes in many of his books. It is as if part of his approach to humour is to occasionally crank it up to broad farce, and then sometimes to take farce way over the top into The Gruesome.

It’s easy to forget that in his very first novel, Decline and Fall, when the young innocent Paul Pennyfeather finds himself in prison, he discovers that the padre is none other than one of his teachers at the crappy private school he taught at in Wales, Prendergast, who has retrained as a chaplain, and how the prison governor with his fancy ideas, decides it is a good thing to try and reform one of their most notorious prisoners by allowing him to express himself in the carpentry shop – and how this prisoner takes the first opportunity to saw off the padre’s head.

Ritchie-Hooke later explains that the man raised his gun at him so Ritchie chucked a grenade which blew him to bits, one of the bits of which was the head (which he proceeded to ‘trim’ a bit). The beheading of the African is no more offensive than the decapitation of Prendergast i.e. a bit offensive against good taste and restraint. What definitely is offensive is the way Ritchie-Hook refers to the head as his ‘coconut’ and so does everyone else concerned during the incident’s repercussions.

The repercussions are that Ritchie-Hooke has gone too far this time and is recalled to London for a bollocking and possibly the end of his military career. Guy was only obeying direct orders but finds himself also condemned to have a black mark against him.

Freetown

Having abandoned the attack on Dakar the allied fleet sails on to Freetown, the port capital of Sierra Leone (a British colony which remained secure during the war). Damaged ships turn back. The two ships carrying the Halberdiers dock and they go ashore.

There is a new brigadier. He calls Guy in, tells him that during the journey he was promoted captain but that, in light of his involvement in the Dakar fiasco, he has been demoted again. He is to be recalled to London. He will be flown there along with Ritchie-Hooke as soon as the latter is fit enough to travel.

Here in Freetown he makes his second mistake. Apthorpe took the opportunity of leave to go up country. Now word comes back that he is ill. In fact he has been brought back by native bearers in a Victorian style ‘sheeted hammock’ and deposited in hospital.

The brigade major gives Guy permission to visit Apthorpe and recommends he take a bottle of whiskey along, it’s always a nice gesture, though strictly speaking advised against. Guy does so and has a long rambling encounter with Apthorpe who is genuinely ill. Guy slips the whiskey under his bedclothes. A nurse coming in smells it on their breath and says the doctor has forbidden it but Guy lies and says he just gave Apthorpe a nip from his flask.

During this interview Apthorpe, in his comically earnest and tragic way, entrusts Guy with a last wish, which is to ensure that he (Guy) hands over Apthorpe’s legendary pile of kit and equipment to his old friend ‘Chatty’ Corner (who we met earlier in the book when he attended one of the regimental drinks parties). Guy promises and leaves.

A few days later the brigade major calls him in to tell him that Althorpe is dead. Drank the whole bottle of whiskey in a day. Guy is shocked but then more shocked to learn that he is being blamed. The brigade major was the one who suggested the idea, but now holds him responsible.

(Throughout Apthorpe’s dying scenes there is another thread of Waugh’s irrepressible cheeky comedy, which is that Apthorpe solemnly assures him that when he told him, all the way back at the start of the book, that he had two aunts, he was, in fact, fibbing: he only has one. Guy accepts this deathbed confession with a straight face. But this misconception, that Apthorpe had two aunts who will grieve his loss, is then repeated by every other officer and official involved in the case, adding a wonderful thread of humour to counterpoint the rather grim fact of his actual death.

Again, as in the story of the decapitated African, grim death is inextricably intertwined with farce. It is a conscious policy.

So anyway, now Guy has two black marks against him. A flying boat lands in the harbour. It is to take him and Ritchie-Hook back to London and at this point the novel ends.

Cutaway ending

Except that, as Guy flies back to Blighty and an uncertain future, Waugh uses his characteristic technique of cutting away from the protagonist to have him and his plight be discussed by people at some distance from the action who, therefore, treat it with the levity and half attention we all give to gossip about people we half know or have vaguely heard of. It is a home counties version of the Alienation Effect. It is half humorous, half-despairing. It is the way human life is, never really understood, immediately transformed into gossip, all our lives, ultimately, dust. Sarum-Smith and de Souza attend the funeral of Apthorpe, laid to rest in the English cemetery in Freetown, and then remark on the fact that both of the oldest ‘new’ officers, the ones they nicknamed ‘uncle’, have left on the same day (one being buried, the other flying home under a cloud):

‘Both Uncles gone the same day.’
‘Funny, I was thinking the same. I rather preferred Crouchback on the whole.’
‘He seemed a nice enough fellow. I could never quite make him out. Pity he made an ass of himself.’
Already the Second Battalion of the Halberdiers spoke of Guy in the past tense. He had momentarily been of them; now he was an alien; someone in their long and varied past, but forgotten.

The old truth: life is intense tragedy to the person living it, but comedy to everyone else.


Waugh’s worldview

Snobbery

Only members of his class count. The narrator is scornful of anyone outside his circle and its very limited extension into the narrow circle of People Like Us.

The vulgar middle class

Throughout his works Waugh is snooty about people who make a living through trade, shopkeepers, merchants, and what you might call the lower professions, accountants and the like. Thinking about the professions, the very big gap in his oeuvre is the legal profession. If you think about Dickens, his works are full of lawyers and legal cases. None in Waugh. The central profession is, in the 1930s comedies, journalism and, in the novels from Put Out More Flags, the army.

The working classes

The working class is invisible except for servants, publicans, waiters and waitresses (in civilian life) and batmen, valets, servants and drivers (in the army). Oh and the actual soldiers, the common soldier, the private. Almost none of these are mentioned and none are named. When Guy takes his little troupe ashore at Dakar the sergeant has a name but none of the men. They are anonymous extras.

But what interests me is not Waugh’s snobbish, privileged, entitled elitism, as such. It’s more to do with the way that, operating within this closed, super-narrow, elite worldview – the upper class, private school and Oxbridge, country house and the-old-regiment kind of world, bolstered by the exclusiveness and elitism of his upper-class Catholic faith – enables his discourse, allows the texts to be written. A writer can’t write about the entire world; you have to pick a subject. Waugh isn’t trying to describe the great shambling chaos of the modern world. His bright, alert, highly regimented, policed and orderly world is the unshakeable foundation which allows him to create these comic, satirical and, occasionally, devastating fictions.

The elitism is as much a genre as a worldview, with its own customs and conventions. If, for the purpose of reading and enjoying his books, you accept this worldview, then the interest moves on from anatomising the worldview itself, to enjoying the way Waugh subverts, bends and occasionally breaks it.

Private schools and prep schools

Authors of his generation just can’t get away from memories of their childhood prep schools and boyhood private schools. They make endless comparisons to them, something reminds them of this or that at prep or public school, somehow prep schools are always cropping up as actual items: thus the location of training in Southsea is a requisitioned prep school and Mr Crouchback finds a private school evacuating to near his hotel and is invited to become a teacher, a Classics teacher, of course. I wasn’t at all surprised when (in the third book in the trilogy) de Souza tells Guy:

‘All army courses are like prep schools–all that welcoming of the new boys.’ (Unconditional Surrender, page 97)

It’s the first point of comparison for all these privately educated men.

Mental illness

I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in my reviews of Waugh’s novels, but a surprising number of them feature characters or passages dealing with mental illness or mental breakdown. Thus the nervous collapse of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, the teetering on the brink of shocked breakdown of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the decline into depressed alcoholism of former High Society doyenne Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, the mental collapse of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, not one but two suicides in The Loved One. Several of his short stories are about homicidal lunatics (Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and The Sympathetic Passenger).

In the trilogy Waugh continues his interest in several ways, at several levels. Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, has a complete collapse into psychosis and starves himself to death. Guy himself has been down enough to qualify as depressed and there are plenty of descriptions of his sense of hollowness, emptiness and futility:

He [was] himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith.

His brother-in-law, Box-Bender, frankly expects Guy to go mad at any moment, like his older brother, which doesn’t help. And then there’s something odd, ‘rum’, about the central figure, Apthorpe, mounting in eccentricity all the way through to his final collapse.

It feels like madness is constantly lurking just around the corner in any Waugh text. For the most part Waugh manages to keep the lid on it, contain it, and express it in socially acceptable form as a sense of the ludicrous or the farcical. But sometimes, pop! madness or despair emerge into the open.

Influence of film

1. As I’ve pointed out in other reviews, the film technique of quick cutting between scenes is something Waugh absorbed and used to great effect, most notably in an early novel like Vile Bodies but more subtly throughout all his fictions. He is still using it liberally throughout the trilogy, which often features sequences of 2 or 3-page scenes, moving quickly from one setting to another.

2. At moments, like so many of us, like so many characters in twentieth century fiction, Guy compares his behaviour to what people would do in a film and finds himself failing to live up to the Hollywood ideal of dashing masculinity.

3. And then, sometimes, he just takes the mickey out of movies, very amusingly:

Once Guy saw a film of the Rising of ’45. Prince Charles and his intimates stood on a mound of heather, making a sad little group, dressed as though for the Caledonian Ball, looking, indeed, precisely as though they were a party of despairing revellers mustered in the outer suburbs to meet a friend with a motor-car who had not turned up.

An awful moment came when the sun touched the horizon behind them. The Prince bowed his head, sheathed his claymore and said in rich Milwaukee accents: ‘I guess it’s all off, Mackingtosh.’

Influence of books

The comparing oneself with cultural ideals comes over more clearly in his comparisons with popular fiction. Early on in the book Guy recalls a story of derring-do he was read at prep school (naturally) during the Great War, and which inspired him and his friends with images of dashing heroism. The memory comes when the Brigadier addresses the men:

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘to-morrow you meet the men you will lead in battle.’

It was the old, potent spell, big magic. Those two phrases, ‘the officers who will command you…’, ‘the men you will lead…’ set the junior officers precisely in their place, in the heart of the battle. For Guy they set swinging all the chimes of his boyhood’s reading…

‘…”I’ve chosen your squadron for the task, Truslove.” “Thank you, sir. What are our chances of getting through?” “It can be done, Truslove, or I shouldn’t be sending you. If anyone can do it, you can. And I can tell you this, my boy, I’d give all my seniority and all these bits of ribbon on my chest to be with you. But my duty lies here with the Regiment. Good luck to you, my boy. You’ll need it”…’

The words came back to him from a summer Sunday evening at his preparatory school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room, the three top forms sitting about on the floor, some in a dream of home, others – Guy among them – spell-bound.

This passage explains much, about ideals and identity and the centrality of his bloody private school in both of them. But it also, on a comic level, gives rise to a recurring trope which is when Guy finds himself in a tight corner and wonders what this ‘Truslove’ character from his boyhood stories would have done in his place. Thus he refers, later on, to an officer volunteering for a mission ‘Truslove style’, and ironically nicknames the farcical episode on the beach of Dakar ‘Operation Truslove’.

It is a variation on the deep central issue I’ve mentioned above, of the way so many men – well, writers, anyway – of this generation, never escaped their public school manners, morals and essentially immature, schoolboy worldview.


Credit

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1952. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

“Ought we to be drunk every night?” Sebastian asked one morning.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I think so too.”
(Charles and Sebastian as students discuss their drinking habits in Brideshead Revisited)

Brideshead Revisited is probably Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel, simply because of the huge success of the 1981 ITV dramatisation. Which is ironic, because there’s a strong case for arguing that Brideshead is the least representative of Waugh’s works.

It’s also odd that it’s so popular, considering it amounts to a prolonged description of the destructive effects of alcoholism, the bitterness of adultery and infidelity, and a sustained account of one of the most dysfunctional families in literature.

Brideshead Revisited is divided into five sections: a short prologue (13 pages) and even shorter epilogue (6 pages) and 3 long central parts which each cover a distinct period in the characters’ lives. At 331 pages in the Penguin paperback edition, Brideshead is by some margin Waugh’s longest book, his other novels averaging around 220 pages, the travel books a skimpy 160 or 170.

The novel begins in 1923 and tells the story of the friendship between Charles Ryder and the beautiful, debonaire Sebastian Flyte, second son of scandalous Lord Marchmain, who is the owner of the impressive country house of the title, Brideshead. (To be clear, the grand house is named after the little river Bride which runs through the shallow valley where the house is situated; the title the family own and pass on is ‘Marchmain’, so Lord Marchmain, Lady Marchmain and Marchmain House in London; but the actual family name as written in passports and legal documents is Flyte).

The 1940s perspective

But although the novel’s events are set in the 1920s, when Charles and Sebastian were carefree undergraduates, and then the 1930s, when they are young men exploring the world, Waugh goes to some pains in his 1959 preface to the book to emphasise that the novel is not of those relatively carefree times.

Very much the opposite, Waugh wrote Brideshead on a break from military duty from autumn 1943 through to June 1944, in the depths of the war, in the bleak winter of 1943, when not only the war against Nazi Germany was in doubt but, even if we won the war it had begun to seem to people like him as if the entire grand, upper-class, country house and high society world which Waugh had known and revelled in, would be swept away.

It looked increasingly as if a post-war England would be a grim, egalitarian, socialist place where the grand old families would be ruined by death duties (mentioned on page 96), the beautiful country houses would be pulled down to make way for council estates (as the family’s London base, Marchmain House, is pulled down to make way for flats) and that the frivolous hedonistic life he had enjoyed as a Bright Young Thing in the 1920s would be replaced by grim proletarian earnestness.

Therefore, Waugh’s memories of 1920s Oxford and 1930s London Society, his descriptions of the impossibly grand country house and the stirring nobility of its venerable owner, Alexander Lord Marchmain, even his descriptions of the food and drink consumed at various points, are all intensely coloured by wish fulfilment and fantasy, are the hungry fantasies of a man who, like everyone else in Britain, had had to put up with four years of rationing, for whom a really stylish meal was a distant memory, and who feared that everything he held dear in life was about to be crushed out of existence.

You could argue that one of the chief appeals of almost all Waugh’s other novels is their restraint, the way events, people and dialogue are, for the most part, clipped and understated. Several of his most shocking effects are created this way, by cutting dialogue or description at key moments right back to the bone and letting the reader do the work, imagining for themselves the characters’ responses.

It’s in this respect that Bridgeshead is so uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, because it is so overstated, so sumptuously over-written, so bloated.

Its unusual length, which I mentioned above, is one aspect of this, and both are related to the use of a first person narrator, Charles Ryder, to tell this long story (see below).

In the 1959 preface Waugh states all this very clearly and goes some way to apologising for the book’s florid excesses. But he also explains that, although he’s tinkered with phrasing all the way through and cut some passages (which ones?) he has not rewritten the entire thing, it would be impossible, it is what it is, a testament to a particular time and mood. His final sentence emphasises that it is given to the reader not as a souvenir of the 1920s or 1930s, which is so lavishly describes, but more as an imaginative fantasy spawned by the darkest days of the 1940s.

Prologue

The centrality of the war mentioned in the preface is immediately confirmed in the text itself by the short but grim prologue. We find ourselves in the depths of the Second World War and encounter a first-person narrative told by an erudite, self-aware, articulate person who is named half way through as Captain Charles Ryder. He is the somewhat insubordinate leader of C company in an infantry regiment.

He and his men are stationed in some sordid barracks in the middle of England in the middle of a rainy winter, with horrible food, broken windows and slack soldiers. He and the new colonel do not get on one little bit and his subtle insubordination brings down extra work and duties on his company, to the chiding of the regimental sergeant major.

The general crappiness of Ryder’s existence is crystallised in the person of Hooper (no first name is ever given), ‘a sallow youth with hair combed back, without parting, from his forehead, and a flat, Midland accent’. Hooper’s long hair, failure to shave and general slovenliness drive the colonel mad but Ryder grudgingly likes him because he sums up Ryder’s own disaffection with the army and its ways.

Ryder’s regiment are ordered to pack up and leave the barracks for new accommodation, a process which involves an enormous amount of fuss and bother and rules and shouting and loading up numerous lorries which pull out under cover of dark and drive miles through narrow lanes (no motorways and well-lit dual carriageways back in those days).

They eventually turn through the gates of some country house and drive up the drive and park alongside other lorries at a joining of the ways. It is only when someone casually mentions the name that, with a shock, Ryder realises this is Brideshead House, a place which meant so much to him in times past. And with that, the screen shimmers and we are transported back precisely twenty years to Ryder’s happy days as an innocent undergraduate at Oxford University.

Part one: Et in arcadia ego

Oxford 1923, giddy undergraduates living the high life. Charles Ryder is 19 and an undergraduate at (an unnamed) college and it is the heady celebrations of Eights Week. Ryder’s shy, secretive father had been to Oxford but in this as so much else slyly, and slightly maliciously gave him little preparation (‘Then, as always, he eschewed serious conversation with me’). It was a cousin, Jasper, who gave him the best practical advice on what to expect and how to survive. The old architecture, the friends, the parties, Waugh vividly conveys the cult of Oxford as a special place, a world apart, a glamorous, romantic fantasy world.

Charles’s father

Charles’s father is a grim figure. His mother went off to serve in the Red Cross during the Great War and was killed. It broke his father who, ever since, has dwelled in his London home, not far from the Edgeware Road, with one servant, Hayter, seeing no-one. Charles’s stays with him during the Oxford vacations are little wars of domestic attrition during which his father feigns indifference, occasionally rising to flickers of malice. His father is a deeply unhappy man and his unhappiness casts a pall over the grim little household and Charles when he’s staying there.

As usual with Waugh, the text is packed with lovely details and interesting reflections on the mood of the post-Great War generation of students, colourful characters and great scenes. But the core of the story is simple: it is a long account of the tangled relationship between the unhappy and self-conscious Charles Ryder with the glamorous but cursed Marchmain family, owners of the grand house at Brideshead, which starts with Charles’s student friendship with Lord Sebastian Flyte, fey, handsome, rich and blithely hedonistic, younger son of of the troubled family.

Oxford

In Charles’s first terms as an undergraduate, Sebastian is already a well known figure. Ryder is shy, a bit embarrassed, moves in much more modest circles, until, late one night, a very drunk Flyte sticks his head through Ryder’s open ground floor window and vomits copiously. Charles has a hard time explaining it to his ‘scout’ (or servant) Lunt, who has to clean it up the next morning. Feeling remorseful the next day, Sebastian invites Charles to lunch by way of apology.

And so begins the friendship which is to shape Ryder’s life. Sebastian’s social set is far above Charles’s, and includes the notable figure of the tall, south American, lisping, highly cosmopolitan and very camp homosexual Anthony Blanche, who is also to recur through the narrative, in that way novels have of introducing half a dozen characters who weave and bob throughout the text and the years to come.

Soliloquies

One aspect of Brideshead’s excess is the enormous great speeches its characters make. Half way through the first part the outrageously camp Anthony Blanche, turning heads wherever he goes with his loud, gay voice, takes Charles for dinner in Thame and talks at him non-stop for 8 pages. When Charles goes to stay with Sebastian at Brideshead during the long (i.e. summer) vacation, Sebastian is given to huge speeches of exposition, about the house and his family.

All this is in stark contrast with the tremendously clipped and abbreviated dialogue found in the previous novels. It makes you reflect that there is a relationship between brevity and wit (as Hamlet pointed out 400 years ago). A lot of the humour of the earlier novels derives from the clipped, snappy dialogue. The wittiness of dry understatement.

Whereas here the characters go on for page after page and this fact is closely related to the general lack of comedy. There is still the general self-regarding drollery of undergraduate humour – Anthony teasing the butch bully boys of the Bullingdon Club from the window of his rooms is very funny, and some of the repartee when Charles and Sebastian are drunk is funny. But by and large the story is darker and takes itself seriously in a way none of his previous books did.

Unhappy families

I never watched Brideshead when it was first broadcast. The clips of it I saw seemed painfully stereotyped, the same characters wearing the same clothes and drawling the same 1920s upper-class mannerisms as in a thousand Agatha Christie dramatisations. TV is all the same. I can’t bear its dull predictability, its glossy sameyness.

And I managed to skip it the last time I read all Waugh’s novels, going straight from Put Out More Flags to the start of the Sword of Honour trilogy. So this is the first time I’ve read Brideshead Revisited and I’m surprised by lots of things about it, but chiefly by how gloomy it is. I thought Sebastian came from this grand, successful, happy aristocratic family. I am very surprised to discover how broken, dysfunctional and miserable it is.

A decade earlier Lord Marchmain had gone off to fight in the Great War and met some French actress and never came back. Lady Marchmain now lives the life of the peripatetic rich, shuttling between the grandest hotels in Europe. In other words the grand house is not the seat of a happy, extended and sociable family but more like a shell which is only episodically inhabited.

The eldest son and heir, ‘Bridey’, as Sebastian calls him, with his ‘Aztec face’, is earnestly Catholic and has toyed with becoming a Jesuit priest, before reluctantly assuming the role of son and heir. Sebastian’s sister, Julia, is the spitting image of him, same intonation, same toss of the head, but harder and more cynical. And then there’s youngest sister, Cordelia, ‘a robust child of ten or eleven’ at a convent school.

With the result that Brideshead is very far from being the happy home and social hive I assumed it to be. It is a gloomy, empty, shuttered place, where the various family members briefly alight, unshutter a few rooms, have a few meals prepared by the discreet servants (led by Wilcox the butler), then disappear off again.

Sebastian’s strongest attachment is to his nanny, Nanny Hawkins. It’s that kind of family, where the son’s deepest attachment isn’t to his remote, absent parents, but to his plain (and rather stupid-sounding) nanny.

The impact of having a first-person singular narrative

A very important thing about the book is that it has a first-person narrator, the first Waugh novel to do so. In all the other stories the beady gaze of a third-person narrator encouraged the tough detachment which suits narratives about multiple characters, often seen from a distance, through crowds, briefly mentioned by other characters: the kaleidoscope affect of his social novels. Waugh’s earlier narratives skip and jump at will from one character or social scene to another with great speed and dexterity.

Adoption of a first person narrator, however, drastically alters that pace and feel, by forcing us into the mind of just the one person for a whopping 300 pages. With this shift, all other aspects of the novel become heavy and long. Instead of jaunty, snappy dialogue, we get these 8-page monologues. Instead of very precise and, more often than not, drolly clipped descriptions, we get Charles’s lugubrious, long-winded and precious reflections. Here he is describing how his long stay at Brideshead that first summer of his friendship with Sebastian, led him to study its interiors and design and changed his taste for good.

Since the days when, as a schoolboy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I have nursed a love of architecture, but though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and mediaeval.

This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

1. Note the obsession with self, with one’s thoughts and impressions and tastes and so on, which is an inevitable part of having a first-person narrator. The third person narrator of Waugh’s earlier novels flitted about at will, often only settling on a scene for a page or less, leaving as soon as it got boring. With Charles we are stuck with page after page of the same thoughts and ideas, beautifully described, but increasingly monotonous.

2. Stylistic indulgence: that final sentence is 78 words long, and is an example of Waugh letting himself go, just one of many passages of stylistic self-indulgence. This kind of thing crops up in the earlier novels, for example in passages describing Hetton, country seat of Tony Last, but previously it was very disciplined, brief, trimmed back, before the narrative reverted to crisp dialogue, and used sparingly. Here, these kinds of indulgent descriptions go on for pages. Middle-aged spread.

Brief summary

Charles meets Sebastian i.e. Sebastian throws up through his window, is carried off unconscious. Next day he gets an invite to lunch with Sebastian by way of apology. Is introduced to Sebastian’s bear, Aloysius, an ironic affection of Sebastian’s. Charles is introduced to the flamboyantly camp Anthony Blanche. A week or so later Sebastian borrows another undergraduate’s car and they drive through the country to his family’s stately home, Brideshead House, which is empty and shuttered, except for Nanny Hawkins in her attic servant’s room.

The long vacation i.e. summer holiday: Charles returns to his father’s grim joyless house in London with its view ‘across the grimy gardens and irregular backs of Bayswater, at the jumble of soil pipes and fire-escapes and protuberant little conservatories’.

Then he gets a telegram from Sebastian saying he’s had an accident and needs looking after, so Charles joyfully packs a bag and catches a train to the country station nearest Brideshead. Here he is collected by Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and for the first time gets her measure, sees she is a female equivalent of Sebastian, only much tougher.

It turns out Sebastian fractured a tiny bone on his foot having a hissy fit during a croquet game. He is in a wheelchair. Julia happily hands over responsibility for caring for him to Charles and drives off. Charles and Sebastian spend an idyllic month sunbathing or exploring the architectural riches of the house. Charles, we discover, is an amateur artist and sketches the main fountain and other features and even starts decorating one of the rooms with painted panels.

This idyll is interrupted when Sebastian is invited by his father to his place in Venice. Venice. Yes, Venice. Home of artistic and social snobbery. ‘You simply must see the Tintorettos in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, they are so much more subtle and spiritual than his fresco in San Giorgio, don’t you think, dahling?’ And ‘We have been invited to the Corombona palace for a party; one simply must see the Corombona palace lit up for the ball, there’s nothing quite like it, is there dahling?’ All laid on with a trowel.

Charles is introduced to Lord Marchmain who is tall and Byronic and detached, carefully playing a part. And to his ‘mistress’, Cara, in the event, after all Charles’s nineteen-year-old fantasies, just a middle-aged woman like any other:

She was not a voluptuous Toulouse-Lautrec odalisque; she was not a ‘little bit of fluff’; she was a middle-aged, well-preserved, well-dressed, well-mannered woman such as I had seen in countless public places and occasionally met.

They go to the finest restaurants, eat the finest food, drink the finest wine, are invited to the finest parties, visit the finest churches and see the finest art because they are the finest people. It was about this point that I began to dislike the book and its characters and began to hope that bad things were in store for them, as there so often are in Waugh novels.

It’s almost as if Waugh himself shared this dislike which is crystallised when Cara very frankly tells young Charles that the Marchmain family hate each other, taking their lead from Lord Marchmain’s furious hatred of his wife:

‘He hates her; but you can have no conception how he hates her. You would think him so calm and English — the milord, rather blasé, all passion dead, wishing to be comfortable and not to be worried, following the sun, with me to look after that one thing that no man can do for himself. My friend, he is a volcano of hate. He cannot breathe the same air as she. He will not set foot in England because it is her home; he can scarcely be happy with Sebastian because he is her son. But Sebastian hates her too.’

Cara explains that all the roles for a man are filled in Sebastian’s family: his father is a Byronic hero-cum-Lothario, his elder brother a solid chap but also a closet religious fanatic. In a sense all there is left for Sebastian is to be the baby of the family, pretending to talk to his teddy bear.

Oh and Cara for the first time sounds the theme of concern that Sebastian might become a serious alcoholic; she’s seen the way he drinks, obsessively, compulsively.

Holiday in Venice over, Charles and Sebastian return to Oxford for the first term of their second year. (There were and still are three terms at the University of Oxford: Michaelmas – October to December; Hilary – January to March; Trinity – April to June. Note that each term lasts precisely 8 weeks and, since 3 times 8 makes 24, this means that if you attend Oxford University you actually spend less than half the year actually there. You can stay in college rooms or rented accommodation before or after the term dates, and there are social events a bit before and a bit after, but essentially an Oxford education takes up less than half of each of its calendar years.)

The find that Anthony Blanche has left the university (the correct terminology is ‘has gone down’). Sebastian drolly tells us: ‘Apparently he’s taken a flat in Munich – he has formed an attachment to a policeman there’. And it turns out Anthony was the centre of a circle of loud hedonists who, without him, break up into ‘a bare dozen lethargic, adolescent Englishmen’.

Charles had gone into debt in his first year and been forced to grovel to his distant father for money, something he determines to avoid in his second year, and so he lives more sensibly, buys sensible clothes, the kind you would wear for a country house party, takes his degree subject (History, like Waugh’s) fairly seriously, even attends a few lectures! He writes his two essays a week and signs up for an extra-curricular course in life drawing at the Ruskin School of Art (fancying himself, as mentioned above, as an artist). Sebastian, meanwhile, feels alone and alienated. They take to shunning their colleges and hanging out in low pubs in town.

One day Julia arrives en route back to London from a country house party, driven by a dashing 30-year-old Canadian Great War veteran named Rex Mottram. A few days later Rex invites them to a charity ball in London, along with Sebastian’s boyhood chum, Boy Mulcaster. They stay at the Marchmain family’s London house, which is inventively named Marchmain House.

The three of them get rat-arsed drunk and slip out of the charity party and off to a seedy nightclub-cum-brothel which Boy Mulcaster claims to know about. It is the Old Hundredth at 100 Sink Street, which some readers may remember is where Jock takes Tony Last to pick up a tart who they can pay to pretend to spend a dirty weekend in Brighton with him, in order to provide evidence for the divorce case, in A Handful of Dust.

Anyway, they get even more drunk at the club and pick up two ugly tarts, but Sebastian insists on driving back to Marchmain House (it only appears to be a few hundred yards away, down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly). Unfortunately, Sebastian manages to do half the distance on the wrong side of the road before pulling up right across the road to let one of the girls out. This is when the police arrest them.

They are astonished to be actually arrested and thrown into some cells, where Sebastian and Boy kick up a fuss but Charles, being the moderately sensible one, gets a message out to Rex Mottram. Rex thoroughly enjoys visiting them in the cells and playing the part of older, more responsible friend. He very smoothly chats up the police and the authorities, gets them released, handles their court appearance, provide lawyers, deals with the press, and then with their college authorities back at Oxford. Quite the adventure!

The last few chapters of Part One describe Sebastian’s decline into depressed alcoholism.

Part two: Brideshead deserted

The end of their undergraduate degrees. Sebastian disgraces himself for the third time (the first was getting arrested, the second appearing drunk in front of the whole family before dinner) when he’s found at 1am wandering drunk as a skunk round Christ Church’s main quadrangle.

He is ‘rusticated’ (i.e. expelled) for a term and only lobbying by Lady Marchmain and a friendly don she cultivates named Mr Samgress ensure that he will be allowed to return, but only if he goes and stays with the respectable Catholic, Monsignor Bell which, predictably, Sebastian refuses to do.

I began to realise the novel was going to be about the decline and fall of this lovely pretty boy whose decline into alcoholism would be a symbol of the sad degrading of undergraduate innocence.

In the interim i.e. while he is forbidden to attend the autumn term, it is decided that Sebastian will be taken under the wing of this affable and obsequious don, Mr Samgrass, who will take him on a tour of the sites and sights of the Levant i.e. Turkey.

For his part, Charles realises he’s come to dislike Oxford and asks his father if he can leave without a degree and enrol in art school. His cold and indifferent father is delighted at his leaving the city of dreaming spires but predictably poo-poohs his chances of a career in art: ‘Do what you want, son.’ So Charles goes to art school in Paris.

Worth pointing out that Charles never seems to me to be a believable artist. For a start he is snootily dismissive of all modern art, reassuring young Cordelia that modern art ‘is all bosh’ (p.147).

Back from Paris at Christmas, Charles is invited to Brideshead and so goes for the traditional family time. Mr Samgrass gives a dull lantern lecture about his and Sebastian’s trip around Anatolia but the only thing on everyone’s mind is Sebastian’s further decline into alcoholism. Sebastian now smuggles whiskey up into his room, is tipsy all afternoon and offensively drunk at dinner time. The drinks tray which used to be on the sideboard is removed at Lady Marchmain’s orders. The butler, Wilcox, needs Lady M’s approval before bringing Sebastian the champagne he orders.

When Lady Marchmain announces she is too tired to go to Chapel and Lord Brideshead announces he will be riding to hounds tomorrow, breaking in Julia’s new horse, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the colossal, thick-headed, philistine boredom of these people’s lives. None of them appear to do anything productive at all except eat and bitch about each other.

Sebastian is now an alcoholic. The family have cut off his bank account, so he’s resorted to pawning his watch and cigarette holder for money for booze. Charles visits Sebastian in his room and remonstrates with him, as he sits numbly by the blazing fire. But it’s the same old argument: Sebastian’s dislike of his family, his wish to be left alone, has hardened into this escape into alcohol. Their attempt to deprive him of drink has come to stand for their attempts to stifle every aspect of his life.

So Sebastian surprises the family by saying he’d like to go hunting tomorrow. Maybe the fresh air and exercise will do him good, his mother says, hopefully. But naively. Sebastian lets on to Charles that his plan is to break away from the hunt as soon as possible and spend the day drinking in a nice quiet pub. He asks Charles for some cash to buy drinks and Charles loyally gives him two pounds.

(He also shares the big secret of the so-called Grand Tour he did with Mr Samgress, namely that he did a bunk as soon as he could, bumping into Anthony Blanche of all people and staying with his and his ‘Jew boy’ [Sebastian’s words] boyfriend. Blanche negotiated a deal with Mr Samgress, that the latter would continue with his tour, sending letters back to Lady Marchmain assuring her all was well, while splitting the money for the trip with Sebastian and letting him go his way, until they were reunited to return to England for Christmas. Now Charles realises why Samgress looked so damn nervous throughout his lecture and every conversation about the trip: he was lying through his teeth.)

So next morning comes and Sebastian is up and joins the merry throng in the stables and sets off on horseback, but as the pack breaks up makes his way to a remote country hotel bar. From where he has to be collected, blind drunk. That evening the family barely make it through an embarrassed dinner.

Next morning Charles bluntly asks Sebastian if he still wants him to stay and Sebastian bluntly says no. So Charles packs his things and prepares to leave. He goes to say goodbye to his hostess, Lady Marchmain, who bluntly asks if he gave Sebastian the money he used to get smashed the day before. Charles immediately admits it. Lady Marchmain takes an unusually high-handed line and says she is astonished at such wickedness. They all thought he was their friend. What on earth possessed him to do something so wicked, etc? Charles reflects it was very like being expelled from school, and suddenly wonders what he’s doing there.

As the car drives him away from the house Charles is only too glad to wash his hands of the whole silly family. Good riddance. He’s had enough. He returns to Paris, to his nice little apartment overlooking the Seine, to art school. This was Christmas 1924 going into the new year of 1925.

Rex in Paris

Only the Marchmains haven’t finished with him. Next thing he knows Rex Mottram is knocking on the door of his Paris flat. Seems he persuaded the family to let him take Sebastian abroad, to Switzerland, to a doctor who runs a clinic for alcoholics (‘Dr Borethus at Zurich.’). But, stopping over in Paris, Rex made the mistake of going to a club where he won a fortune at cards, coming home late at night, cheerfully telling Sebastian. In the morning Sebastian was gone and so were Rex’s winnings, a cool £300.

It’s infuriating for Rex because, as he explains to Charles over dinner at ‘a little place Charles knows’, he is far advanced in his campaign to marry Lady Julia. With disarming and rather repellent candour Rex explains how he has wormed his way into London’s high society by becoming Lady Brenda Champion’s lover, hence golf with the Prime Minister, influential friends in the City and so on. But having conquered that world, he now needs to mate, to make a permanent connection, and obtain the classiest dame at the cheapest price (remember Rex is a Canadian and lives for The Deal [I wonder why Waugh didn’t make him the more obviously mercenary nationality of American]).

Rex and Julia

All of Part Two, chapter two is devoted to a long exposition of Rex’s efforts to woo Lady Julia, starting with her coming out parties as a debutante in the 1924 season, through his slow patient wooing, including reassuring the family and Lady Marchmain of his good intentions, while carrying on a similar campaign to win over Julia’s absent father, residing in Monte Carlo.

Things are well advanced, and Rex is even prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and convert to Catholicism (though it means nothing whatsoever to him, to the comic dismay of his catechist, Father Mowbray). The church is booked, the bridesmaids have been chosen and the family are reviewing the guest list when Bridey walks into the living room at Brideshead and delivers a bombshell: Rex is already married, to a woman back in Canada in 1915.

Rex says he divorced her. Yes but in the Catholic faith you cannot divorce your partner, and you certainly can’t marry someone who has been married before. Rex doesn’t get this and thinks he can just throw money at the problem. In a rational world he would be able to, but these people are Catholics and so live their lives via a matrix of life-denying rules and obligations.

Julia insists she wants to marry Rex but it simply can’t be done in the Catholic faith, so they settle on a compromise, to marry in a hurry in an out of the way Protestant chapel with a handful of witnesses. It is exactly the opposite of the grand society wedding both of them wanted, it is a huge disappointment to their family, it is a scandal to all their Catholic friends, all the guests have to be disinvited, all the gifts have to be returned, it is a shamble all round, and gets Julia and Rex’s married life off to a miserable start from which it never recovers. Yay for Catholicism.

Lady Teresa a good and saintly woman and yet everything bad happens to her. She had to watch her handsome husband become an alcoholic and then an adulterer. She had to watch her beautiful son become another alcoholic. Now she has to watch her daughter apostasise from the Catholic faith in order to have a squalid little hole-in-the-corner wedding to Rex Mottram. Julia on her mother:

‘All through her life Mummy had all the sympathy of everyone except those she loved.’ (p.192)

The General Strike

Charles reads about it in the English newspapers in Paris. Very funny how all Rex’s grand plans were foiled by the family’s irrational beliefs.

Next episode is the General Strike of May 1926. Charles and other posh ex-pats genuinely fear that a revolution is breaking out and so he leaves his studies in Paris and returns hot foot to London – only to find everything absolutely as boring as usual, except his friends are now going to jazz clubs and getting drunker than ever.

He is inducted as a special constable and protects a convoy of milk churns, only once getting into a mild dust-up in the Commercial Road. He came from Paris with a colleague in the art world, a Belgian Futurist named Jean de Brissac la Motte. This chap was the only casualty of the General Strike that Charles heard about:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week. (p.199)

Very much in the same spirit of absurdity with which he describes the comically inept conflict in Waugh in Abyssinia and Black Mischief.

Anthony Blanche again

But in fact this brief return to London is mostly notable for bumping into the egregious Anthony Blanche in a very sleazy Soho club. Anthony is, of course, full of gossip about Sebastian, to wit, Sebastian came to stay with him in Marseilles, stole and pawned his belongings to keep himself in booze, so Anthony took him away from Europe to Tangiers, where Sebastian appears to have fallen in with some rough trade from the Foreign Legion. Not looking too good for young Seb, is it?

Julia contacts Charles while he’s in London and asks her to come visit Mama in Marchmain House. There Charles learns Lady Marchmain is dying, the docs say she has a few weeks at most. When they arrive Lady M is sleeping so can’t see him, but while he’s there Julia asks, begs, Charles to go to North Africa and rescue Sebastian.

Charles in Casablanca

So Charles finds himself dragged back in. He flies to Casablanca, is briefed by the British Consul who finds ‘young Flyte’ a worry and none too popular with the Moors who are anti-booze. Charles is directed down a warren of dodgy alleyways and comes to a filthy house at the end of a dirty alleyway, to discover Sebastian’s partner or friend, the disreputable German there. The German tells him Sebastian’s in a hospital run by monks, so off Charles goes. At the hospital they tell him Sebastian’s made himself  so weak with drink that the slightest infection could carry him off. Sebastian is surprised to see Charles and Charles is distressed to see how poorly Sebastian has become, thin and lined.

He sorts out a deal between the family and a local British bank to supply Sebastian with a regular weekly stipend as long as he’s judged to live regularly, eat regularly and look after himself.

Back in London he discovers Lady Julia has died. In the Paris restaurant Rex had told him the Marchmain family had lived beyond their means ever since the war. Marchmain is hugely in debt. Now Charles learns the family are selling Marchmain House in London which will be turned into a block of flats. Bridey commissions him to paint it before it is demolished and these turn out to be the architectural paintings which launch Charles’s career as an artist.

Part three: A twitch upon the thread

Chapter one

‘I was glad when I found Celia was unfaithful,’ I said. ‘I felt it was all right for me to dislike her.’

I liked this part best. It seems the least immature and snobbish. It is ten years later. Charles has become a successful architectural painter, had umpteen exhibitions, published best-selling books of paintings of classic English stately homes and winsome cottages. Some six years earlier he married Celia, sister of Boy Mulcaster. Two years ago he discovered she had been unfaithful to him and it turned his heart to stone. He surprised everyone by setting off on a long tour through Mexico and Central America, painting and sketching ancient ruins being reclaimed by the jungle.

That’s all backstory. Part three opens with Charles having completed his South American odyssey and flown to New York to be reunited with his wife before boarding the liner to take them back to Blighty. Celia is bright and super-sociable, organising a farewell party then, as soon as they’re aboard, another party with a huge swan carved of ice in the ship’s main room which is soon packed to bursting with all their guests.

But reunion with Celia just proves to Charles he doesn’t give a damn about her, or the children he’s had with her. His heart is hard. He discovers Julia Mottram née Flyte, Sebastian’s sister is aboard. Realises he hasn’t seen her for ages. She’s invited to the party but doesn’t attend.

At the height of the party the ship begins to heave. Soon it is in the midst of a big Atlantic storm, bucking and rolling for days. Charles’s wife takes to her bed very sick and this gives Charles the opportunity to look up Julia. They walk round the ship in the storm, brave the dining room, talk for hours about their lives and hopes. She describes how her marriage to Rex Mottram became a sham as she slowly realised he was only part of a man, a big Ambition and nothing more. He managed to get her pregnant but the baby was stillborn which cemented their rift.

Julia tells him that since Lady Marchmain’s death and the sale of Marchmain House, her father refused to come back from his Continental dalliances and so she and Rex live in big old Brideshead, along with Bridey who has holed up in a room in the same tower as old Nanny Hawkins and become more and more reclusive. Nobody’s heard from Sebastian in years.

After some shilly-shallying, they try a walk along the ship’s rails but are thrown together by the ship’s roll, with the spray in their hair and suddenly the sun breaking through in glory, she whispers in his ear, yes, she will sleep with him, yes, and leads him below to her cabin where they commit adultery.

Adultery itself is a very boring subject as is the spurious air of tremendous importance it gives its practitioners, who think their little drama is the centre of the world – but I liked the setting of a luxury 1930s liner in a severe storm, that felt novel.

Chapter two

Charles arrives in England and almost immediately has an exhibition in a London gallery. His wife Celia a) knows nothing about the fact he’s fallen in love with Julia b) is his very capable manager; she organises his exhibitions, draws up the guest list, worries about reviewers and sales.

Charles is haughtily contemptuous of the whole circus as he had been of the huge party his wife organised on the ship. That is what makes this third part the most enjoyable, Charles’s withering contempt – for the critics, for the reviewers, for the cognoscenti, for his wife, for the minor royalty who pops in to shake hands, for the insincere snobs his wife has invited to luncheon, and finally, for his wife herself, who he still cordially despises as much as he did when he discovered her infidelity two years earlier.

By the way, Waugh captures the excruciating embarrassment of these kinds of occasions but he in no way at any point persuades us that Charles is an artist. Author and character’s failure to mention any art movements of the day or any living artist convinces the reader that Charles a literary man’s idea of an artist i.e. an observer of people and psychologies and characters and whatnot i.e. a novelist and not an artist at all. The artists I know are obsessed with how things look and light and angles and composition.

At the end of the opening day of his exhibition Charles cries off going down to their country seat (the Old Rectory) or seeing his small children, in preference for going with Julia to Brideshead. At that moment, Celia realises he is leaving her, is in love with Julia.

And he really is in love with her, the night of passion on the transatlantic liner really opened a door into a new world of wonderful love. He waits excitedly at Paddington till she arrives and they hop on the train, enjoying dinner in the dining car. Then a car collects them at the station and drives them to grand old  Brideshead where Rex, older and thicker and coarser, is entertaining a gang of his friends in politics and finance, all roaring and shouting over each other. They are discussing the Spanish Civil War which broke out in July 1936 and the British Abdication Crisis of November to December 1936.

Chapter three

It is two years later, 1938, and Charles has moved into Brideshead and is an accepted fixture there. Rex mostly stays up in London, Bridey drops in at mysterious intervals, Charles only sees his wife and children at Christmas of which there have been two since he and Julia became lovers.

At the end of another pleasant day spent trying to paint Julia, Bridey drops by for dinner and drops a bombshell. He is getting married, he will resume his ownership of Brideshead, Rex and Julia will have to move back to London to be nearer Rex’s constituency (he is an MP), Charles also will have to move out.

Bridey makes the insensitive remark that his bride-to-be is devoutly Catholic and so won’t allow a woman in sin to inhabit the same building. That would be Julia, living in sin with Charles. Julia bursts into tears and runs out onto the terrace where Charles goes to comfort her, which leads into a great long incoherent speech about Catholicism and sin she delivers, written in a completely different style from anything else in the book, and which is, apparently, a highpoint of the novel for many people. It’s her own acknowledgment of the Catholic faith and theology she has spent her entire lifetime running away from.

Chapter four

The details of the divorces. Charles divorces Celia. She retains the Old Rectory and the children. Rex asks Charles to ask Julia not to divorce him, hasn’t he been reasonable, he hasn’t minded his wife having an affair, he’s had a few of his own, but a divorce is different, bad for the reputation, old boy.  But she persists. Lawyers, depositions, witness statements, accountants, settlements, properties.

Cordelia turns up. When Charles last saw her she was a religiose 15-year-old heavily influenced by the nuns of her convent education. 14 years later we learn that she packed all that religious stuff in and went off to serve in a hospital throughout the Spanish war. Charles is shocked to see she is so plain as to be ugly, blunt, to the point, efficient.

She tells a long story about how she heard Sebastian was in Tunis and went to see him. He really is an impoverished wreck of a man now. He had taken his German, Kurt, to Greece where he began to get better. But then got in a fight and thrown in prison which is where the Nazi authorities heard about him and had him repatriated back to Germany. Sebastian travelled to Germany to find him and took ages to track him down only to find he had become a propaganda-spewing Nazi. He refused to recognise Sebastian, but the latter’s doggedness eventually broke him down and, finally, the pair planned to escape back to Africa, but the authorities realised Kurt was about to defect so threw him into concentration camp. It was a long time before Sebastian learned he hanged himself there, and made his way back to North Africa.

When Cordelia arrived he was in absolute poverty and pestering a fellowship of monks to be sent to Central Africa as a missionary. Cordelia discovers that everyone who meets this ravaged shambles of a man is moved by him and convinced of his beatitude. He’ll become a poor servant of the brothers. Everyone thinks he is very close to God. Charles can’t see it. Cordelia patronise him. It’s because he’s not a Catholic. Catholics are special people. They know God. Sometimes it takes great suffering, oh me, oh my, tremendous suffering. But then one comes out of it with a greater sense of one’s faith. Doesn’t one?

Catholicism, in this guise, seems to be a way of proclaiming how special one is. Since all these characters are already frightfully special because they come from a special family and went to special schools and have special feelings, being Catholic on top is like being special squared, cubed, special to the nth degree. It’s an accusation often made against Waugh that his Catholicism was just another form of snobbery, only instead of being in with the aristocracy it meant being in with God. The ultimate club.

Of course one doesn’t like to brag or get above one’s station but one is just quietly confident that one knows a bit more about God and life and morality and the purpose of the universe than non-believers possibly can. Poor mites.

Chapter five

Bridey and his new wife were just about to take possession of Brideshead when, to everyone’s surprise, in view of the deteriorating international situation, Lord Marchmain announces he is returning to occupy his ancestral seat. Great fussing among the servants and tenants but it is a cold blustery day when the car draws up and Lord Marchmain emerges a tied, weak old man, who needs help getting out of the car and can only stand with a stick.

Charles and Julia remain with Cordelia, as Lord Marchmain has himself installed on the ground floor, in the old ‘Chinese room’. He wants them to be around him at all times, he is scared of being alone, he knows he is dying.

He candidly announces he has taken violently against Bridey’s new wife, a middle-aged divorcee named Beryl Muspratt, bourgeois wife of the deceased Admiral Muspratt. Over and over Marchmain reverts to the subject of the ghastly Beryl and tells the others he will not let her occupy the same rooms and role as his beloved wife and his mother before her. She is coarse and vulgar. Why, he’d rather gift the house to Julia and Julia, later, tells Charles she would love to inherit it, own it, and run it. And this opens up for Charles the possibility of becoming the man, the effective owner of Brideshead House!

But Lord Marchmain declines very fast and on the couple of times the lawyers are called to amend his will to let Julia inherit, he’s too ill to see them. He says he has plenty of time and, surprisingly, he has, lingering on into midsummer.

This gives him long enough to be given pages of rambling speech, mixing up the Chinese figures on the painted walls of his bedroom with a sentimentalised vision of Brideshead’s history, the old medieval castle, Agincourt, Nelson, Waterloo etc.

And for Marchmain to become the centre of a bitter tussle among his children and Charles. As Marchmain goes downhill and, eventually, can’t breathe without an oxygen cylinder, Bridey insists he is given the last rights by a local priest. Charles takes the agnostic view that the shock might kill him and recruits his doctor to back him up. Julia is in the middle and the theological argument gets mixed up in the psychology of their relationship.

In a nutshell, right at the very end, the local Irish-Scottish priest is a model of gentleness and restraint and it is Julia who breaks the deadlock by taking the responsibility for taking him into her father’s room. The priest says the last rites over Lord Marchmain’s unmoving body, they all kneel, even Charles who finds himself praying that Marchmain will make a sign and signal that he hears the priest, that he repents his sins, that he lets God into his life.

And there, at the book’s climactic moment, after the priest has finished anointing him, the half paralysed old man does feebly make a sign of the cross. He accepted the grace of God. They are all very moved.

Later that evening he dies. Julia meets Charles at the corner of the stairs and tells him she cannot marry him. He’s seen this coming for months, the rebirth of her Catholic faith. Now she says she cannot set up him as a worldly good in rivalry to God. She must forsake him in order to devote herself to God. She is condemning them both to lonely lives of regret and unhappiness but, hey, that’s what her religion is all about.

Epilogue

Back to the present and Charles is given a tour of the building by the Quartering Officer. He informs Charles that the place belonged to a Lady Julia Marchmain but she vacated it some time ago when the army requisitioned it. She is overseas, working as a nurse with the army (in Palestine, with Cordelia, it turns out).

The point if the tour is to show how the hooligans of the army have treated the house, damaging everywhere, boarding over panelling and paintings, pulling down trees to build an access road, driving three ton lorries into the balustrade, chucking fag ends into the dried up fountain. Yes the place has been trashed and vulgarised. In Charles’s eyes this all represents The Age of Hooper, his sordid, useless, layabout adjutant.

He bumps into a servant he knows who’s taking tea to Nanny Hawkins, the only original member of the crew in the place, and he sits and listens to her for half an hour talking of all the changes. But right at the end, despite the squalor, the emptiness and the echo of past tragedies and unhappinesses, Charles becomes convinced it all has been for something, because despite the house’s decline and fall a small red flame of faith was rekindled, in Julia’s breast and in his own heart. Out of ashes has come God’s grace.

Summary

Although its many flaws are obvious (the over-writing, the sentimentality, the snobbery and elitism, and then the peculiar heartlessness and cynicism) in the end I liked it. It feels significantly more… more serious than the comedies of the 1930s. And although his account of people screwing up their lives in the name of Catholicism reminds me all too much of Catholics I’ve known in real life whose religion made them deeply unhappy…on a fictional level, I was won over by the idea that Waugh’s aim was less a sentimental nostalgia for the heady days of his 20s, but a more hard-headed intention to show the playing out of the Holy Spirit among a cast of characters, centred on an old Catholic family.

I didn’t burst into tears when old Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross but I can understand people who might. I mean I enjoyed the plan, the composition of the thing, its design: in which old Marchmain finally repents for his sins and returns to the church after a quarter century of scorn, how it plays out in the strange haunted holy figure of the beggar-before-God Sebastian; how it plays out in the different characters of Julia and Cordelia who both become nurses and servers. And how it appears to revive his schoolboy faith in Charles himself. Brideshead Revisited is a long book. A lot happens. It has many vividly imagined scenes. it feels much deeper and richer than anything he’d written before. I can see myself becoming a little hooked by it…


Unashamed nostalgia

The old ways are best:

We shared what had once been a dressing-room and had been changed to a bathroom twenty years back by the substitution for the bed of a deep, copper, mahogany-framed bath, that was filled by pulling a brass lever heavy as a piece of marine engineering; the rest of the room remained unchanged; a coal fire always burned there in winter. I often think of that bathroom–the water-colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair–and contrast it with the uniform, clinical little chambers, glittering with chromium plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.

Julia on Rex Mottram as a type of the ghastly modern world:

‘He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce.’

Silly billy modern world.

Gorging

Waugh freely admits in the 1959 preface that some of the descriptions were written by a man half starved by four years of severe rationing and fantasising about mouth-watering pre-war dinners. Here’s Charles impressing Rex Mottram at a restaurant in Paris:

I remember the dinner well — soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904. (p.166)

And wine:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James’s Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as at Paillard’s with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

The British Empire

Lady Julia on Sebastian:

‘Well, I’m fond of him too, in a way, I suppose, only I wish he’d behave like anybody else. I’ve grown up with one family skeleton, you know–Papa. Not to be talked of before the servants, not to be talked of before us when we were children. If Mummy is going to start making a skeleton out of Sebastian, it’s too much. If he wants to be always tight, why doesn’t he go to Kenya or somewhere where it doesn’t matter?’

Satirical in tone but an enduring reminder that John Bright’s famous remark that the British Empire amounted to ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes’ was, in fact, true. Failed in London, try in Kenya.


Credit

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1945. All references are to the 1984 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh (1936)

On Monday night there was a bacchanalian scene at Mme Idot’s, where, among other songs of international popularity, ‘Giovanezza’ was sung in a litter of upturned tables and broken crockery.
(Waugh in Abyssinia, page 107)

In 1935 Italy declared war on Abyssinia, an independent sovereign state in north east Africa, and Evelyn Waugh was hired by a British newspaper (I think it’s the London Evening Standard) and sent to the capital, Addis Ababa, to cover the conflict. This was because it was widely assumed that he knew about the country because of the hilarious and colourful, but also detailed and thoughtful, account of the 1930 coronation of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie which he had covered for The Times and then expanded into his book, Remote People.

Serious opinions

Waugh in Abyssinia opens a lot more seriously than its predecessor, with a chapter he jokingly titles ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to the Ethiopian Question’. (This is a humorous reference to the book ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, published George Bernard Shaw in 1928.)

This opening chapter reads like an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It gives a detailed history of Abyssinia from the turn of the nineteenth century till the present day. The facts he gives are illuminating but what’s really striking is his opinions: this dyed-in-the-wool Tory repeats at face value the standard Marxist critique of Empire, that the scramble for Africa, although dressed up in pious sentiments, was mainly motivated by the need of Western capitalists for:

new sources of raw material, new markets, but, more than anything, for new fields of profitable investment.

Even more surprisingly, he frankly agrees with modern ideas that Africa was seized by force from its traditional owners, who were swindled or simply out-gunned out of their land.

The most remarkable feature of the partition was the speed with which it was accomplished. In less than ten years the whole of pagan Africa was in the hands of one or other of the European Powers. Explorers pushed on from village to village armed with satchels of draft treaties upon which hospitable chiefs were induced to set their mark; native interpreters made gibberish of the legal phraseology; inalienable tribal rights were exchanged for opera hats and musical boxes; some potentates, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, thought they were accepting tribute when they were receiving a subsidy in lieu of their sovereign rights, others that it was the white man’s polite custom to collect souvenirs of this kind; if, when they found they had been tricked, they resisted the invaders, they were suppressed with the use of the latest lethal machinery: diplomats in Europe drew frontiers across tracts of land of which they were totally ignorant, negligently overruling historic divisions of race and culture and the natural features of physical geography, consigning to the care of one or other white race millions of men who had never seen a white face. A task which was to determine the future history of an entire continent, requiring the highest possible degrees of scholarship and statesmanship, was rushed through in less than ten years.

These are the kind of progressive sentiments which authors writing in the 1990s or 2000s pride themselves on and yet here they are, forcefully and clearly stated as long ago as 1935, as not just the property of the left or progressives, but as a universally acknowledged truth held by all educated people of the day:

But the avarice, treachery, hypocrisy and brutality of the partition are now a commonplace which needs no particularisation…

Not only that, but this Tory patriot then zeroes in on the record of his own country and the particular brand of hypocrisy which the English brought to their colonising.

It is worth remembering indeed, in the present circumstances, the particular nature of the reproach which attaches to England. France, Germany and Belgium were the more ruthless; we the more treacherous. We went into the shady business with pious expressions of principle; we betrayed the Portuguese and the Sultan of Zanzibar, renouncing explicit and freshly made guarantees of their territory; we betrayed Lobenguela and other native rulers in precisely the same method but with louder protestations of benevolent intention than our competitors; no matter into what caprice of policy our electorate chose to lead us, we preached on blandly and continuously; it was a trait which the world found difficult to tolerate; but we are still preaching.

And then his comments about the important impact of African art on Western art:

For centuries Africa has offered Europe successive waves of aesthetic stimulus…the gracious, intricate art of Morocco or the splendour of Benin…the dark, instinctive art of the negro — the ju-ju sculpture, the carved masks of the medicine man, the Ngomas, the traditional terrifying ballet which the dancing troops carry from the Great Lakes to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Although we might bridle at some of his phrasing, nevertheless this is the kind of claim you find made in up-to-the minute art exhibitions by the wokest of curators (for example, Tate’s self-flagellating exhibition about British Imperialism) . I was genuinely startled that a man who’s often seen as a blimpish reactionary held views 90 years ago which are identified with the most progressive of progressives in 2021.

Abyssinia and Ethiopia

As to Ethiopia’s origins:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Abyssinia consisted of the four mountain kingdoms of Amhara, Shoa, Tigre and Gojjam, situated in almost complete isolation from outside intercourse.

Waugh says the word ‘Abyssinia’ is a corruption of the Arabic Habasha, variously said to mean ‘mongrels’ or ‘members of the Arabian Habashat tribe.’

They believed they had migrated from Arabia at some unrecorded date, probably before the Christian era; they employed a common literary language, Ghiz, which had some affinity with ancient Armenian, and spoke dialects derived from it, Tigrean and Amharic; they shared a common culture and feudal organisation and recognised a paramount King of Kings as their nominal head.

He says he will use the term ‘Abyssinian’ to describe the Amharic-speaking, Christian peoples of the four original kingdoms, and Ethiopian to describe the tribes and naturalised immigrants subject to their rule.

He describes the series of kings who sought to unite the four squabbling kingdoms, namely Emperor Theodore and Emperor Johannes, and then goes on to describe the rule of Menelik II, who is the key figure in the story. It was Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) whose organisation, diplomacy and buying up of Western guns and ammunition allowed the well organised Ethiopian army to massacre an Italian army which had been sent to colonise his country, at the decisive Battle of Adowa in 1896. For the rest of his reign, from 1896 to 1913, Menelik devoted himself to expanding his ’empire’, and is a record of conquests, treaties and submissions by neighbouring tribes and chieftains until, by 1913, he had quadrupled the size of his ‘country’.

This long opening chapter is designed to show that the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was far from being a simple act of unprovoked aggression. His aim is to show that Ethiopia was a much more complex place, with a complex and troubled history, than the simple shape on the map of Africa suggested. It was itself the product of imperial conquest, above all by the legendary King Menelik II, who attacked Tigray in the north, Somalia in the south and East, seizing territory, forcing countless chieftains, sheikhs and local leaders into obeisance. ‘Ethiopia’ was the result of conquest every bit as brutal as the European conquest of Africa, a ‘country’ which was more a:

vast and obscure agglomeration of feudal fiefs, occupied military provinces, tributary sultanates, trackless no-man’s-lands roamed by homicidal nomads; undefined in extent, unmapped, unexplored, in part left without law, in part grossly subjugated; the brightly coloured patch in the schoolroom atlas marked, for want of a more exact system of terminology, ‘ Ethiopian Empire’.

Return to farce

So the opening chapter is surprisingly serious, factual and (liberally) opinionated. But as soon as we move to chapter two we enter the more familiar territory of Waugh farce and fiasco.

He describes for comic effect the panic throughout London’s media as war in Abyssinia looms and companies scrabble to capitalise on the fact: publishers dust off rubbish old books about the north east Africa, which suddenly sell like hot cakes, press agencies buff up photos of Borneo head hunters or Australian aborigines to flog them as pics of Abyssinian natives.

Above all anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Ethiopia is suddenly in great demand and thus it is that Waugh finds himself able to wangle another commission as a foreign correspondent, sent by his paper to buy a mountain of comic equipment, catching the boat train to Paris, train to Marseilles, boarding a steamer along with hordes of other journalists, steaming across the Med and through the Suez Canal to Djibouti, then scrambling aboard the shabby stopping train across the barren desert and then up into the Ethiopian highlands to Addis Ababa.

Comedy

There is ample comedy about the farcical aspects of journalism, war, and Africa. Here is Waugh at his magisterial comic best, this paragraph like a magnificent galleon sailing though a comic extravaganza of his own devising.

There were several hotels in Addis Ababa, all, at the time of our arrival, outrageously prosperous. The ‘Splendide,’ at which we all assumed we should stay — the Radical had had the name painted in large white letters on his medicine chest — was completely full with journalists and photographers living in hideous proximity, two or three to a room even in the outbuildings. It was a massive, shabby building of sepulchral gloom, presided over by a sturdy, middle-aged, misanthropic Greek, who had taken it over as a failing concern just before the troubles. There was something admirable about the undisguised and unaffected distaste with which he regarded his guests and his ruthless disregard of their comfort and dignity. Some attempted to be patronising to him, some dictatorial, some ingratiating; all were treated with uniform contempt. He was well aware that for a very few months nothing that he did or left undone could affect his roaring prosperity; after that anything might happen.

Deadpan

A very Waughesque effect is the deadpan statement of bizarre or extreme facts.

Presently [the Italian consul’s] luggage arrived, prominent in its midst a dripping packing case containing bottled beer on ice, and a caged leopard.

Charles G. had had the fortune to witness a fight between two of the European police officers. As a result he had lately been expelled on a charge of espionage. His parting act was to buy a slave and give her to Mati Hari as a tip.

We secured [a cook] who looked, and as it turned out was, all that a cook should be. A fat, flabby Abyssinian with reproachful eyes. His chief claim to interest was that his former master, a German, had been murdered and dismembered in the Issa country. (p.125)

The chauffeur seemed to be suitable until we gave him a fortnight’s wages in advance to buy a blanket. Instead he bought cartridges and tedj, shot up the bazaar quarter and was put in chains. (p.125)

[The soldiers] were ragged and dilapidated, some armed with spears but most of them with antiquated guns. ‘ I am sorry to disturb you,’ said James [our servant] politely, ‘ but these people wished to shoot us.’ (p.129)

Waugh doesn’t approve of a slave being given as a tip any more than he approves of a German being murdered and dismembered. His records a world brimful of violent absurdities. It is the harshness of some of these absurdities which gives his books their bite, and also helps to explain the depth of his Roman Catholic faith. Only faith in a benevolent God could stay him against the panorama of violence, futility and fiasco he saw all around him. He reports it deadpan for its comic effect. But sometimes his despair peeks through.

Before the war

Although there were armed clashes in late 1934, and Mussolini made a steady stream of blustering warnings throughout the spring and summer of 1935, in reality Italy was happy to bide its time till the right time and place to commence hostilities.

With the result that ship after shipload of correspondents arrived from all over Europe, America, Japan and beyond, booking up all the rooms at every hotel and, like Waugh, spilling over into neighbouring boarding houses, engaging in feverish rounds of press conferences, meetings with diplomats, interviewing every official they could find, creating an over-excited community of feverish scribblers liable to over-react to every new rumour no matter how far fetched, and yet – long weeks went by and nothing happened.

Waugh is tempted to go on excursions to locations said to be vital in the strategic planning of the attackers, and so find himself going with an old friend (Waugh’s world is full of old friends from public school or Oxford or London’s narrow literary clique) back to Harar, the town he first visited in 1930, which is east of Addis. They had an interesting time, he gives an evocative description of how the place had changed in just 5 years since he was previously there. They press on further east to the town of Jijiga on the border with Somalia (p.70) and here Waugh and Balfour stumble on the story of a French aristocrat, Count Maurice de Roquefeuil du Bousquet, who runs a mining concession in the district and  who has just been arrested, along with his wife, for spying for the Italians. He had been taking photographs of Ethiopian defences and sending the rolls of film by secret courier to the Italian Consulate at Harar (p.74). Balfour and Waugh take photographs of all the relevant locations, of the count himself in prison and send off excited despatches to their papers back in Blighty.

Slowly, however, their excitement at having secured a scoop fades and by the time they arrive back at Addis they realise that, by being absent for those few days, they have missed one of the great scoops of the period, which was that the emperor had granted to an American consortium, led by one Mr Rickett, the mineral concession for the entire north of Ethiopia, precisely the territory an invading Italian army would have to cross, in a typically canny attempt to invoke international law and get the international community on his side (p.80). In fact it failed, as a diplomatic ploy, because the US government refused to ratify the concession and by doing so, in effect, gave the green light to Italy to invade.

Comic characters

In Waugh’s hands every person he meets becomes a comic character: Mr Kakophilos the gloomy Greek owner of the Hotel Splendide; Herr and Frau Heft, owners of the Deutsches Haus boarding house, also home to two fierce geese and a pig; the Radical journalist, a high-minded reporter for, presumably, the Manchester Guardian; Mme Idot and Mme Moriatis, French owners of the only two places of entertainment in town and bitter enemies; Dr Lorenzo Taesas, the beady-eyed Tigrayan head of the Press Bureau; the accident-prone American newsreel cameraman, Mr Prospero; the avaricious Greek owner of the only hotel in Harar, Mr Caraselloss; the bibulous chief of police in Harar; a spy Waugh hires, an imposing old Afghan named Wazir Ali Beg who roams the country sending Waugh ever-more ludicrous reports (p.68); the spy his friend Patrick Balfour hires, who they all nickname Mata Hari (p.69); Gabri, Patrick’s Abyssinian servant who speaks eccentric French; the wily customs officer of Jijiga, Kebreth Astatkie; the Swiss chef hired by the emperor who, when he doesn’t get paid for a few months, quit in high dudgeon and the emperor tried to persuade to return by arresting his entire kitchen staff (p.93).

These aren’t people so much as a cast, the cast of a wonderful comic extravaganza. At several points Waugh just lists the weird and wonderful types who have washed up in Addis, for their oddity value.

There was a simian Soudanese, who travelled under a Brazilian passport and worked for an Egyptian paper; there was a monocled Latvian colonel, who was said at an earlier stage of his life to have worked as ringmaster in a German circus; there was a German who travelled under the name of Haroun al Raschid, a title, he said, which had been conferred on him during the Dardanelles campaign by the late Sultan of Turkey; his head was completely hairless; his wife shaved it for him, emphasising the frequent slips of her razor with tufts of cotton-wool. There was a venerable American, clothed always in dingy black, who seemed to have strayed from the pulpit of a religious conventicle; he wrote imaginative despatches of great length and flamboyancy. There was an Austrian, in Alpine costume, with crimped flaxen hair, the group leader, one would have thought, of some Central-European Youth Movement; a pair of rubicund young colonials, who came out on chance and were doing brisk business with numberless competing organisations; two indistinguishable Japanese, who beamed at the world through hornrimmed spectacles and played interminable, highly dexterous games of ping-pong in Mme. Idot’s bar. (p.81)

And:

Two humane English colonels excited feverish speculation for a few days until it was discovered that they were merely emissaries of a World League for the Abolition of Fascism. There was a negro from South Africa who claimed to be a Tigrean, and represented another World League for the abolition, I think, of the white races, and a Greek who claimed to be a Bourbon prince and represented some unspecified and unrealised ambitions of his own. There was an American who claimed to be a French Viscount and represented a league, founded in Monte Carlo, for the provision of an Ethiopian Disperata squadron, for the bombardment of Assab. There was a completely unambiguous British adventurer, who claimed to have been one of Al Capone’s bodyguard and wanted a job; and an ex-officer of the R.A.F. who started to live in some style with a pair of horses, a bull terrier and a cavalry moustache—he wanted a job to.

In my review of Remote People I remarked that these collections of eccentrics and oddballs reminded me of the Tintin books from the 1930s and 40s, a seemingly endless supply of screwball eccentrics.

Dodgy dossier

I was fascinated to learn that the Italians compiled a dossier of grievances against Ethiopia which they presented to the League of Nations in Geneva as justification for their invasion. It brought together all the evidence they could muster from the legalistic to the cultural.

Thus they claimed the emperor had signed a contract giving an Italian firm the job of building a railway from Addis to the coast but in the event gave the work to a French company. They complained that Ethiopia had breached various clauses of the 1928 Treaty of Friendship between the two states. The new arterial road, which was specifically provided in the 1928 agreement, joining Dessye with Assab was abandoned and, instead, Selassie concentrated in opening communications with the British territories in Kenya and Somaliland. The construction of a wireless station at Addis Ababa was undertaken by an Italian company, heavily subsidised by the Italian government, but on completion was handed over to the management of a Swede and a Frenchman. They documented slights, insults, abuse and even the arrest of Italian citizens.

The Italians accused Ethiopia of what we would nowadays call ‘human rights abuses’, namely the fact that slavery and slave-raiding were universal (and this isn’t a bootless accusation; Waugh meets many officials or rich Ethiopians who are accompanied by one or more slaves). The Italians claim that justice, when executed at all, was accompanied by torture and mutilation; the central government was precarious and only rendered effective by repeated resort to armed force; disease was rampant, and so on.

How similar to the ‘dodgy dossier’ assembled by our own dear government to justify our attack on Iraq back in 2003.

The state of the prisons was confirmed by Waugh who made a horrified visit to one, discovering prisoners manacled to the walls of tiny hutches by chains which barely let them crawl a few yards into a courtyard to catch a little sun, no food or water provided, the prisoners surviving amid their own excrement. It was ‘the lowest pit of human misery’ he had ever seen (p.94)

The feverish press pack attend various ceremonies connected with the week-long festival of Maskar, some officiated over by the emperor, understanding little or nothing of what was going on.

Waugh becomes so bored he buys a baboon who, however, turns out to be ‘petulant and humourless’, and ‘added very little to the interest of these dull days’ (p.101)

The war

War finally broke out – that’s to say Italy invaded northern Ethiopia without any formal declaration of war – on 3 October 1935. It immediately resulted in a ramping up of baseless rumours and shameless speculation. The Italian forces consisted entirely of natives; a Red Cross hospital full of women and children had been obliterated by Italian bombing; the Italians were deserting in droves. All turned out to be utterly false.

The absurdity intensifies. The press pack in Addis is remarkably isolated from the front and the outside world. Therefore they routinely find themselves discovering by telegraph or even in newspapers, events which are happening in the war they’re meant to be covering. Waugh discovers a perverse law is at work: the London editors imagine stereotyped scenes, for example riots at the Addis railway station as desperate refugees fight their way onto the last train out of town weeks before anything like that happens; so that when there finally is something approximating to fights to get onto what everyone believes (erroneously, as it turns out) will be the last train, the newspaper editors aren’t interested: it’s old news even though it’s only just happened. Again and again Waugh has the dizzy experience of seeing the media-manufactured fictions precede the facts, creating ‘an inverted time lag between the event and its publication’ (p.113).

Eventually the press pack begin to discuss leaving. The most experienced foreign correspondent does in fact depart. Waugh embarks on another visit to Harar where there is a serious interlude when he talks to venerable Muslim elders of the town, who tell him, at some risk to themselves, how saddened they are by the attrition of the Muslim culture and customs of the place by the swamping Abyssinian Christians with their drunkenness, prostitution and corruption. It is to Waugh’s credit that he listens and retails their concerns with sympathy.

Back in Addis he discovers the press have been granted permission to head north to the town of Dessye, nowadays called Dessie. He decides to travel there with the Radical journalist and they buy a knackered lorry off a shifty looking Syrian. In the event the outing is a total farce. At the first little town on the way they are pulled over and given the third degree by the officious chief of police who their servant, ‘James’ buys off with a half pint of whiskey. But a few hours drive further along the road, at Debra Birhan, the shabby mayor and chief of police conspire to forbid their further progress. When they return from the chief’s shabby office they find the locals have built barricades of stone in front and behind their lorry. They are obliged to spend the night camping there, and in the morning the chief removes the barricade behind them and obliges them to trundle back to Addis. Oh well.

Barely have they got back than the Press Office gives the entire press corps permission to travel to Dessie, so now our heroes set out on the same road but this time accompanied by many other cars and lorries packed with journalists and are not hindered or stopped.

In other words, Waugh at no time gets anywhere near a front, sees no fighting, doesn’t even hear the roar of distant artillery, never sees an enemy airplane. The text is entirely about the fatuity of the press corps and the obstructiveness of the Ethiopian authorities.

The emperor arrives at Dessye which would thenceforward be his headquarters for the war, until, in the spring, he was forced to flee the Italian advance, driving fast back to Addis, then catching the train to the coast and then by ship into exile.

By now it was December and the European press and American film companies were bored of the lack of action, coverage, footage, photos and stories. One by one the journalists find themselves being withdrawn. Everyone expects the war to drag on and end with some kind of diplomatic fudge which would revert to the status quo ante, Italy with a bit more influence, maybe Britain and France intervening under cover of a League of Nations mandate, foreign companies seeking concessions, then demanding justice if there was any murder or harassment. Same old.

Waugh’s newspaper terminates his contract. Having come this far he toys with staying on as a freelancers but, like everyone else, expects nothing will happen. He blags a seat in a Red Cross car heading back for the capital.

The German driver — an adventurous young airman who had come to look for good fortune after serving in the Paraguayan war — kept a rifle across the wheel and inflicted slight wounds on the passing farmers at point-blank range. (p.142)

Bereft of its emperor, the capital is dead. The bars are empty. The thronging press pack has gone, He packs his things and gets the train to Djibouti where he discovers a little community of journalists who never even bothered to go to the capital, but were making a perfectly happy living reporting events which they entirely invented. Ship back up through the canal, to Palestine where he fulfils an ambition to see Christmas in Bethlehem. And so by easy stages back to dear old Blighty.

Collapse

The final chapter reports events as a historian, from England. The Italian advance through February and March 1936, the sudden complete collapse of Ethiopian forces and the flight of the emperor to Djibouti and into exile. It had to compete with the German occupation of the Rhine and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

But he follows events, aware as few others how much being printed in the papers was nonsense, eventually overcome by curiosity he applies for permission to return to Abyssinia and, one year after his initial setting off, once again crosses France, then the Mediterranean, then down the Red Sea and so to Djibouti. It is packed with Italians and native hawkers.

Waugh is amused at the sight of the Italian soldiers having to travel from Djibouti, which was in French Somaliland, as far as the border with Ethiopia proper, in mufti. At the border they were allowed to change back into the garish uniforms. Absurdity.

Immediately things are counter-intuitive. He had read that his favourite town of Harar had been bombed and devastated. His friend Patrick Balfour wrote an eloquent obsequy for it in a newspaper. Except it hadn’t. If anything it was cleaner. the pavements had been fixed. The town was packed with Italians. The Hararis looked happy as sandmen to replace the oppressive rule of the Abyssinians with the more permissive – and lucrative – rule of the bon vivant Italians.

He discovers currency chaos with seven different currencies in circulation. There have been attacks on the train by ‘bandits’ prompting ‘pacification’ measures by the Italians in the surrounding villages. When the emperor left there was wholescale looting in Addis Ababa. Waugh discovers no building was untouched, curtains ripped down, electric light fittings torn out.

Waugh meets the Italian general running the new imperial administration, the Viceroy, Field Marshall Graziani. He is frank and forthright, happy to give Waugh whatever help he needs. Slowly it is revealed how extensively Addis was not only looted but burned down. The main hotel looted, the boarding house where Waugh stayed, attacked and burned. Accommodation is difficult. Everywhere is overflowing with the new Italian soldiers and administrators. The streams of lazy Abyssinians riding mules in their white cloaks have disappeared. Crops have not been sown. Food prices are astronomical. There will be famine.

Addis feels besieged. Groups of armed men, sometimes in their hundreds, penetrate the defences on raids. In the four days he spends there, Waugh hear of a substantial attack on the airdrome, and numerous other incursions. Waugh’s trademark deadpan humour:

I had an appointment that afternoon to visit Ras Hailu ; drove out to his house beyond the American hospital and was politely informed that his Highness was unable to see me ; he had gone out to a battle. (p.157)

The Europeans fear for the day a massed attack will be met by an insurrection of blacks within the city and they’ll all be murdered in their sleep. Uneasy sleeps the colonist.

Waugh gives his view frankly and openly, as he did at the start about the process of Western colonialism, as he did in the previous book about the cause of the white settlers in Kenya. For him the central fact is nobody expected the Abyssinian nation to collapse to quickly and completely. Instead of Abyssinians fighting against the Italians and their former subject peoples (which he and other intelligent commentators expected) the Abyssinians themselves had disintegrated into scores of warlords and warrior bandits, living off the peasantry and fighting each other. Complete anarchy, in other words.

As always, the colonists hold the cities and towns, the railway and most of the roads, during the day at least. but the vast expanse of the country is the home of warring bandits as per Afghanistan in our time, as per Vietnam, as per so many colonially occupied countries. Waugh thinks the Italians are tougher than opinion credits them and they’ll make a go of their new empire, but it will be hard.

The road

The book closes with a short chapter describing progress on the new modern motorway the Italians are constructing to run the length of their new colony, praising the engineers and navvies who have built a wide, modern trunk road from the north coast through the heart of the country to Addis and which is still being constructed south towards Somalia and Mogadishu as he writes.

Waugh is positively propagandistic about the new Italian empire. He sees white men working very hard to build the road, something incomprehensible to the Abyssinians who watch them.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is the expansion of a race. It began with fighting, but it is not a military movement, like the French occupation of Morocco. It began with the annexation of potential sources of wealth, but it is not a capitalistic movement like the British occupation of the South African goldfields. It is being attended by the spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place, but it is not primarily a humane movement, like the British occupation of Uganda. It can be compared best in recent history to the great western drive of the American peoples, the dispossession of the Indian tribes and the establishment in a barren land of new pastures and cities.

Very surprising that someone with such a shrewd, pitilessly realistic eye, and a temperament disposed to ennui and sometimes depression, should write such rose-tinted hogwash.

He goes on a whistlestop tour of the occupied north of the country: Asmara, Axum, Adowa and many more now made accessible in hours via the modern autostrada which only a year before had been inaccessibly remote hypothetical places marked on the journalists’ maps, which would have taken weeks of driving then mule trekking to reach. Quite obviously, it is this incredible turnaround in wretched, backward, squalid Ethiopia’s landscape which prompted his raptures about the Italian occupation.

Abandoning everything which makes him such good company, such an alert, malicious, eagle-eyed observer, such a cynic, with such an acute eye for human foibles and follies, right at the very end Waugh delivers a ridiculous hymn of praise to Italian Fascism. I quote it in full a) to give the full mounting rhythm of the thing but b) because it reviews and summarises some of the places he visited and experiences he described and c) it’s an important passage:

They [the engineers and navvies] are at work there at this moment, as I write. They will be at work there when these words appear, and in a few months the great metalled highway will run uninterrupted along the way where the Radical and I so painfully travelled a year before, past the hot springs where our servants mistook the bubbles for rising fish, past the camping ground where Dedjasmach Matafara entertained us to breakfast, up the immense escarpment, past Debra Birhan, where the one-eyed chief held us prisoner, to Addis, where a new city will be in growth — a real ‘New Flower’ — to take the place of the shoddy ruins of Menelik and Tafari. And from Dessye new roads will be radiating to all points of the compass, and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France and Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement — the two determining qualities of the human spirit, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes.

What utter horseshit. I wonder what Evelyn’s friends, let alone his enemies, made of this misplaced paean seven short years later when many of them were fighting against and being killed by these same charming Fascists in the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

Pondering Waugh’s imperialist rhetoric

This florid passage is such a contrast with the entirely progressive, left-wing view of colonialism which he expressed in chapter one of the book. Then again revisiting that opening rhetoric may be a clue to its meaning or its origin. Waugh lived in a world where there were no aid agencies (with the notable exception of the International Red Cross which, however, restricted itself to treating victims of war). There was none of the long-established mechanisms of international aid, foreign loans, ministries of overseas aid, ministries of international development, nor the hundreds and hundreds of charities which medical, teaching, water aid, famine relief, mine clearing, humanitarian assistance and so on, which I have grown up with and take entirely for granted. (Thinking about it, I realise that there were quite a number of missionary agencies which had been operating since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and supported schools and, to a lesser extent, hospitals.)

Waugh had visited the country twice, travelled round it more extensively than most Westerners. He had learned that it was a ramshackle ’empire’ built on the conquest and suppression of neighbouring peoples and tribes. He had seen that, even at the centre, it was characterised by backward obscurantism, inefficiency, endless delay and inaction. No roads worth the name, hardly any hospitals, rarely any schools, and a population mostly illiterate living in poverty in the towns and absolute destitution in the countryside, where famine often brought starvation, many parts of which were prey to wandering bands murdering bandits.

It is worth, therefore, mentally trying on the position, I mean experimenting with the view he is clearly expressing, that Italian colonisation genuinely offered the best way forward for the people of Abyssinia. If you genuinely cared for the population, if you wanted to see roads built, and the economy developed, and modern commerce, and schools and hospitals built in regional centres and the population educated…then the building of the big new trunk road to run right across the country was a symbol of a new life for Ethiopia’s people.

This goes some way to explain his enthusiasm, that and maybe the decision to end the book on an upbeat, positive note. It still doesn’t justify the extravagance of his rhetoric, which seems ludicrous to us now. And, as with his support for the white settlers in Kenya which he expressed in Remote People, we have the immense advantage of hindsight, of knowing that his view was swept away by three or four cumulative forces: that Italian colonisation would be short-lived and ineffectual; that Mussolini’s government would be swept away by the Second World War; that the entire ideology of imperialism and colonisation would a) be swept away in the early 1960s and b) become associated with criminal exploitation.

I’m not defending his position, I’m just pointing out that Waugh knew none of this was going to happen and that, at the time of writing, while the colonisation process had barely even begun, he was genuinely inspired with hope that Italian hegemony would bring a new era of education and enlightenment to a country he had ample evidence for thinking backward and, in some areas (take his harrowing description of Addis Ababa’s prison) positively barbaric.

It is also worth remembering that we, in our fabulously enlightened modern era, despite knowing vastly more about international development than Waugh, have been prone to the same triumphalist rhetoric. Witness the gushingly positive commentary that surrounded the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, when Western nations invaded third world countries and overthrew their dictatorial regimes, promising a new dawn of peace and prosperity, the rule of law, hospitals, schools and all the rest of it – only to find themselves bogged down in years of violent conflict with unreconciled resistance fighters.

The opening chapter of the book makes it clear that Waugh was all too aware that high-minded European involvement in a developing country all too often covered self-serving commercial and strategic considerations. This makes it all the odder that he gave way to such a booming passage of high-minded rhetoric at the end of the narrative.

Well, a Western country hadn’t invaded a developing country in quite that way, with quite the modern facilities Italy brought to Ethiopia in the 1930s, for quite a while, when Waugh wrote. Presumably he thought this time it’ll be different.

And he had actually seen with his own eyes the impressive new trunk road being built across the country and seen the contrast between the dynamic Italian navvies and the shiftless, poverty stricken native peasants who looked on in amazement. So he has the excuse that he was writing about what he had actually seen at first hand and this included his genuine excitement that genuine change was at hand for the country’s people.

Whereas 70 years later, the armchair commentators, politicians and populations of Western countries who greeted America’s invasion of first Afghanistan then Iraq had no excuses. 70 years of brutal, disillusioning global history had intervened and they should have known better. But hope springs eternal in the human breast and the supporters of those invasions, just like Waugh supporting the Italian invasion, thought this time it’ll be different.

But it’s never different. It’s always the same.

Some Ethiopian words

  • dedjasmatch = civic leader or commander in the field
  • khat = wild plant whose leaves, when chewed, release a stimulant drug which produces mild euphoria and makes people feel more alert and talkative
  • tedj/tej = a honey wine, like mead, that has an alcohol content generally ranging from 7 to 11%
  • tukal/tukul = a traditional thatched roof hut

Credit

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh was published by Longmans in 1936. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Africa-related reviews

History and journalism

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (2007)

The workhouse boy in paradise… (p.104)

When news broke that the large and expensive expedition led by the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and funded by the biggest newspaper in America, the New York Herald, had succeeded in locating the ‘lost’ Scottish missionary, Dr David Livingstone, in deepest darkest Africa (in fact, at the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871) it was telegraphed round the (developed) world and overnight made Stanley one of the most famous men on the planet.

Over the next 15 years Stanley would lead a series of epic expeditions through central Africa, making important geographical discoveries, drafting maps, establishing contact with local inhabitants, naming lakes and waterfalls and founding settlements which last to this day, especially along what developed into his main area of activity the enormous Congo river.

Stanley’s later expeditions were financed by King Leopold II of Belgium and played a vital role in marking out the territory which Leopold, at the epochal Congress of Berlin in 1885, claimed as his own personal demesne. The Congo Free State under Leopold’s personal rule had, by the turn of the twentieth century, become a byword for brutality and exploitation. Maybe as many as a million natives of the huge Congo region were killed, maimed or worked to death by white overseers intent on extracting rubber and other marketable commodities by any means necessary.

1. This association with the evil king, along with 2. numerous damning stories and rumours spread about him by his rivals (that Stanley was gay, his marriage was a sham, that he went to Africa to indulge a) his homosexual inclinations or b) his homicidal inclinations), and even 3. Stanley’s own writings in which he poses as a tough and merciless leader of men, exaggerating the battles he was in and the men he’d whipped or even killed, all these factors contributed to blackening Stanley’s reputation, from his own day down to ours.

In his introduction to this long, thorough and meticulously researched biography, Tim Jeal explains that these accusations were given their modern expression in Frank McLynn’s 1990 biography, Stanley: Dark Genius of African Exploration.

Young Stanley, aged 31, posing as the great white explorer with Kalulu, an African boy he bought out of slavery during the Livingstone expedition and took to London with him where he sent him to a church school in Wandsworth. A year later Stanley took Kalulu on the trans-Africa expedition, where the boy would die when his canoe was swept over a huge cataract on the Congo river

By sharp contrast, Jeal sets out to give a strongly revisionist account. He goes to lengths to explain that, unlike any previous biographer, he has been lucky enough to have access to the vast archive of Stanley’s papers held in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central in Brussels, some 7,000 items, including some 5,000 letters to him from a vast range of correspondents.

It is a close reading of Stanley’s unpublished journals, letters to  early sweethearts, to his wife, and masses of other unpublished documents which have led Jeal to take a much more nuanced approach to Stanley’s character and achievements and to actively rebut some of the traditional accusations made against him.

In addition, Jeal has spent most of his working life researching the classic Victorian explorers in Africa. His 1973 biography of Livingstone took the same approach, using private letters, diaries and archives to reveal the deeply flawed and troubled man behind the legend. And a few years after this book, Jeal published Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011), a group portrait of the key European explorers – John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Richard Francis Burton, Samuel White Baker, Stanley, Livingstone and many others from 1856 to 1878.

The point is that Jeal has devoted a lifetime to in-depth research of these figures and it shows – in the length and scholarliness and immense attention to detail of this biography.

The central premise of Jeal’s account is that Stanley exaggerated his own brutality and the violent means he used in his explorations for personal and commercial reasons. 1. On a personal level, Stanley had experienced a childhood of Dickensian harshness and deprivation. Short, unloved, abandoned by his family and brought up in a workhouse, he over-compensated with fantasies of power, projecting himself as an invulnerable tough guy. 2. On a commercial level, Stanley was a journalist writing for American newspapers and they, too, valued sensationalism and tough guy heroics.

So both personally and professionally Stanley was incentivised to exaggerate the number of hostile tribes he encountered, the number of battles he fought, the casualties on all sides, the brutal way he enforced discipline on his own porters, the cruel way he inflicted punishment on warlike tribes. Jeal’s extensive notes indicate the thoroughness with which he re-investigated every single one of these claims and found time and time again a pattern of exaggeration and embellishment.

With the result that the Stanley who emerges from Jeal’s account is a much more intelligent, flexible and strategic figure, using violence where it was required, fighting back when attacked, but also encouraging his men and preferring to sign peaceful treaties with local chieftains, where possible. We have written evidence that he respected and admired Africans, wanted them to be treated fairly, and went out of his way to praise the lead porters who managed his extensive baggage trains. And he emerges as a much more psychologically damaged and vulnerable figure than the superficial history books suggest.

Stanley aged 44 in 1885, sporting the hat he designed to keep off flies and the sun, but which was widely mocked

Stanley’s early life

Accounts of Stanley’s three big Africa expeditions and his extended spell as explorer and negotiator for King Leopold can be found on any website about African exploration:

  • Livingstone expedition, 1871 to 1872, written up in How I Found LIvingstone, which single-handedly created the legend of the saintly missionary
  • African Great Lakes and Congo River, 1874 to August 1877 (999 days)
  • working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885
  • Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

Overall Stanley’s career in Africa covered some 18 years.

What is less well known and absolutely flabbergasted me was Jeal’s detailed description of Stanley’s early years. The young Stanley had one of the most action-packed and extreme lives I’ve ever heard of. So much happened to him that at several points I wondered whether I was reading a kind of spoof or parody of a life of derring-do. Surely nobody could have had so many adventures!

Stanley’s real name

For a start his name wasn’t Henry Morton Stanley and he wasn’t American. The boy was born John Rowlands in the town of Denbigh, north-east Wales, about 30 miles from the border with England.

Stanley’s mother

His mother was a teenager, Elisabeth Parry, who ended up having five children by three different fathers. Stanley never knew his father. He had suspicions and in later life tried to find out, but as a boy had no father figure in his life, and was haunted by the very real literal of abandonment.

Abandoned

His mother handed him over to his grandfather, Moses Parry, to look after but the grandfather died a few years later and the toddler John was passed onto cousins. They in turn fell on hard times and at the tender age of six, his uncle said he was taking him on an adventure, carried him on his shoulders the six miles to the nearby town of St Asaph and dumped him on the doorstep of the workhouse, rang the bell and walked away, abandoning him with no explanation. Imagine. Arguably John never recovered from these twin boyhood betrayals and the rest of his life can be interpreted by psychologists as a sustained attempt to regain the love and trust and sense of self-worth which he was robbed of at such an early age.

Workhouse

John Rowlands spent the next ten years living, eating, working in a workhouse where conditions were grim. Workhouses were inspected by local authorities and maintained a certain level of hygiene, food and education, and so young John was taught to read and write. He ended up as the equivalent of head boy and Jeal suggests that it was here, abandoned by parents and family, that he developed a taste for having younger, male followers, who he could order around, who gave him a sense of confidence and worth, which the Africa expeditions were to prove a an outlet for on a much larger scale.

Homosexuality?

In the St Asaph workhouse the boys slept several to a bed and contemporaries record that the older boys ‘took part in every possible vice’. Another Stanley biographer speculates that he was sexually abused there. Some of the girls were inducted into prostitution at an early age. Jeal quotes Stanley’s own writings asserting that this atmosphere had the opposite effect on him, putting him off sex, making him fastidious and disgusted. Maybe. There’s no doubt that his earlier, pre-Africa adventures and expeditions involved young male devotees. Was it platonic adoration or did it have a sexual tinge? This is the kind of psychosexual speculation beloved of modern biographers and encouraged by modern publishers because sex sells. Personally, I find it demeans the subject of this fruitless speculation and degrades the reader.

Jeal spends time producing the (limited) evidence and speculating. Personally, I don’t give a damn about anyone’s sex life except insofar as it directly effects their public actions or written works, and even then, most psychosexual biography seems pointless to me. Sexuality is so complicated, contradictory and chaotic that it seems to me presumptuous and generally futile to waste pages on idle speculation. I always skip these bits.

Liverpool

On coming of age Stanley left the workhouse and had to make his way in the world. His cousins arranged for him to go and stay with a relative, Uncle Tom Morris, in Liverpool (p.28). The family were friendly enough but turned out to be hard up and so John had to scout for work, eventually finding a job as assistant in a haberdashery. But the Liverpool docks were a romantic scene for a young man, full of sailors with stories of distant lands.

Cabin boy

Not surprising, then, that one day John announced to his relatives that he had signed up as a cabin boy on the Windermere bound for America. They warned him against it, it was a common practice to promise ‘cabin boys’ the equivalent of an apprenticeship but then treat them like dirt.

New Orleans

This is exactly what happened to young John and by the time the Windermere docked in New Orleans he’d had enough bullying and bad treatment, and jumped ship (p.31).

Hardware store

He wandered the streets and may have slept rough a couple of nights before getting into conversation with the owner of a hardware store and persuading him to take him on. In his autobiography John says the store owner’s name was Henry Hope Stanley and that he, John, needing a new identity in a new country, copied it. Jeal shows in meticulous detail that, as you might expect, the process was much more tentative than that: that the name might not have been that of the storekeeper himself (who Jeal identifies as a completely different person, James Speake) but certainly belonged to an eminent and successful New Orleans businessman and that John’s adoption of it was piecemeal and experimental over a period of years during which he experiments with variations on the names to create a new, American identity.

The Wild West

The store owner advised the man we can now call Stanley that he’d never make his fortune as a delivery boy, and to move up the Mississippi into the ‘the West’ where there were more openings for an enterprising man. So in August 1860 Stanley shipped up to Arkansas, to the small town of Cypress Bend fifty miles from Little Rock, where he got a job in another hardware store. Here he saw at first hand the violent, selfish, law unto themselves attitude of many of the settlers of what could be described as the Wild West. He gained in-depth knowledge of stores and supplies and provisions which would be of great use in his African adventures, and also of the very latest in guns and ammunition.

American Civil War

In April 1861 the American Civil War broke out. There was the usual rush of bellicose enthusiasm in both north and south. If young men didn’t volunteer for the army they came under concerted pressure, not least from young women, to show their manliness. Reluctantly young Stanley, still only 20, joined a regiment in the Confederate army (p.44). He fought at the famous Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where Jeal gives a vivid description of the mayhem and massacre around him. Miraculously, Stanley survived unscathed and was taken prisoner by Union forces (p.45).

Briefly back to Wales

Stanley spent several months in a POW camp in Illinois where the prisoners came under pressure to sign up to the Union army which, eventually, Stanley did, on 4 June 1862 (p.48). A few weeks later Stanley discharged himself, made his way to Baltimore and took a ship back to Liverpool, to go see his estranged family (p.49). His mother was now the landlady of a pub in Denbigh, and when he arrived, hungry and tired, having walked from Liverpool, she rejected him. He stayed in the area a few days before returning Liverpool and taking ship back to the States.

Merchant seaman

For the next year and a half he bummed around as a sailor on American merchant ships which visited ports in Spain and France (p.51). In July 1864, still at a loss what to do in life, Stanley enlisted in the Union navy. He was appointed ship’s clerk or writer on the USS Minnesota. He was an eye witness to the bombardment of Fort Fisher in December 1864, and wrote it up not only for official records, but managed to sell colourful descriptions to several local newspapers. This marked his debut as a journalist (p.52). In February 1865 he persuaded a younger shipmate, Lewis Noe, to desert the ship when it was refitting in docks at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They escaped wearing civilian clothes he’d bought from some carpenters.

Rafting down the Platte river

Stanley returned to New York where he resumed working for a man named Hughes. But he wanted a life of adventure, he avidly consumed accounts of adventures, he wanted to see the West. In May 1865 Stanley travelled to St Louis and managed to wangle a job a freelancer for the Missouri Democrat. To supplement his income he got a labouring job at a smelting works. Here he picked up another acolyte, William Harlow Cook and managed to persuade him to go on an ‘adventure’ and navigate the Platte River some 600 miles from Denver to where it joins the huge Missouri river (p.57).

It was at moments like this that I began to wonder whether Jeal was pulling the reader’s leg, but then I realised he is taking these accounts directly from Stanley’s own autobiography. As Jeal is a tremendous stickler for accuracy and devotes pages of text and extensive footnotes to even tiny details of the expeditions, one assumes he has cross-checked and verified Stanley’s accounts of his early adventures, too. And Stanley and Cook did have adventures, rafting during the day, camping in a tent at night: the raft capsized, losing a lot of their equipment, they were arrested by an army officer looking for deserters till Stanley threatened to shoot it out, the righted the raft and continued the journey, till it overturned again, Cook held on and was quickly carried away while Stanley had to make his way by land to Nebraska where they were eventually reunited.

Adventure in Turkey

Stanley returned to New York with Cook in tow and was reunited with Lewis Noe and his family. Somehow Stanley now managed to persuade both Cook and Noe to accompany him on an expedition to Turkey. They sailed from Boston to Izmir where, funds being low, Stanley could only afford two horses: one of his young acolytes had to walk. The journey turned into another ruinous farce. Noe set fire to some bushes to scare Cook but started a major conflagration which saw the three Americans get arrested.

Securing a release they continued inland till another controversial incident took place where Stanley tried to murder a Turk they met with a sword: he claimed he was fighting off the Turk’s sexual advances to Noe, Cook claimed Stanley meant to murder the Turk and steal his horses (p.59). The fight attracted ten other Turks who robbed our guys of all their belongings, dragged them to a nearby village, tied them up. Noe was gang-raped at knifepoint. A local magistrate heard of their situation and had them conveyed to a proper gaol. The local judge found the alleged assailants in possession of what was obviously Stanley’s American goods and so our guys all Stanley’s were released from prison and then spent some time suing the Turkish government for compensation. Stanley contacted the American ambassador at Constantinople who reluctantly lent these shabby American chancers £150, enough to pay Noe and Stanley’s fares to Marseilles, then to Paris, London and onto Liverpool (Cook had to stay behind to give evidence in the trial).

(Later we learn that much of the substance of these adventures were ratified by Lewis Noe himself who sold his version of events, from jumping ship in Portsmouth through the Turkey debacle, to the New York Sun, when Stanley returned from the Livingstone strip and was famous.)

Denbigh again

Stanley detoured, once again, from Liverpool to Denbigh to track down his mother the publican, this time wearing an officer’s uniform he’d had knocked up in Constantinople, to impress her with what a success he had become. Once again, she was less than impressed. He stayed over Christmas, visited other relatives, tried out his new persona of Henry Morton Stanley, moped around Liverpool, again, then took ship back to America.

The Wild West

In February 1867 Stanley arrived back in St Louis and wangled a full-time job on the Missouri Democrat at the princely salary of $15 a day. The very next day he was given the assignment of reporting on General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Indian campaign against the Kiowas and the Comanches (p.67). He covered the whole campaign, describing Indian atrocities and scalpings, the army’s destruction of native villages, he interviewed Wild Bill Hickock. He was right there in the Wild West.

The imperialist principle

Jeal makes the important point that it was here, watching the native Americans being harried, murdered and burnt off their ancestral land, that Stanley imbibed the key principle of imperialism – that backward nations and peoples will fall ineluctably and unpreventably before the forces of ‘civilisation’, industrialisation and economic development. In his writings Stanley sympathised with the Indians but thought that nothing could be done to save them; modernisation was an inevitable process; if not this general then another one. And this was the hard-headed, ‘realist’ attitude he took to Africa.

The New York Herald

But a fire burned in him to see the world, to have great adventures, to go to Africa. In December 1867 he travelled to New York, to the offices of the best selling newspaper in America, the New York Herald, where he bluffed his way into an interview with the tough editor James Gordon Bennett Junior, the hard-driving editor of America’s most successful newspaper, the New York Herald. Stanley pitched his idea of going in search of Dr Livingstone, but it was too speculative for Bennett who suggested a more practical assignment – reporting on the British military expedition into Ethiopia.

Journalist in Ethiopia

In 1867 the emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros II, had taken a British envoy and others hostage the British government despatched a force to release them. Stanley arrived in Suez in January 1868 and promptly bribed the telegraph operator to transmit his despatches before any other journalist (p.71). accompanied that force as a special correspondent of the New York Herald.

He made several big discoveries on this trip. First was that, by posing as an American, he sidestepped the wretched British class system, and was treated as an equal by the lofty British officers. He was impressed by their cult of nonchalance and aristocratic indifference and cultivated the same pose. He also discovered how to be a success, ensuring that his account of the Battle of Magdala in 1868 (where the British, predictably, whipped the Ethiopian forces) was the first to be telegraphed back to Europe and America. It was a sensational scoop which made his reputation as a journalist and secured him a permanent job at the Herald (p.72)

Spain

Bennett now treated Stanley like any foreign correspondent and sent him to trouble spots to report. In October 1868 he was sent to Spain which was experiencing a civil war between monarchists and republicans. Taking a break from reports he returned to London, where he invited his mother and half sister to visit him, now staying in a grand hotel and unambiguously a successful man of the world. He returned to Spain in 1869 and Jeal uses Stanley’s autobiography to describe Stanley’s hair-raising adventures in Madrid, running across streets as the bullets flew and barricading hotel windows to stop stray bullets in scenes reminiscent of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (p.82).

Through Asia

As you’d expect, Jeal deals with his customary thoroughness with the thorny question of who had the idea to go looking for the famous British missionary, Dr David Livingstone, who had departed for central Africa several years earlier, who nothing had been heard of for years, and who was feared dead. Was it Bennett’s idea or was it, the preferred option, a long-standing ambition of Stanley’s which he pitched an at-first sceptical Bennett?

Either way, although Bennett agreed it was a good idea, he decided to leave it on the back burner while public interest in Livingstone’s mysterious fate grew. Instead he paid for Stanley to go on journalistic assignments through ‘Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, the Crimea, Persia and finally India’ (p.85). During this year of travels Stanley reported on the opening of the Suez Canal, examined excavations in Jerusalem, visited Odessa and the battlefields of the Crimea, interviewed the governor of the Caucasus at Tiflis and travelled to the Persian Gulf via Persepolis.

Go ahead for the Livingstone expedition

He ended up in Bombay in October 1870, which is where he finally received the go-ahead from Bennett to proceed with the expedition to find Livingstone who was, still, ‘lost’, his whereabouts unknown. With promise of full funding Stanley set sail from Bombay across the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar, the traditional provisioning and jumping off point for east central Africa, in January 1871 (p.91).

It’s important to emphasise that there had been some news about Livingstone. In November 1869 the Bombay Gazette had published a letter Livingstone had sent from the interior, dated 6 months earlier and stating he was at the town of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. And this was, indeed, where Stanley was to find him.

Provisioning an African expedition

But the journey inland was perilous and logistically challenging. In the absence of any roads or wheeled vehicles or pack animals who could survive the dreaded tsetse fly, all provisions had to be carried by porters, hundreds of porters, who as well as food and drink carried the trade goods and gifts which had to be doled out liberally to all the tribal chiefs whose territory had to be crossed.

Jeal goes into characteristic detail about the funding, recruiting and provisioning for the great adventure. He hired local porter managers who had helped other explorers with their expeditions, and four white men to act as companions. Stanley led his large force out of Bagamoyo, the coastal port opposite Zanzibar, and into the interior on 21 March 1871. He had just turned thirty years old.

Summary of Stanley’s early life

What a life he had led! Just reading about his exploits is exhausting. Rejected by his mother, abandoned by his family, workhouse boy in a swamp of depravity, self educated, runaway to America where he acquired a new identity and reinvented himself as a buccaneering journalist in the Wild West, leader of absurd adventures on rivers and into faraway Turkey before bluffing his way into a top job as foreign correspondent with America’s premier newspaper, reporting from all over Europe and the Middle East. And only now, aged 30, embarking on the great adventure which would make his name and which, in turn, inaugurated 16 years of exploring, trekking, fighting, signing trade deals and mapping out huge swathes of unexplored central Africa.

He had packed more into his life before he set out to find Livingstone, aged 29, than many adventurers could claim to have experienced in their entire lives. (p.469)


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Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 2

…his view that suffering is the norm of human life, that will represents an unwelcome intrusion, and that real consciousness lies beyond human understanding
(Knowlson summarising how Beckett found his deepest beliefs reinforced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, page 268)

This is a truly excellent literary biography. Knowlson documents Beckett’s life with immense thoroughness but shows a completely sure touch, a very satisfying sense of taste and tact throughout, not only regarding the complexities of Beckett’s private life (a lifelong companion and a small cadre of mistresses) but in tracing the sources and gestation of his many works, and lightly, intelligently bringing out their important aspects.

I summarised the first third of the book, up to the 1930s, in my last blog post. But that only covered 200 of the Damned To Fame‘s 700 or so pages and, as I tried to summarise the rest, I found there was simply too much material, it was overwhelming.

And so I abandoned a chronological summary in favour of looking at topics from Beckett’s life and works, some big and serious, others short and frivolous, as the fancy took me, to create a mosaic or collage of a review.

Affairs of the heart

Ethna MacCarthy Beckett was a slow starter, which was traditional for his time and place (1920s Ireland). As a tall but timid student at Trinity College, Dublin, he fell in love with Ethna MacCarthy, also studying modern languages, a strong, independent-minded feminist (p.58 to 60). He was swept off his feet by her intelligence and charisma but she had plenty of other admirers and it emerged she was having an affair with an older man, a married college professor (plus ça change…). A few years later, just before he quit his job at Trinity College, Dublin and left Ireland for the last time, he took Ethna for a night out in his car and, whether drunk or showing off, crashed it down at the docks, escaping with bruises himself but seriously injuring Ethna who had to be taken to hospital. The guilt never left him (p.143).

They kept in touch and remained good friends though Beckett was discombobulated when she embarked on a long affair with one of his best friends from college, Con Leventhal (even though Con was married). This affair continued until Con’s wife died, in 1956, at which point he immediately married Ethna. But fulfilment turned to tragedy when she was stricken with cancer and died in 1959. Beckett remained close friends with both of them.

Later on, we are told that the happy memories of love which haunt Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape are likely reworkings of his memories of Ethna.

Peggy Sinclair In summer 1928, having returned home after having graduated from Trinity College Dublin and a brief abortive spell as a teacher at a boarding school in the North, Beckett returned to Dublin and fell deeply in love with his second cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, generally referred to as Peggy, daughter of his aunt Cissie and the Jewish art dealer William ‘Boss’ Sinclair with whom she had moved to the town of Kassel in north Germany. Peggy was only 17 and on her first visit to Ireland. 22-year-old Sam drove her around in his dinky sports car, took her to galleries and the theatre, she was overawed. After a few months she returned to her parents in Germany, but they exchanged letters, he visited her in Kassel a few times over the coming years, and when she went to dance  school in Austria (in Laxenberg, south of Vienna, pages 83 to 86), visited her there, too, all this despite the very strong disapproval of Beckett’s parents for whom 1. Boss’s notorious poverty 2. Boss’s Jewishness 3. the fact Sam and Peg were cousins, all resulted in strong opposition to the relationship. He visited Kassel quite a few more times over the coming years, although the affair with Peggy came to an end and she became engaged to another man. But Beckett was devastated when she died terribly young of tuberculosis in May 1933.

Lucia Joyce When Beckett took up the post of exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure, his predecessor Tom MacGreevey introduced him to James Joyce and his circle in February 1928. This included Joyce’s wife, Nora, son, Giorgio, and daughter Lucia. Born in 1907, so just a year younger than Beckett, she was clever, creative and wilful and fell in love with the tall, quiet Irishman whom her father used as a secretary and assistant. She asked him to take her out for meals, for walks and so on and generally hoped they would fall in love. She was slender and had some training as a dancer. According to Beckett, even at this stage, she was bulimic (p.150). When it became clear Beckett wasn’t interested, Lucia accused him to her parents of leading her on. Nora never liked Beckett, had taken against him, and Lucia’s accusation was all it took to force Joyce to drop Beckett, much to the latter’s devastation (pages 103 to 105). Later Lucia was to suffer a mental breakdown into irreparable mental illness. Beckett, reconciled with Joyce at the start of 1932 (p.156), went on to watch his mentor devote huge energy and money to trying to find a cure which, slowly, friends and family realised would never work.

Mary Manning Howe In summer 1936, back in Dublin staying at the family home, after failing to get an affair going with a woman named Betty Stockton, Beckett had a brief whirlwind sexual affair with a friend since childhood, the now married Mary Manning Howe (p.229).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil While in hospital after being stabbed in Paris in January 1937, he was visited by Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and a friendship slowly grew which was to become the key relationship of his life. She was austere, intellectual, puritanical – not unlike his mother in many respects, although maybe not insofar as, being a good post-war French intellectual, she was a fervent communist. Profile of her character page 296.

Suzanne shared with Beckett their panic flight from Paris after the initial Nazi invasion in 1940 (pages 297 to 302). Then, when they returned, the risks of his life as an operative for the Resistance until they were forced to flee Paris a second time when their cell was betrayed August 1942, and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

In the bleak post-war period she doggedly supported his writing and hawked his manuscripts from publisher to publisher. Despite his many infidelities to her, in the conversation with Knowlson at the end of his life, Beckett repeated that he owed her ‘everything’ (p.473).

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 to 1979) At the time the relationship with Suzanne began, Beckett was involved in a passionate affair with heiress Peggy Guggenheim who was madly in love with him and nicknamed him ‘Oblomov’. The mismatch between the super-rich socialite heiress and the frugal, moody Irish intellectual is amusingly detailed by Knowlson, pages 281 to 288. She was obsessed with him for a good year, although Knowlson suspects Beckett mainly kept things going because of the influence she could bring to bear on promoting his artist friends such as Geer van Velde.

Pamela Mitchell 32-year-old American working for Beckett’s American publisher, arrived in Paris to meet with Beckett in September 1953 to discuss rights and editions. He showed her the town and they had a brief fling, with follow-up letters after she returned to New York and further visits and meetings until January 1955 (pages 398 to 403).

Barbara Bray (1924 to 2010) In 1957, on a trip to London to supervise the premiere of Endgame and the radio production of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett met Barbara Bray, 18 years his junior, a widow with two small children, who had been working as a script editor for the BBC Third Programme. Knowlson writes:

She was small and attractive, but, above all, keenly intelligent and well-read. Beckett seems to have been immediately attracted by her and she to him. Their encounter was highly significant for them both, for it represented the beginning of a relationship that was to last, in parallel with that with Suzanne, for the rest of his life. (p.458)

In 1961 Bray quit her job in London and moved to Paris, taking an apartment in the Rue Séguier where Beckett regularly visited her. She had a piano. He played Schubert, Haydn or Beethoven on it (p.595). He routinely visited her, she came to see him on his trips directing abroad, they were in most respects an item for the rest of his life. Which is interesting because he continued to live with Suzanne and go with her on increasing numbers of foreign holidays which Knowlson describes in winning detail (Lake Como, Sardinia, Tunisia, Morocco, the Canaries).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil part 2 When Bray announced in 1961 that she was packing in her career with the BBC in London and moving to Paris, Beckett’s reaction was unusual. He promptly married Déchevaux-Dumesnil in March 1961 in a civil ceremony in Folkestone (pages 480 to 484). This was ostensibly to ensure that, if he predeceased her, Déchevaux-Dumesnil would inherit the rights to his work, because there was no common-law marriage under French law – but maybe also because he wanted to affirm his primary loyalty to her. But as soon as they were back in Paris he went to visit Barbara and spend much of his free time with her. Barbara outlived Sam and Suzanne (who both died in 1989) only passing away, in Edinburgh, in February 2010.

There appear to have been other, more fleeting dalliances: Jacoba van Velde, older than Beckett, literary agent and novelist (p.519). Mira Averech attractive young journalist, who interviewed him (p.553).

The BBC

The BBC played a key role in commissioning and producing and broadcasting Beckett’s work to a vastly wider audience than it would have reached via the theatre alone. The second half of Knowlson’s book is stuffed with accounts of commissions and productions overseen by Donald MacWhinnie, radio director and then director of TV drama, Head of BBC Radio Drama 1963 to 1977 Martin Esslin. In other words, Beckett had very powerful supporters within the national broadcaster, who supported him at every step of his career. There’s a book on the subject. Its blurb states:

This book is the first sustained examination of Samuel Beckett’s pivotal engagements with post-war BBC radio. The BBC acted as a key interpreter and promoter of Beckett’s work during this crucial period of his ‘getting known’ in the Anglophone world in the 1950s and 1960s, especially through the culturally ambitious Third Programme, but also by the intermediary of the house magazine, The Listener. The BBC ensured a sizeable but also informed reception for Beckett’s radio plays and various ‘adaptations’ (including his stage plays, prose, and even poetry); the audience that Beckett’s works reached by radio almost certainly exceeded in size his readership or theatre audiences at the time.

Beach

As a boy Beckett went on summer holidays with his parents to Greystones, a seaside resort village just down the coast from Dublin, complete with fishermen, cliffs and a pebbly beach. He played with his brother but also spent hours skimming stones across the waves or staring out to sea. Beaches and the sound of the sea figure heavily in works like Embers and Cascando and the protagonist of Molloy famously spends a couple of pages working out which order to suck a collection of 16 pebbles he’s gathered from the beach (p.28).

Beckett, the surname

Beckett is originally a French name. The family are descended from French Huguenots who fled persecution in the 18th century, first to England and then on to Dublin (p.6) – a fact which adds colour to:

  1. the way Beckett subsequently returned to live in France
  2. the several of his texts which are ‘about’ refugees, namely Lessness (p.564)

Breath

Beckett’s fury at Kenneth Tynan for letting the super-short, absurdist theatre piece, Breath, which he contributed as a personal favour to Tynan’s ‘ground-breaking’ 1969 extravaganza, Oh Calcutta!, be festooned with naked actors, and then going on to print his name in the published script opposite photos of the naked men cavorting onstage during the production. He owed Tynan a big debt of gratitude for writing a rave review of the first English production of Waiting For Godot which helped turn critical opinion in its favour back in 1953. But his behaviour over Breath infuriated Beckett who called Tynan a ‘liar’ and a ‘cheat’ (pages 565 to 566).

Censorship

Lifelong opponent of censorship, whether it was the Irish Free State banning Joyce in the 1920s, the Nazis banning Jewish and degenerate art in the 1930s, or the British Lord Chamberlain insisting on stupid edits to his plays before they could be performed in London in the 1950s and 60s. He banned his own works from being performed in apartheid South Africa, and publicly supported writers suffering from state censorship or persecution.

Chess

Beckett was a serious chess player (p.9). He was taught to play by his brother Frank, and then learned more from his Uncle Howard who once beat the reigning world champion, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, when the latter visited Dublin. He was a noted chess player at his private school (p.43). He inherited a Staunton chess set from his father (p.627).

His first published story, Assumption, contains allusions to chess. Murphy plays a game of chess against the mental patient Mr Endon in Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (p.210). In fact Beckett really wanted the cover of Murphy to be a photo he’d seen of two apes playing chess (p.293).

Later in life Beckett played against Marcel Duchamp (p.289), he played against his friend the painter Henri Hayden, when the latter came to live in a village near Beckett’s rural retreat. Beckett built up a large collection of chess books, many given as gifts by friends who knew his interest or on sets like the magnetised chess set given to him by the artist Avigdor Arikha (p.595). When ill or isolated at his country bungalow at Ussy, he played against himself or played through famous games of the grandmasters.

Damned to fame

At first glance this seems like a melodramatic title, but it’s a quotation, from Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic comic poem, The Dunciad, whose subject is the fantastic lengths utterly talentless writers will go to to become famous. The short phrase thus contains multiple ironies, and Beckett used it of himself with maximum irony (p.644), and again (p.672).

Drinking

Teetotal as a youth and student, discovered alcohol in Paris and never looked back. In adult life, especially socialising in Paris, he often became drunk in the evening. Knowlson details numerous evenings of hard drinking with certain cronies, notably the two Irishmen Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. Suzanne hated his drinking: she had to cope with him rolling home in the early hours, disturbing her sleep, his late start the next morning, and resultant bad mood and depression.

Favourite dish

Mackerel (p.416).

Finney, Albert

Finney was cast in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court in 1972. He was completely miscast and Beckett found it hard to hide his boredom and impatience, at one point falling asleep. The more Finney tried his full range of colours and emotions the more impatient Beckett became. At one point, with unusual bluntness, Beckett held up his little finger and declared there was more poetry in it than in Finney’s entire body (p.596).

Foxrock

Village south of Dublin where, in 1902, William Beckett bought some land and had a family house built for him and his wife, Maria Jones Roe (widely known as May), named it ‘Cooldrinagh’, where Sam’s older brother, Frank, was born in 1902, and where Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906. He was named Samuel after his maternal grandfather. According to Knowlson, nobody alive knows where his middle name came from. The house was named Cooldrinagh after the family home of Beckett’s mother, May, which was named Cooldrinagh House. The name is from the Gaelic and means ‘ back of the blackthorn hedge’ (p.3). There was an acre of land, a summerhouse, a double garage and outbuildings (p.14).

French

Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because — as he himself claimed — it was easier for him thus to write ‘without style’. English had become overcrowded with allusions and memories. He had experimentally written a few poems in French before the war, but it was only on his return to post-War Paris that he began to write in French prose.

By adopting another language, he gained a greater simplicity and objectivity. French offered him the freedom to concentrate on a more direct expression of the search for ‘being’ and on an exploration of ignorance, impotence and indigence. (p.357)

However, this had an unintended consequence which becomes abundantly clear as Knowlson’s book progresses into the 1950s and Beckett acquires more writing in either French or English, which is the effort required by translating his work from one language to the other. Knowlson quotes countless letters in which Beckett complains to friends about having to translate monster texts such as L’Innomable or Mercier et Camier from French into English.

He in effect gave himself twice the labour of an ordinary writer who sticks to just one language.

This explains the complexity of a timeline of Beckett publications because very often there is a lag, sometimes a significant lag, between the publication of a work in French (or English) and then of its translation into the other language, which makes his publishing record complex and sometimes pretty confusing. And then there was German.  Beckett took it on himself to translate, or at least supervise translations, of all his plays into German scripts. The biography brings home how this turned out to be a vast burden.

Generosity

Legendary. ‘Few writers have distributed their cash with as much liberality as Beckett’ (p.603). Knowlson quotes Claude Jamet’s story of being in a bar with Beckett when a tramp asked him for his coat and Beckett simply took it off and handed it over, without even checking the pockets! (p.408). Jack Emery met him in La Coupole bar and watched as a beggar approached Beckett with a tray of shabby postcards and Beckett promptly bought the lot (p.642). He gave money and support without stint to almost anyone who asked for it. He supported actor Jack MacGowran’s family after he died, and numerous relatives after spouses died. He gave away most of the money from the Nobel Prize, supporting friends and relatives in times of grief and difficulty.

An outstanding example of this is the support Beckett gave to an American convict, Rick Cluchey, serving time in San Quentin gaol, California, for robbery and murder. In prison, Cluchey became a changed man, who read widely and began to direct and act in plays. He wrote to Beckett asking permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot, and this was the start of a friendship which lasted the rest of his life, as Cluchey, once released on probation,  put on further Beckett productions, securing the great man’s artistic and financial aid (p.611, 613).

Late in life his friends worried that Beckett was a soft touch. He was unable to refuse requests for help

Germany

In September 1937 Beckett left for what turned into a seven-month trip to Germany. It is possibly a scoop for this biography (I don’t know, I haven’t read the others) that Knowlson has obtained access to the detailed diary Beckett kept of this seven-month cultural jaunt which saw him tour the great cultural centres of Germany, and so is in a position to give us a day-by-day account of the visit, which is almost all about art. Beckett systematically visited the great art galleries of Germany, public and private, as well as getting to know a number of German (and Dutch) artists personally. As well as experiencing at first hand the impact on individual artists, of galleries and ordinary people of Nazi repression. He loathed and despised the Nazis and is quoted quite a few times mocking and ridiculing the Nazi leaders (pages 230 to 261).

Ghosts

At one point I thought I’d spotted that Beckett’s use of memories, of voices and characters from the past amounted to ghost stories, shivers. But then they kept on coming, one entire play is named Ghost Trio and the ghost theme rises to a kind of climax in A Piece of Monologue:

and head rests on wall. But no. Stock still head naught staring beyond. Nothing stirring. Faintly stirring. Thirty thousand nights of ghosts beyond. Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost … he all but said ghost loved ones…

When Beckett was directing Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls (1976) he told her to make the third section ‘ghostly’ (p.624). In other words, everyone and their mother has been well aware for decades that Beckett’s final period can is largely defined by his interest in ghosts, ghostly memories, apparition, and voices from beyond the grave (as in What Where).

Maybe the only contribution I can make is to point out that it’s not just the style and presentation of many of the later plays which brings to mind ghosts and faint presences, but there’s a sense in which much of the actual content is very old. What I mean is that about ten of Beckett’s total of 19 plays date from the 1970s and 80s – out in the real world we had fast cars, speedboats, supersonic jets, ocean liners and rockets flying to the moon, but you’d never have known it from Beckett’s plays. In those plays an ageing man listens to memories of himself as a boy in rural Ireland (That Time), an ageing woman paces the floor ridden by memories of herself in rural Ireland (Footfalls), an old man alone in a room waits for a message from his lost love (Ghost Trio), an ageing man remembers walking the back roads while he waits for the appearance of his lost love (…but the clouds…), an ageing man remembers back to his parents and funerals in rural Ireland (A Piece of Monologue), an ageing woman sits in a rocking chair remembering how her old mother died (Rockaby), an ageing man sits in a room listening to a doppelgänger read about his younger life (Ohio Impromptu), an autocratic director poses an old man on a stage (Catastrophe).

My point is that although the form of all these plays was radically experimental and inventive, often staggeringly so, the actual verbal and image content of most of the late works is very old, Edwardian or late Victorian, ghostly memories of a world that vanished long ago, 50 or 60 years before the plays were first performed. Hence the widespread sense that Beckett was the ‘last of his kind’, emblem of a vanished generation (hence the title of Isaac Cronin’s biography, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist). It was because the actual content of almost all the later plays and prose more or less ignores every technological advance of the 20th century in favour of memories of trudging round rural back roads, walking hand in hand with his father, walking along a riverbank, of a small girl struck dumb till she became uncontrollably voluble (Rockaby), of dismal rainy rural funerals. Watching A Piece of a Monologue again, I am struck by how the central action is lighting an old-style lantern by fiddling with the wick, chimney and shade. All of this stuff could straight from the time of Thomas Hardy.

Illness

For someone so phenomenally sporty (rugby, cricket, swimming, long distance running, boxing and motorbike racing) Beckett was frequently ill. As a boy he suffered from night anxiety and as an undergraduate from insomnia combined with night sweats and a racing heart (p.64). He was knocked out one term by a bout of pneumonia (p.63). On his first return from Paris in 1930 he presented his parents with the sight of a young man stricken by a rash on his face and scalp (p.118).

  • May 1931 struck down with a case of pleurisy (p.130).
  • a painful cyst that developed on his neck required an operation in December 1932 (p.166)
  • May 1933 the same cyst had to be treated again (p.168)
  • July 1933 an abscess on his palm needed treating. Following the death of his father he developed night sweats and panic attacks (p.172)
  • August 1934 acute abdominal paints (p.185)
  • throughout 1935 the night sweats and heart which had triggered his psychotherapy persisted (p.200). Knowlson points out that Beckett gives the antihero of his first novel, Murphy, a vivid description of these heart problems (p.215)
  • Christmas 1935 bed-ridden with an attack of pleurisy (p.222)
  • 1936 on his German trip he developed a painfully festering finger and thumb (p.241)
  • January 1937, still in Germany, a lump developed on his scrotum that became so painful he was confined to bed (p.243)
  • September 1937 confined to bed with gastric flu
  • 1946 cyst lanced and drained (p.366)
  • 1947 abscess in his mouth and tooth problems (p.366)
  • August 1950 takes to his bed with a high temperature and raging toothache (p.380)
  • 1956 several teeth removed and bridges built (p.438)
  • 1957 abscess in the roof of his mouth (p.438)
  • 1958 persistent insomnia (p.456)
  • June 1959 bad attack of bronchial flu; exacerbation of the intra-osseous cyst in his upper jaw (p.464)
  • November 1964 operation on the abscess in the roof of his mouth, creating a hole into his nose (p.530)
  • July 1965 surgical graft to close the hole in the roof of his mouth (p.535)
  • 1965 extraction of numerous teeth and creation of a dental plate (p.535)
  • April 1966 diagnosis of double cataracts (p.540)
  • 1967 treatments for cataracts included eye drops, suppositories and homeopathic remedies (p.547)
  • February 1967 fell into the garage pit at a local garage and fractured several ribs (p.547)
  • April 1968 severe abscess on the lung, which had been making him breathless and weak, required prolonged treatment (p.558)
  • end 1970 – February 1971 operations on the cataracts in his left and right eye (pages 579 to 581)
  • April 1971 nasty bout of viral flu (p.582)
  • 1971 periodic bouts of lumbago (p.587)
  • November 1972 has eight teeth extracted and impressions made for dental plates (p.596)
  • 1970s – continued depression, enlarged prostate (p.645)
  • 1980 muscular contraction of the hand diagnosed as Dupuytren’s Contracture (p.660 and 679)
  • April 1984 bedbound with a bad viral infection (p.696)

Illustrated editions

An aspect of Beckett’s lifelong interest in art was the way many of his later texts, for all the lack of colour and description in the prose, turned out to be tremendously inspirational for a whole range of artists, who created illustrations for them. The volume of Collected Shorter prose gives an impressive list indicating the extensive nature of this overlooked aspect of the work.

  • All Strange Away, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1976)
  • Au loin un oiseau, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1973)
  • Bing, with illustrations by H. M. Erhardt (1970) Erhardt also produced illustrations for Manus Presse of Act Without Words I and II (1965), Come and Go (1968), and Watt (1971)
  • Foirades/Fizzles, with etchings by Jasper Johns (1976)
  • From an Abandoned Work, with illustrations by Max Ernst (1969)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine, with illustrations by Sorel Etrog (1977)
  • L’Issue, with six original engravings by Avigdor Arikha (1968)
  • The Lost Ones, with illustrations by Charles Klabunde (1984)
  • The Lost Ones, illustrated by Philippe Weisbecker, Evergreen Review, No. 96 (Spring 1973)
  • The North, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1972)
  • Séjour, with engravings by Louis Maccard from the original drawings by Jean Deyrolle (1970)
  • Still, with etchings by William Hayter (1974)
  • Stirrings Still, with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (1988)
  • Stories and Texts for Nothing, with drawings by Avigdor Arikha (1967)
  • Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman (1989)

Interpretations, dislike of

One of Billie Whitelaw’s great appeals as an actress to Beckett was that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose. It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and how Richardson was comically disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

In a similar vein, Knowlson quotes his exasperated response when Beckett went through the reviews of the English production of Godot, saying:

he was tired of the whole thing and the endless misunderstanding. ‘Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I don’t understand.’ (quoted page 416)

Repeatedly actors asked for more information about their characters and their motivations, but Beckett politely but firmly repeated his mantra:

I only know what’s on the page (p.513)

It’s ironic because Beckett of all people should have known why everyone who came into contact with his texts would waste vast amounts of time searching for sub-texts, symbolism, allegory, and a universe of extra meaning. Because simply taking things at face value is one of the things human beings are useless at. Making up all kinds of extravagant meanings and elaborate theories is what humans excel at.

Intrusive narrator and Henry Fielding

There’s a great deal to be said on this subject because lots of the prose works involve not only an intrusive narrator but multiple narrators and narratives which collapse amid a failure of narrative altogether. But one detail stuck out for me from Knowlson’s biography, which is the direct influence of the eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding. If you read Fielding’s shorter comic novel Joseph Andrews (1742) and his epic comic novel, Tom Jones (1749) you find that the narrator is a very active participant, not only describing events but giving a running commentary on them, moralising and judging and reminding us of previous events or warning of events to come. Once you get used to the 18th century style, this can be very funny. Obviously Beckett brings a completely different sensibility and a highly Modernist approach to what is more a ‘disintegrating narrator’. Still, it is fascinating to read in Knowlson that he specifically cites Fielding as showing just how interactive and interfering a narrator can be in his own text. It is August 1932 and Beckett has returned from Paris to the family home outside Dublin where he immerses himself in reading:

One of the most significant items on his reading list was Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews… He probably learned a lot from Fielding’s novels (for he went on to read Tom Jones) while he was writing the stories of More Pricks Than Kicks. This influence can still be detected in Murphy and continued even into the postwar novel trilogy. It can be seen in what he described as ‘the giving away of the show pari passu with the show’, in a balance and an elaborateness of phrase, and…in the playful pr ironic comments of a self-conscious narrator who makes regular intrusions into the text of his narrative. (page 165)

Ireland

There’s a lot of scope to discuss Beckett’s Irishness, how ‘Irish’ his own personality was, and his characters and his creations, but I don’t feel qualified to comment either way. Knowlson occasionally mentions Beckett’s love of the Irish countryside but only rarely addresses the subject of Beckett’s ‘Irishness’. Three aspects of the issue interested me:

1. Protestant Beckett wasn’t Catholic Irish, like James Joyce and the majority of the population. He was a Protestant, his mother was a God-fearing believer who took him to church every Sunday, and the private school he went to was redolent of strict Protestant teaching. It’s arguable that, although he lost his faith, Beckett retained this strict, almost Puritan turn of mind, in both his lifestyle, which was very spartan and simple, and, of course, in the unromantic, tough, self-punishing nature of his works.

2. Irish Partition I was surprised that Knowlson made so little of the partition of Ireland and the year-long civil war that followed 1921 to 1922. Beckett was born and raised in a suburb of Dublin, where his mother and brother continued to live, but the private secondary school he attended was in what became, while he was still attending it, part of Northern Ireland. The war was a long, drawn-out and very traumatic experience for the nation, but Knowlson barely mentions it and it seems to have had no impact on Beckett, which seems hard to believe. The entire subject of Irish nationalism is conspicuous by its absence.

3. Rejection of Ireland Again, it is underplayed in Knowlson’s book, but reading between the lines, it appears that some Irish considered Beckett moving to Paris in October 1937 and his continued living there was a studied rejection of his home country, a rejection he repeated at key moments of his career. Certainly Beckett, driven to exasperation by a lack of money, job, prospects, any success as a writer and the nagging of his mother to get a job, finally and decisively quit Ireland in September 1937 to make a permanent home in Paris. Knowlson says Beckett found Ireland too ‘narrow-minded and parochial’. He wrote to his old schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, that the move to Paris was like being let out of gaol (p.274). Ironically, only a few weeks after emigrating, Beckett was recalled to Dublin to act as a witness in a libel case brought against a book which appeared to lampoon his beloved Uncle, ‘Boss’ Sinclair, and was subjected to a fierce cross-questioning by the defending QC which raised the subject of Beckett’s ‘immoral’ writings in order to question his credibility. This gruelling experience set the seal on Beckett’s rejection of his homeland:

His remarks about Ireland became more and more vituperative after his return to Paris, as he lambasted its censorship, its bigotry and its narrow-minded attitudes to both sex and religion from which he felt he’d suffered. (p.280).

The theme recurs when Beckett himself imposed a ban on his works being performed in Ireland: In 1958, upon hearing that Archbishop John McQuaid had intervened in the Dublin Theatre Festival programme, forcing the organisers to withdraw a stage adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses as well as Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, Beckett responded by cancelling his permission for the Pike Theatre to perform his mimes and All That Fall at the festival.

The theme recurs again in the context of Beckett being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969 because, super-reluctant to attend the award ceremony himself, instead of asking the Irish Ambassador to accept it, according to the convention whereby a demurring author is represented by his country’s ambassador, Beckett instead nominated his long-standing and loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572). It was a typical gesture of friendship and personal loyalty but some Irish commentators took it as a calculated slight to his homeland.

So, just like his hero James Joyce before him, Beckett had a complex love-hate relationship with his homeland. Irish emigré Peter Lennon spent time with Beckett and recalls:

The sense of Ireland was strong in him, there was a subterranean emotional involvement… [but he also] despised the ethos of the place. (quoted page 490)

Mind you this argument is countered by the fact that, of all the honorary degrees he was offered during his lifetime, the only one he accepted was from his old alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, which he flew back to in order to receive an honorary D.Litt. degree on 2 July 1959 (pages 469 to 470).

Keaton, Buster

In the early 1960s Beckett developed a treatment for a short silent film to be shot with American collaborators. As a boy Beckett had loved the classic silent movies of Charlie Chaplin et al so the American producers approached a number of the greats, including Chaplin, Zero Mostel, Beckett’s friend MacGowran, but they had other commitments or weren’t interested.

Thus it was that they came to invite the legendary Buster Keaton, who delighted everyone by agreeing. Knowlson points out how the pair had a secret artistic affinity, a Keaton movie like Go West featuring a protagonist named Friendless, who is all alone in the world – closely related to Beckett’s worldview (p.54).

However, the actual meeting between Beckett and Keaton was a famous disaster, with Beckett invited into the Keaton apartment where Buster went back to sitting in a chair in front of the TV watching a game of American football sipping a beer from the fridge. After a few conversational gambits Beckett fell silent. Impasse (p.522).

The film ended up being shot over a few sweltering days in lower Manhattan in July 1964 during Beckett’s first and only trip to the United States.

London

Beckett lived in London for two years in 1934 and 1935. He lived first in rooms in Chelsea and then in the Gray’s Inn Road, locations invoked in the novel he wrote about the period, Murphy.

Beckett hated London. Dirty and noisy and cramped. It infuriated him the way strangers called him ‘Paddy’ in shops and pubs. In later life he referred to London as ‘Muttonfatville’ (p.512).

Jack MacGowran (1918 to 1973)

Beckett wrote the radio play Embers and the teleplay Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. The actor also appeared in various productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, and did several readings of Beckett’s plays and poems on BBC Radio. MacGowran was the first actor to do a one-man show based on the works of Beckett. He debuted End of Day in Dublin in 1962, revising it as Beginning To End in 1965. The show went through further revisions before Beckett directed it in Paris in 1970. He also recorded the LP, MacGowran Speaking Beckett for Claddagh Records in 1966 (the recording sessions described at p.539). Whenever he was over in Paris visiting, chances are the lads would go out and get slaughtered. Even worse when the duo turned into a threesome with fellow Irish actor Patrick Magee (p.514). After MacGowran’s death Beckett wrote immediately to his widow Gloria to offer financial assistance for her and daughter, Tara (p.599).

May Beckett

Tall, lean-faced, with a long nose, when you look at photos you immediately see that Beckett has his mother’s appearance not his father, who was round-faced and jovial. May Beckett had an unforgiving temperament and she ruled Cooldrinagh House and its servants with a rod of iron (p.5). Very respectable, she attended the local Protestant church every Sunday. Everyone found her difficult and demanding, she had regular shouting matches with the servants, but could descend into days of dark depression. A family friend, Mary Manning, said Beckett ‘was like his mother, he was not a relaxed social person at all’ (p.223). As he grew up Beckett developed an intense love-hate relationship with her until, by his twenties, he found it impossible to live in the same house. Beckett referred to her ‘savage loving’:

I am what her savage loving has made me (p.273).

His two years of psychotherapy in London (1933 to 1935) rotated around his unresolved relationship with this woman who was so difficult but who, in so many ways, he took after. According to his schoolfriend and doctor who recommended the therapy, Geoffrey Thompson, the key to Beckett’s problems was to be found in his relationship with his mother (p.178). It is, therefore, quite funny that the long and expensive course of psychotherapy was paid for… by his mother.

Mental illness

Beckett himself suffered from depression, as had his mother before him. It was partly deep-seated unhappiness triggered by his father’s death in 1933 which led to his two-year stay in London solely for the purpose of psychotherapy. The condition recurred throughout his life, in fact the second half of the book becomes quite monotonous for the repeated description of Beckett, if he had nothing immediate to work on, spiralling down into depression and isolation (p.441). As late as his 70s he was dosing himself with lithium as a treatment (pages 616 and 644).

He knew he had an obsessive compulsive streak, which could sometimes be regarded as determination and courage, at others simple neurosis: in his German diary Beckett refers to himself as ‘an obsessional neurotic’ (p.252).

Interesting to learn that during his London period (1934 to 1936) he visited his schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson who had taken up the post of Senior House Physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, where he observed the patients and learned about their diseases (pages 208 to 210). It was these trips and Thompson’s account which Beckett reworked into the fictional Magdalen Mental Mercyseat where the antihero of his novel Murphy finds a job. This real-life contact with mental patients (Knowlson quotes Beckett describing individual patients and their symptoms) was reinforced when Beckett undertook a series of visits to Lucia Joyce after she was confined to a hospital in Ivry in 1939.

This ‘long-standing interest in abnormal psychology’ (p.615) translated into characters who make up ‘a long line of split personalities, psychotics or obsessional neurotics’, as Knowlson calls them (page 590). Possibly Beckett’s works can be seen as a kind of escalation of depictions of various mental conditions, from the light-hearted neurosis of Murphy, through the more serious mental breakdown of Watt, but then taken to out-of-this-world extremes in the Trilogy, and particularly the collapse of subject, object and language in The UnnamableFootfalls is a particularly spooky investigation of strange mental states and situations such as the protagonist’s radical agoraphobia and chronic neurosis (p.616).

Miserabilism

Miserabilism is defined as ‘gloomy pessimism or negativity.’ It’s so obvious that Beckett’s work concentrates oppressively on failure and negativity that it barely needs mentioning. Soon after the war he gave his beliefs classic expression in the avant-garde magazine transition:

‘I speak of an art turning from [the plane of the possible] in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.’

And, when asked what the contemporary artist should be striving for, he wrote:

‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

His position didn’t budge much in the remaining 45 years of his life.

Music

He came from a very musical family. Beckett’s grandmother (Frances, Fannie) was very musical, wrote songs, set poems to music. Her son, Beckett’s Uncle Gerald, was very musical, piano in the house, spent hours playing duets with young Sam (p.7). Their daughter, Aunt Cissie, also very musical. Cissie married a Jewish art dealer, William ‘Boss’ Sinclair and moved to north Germany, where Boss tried to make a career dealing contemporary art. In his 20s Beckett went to stay with them and fell in love with their daughter, Peggy, a few years younger than him.

Beckett grew up able to play Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart piano pieces very well, as well as lighter pieces like Gilbert and Sullivan (p.28). At private school he carried on having music lessons and gained a reputation for being more or less word perfect in the entire Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre (p.43).

In his first year at Trinity College Dublin he commuted from his parents house, but in his second year moved into rented accommodation, where he installed a piano. He was by now into modern French music and studied and played the piano music of Debussy (p.65). It is, maybe, revealing that Beckett hated Bach. He described him to a friend as like an organ grinder endlessly grinding out phrases (p.193). He had pianos in most of his lodgings and houses. Once living in France he regularly listened to concerts broadcast on France Musique (p.453). In 1967 he bought a small Schimmel piano for the house in Ussy, which he played Haydn and Schubert on (p.546).

Music is overtly important in plays like Ghost Trio (named after a piano work by Beethoven) and Nacht und Träume (named after a song by Schubert). But it is arguable that many of Beckett’s plays, and certainly the later ones, are conceived as musical in rhythm and performance, and are dependent on essentially non-dramatic but musical ideas of repetition, repetition with variation, counterpoint, introduction of new themes, and so on (p.193).

What is important to him is the rhythm, choreography and shape of the whole production. (p.551)

Thus, when he wrote That Time he conceived of it as a sonata, paying meticulous care to the entrance and exits of the three voices from the protagonist’s past. Into the 1980s he was still listening to classical concerts on the radio, playing the piano and made a number of composer friends. Knowlson points out how many of his works have been set to music or have inspired composers (p.655).

Visitors to his supervision of a 1980 production of Endgame noticed that as the actors spoke his hand beat out the rhythm like Karajan conducting an orchestra. ‘It was all about rhythm and music’, said one of the actors (p.668). He particularly loved Schubert and it is a Schubert song which inspired Nacht und Träume and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise which inspired the play What Where (p.685).

Nobel Prize

1969 23 October Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (pages 570 to 573). He and Suzanne experienced this as a complete disaster, ending their life of peaceful anonymity. They were on holiday in a hotel in Tunisia and the announcement had an immediate impact in that the hotel was besieged by journalists and photographers.

Beckett accepted, recognising the honour, but couldn’t face attending the ceremony as he hated all such events. There was some sharp criticism back in Ireland when, instead of asking the ambassador of the nation of the winner i.e. the Irish ambassador, Beckett instead asked for the award to be given to his loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572).

Later Beckett blamed the award for a prolonged period of writer’s block which immediately followed it.

Not I

Inspired, or at least crystallised, by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in Valletta cathedral in Malta (p.588), and a holiday in North Africa where he was fascinated by the locals wearing djellabis. The original conception was of the woman speaker strapped into a device above the stage with a spotlight on her face as she spoke at breakneck speed, taking four pauses or breaks, during which the tall, faceless figure at the side of the stage wearing a djellabi slowly raised and then slowly lowered his arms, as in a gesture of helpless compassion.

But rehearsals for various productions eventually persuaded Beckett the play didn’t need the auditor at all, and the figure was quietly dropped from the 1975 BBC recording with Billie Whitelaw. And Beckett admitted to Knowsley that maybe the entire notion of the auditor was simply ‘an error of the creative imagination, a rare admission (p.617).

Ohio Impromptu

Beckett wrote this piece for American actor David Warrilow to play the part of Reader, a man sitting at a table next to a silent doppelgänger, reading out a narrative, a story which the audience slowly realises applies to the two men onstage. Beckett wrote to tell to Warrilow to read it as if it was ‘a bedtime story’.

O’Toole, Peter

Beckett hated him, and was infuriated when his agent, Curtis Brown, gave O’Toole permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot in 1969. Possibly Beckett disliked O’Toole because one boozy night down the Falstaff pub in London, O’Toole was about to throw his friend Peter Lennon down the stairs before Beckett personally intervened. Or maybe it was just his florid, attention-grabbing acting style, the histrionic opposite of everything Beckett’s minimalist theatre stood for. He called the resulting production ‘O’Tooled beyond redemption’ (p.567)

Painting

Visual art was very important to Beckett. He had started to systematically visit galleries and develop his taste, as a student (p.58). In summer 1927 Beckett travelled to Florence, calling on the sister of his Italian tutor at Trinity College, and systematically visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75). During his two years as lecteur in Paris he visited as many galleries as he could and immersed himself in the French tradition. Back in Ireland in 1931, he resumed his visits to the National Gallery (p.140). After his father’s death, at a loss what to do, it’s not that surprising to learn that he applied to be an assistant curator at London’s National Gallery (p.174).

A decade later, Beckett was to spend no fewer than seven months, from September 1937 to April 1938, on a really thorough and systematic tour of the art galleries of Germany. One of the features of Knowlson’s biography is that he got access to Beckett’s detailed diary of this trip and so gives the reader a city-by-city, gallery-by-gallery, painting-by-painting detailed account of not only the paintings Beckett saw, but also of the contemporary artists he met in cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Munich (pages 230 to 261). The first work he wrote in French after the war was an essay on contemporary art (page 357).

Beckett had a very visual imagination and many critics have found analogues for scenes in the prose and plays among classic paintings of the Old Masters, and by his own account, a number of works were heavily inspired by works of art.

Thus Waiting For Godot, notable Godot – in which the final scene of both parts, of two men looking up at the rising moon mimics Caspar David Friedrich (p.609), and Breughel paintings inspire various poses of the four characters; while Not I was directly inspired by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in the cathedral in Malta (p.588).

Decollation of St John The Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

Artistic friendships In November 1930 he was introduced to the Dublin painter Jack B. Yeats who was to become a lifelong friend. Travelling in Germany in 1937 he met Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde who became enduring friends. When he bought the cottage in Ussy outside Paris he found himself in proximity to the French painter Henri Hayden and his wife, Josette, who Sam and Suzanne had got to know well during their wartime stay in Roussilon, and who became close friends for the rest of their lives.

Paris

Paris came as a revelation to Beckett when he moved there for to take the post of lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure in 1928. He was quickly introduced to James Joyce and other members of the anglophone literary community, but also flourished in the city’s permissive, experimental avant-garde artistic and literary atmosphere. It was with reluctance that he moved back to Ireland in 1930.

Years passed with occasional visits and reunions with old friends before his patience with Dublin and living with his mother in the big empty family house finally snapped in September 1937, and he left Ireland for good to try and make his way as a freelance writer in Paris. However, he hadn’t been there long before he was stabbed in a random altercation with a pimp in Montparnasse. His lifelong partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil visited him in hospital and began caring for him. Once he’d recovered, she arranged for Beckett to move out of an expensive hotel into a flat at 6 Rue des Favorites.

They inhabited the Rue de Favorites flat for 20 years, but eventually their lives had diverged so markedly that they needed a bigger space. Beckett was a night owl, staying out late often getting drunk with friends when they were in town, and disturbed her when he got home. Suzanne was a morning person and disturbed Beckett’s lying-in when she woke. Plus the mistresses. His unexplained absences became harder to bear in a small space.

Thus in 1960 they moved to a larger space, a seventh floor apartment at 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its layout (p.472). It allowed them to live partly companionable, but partly independent lives. A notable feature of the flat was that from it he could see the windows of the Santé prison. He sat staring at a prison for long stretches of his day. Some visitors entered his apartment to discover him standing at the window semaphoring messages to the prisoners: ‘They have so little to entertain them, you know’ (p.642)

Poetry

In my opinion Beckett’s poetry is pants. Here’s part of an early poem:

But she will die and her snare
tendered so patiently
to my tamed and watchful sorrow
will break and hang
in a pitiful crescent
(The Yoke of Liberty, 1932)

And a few years later:

a last even of last time of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

God, it’s dire, the ineffectual repetition of ‘love’, the woeful metaphor of the heart as a pestle grinding away at words. Flat and lifeless and clichéd.

Beckett’s poetry is so poor because, in my opinion, he had little or no feel for the sensual aspect of language. He has nothing of what Keats or Tennyson or Yeats or TS Eliot had for language, an unparalleled feel for the mellifluous flow of sensual speech. A reviewer of his first collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, is quoted as writing that Beckett ‘has imitated everything in Mr Joyce – except the verbal magic and the inspiration’ (quoted page 184). I think that is dead right. Hardly anywhere in Beckett’s works is there ‘verbal magic’ in the sense that an individual phrase leaps out at you as a miraculous use of language. The opposite. They’re often heavy with cliches and triteness. Here’s part of a short poem he wrote in 1977:

one dead of night
in the dead still
he looked up
from his book (p.647)

No Beckett really does not have the magic touch required for poetry. Instead Beckett does something completely different with language. For me his characteristic strategies are paring back language, omitting key syntactical units, and above all using repetition, the clumping of key phrases which are nothing in themselves but acquire power by dogged repetition.

Traditional poetry requires a certain charge behind individual words. And yet this is the precise opposite of how Beckett works. Beckett works by applying the exact opposite of the mot juste, he works through processes of paring down, creating key phrases, and then repeating the hell out of them. He sandblasts language. Thus, in my opinion, his most successful ‘poetry’ is in the play Rockaby, where no individual word has the kind of poetic charge you find in Eliot or Larkin or Hughes or Hill – it is all about the remorseless repetition. 

till in the end
the day came
in the end came
close of a long day
when she said
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
another like herself
another creature like herself
a little like
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
till in the end
close of a long day
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped

My contention is that he is a great writer despite his lack of feel for language, because of his systematic methodology. He doesn’t feel or express so much as process language, submits it to distortions, denials and repetitions in order to make his language pared back, hard, white bone (‘All the verbs have perished’, as he wrote of his short prose piece Ping, p.542).

His prose and theatrical dialogue doesn’t work with language, doesn’t facilitate expression – it does something to language. Manipulates and twists it into a kind of abstract sculpture. And this, in my opinion, helps to explain why his poetry is so pants.

Politics

It is striking that there is so little politics in Knowlson’s account. He devotes precisely one sentence to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin (p.36) when Beckett was 10, and only 2 sentences to the partition of Ireland and the tragic Irish civil war which followed, (June 1922 to May 1923) when Beckett would have been 16 going on 17. There is a brief mention of the IRA, but only because the sister of his Italian tutor at college might have been an IRA operative (p.73). There is only one mention of the Great War and that only in connection with the impact it had on the calibre of teachers when Beckett was still at secondary school (p.44).

Again, most accounts of the 1930s are heavily coloured by the terrible international situation but this is mostly absent from Knowlson’s account. For example, in the second year of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) Nancy Cunard sent a questionnaire round eminent artists and writers asking which side they would support and why (Authors Takes Sides in the Spanish Civil War). Beckett sent back the famously short and pithy reply: “UP THE REPUBLIC!” I might have blinked and missed it but I don’t think this is mentioned in Knowlson’s vast tome.

The Nazis do come into it when Beckett makes his seven month tour round Germany from September 1937 to April 1938. Beckett despised and mocked them (pages 238 and 297). But they are considered more from the point of view of the material impact their bans and prohibitions had on the local artists Beckett met and came to respect. Similarly, when they begin to enforce their racial edicts in Paris in 1940, it is the direct practical impact on his friends and acquaintances which Knowlson emphasises (page 303).

Similarly, after the end of the Second World War, the entire Cold War is not mentioned at all in the book, Suez, Indo-China, Hungary, Cuba. Silence.

One area which is briefly covered is the war in Algeria. This affected Beckett because his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, became involved in a campaign to publish graphic accounts of the French Army’s use of torture in Algeria, which made the publisher the target of death threats (pages 492 to 495). We find Beckett helping other writers and actors who lost work because of their principles opposition to the war.

Twenty years later there’s a passage about Beckett, violently against the apartheid regime in South Africa, giving permission for a mixed-race production of Godot, and the issues surrounding that (pages 636 to 639).

But Knowlson makes the important point that Beckett’s post-war political activity was very constrained because he was not a citizen of France and only allowed to stay on sufferance. His carte de séjour could be withdrawn by the French government at any moment. Hence, tact.

Maybe this is because the book was already very long and Knowlson’s publishers and editor made him remove anything not directly related to Beckett. Possibly it’s because just too much happened in the Twentieth Century and once you start filling in this or that bit of political background, where would you end? Especially as Beckett was tied to the politics of not one but three countries – Ireland where he was born, England where he spent some time and a lot of his plays were premiered, and France which was his adoptive home. That’s a lot of politics to try and summarise. If you throw in America, because it was an important location for the premiering and performance of his plays, then that’s an awful lot of national and international politics to make even cursory references to. So maybe that explains why the book contains as little or as brief references to world affairs as are possible.

Psychotherapy

One of the revelations of Knowlson’s book is the extent of Beckett’s psychotherapy. His sense of frustration at not knowing what to do in his life, exacerbated by the death of his beloved father in 1933, and the very tense atmosphere of being a grown adult stuck at home with his disapproving mother, led to an escalation of physical symptoms – night sweats, panic attacks, heart palpitations. Beckett described to Knowlson how, on at least one occasion, he was walking down the street when he came to a complete halt and couldn’t move any further (p.172).

Beckett’s good schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson was now a doctor and recommended psychotherapy. It is startling to learn that, at that time, psychoanalysis was illegal in Ireland (p.173), so he had to go to London to be treated. And so it was that Beckett moved to London in January 1934 and began an astonishingly prolonged course of treatment with pioneering psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic. This continued for two years, three sessions a week, lying on his back dredging up memories, while his hyper-critical intellect dissected them, analysed the positioning of the protagonists, their words (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).

The actual physical experience of therapy, and the theories of the mind it invokes, both provide a plausible underpinning to much of Beckett’s work, particularly the prose works where characters lie in the dark, imagining, visualising, listening to the voices of memory. The haunting prose work Company consists of 15 paragraphs of memories from boyhood and young manhood, seeded among 42 paragraphs describing the situation of the protagonist lying on his back in the dark and remembering:

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. (p.653)

In October 1935 Bion took Beckett to a lecture by Carl Jung. Some critics have read Jung’s theories of archetypes, of the anima, of the female and male parts of the psyche into the split personas, into the very male male and very female female characters and protagonists.

Freud and Jung, between them, cooked up quite a handful of theories about the multiple aspects of levels of the mind, a fissiparation which was only complexified by their hordes of followers, respectable and not so respectable (p.616). Temperamentally predisposed towards them, they provided ammunition for Beckett’s attack on the Cartesian notion of the mind as unified and rational. Freud transformed human understanding forever into a completely different model of a mind divided into all sorts of fragments and compartments.

But both Freud and Jung and most of their followers thought that, with long expensive therapy, these various contending psychic forces could be brought into some kind of harmony, that people could be helped to master their neuroses and compulsions. As Freud put it, ‘Where id was, there let ego be’, and therapy undoubtedly helped Beckett, indeed the case is made that it transformed him from a haughty, arrogant, self-centred young man into a far more socialised, generous and considerate person. But he never believed the self can be saved. All Beckett’s post-war works can be seen as explorations of exactly the opposite – ‘Where id was… there is more id, and more id behind that, multiple ids, a wilderness of ids.’ A problematics of the self.

In Beckett’s case, voices, the voices, the voice that drives the narrators of The Unnamable and How It Is, the voices that taunt the protagonists of That Time and Eh Joe and Footfalls, and texts which collapse in the failure to be able to make sense of any narrative, to establish any centre, any self amid the conflicting claims of language reduced to wrecks and stumps, as in the devastating Worstward Ho

Late in his career, on 20 September 1977, Beckett met the American avant-garde composer Milton Feldman. Over a nervous, shy lunch Feldman said he wasn’t interested in setting any of Beckett’s works but was looking for their essence. Beckett got a piece of paper and told Feldman there was only one theme in his life, and quickly wrote out the following words.

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither

He later expanded this by another ten or so lines and it became the basic of the monodrama which Feldman composed and called neither. But the point is that Beckett considered this the very core of his project – the endless shuttling around of the mind, the psyche, the spirit call it what you will, looking for a solid reliable self which doesn’t exist. Here’s the opening ten minutes of the resulting ‘opera’.

P.S. It is funny to learn that Beckett was startled when, in his October 1935 lecture, Jung revealed that he never took on a patient unless he or she had had their horoscope read. This is the kind of voodoo bunkum which led Freud to disown and ridicule Jung. But the tip about the horoscope led Beckett to make it an important structuring element in his first novel, Murphy (p.208).

Quietism

The general sense of Quietism is a passive acceptance of things as they are, but in the tradition of Christian theology it has a more specific meaning. It means: ‘devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism’. Beckett deepened his understanding of Quietism in the 1930s in his reading of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, what drives human beings is will – ‘a blind, unconscious, aimless striving devoid of knowledge, outside of space and time, and free of all multiplicity’. The ‘world’ as we perceive it is a creation of the human will which may or may not bear any relation to what is actually ‘out there’. For Schopenhauer, it is this endless will, driving us on and inevitably banging us against limitations and frustrations which is the cause of all our pain and suffering. Well aware that he was coming very close to Eastern religions in his attitude, Schopenhauer argued that the only redemption or escape from the endless, hurtful engine of the will is the total ascetic negation of the ‘will to life.’ Damp it, kiss it, crush it, negate it, transcend it.

When it’s put like that you can see, not so much that Schopenhauer’s thought ‘influenced’ Beckett but, as so often with the thinkers important in a creative writer’s life, that Schopenhauer helped Beckett think through and rationalise what was, in effect, already his worldview. Once you identify it, you realise it is Beckett’s core view of the world and attitude to life, described again and again in variations on the same idea:

  • The essential is never to arrive anywhere, never to be anywhere.
  • What a joy to know where one is, and where one will stay, without being there.
  • Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

He and so many of the narrators of his texts, don’t necessarily want to die, as such. Just not to be. To cease being. Not to be, and not to know.

Radio

Beckett wrote seven plays for radio, being

  • All That Fall (1957) commissioned by BBC produced by Donald McWhinnie, small parts for Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowran
  • From an Abandoned Work (1957) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • Embers (1959) BBC Radio 3: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • The Old Tune (translation of a play by Robert Pinget) (1960) BBC: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by (Beckett’s lover) Barbara Bray
  • [Rough for Radio I – written in French in 1961 but not translated till 1976 and never broadcast in English]
  • Rough for Radio II – written 1961, broadcast BBC Radio 3 1976, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Billie Whitelaw directed by Martin Esslin
  • Words and Music (1962) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee
  • Cascando (1963) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee

They include some of his most haunting pieces such as Embers (44 minutes in the original BBC production featuring Jack MacGowran), the torture play Rough For Radio II, and the haunting Cascando, featuring Patrick Magee. The list also indicates 1. the central role played by the BBC in commissioning and broadcasting important works by Beckett 2. the specific role of Donald McWhinnie as director of the earlier radio plays 3. the close association with two key Beckett actors, Patrick Magee (who appears in all of them) and Jack MacGowran.

Beckett refused permission for his radio plays to be made either into TV productions or stage plays. He said they were expressly designed for their medium alone. Asked about the possibility of transferring the radio play All That Fall to the stage, Beckett wrote: ‘It is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to ‘act’ it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings … will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark.’ [emphasis added]

Resistance

On 1 September 1940 Beckett, back in occupied Paris after a brief flight to the south, joined the French Resistance. He was inducted into the Resistance cell Gloria SMH, run by Jeannine Picabia, daughter of the painter Francis Picabia. Knowlson goes into fascinating detail about the cell’s structure and work. Basically, Beckett continued sitting at his desk in his Paris flat, where he was registered with the authorities as an Irish citizen and a writer. His job was – various couriers brought him information written in a number of formats from typed reports to scribbled notes, and he translated them from French into good clear English, typed them up – then another courier collected these notes and took them off to an unknown destination where they were photographed and reduced to something like microfilm, before being smuggled south to the free zone of France by a network of couriers (pages 307 to 308).

It was the perfect role and the perfect cover since, as a bilingual writer, his flat was covered in scribbled notes and manuscripts in both languages although, if the Germans had actually found and examined the incriminating documents he would have been in big trouble. Written records exists in the French archive of the Resistance and of the British Special Operations Executive in London, which amply confirm Beckett’s identity and role.

Although the group paid lip service to the idea that all members only knew the names and details of a handful of other members, in practice Beckett thought too many friends who had been recruited who would give each other away under interrogation. But it wasn’t from an insider that betrayal came, and the most vivid thing about Beckett’s war work is the way it ended.

Basically the group was infiltrated by a Catholic priest, Robert Alesch, who railed against the Nazis in his sermons and came fully vetted. What no-one knew what that Alesch led a florid double life, respectable priest on Sundays, but coming up to Paris from his rural parish on weekdays, to indulge in nights of sex and drugs with prostitutes. He needed money to fund this lifestyle. So he inveigled his way into Cell Gloria and, as soon as he’d been given details of the members, sold it to the German authorities for a sum which Knowlson calculates as the lifetime earnings of an average worker. It was August 1942.

The Nazis immediately began arresting members, including Beckett’s good friend Alfred Péron, who was to die in a concentration camp. A brief telegram was sent to Beckett and Suzanne who immediately packed their bags ready for immediate flight. Suzanne went to the flat of a friend where she was briefly stopped and questioned by the Gestapo, who let her go and returned, traumatised, to the flat she shared with Beckett, they finished packing and left within the hour. Later the same day the Gestapo arrived to arrest them, and placed a permanent guard on the flat (p.315).

They went into hiding in various safe houses across Paris, before preparing for the long and dangerous trek by foot south towards the unoccupied zone of France, with the major stumbling block of having to arrange with professionals, passeurs, to be smuggled across the actual border. (It is fascinating to learn that Suzanne and Beckett spent ten days hiding out with the French-Russian writer Nathalie Sarraute, who was holing up in a rural cottage with her husband. They didn’t get on. (pages 316 to 317.)

After much walking and sleeping in haystacks and begging food, the couple arrived at the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Why Roussillon? Connections. A friend of Suzanne’s had bought an estate near the village and knew about local property and vacancies in the village. There they made a new life, initially staying in the small village hotel, then through local contacts finding a vacant property in the village, lying low, rerouting the small payments Beckett was owed from his father’s legacy and his handful of published books.

One of the major aspects of their two years in the village which gets no coverage is the fact that Beckett undertook demanding labour on local farms. He became a trusty and reliable farm labourer in the south of France, specifically for the Aude family, members of which Knowlson has tracked down and interviewed for eye witness accounts of Sam the labourer – managing the livestock, helping with ploughing and sowing and also, during the season, helping to trample down the grapes for that year’s wine. Can’t get more French than that (pages 323 to 326). Of course the motivation to do it was the extra food it brought Sam and Suzanne during a time of great privation.

Knowlson also brings out the fact that it was far from being a life of ‘rural idiocy’ and that a surprising number of intellectuals, writers and artists lived in the vicinity who quickly formed convivial social circles, dwelling on the charming, elderly lady novelist Miss Beamish, who lived with her ‘companion’. Autres temps (p.330).

After a lull, while they found their feet, Beckett rejoined the Maquis (their archives date it as May 1944) and helped out when he could by storing armaments in the shed of their village house (page 337). In this new situation, Beckett volunteered for more active service, going out on night trips to recover parachuted arms and was given training in the remote countryside on firing a rifle and lobbing grenades, but the local leaders quickly realised his poor eyesight and unpractical nature militated against fieldwork (pages 337 to 338).

All in all you can see why his prompt volunteering for the service, his unflinching integrity, his continued service even in the South, earned him the gratitude of the Free French government once Paris was liberated by the Allies 19 August 1944 and why, before the war was even over, in March 1945 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Revelation (pages 351 to 353)

Possibly the most important event in his life came when Beckett was back at the family home, long after his father’s death, just after the Second World War and all its tribulations, suffering the cloying attentions of his aging mother and frustrated at the difficulty of getting his pre-war writings published, an unemployed, largely unpublished ‘writer’, fast approaching 40, when he had a life-changing revelation.

Since his character, Krapp, discusses a life-changing revelation which came to him as he stood on the pier at Dún Laoghaire, generations of critics have assumed something similar happened to Beckett. But one of the huge selling points of Knowlson’s biography is that he got to ask Beckett questions like this, directly, face to face, or in extended question and answer correspondence, and was able to get at the definitive truth of cruxes like this. And thus it was that Beckett told him to set the record straight ‘for once and all’, that it was in his mother’s room in the family home, that he suddenly realised the way forward.

At a stroke, he realised his entire approach to literature was wrong, that he must do the opposite of his hero Joyce. Joyce was the poet of joy and life, which he celebrates with texts which try to incorporate sounds and smells and all the senses, try to incorporate the entire world in a text, which grow huge by accumulating new words, mixing up languages, swallowing the world.

In books like More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had come off as a sort of half-cocked Joyce, adding his own quirky obsessions with repetitive actions to heavy, pedantic humour and outlandish characters. Now, in a flash, he realised this was all wrong, wrong, wrong.

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

He realised at a stroke that he must be the laureate of rejection, abandonment and decay, all the fleeting moods and expressions of failure and collapse which had been neglected in literature, ignored and brushed aside so that the author could get on with writing his masterpiece.

But what about taking that failure, the failure of the text to get written, as the subject of the text? What about listening to the voices the author hears in his or her head, as they review a page and conclude it’s rubbish, start again, or sit and ponder the alternatives, voices saying one thing, then another, making one suggestion, then another? What if you made those voices, the voices you hear during the process of writing but ignore in order to get something sensible down on the page – what if you made those voices themselves the subject of the writing?

This not only represented a superficial change of topic or approach but also made Beckett face up to something in himself. Previously, he had tried to write clever books like Murphy while gloomily acknowledging to himself and friends that he wasn’t really learned and scholarly enough to pull it off. Pushing 40 he felt like a failure in all kinds of ways, letting down successive women who had loved him, letting down his parents and patrons when he rejected the lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, failing to get his works published or, if they were, failing to sell any – a welter of failures, intellectual, personal and professional

What if, instead of trying to smother it, he made this failure the focus of his writing? Turned his laser-like intellect inwards to examine the complex world of interlocking failures, from deep personal feelings, all the way up to the struggle to write, to define who is doing the writing, and why, for God’s sake! when the whole exercise was so bloody pointless, when – as his two years of intensive psychotherapy had shown him – we can’t really change ourselves. The best we can hope for is to acknowledge the truth of who we are.

What if he took this, this arid dusty terrain of guilt and failure and the excruciating difficulty of ever expressing anything properly as his subject matter?

‘Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.’ (quoted page 352)

Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle that knowing more was a way of creatively understanding the world and controlling it … In future, his work would focus on poverty, failure, exile and loss – as he put it, on man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er.’ The revelation ‘has rightly been regarded as a pivotal moment in his entire career’.

(Sentiments echoed at page 492).

St-Lô (pages 345 to 350)

Early in 1945, Beckett and Suzanne returned to Paris to discover that, although their flat on the Rue Favorite had been occupied, it had been left largely untouched (unlike other friends’ apartments which had been ransacked). Beckett then set off back to Ireland, of course stopping off in London to meet up with old friends and also hawk round the manuscript of the ‘mad’ novel he’d written during the long nights of his exile in the south of France, Watt. He was struck by the bomb-damaged shabby nature of the city. Then on to Dublin where he was upset by the appearance of his now aged mother.

But Beckett then found it very difficult to get legal permission to travel back to Paris. Things were confused, the bureaucracy was immense. So he took the opportunity of applying for a job in France, mainly to get official permission to return, namely as quartermaster/interpreter with the Irish Red Cross who were setting up a hospital in the Normandy town of Saint-Lô.

This passage is fascinating as social / war history. St-Lô had been utterly destroyed by allied bombing, with barely a building left standing. Knowlson explains the plight of the town and then the practicalities of setting up a hospital before investigating Beckett’s role.

Altogether the war radically changed Beckett. It humanised him. He went from being an aloof, arrogant, self-centred young man, to becoming much more humble and socialised. In his farmwork and then the work at St-Lo he was able to put aside his problematic psychology and just get on with it. Both experiences forced him into close proximity with a far wider range of people, from all classes, than he had previously met.

(Interestingly, this is the exact same point made in the recent biography of John Wyndham, who served in the London Air Raid Warning service during the Blitz, and then as a censor in Senate House, His biographer, Amy Binns, makes the identical point, that his war service forced Wyndham into close proximity with people outside his usual class [both Beckett and Wyndham went to private school] and resulted in a deepening and humanising of his fiction.)

Skullscapes

The word and concept ‘skullscape’ is Linda Ben Zvi’s, from the recorded discussion that followed the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988. Since Zvi suggested it has become common currency because it captures at least three qualities,

1. the bone-hard, pared-down prose works

2. the obsession with the colour white, the whiteness of the cell in All Strange Away, the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine, the whiteness of the cliff in the short text of the same title, the whiteness in Embers

bright winter’s night, snow everywhere, bitter cold, white world, cedar boughs bending under load… [Pause.] Outside all still, not a sound, dog’s chain maybe or a bough groaning if you stood there listening long enough, white world, Holloway with his little black bag, not a sound, bitter cold, full moon small and white…

The whiteness of the snow the man trudges through in Heard in the Dark 1 or the snow through which the old lady trudges in Ill Seen Ill Said, the spread white long hair of the protagonist in That Time, the White hair, white nightgown, white socks of Speaker in A Piece of Monologue:

White hair catching light. White gown. White socks. White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left. Once white.

The long white hair of Listener and Reader in Ohio Impromptu, the pure white overall of the Assistant in Catastrophe, and the Director’s instructions to whiten the Protagonist’s skull and hands and skin.

3. but the real application is to the prose works which seem to take place entirely inside the head of the protagonist or of the narrator or of the text, trapped in a claustrophobic space, a bonewhite space:

Ceiling wrong now, down two foot, perfect cube now, three foot every way, always was, light as before, all bonewhite when at full as before, floor like bleached dirt, something there, leave it for the moment…

Stabbing in Paris (pages 281 to 284)

and Suzanne Back in Paris Beckett was returning from a night in a bar on 6 January 1938 when a pimp came out of nowhere and started squabbling with him and his friends, insisting they accompany him somewhere and then, out of nowhere, stabbed Beckett in the chest. The blade narrowly missed his heart but punctured a lung, there was lots of blood, his friends called an ambulance, and he was in hospital  (the Hopital Broussais) recovering for some weeks. Initially it hurt just to breathe and for months afterwards it hurt to laugh or make any sudden movements. Beckett was touched by the number of people who sent messages of goodwill. Among his visitors was Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. He’d met her a decade before on a few social occasions in Paris (playing tennis) but it’s from the period of her hospital visits that stems the deepening of their friendship into what became a lifelong relationship.

Beckett met his near-murderer, a well-known pimp with a criminal record M. Prudent, because the police caught him, charged him, and Beckett had to attend the trial. He got to meet the man in the corridor outside court and asked him why he did it. According to Beckett the pimp shrugged his shoulders in that Gallic way and said ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur’ – I don’t know – before adding, embarrassedly, ‘Je m’excuse’. Sorry. Possibly Beckett simplified the story because it rather neatly reinforces his philosophical convictions that we don’t know why we act as we do, that it is impossible to know ourselves, that it is highly likely there is no such thing as one, unified self.

Suicide, against

Oddly, maybe, for a man who suffered from lifelong depression and whose work is often about despair, Beckett was against suicide. He thought it was an unacceptable form of surrender. It was against the stern sense of duty and soldiering on inculcated by his Protestant upbringing, amplified by his private school which placed a strong emphasis on duty and responsibility (p.569).

And Knowlson sees this in the works. Despite the widely held view that Beckett’s work is essentially pessimistic, the will to live, to endure, to carry on, just about wins out in the end. Witness the famous final phrase of The Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’.

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (1900 to 1989)

Beckett’s lifelong partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, was key to his success. After the war Dechevaux-Dumesnil became his agent and sent the manuscript to multiple producers until they met Roger Blin who arranged for the Paris premiere of Waiting For Godot.

In the 1930s, Beckett chose Déchevaux-Dumesnil as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim after she visited him in hospital after his stabbing. She was six years older than Beckett, an austere woman known for avant-garde tastes and left-wing politics. She was a good pianist which was something they had in common.

During the Second World War, Suzanne supported Beckett’s work with the French Resistance cell Gloria. When the cell was betrayed, together they fled south to unoccupied France and took up residence in the village of Roussillon. As Beckett began to experience success their lives began to diverge, with Sam increasingly called on to travel to England or Germany to supervise new productions of his works. He also had a series of affairs, the most important with Barbara Bray who became his lifelong lover. The move in 1960 to a bigger apartment in Paris allowed them to live more separate lives and for Suzanne to socialise with her own, separate circle of friends.

In 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England in order to legally establish her as heir to his works and copyrights and estate (pages 481 to 482). The classic love triangle Beckett found himself is the supposed inspiration for the play Play, written at this time (p.481).

Together they had bought a piece of land in the Marne valley and paid for the building of a simple writer’s house. At first Suzanne resented the long spells she spent there on her own when Beckett was going up to Paris for work or abroad. Later she grew to dislike going there and eventually ceased altogether, making the house in Ussy into a lonely, psychologically isolated location where Beckett wrote a lot of his later works, works in which a solitary, isolated individual stares out of the window or lies in the dark, often reminiscing about the past… As in the prose work Still (p.593).

Knowlson comments that in the last ten years of their lives people who met them as a couple often commented on how short tempered and irritable they were with each other. Suzanne is recorded as saying ‘celibataires’ (page 665). But there was never any question of him leaving her.

Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil died at age eighty-eight in July 1989, five months before Beckett. They are both interred in the cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Swearwords, prolific use of

Beckett wasn’t shy of using the crudest Anglo-Saxon swearwords. He used them liberally in his correspondence (in 1932 he wrote to a friend that he was reading Aldous Huxley’s new novel, Point Counterpoint, except he called it ‘Cunt Pointer Cunt’, p.161) and they are sprinkled intermittently throughout his works:

  • Simone de Beauvoir objected to Beckett’s first story written in French, The End, because of its Rabelaisian references to pissing and farting (p.359).
  • Balls, arse and pee in Endgame, which Beckett reluctantly agreed to alter for the English censor (p.449)
  • the c word plays a startling role in the novel How It Is
  • ‘Fuck life’ says the recorded voice in the late play, Rockaby (page 663).

Telegraphese, use of

According to the dictionary telegraphese is: ‘the terse, abbreviated style of language used in telegrams’.

You are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more than again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark. (How It Is, 1961) (p.602)

Television

Beckett wrote seven plays for the evolving medium of television. He strived to take advantage of the way TV has just the one point of view, unlike the audience at a theatre which has a much more panoramic view of the action. It is revealing that he heartily disliked a TV production of Waiting For Godot even though it was directed by his loyal director Donald McWhinnie. At the party after the viewing Beckett memorably said:

‘My play wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you’re all too big for the place.’ (quoted page 488)

As the 50s moved into the 60s Beckett encountered difficulties with other adaptations and slowly his approach hardened into a refusal to let a work be translated into another medium (p.505). When Peter O’Toole expressed interest in making a film version of Godot Beckett simply replied, ‘I do not want a film of Godot,’ (p.545).

Theatre

The most obvious thing about the theatre is how arduous and complicated it is having to work with all those people, producers, directors, actors and technicians, not to mention set designers, props and so on, especially for someone so morbidly shy and anti-social as Beckett.

Beckett acutely disliked the social side of theatre, and in fact couldn’t bear to go to the first nights of most of his plays – he sent Suzanne who reported back her opinion. He used the vivid phrase that, once the thing had finished rehearsals and had its dress rehearsal and first night, then it’s the ‘start of all the dinners’ (p.554).

Knowlson’s book charts how, from the success of Godot in 1953 until the end of his life, Beckett entered into a maze of theatrical productions, as new works were written, then required extensive liaisons with producers and directors, discussions about venues and actors, negotiations with state censors and so on. The book becomes clotted with his complex calendar of appointments and meetings and flights to London or Berlin or (on just the one occasion) America.

As to his attitude to theatre, the later works make it quite clear he saw it more as a question of choreography, his scripts giving increasingly detailed descriptions of movements, gestures, and how they synchronise with the words to create a ballet with words. It is no accident that several of his works are mimes, or mechanical ballets, like Quad. Or approach so close to wordlessness as to become something like four dimensional paintings (the fourth dimension being time) such as Nacht und Träume.

Themes

Some of Beckett’s most cherished themes: an absence of an identifiable self; man forced to live a kind of surrogate existence, trying to ‘make up’ his life by creating fictions or voices to which he listens; a world scurrying about its business, ignoring the signs of decay, disintegration and death with which it is surrounded. (p.602)

1930s

Beckett’s 1930s can probably be summed up as a long decade full of frustrating attempts to get his works published and, when he did, discovering no-one was interested in them. Only hard-core Beckett fans or scholars are interested in any of these:

1929 Dante… Vico… Bruno… Joyce (essay)
1930 Whoroscope (poem)
1931 Proust (literary study)
1932 Dante and the Lobster (short story)
1934 Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard, many works translated by Beckett
1934 More Pricks Than Kicks (series of linked short stories)
1935 Echoes Bones (set of linked poems)
1937 attempts a play about Samuel Johnson but abandons it
1938 Murphy (first published novel)

Murphy is the only one of these you might recommend to someone starting Beckett, and maybe not even then.

Tonelessness

Voices toneless except where indicated (stage directions for Play)

For most of his theatre productions Beckett made the same stipulation, that the actors speak the words without expression, flatly, in a voice as devoid of emotion or expression as possible. Thus in 1958 he told director George Devine the actors of Endgame should speak the words in a ‘toneless voice’ (p.457).

For Beckett, pace, tone, and above all, rhythm were more important than sharpness of character delineation or emotional depth. (p.502)

Sian Philips was disconcerted to discover just how mechanical Beckett wanted her recording of the Voice part of Eh Joe and the ‘vocal colourlessness’ he aimed for (p.538). He explained to actress Nancy Illig that he wanted her voice to sound ‘dead’, without colour, without expression (p.540). He made sure the exchanges of Nagg and Nell in a German production of Endgame were ‘toneless’ (p.551). He struggled with Dame Peggy Ashcroft who was reluctant to give an ’emotion-free’ performance of Winnie in Happy Days (p.604).

In this respect Knowlson mentions Beckett recommending actor Ronald Pickup to read Heinrich von Kleist’s essay about the marionette theatre, in which the German poet claims that puppets posses a mobility, symmetry, harmony and grace greater than any human can achieve because they lack the self-consciousness that puts humans permanently off balance (p.632).

Billie Whitelaw remembers him calling out: ‘Too much colour, Billie, too much colour’. That was his way of saying ‘Don’t act.’ (p.624) Surprisingly, given his preparedness to jet off round Europe to help supervise productions of his plays, Knowlson concludes that he was never an actor’s director. He never let go of his own, intense personal reading of the lines.

Translation

It’s easy to read of this or that work that Beckett translated his own work from French into English or English into French but it’s only by reading Knowlson’s laborious record of the sustained periods when he did this that you realise what an immense undertaking it was, what a huge amount of time and mental energy it took up. That Beckett composed many of his works in French sounds cool until you realise that by being so bilingual he gave himself twice the work an ordinary writer would have had, and the later pages of Knowlson ring to the sound of Beckett complaining bitterly to friends and publishers just what an ordeal and grind he was finding it.

Trilogy, the Beckett

The Beckett Trilogy refers to three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. There’s a vast amount to say but here are a few key facts (pages 371 to 376):

  • Beckett wrote all three novels and Waiting For Godot in just two and a half years, from May 1947 to January 1950.
  • Probably these four works are the highlight, the most enduring of his works.
  • Beckett himself disliked the use of the phrase The Beckett Trilogy to describe them.
  • Arguably, The Unnamable takes the possibility of writing ‘fiction’, explores what happens when you abandon the existence of a stable narrator or plot or characters or dialogue, to the furthest possible extreme. This explains why for decades afterwards he struggled to write any further prose because he was trying to go on from a place he conceived of as being the ne plus ultra of fiction. Explains why so much of the later prose amounts to fragments and offcuts, starting with the dozen or so Texts For Nothing that he struggled with in the early 1950s (p.397), and what he was still calling, 20 years later, ‘shorts’ (p.578). To understand any of it you need to have read the Trilogy and particularly The Unnamable.

Ussy

In 1948 Sam and Suzanne took a break from Paris by hiring a cottage in the little village of Ussy-sur-Marne, 30 kilometres from Paris in the valley of the Marne which he was to grow to love (p.367). Sam and Suzanne continued holidaying there intermittently. After his mother died on 25 August 1950, she left him some money and Beckett used it to buy some land near the village and then, in 1953, had a modest two-roomed house built on it, with a kitchen and bathroom. This was to become his country getaway and writing base. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its plain, spartan arrangements, including the detail that the flooring was of alternating black and white tiles like a chess board (p.388).

Waiting for Godot (pages 379 to 381)

Written between October 1948 and January 1949 (p.378). It is interesting to learn that Beckett told a friend that Godot was inspired by a painting by Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon.

Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1824)

But I think the single most interesting fact about Godot is that it was written as a kind of break or pitstop during the writing of the Beckett Trilogy, after he had completed Malone Dies and before he embarked on the daunting monolith of The Unnamable. It was the same subject matter but approached in a completely different angle and medium, and with numerous other elements, not least the music hall banter and silent movie knockabout slapstick.

Wartime background Another anti-intellectual interpretation of the play is Dierdre Bair’s contention that the play recalls ‘the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks… during the day and walked by night..’ Although Knowlson is dismissive of this view, he suggests an alternative ‘realist’ interpretation, namely that the basic situation and many of the details derive form the way Sam and Suzanne (and their friends in exile and, in a sense, an entire generation) had to sit out the war, filling in the time as best they could until the whole bloody nightmare came to an end (p.380).

Bad reviews in London It took two and a half years between the premiere of the play in Paris and the premiere of the English version in London, a long, drawn-out period full of delays and disappointments which Knowlson describes in excruciating detail, plus the way it opened to terrible reviews (very funny) until the situation was transformed by two favourable reviews from the heavyweight critics, Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan, to whom Beckett was eternally grateful (even if they later had an angry falling out) (pages 411 to 415).

Success and economic breakthrough in America The American premiere came three years after the French one. It opened in January 1956 in Miami, directed by Alan Schneider who was to become a long-time collaborator of Beckett’s and was a fiasco. The audience had been promised a comedy and hated it. By contrast, another production opened on Broadway in April 1956 and was a smash hit, running for a hundred performances, paying Beckett $500 a week, plus royalties from the paperback script which was sold in the foyer. Suddenly, Beckett found himself, if not exactly rich, in funds and making money for the first time in his life. God bless America! (p.423).

Billie Whitelaw (1932 to 2014)

Actress Billie Whitelaw worked with Beckett for 25 years on such plays as Not I, Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby. In her autobiography Billie Whitelaw… Who He?, she describes their first meeting in 1963 as ‘trust at first sight’. Beckett went on to write many of his experimental theatre works for her. She came to be regarded as his muse, the ‘supreme interpreter of his work’. Perhaps most famous for her role as the mouth in the January 1973 production of Not I. Of 1980’s Rockaby she said: ‘I put the tape in my head. And I sort of look in a particular way, but not at the audience. Sometimes as a director Beckett comes out with absolute gems and I use them a lot in other areas. We were doing Happy Days and I just did not know where in the theatre to look during this particular section. And I asked, and he thought for a bit and then said, “Inward”‘.

She said of her role in Footfalls, ‘I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting and, in fact, when Beckett was directing Footfalls he was not only using me to play the notes but I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting.’

‘Sam knew that I would turn myself inside out to give him what he wanted… With all of Sam’s work, the scream was there, my task was to try to get it out.’

Whitelaw stopped performing Beckett’s plays after he died in December 1989.

One of her great appeals is that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose.

The only thing important to Beckett was the situation. (p.506)

It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and was very disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

That said, Knowlson describes Beckett directing Whitelaw in her long-anticipated performance in Happy Days in 1977 led to unexpected problems. Billie turned up having learned the entire text only to discover that Beckett had made extensive minor changes of phrasing plus cutting one entire passage. Whenever she made mistakes she could see him putting his head in his hands and eventually his constant scrutiny made it impossible for her to work and she asked the director to have him removed. Surprisingly, he agreed, she got on with the production, and the final result was stunning.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett (1951)

I wonder why I speak of all this. Ah yes, to relieve the tedium. (Malone Dies p.179)

Malone Dies is the second in a trilogy of novels Beckett wrote after the war, which started with Molloy and ends with The Unnamable, all three quickly coming to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s the title of the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s and which I read it in.

Beckett wrote Malone Dies in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1956, was made by Beckett and introductions and online synopses emphasise that the English version is different from the French version in a number of details.

Introduction

I found Molloy very hard to read:

1. Because it is so verbally boring – Beckett’s style is for long stretches dead and deadening (I asked several friends to try reading some and all gave up after 1 or 2 pages)

2. Because the subject matter is so unrelentingly depressing. Not morbid, as such, it’s just the pointless meanderings of two senile old characters going mad or, more accurately, it’s a hyper-literary playing with the notion of characters going mad or breaking down. It would have a certain documentary interest if it really were the diary of someone going senile, but in fact it’s nothing like that. It is a highly crafted, highly artful, carefully concocted text, stuffed with all kinds of references – literary, philosophical, astrological – along with parodies and pastiches, and the development of stylistic devices to convey the ‘problematics’ of writing itself, the permanently collapsing nature of language, especially when used by a collapsing personality.

What’s depressing is that so much ingenuity has gone into devising texts which are wilfully nonsensical, nonsensical at epic length, and that I am wasting days I will never get back, reading and writing about them.

All went well at first, they all came to me, pleased that someone should want to play with them. If I said, Now I need a hunchback, immediately one came running, proud as punch of his fine hunch that was going to perform. It did not occur to him that I might have to ask him to undress. But it was not long before I found myself alone, in the dark. That is why I gave up trying to play and took to myself for ever shapelessness and speechlessness, incurious wondering, darkness, long stumbling with outstretched arms, hiding. Such is the earnestness from which, for nearly a century now, I have never been able to depart. From now on it will be different. I shall never do anything any more from now on but play.

Things always decline, decay and go downhill in Beckett, with mind-numbing predictability. Thus, whereas the characters in Molloy at least lived and moved about a bit (rode bicycles, hopped about on crutches) the first-person narrator of Malone Dies, the ‘impotent old man’ Malone, is considerably further decayed, is bed-bound and is, well, dying, the key fact stated right at the start:

I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month… I could die to-day, if I wished, merely by making a little effort. But it is just as well to let myself die, quietly, without rushing things.

But he doesn’t die. He spends a long time spinning stories, making up characters, interspersed with returns to the narrator in bed, bored, speculating about death, fussing about his belongings, visited towards the end by some mysterious visitors.

As to the prose, we are back in the land of ‘I don’t know’ and ‘perhaps’, the two lynchpins of Beckett’s prose style. The easiest way to parody Beckett would be to write a series of trivial rhetorical questions and just put ‘I don’t know’ after them:

  • There it is then divided into five, the time that remains. Into five what? I don’t know.
  • I do not see any fields or hills. And yet they are near. But are they near? I don’t know.
  • No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I don’t know.
  • From now on I shall write on both sides of the page. Where does it come from? I don’t know.
  • That’s the style, as if I still had time to kill. And so I have, deep down I know it well. Then why play at being in a hurry? I don’t know.
  • But what if her purpose, in sorting the lentils, were not to rid them of all that was not lentil, but only of the greater part, what then? I don’t know.
  • But l tell myself so many things, what truth is there in all this babble? I don’t know.

Dementia, senility, atrophy, aphasia, I don’t know, perhaps, all that fall, decline, will it ever end, I’ll go on no i can’t go on i will go on, and on and on and on blah blah blah. Here are some of the hundreds of instances of ‘perhaps’:

  • But perhaps I shall not succeed any better than hitherto. Perhaps as hitherto I shall find myself abandoned, in the dark…
  • Perhaps I shall put the man and the woman in the same story, there is so little difference between a man and a woman, between mine I mean. Perhaps I shall not have time to finish. On the other hand perhaps I shall finish too soon…
  • But perhaps I was stunned with a blow, on the head, in a forest perhaps, yes now that I speak of a forest I vaguely remember a forest…
  • Perhaps she is dead, having pre-deceased – me, perhaps now it is another’s hand that lays and clears my little table. I don’t know how long I have been here, I must have said so. All I know is that I was very old already before I
    found myself here. I call myself an octogenarian, but I cannot prove it. Perhaps I am only a quinquagenarian, or a quadragenarian.
  • Perhaps they think I am dead. Or perhaps they are dead themselves. I say they, though perhaps I should not.

Perhaps he should. Perhaps he shouldn’t. What do you think? I don’t l know.

(Interestingly, Beckett indicates that he is perfectly well aware of his penchant for adding ‘perhaps’ to every other sentence – he has the narrator of The Unnamable say: ‘No more perhapses either, that old trick is worn to a thread’ (p.286) — although he promptly continues to use ‘perhaps’. It really is a lynchpin of his prose style.)

Plot summary

  • while he’s dying Malone decides he will tell himself stories; after some discussion, this settles down into five elements: the present state, three stories and an inventory (p.167)
  • he’s in a room, not he thinks an asylum or a hospital but an institution, for he hears the voices of others and is provided with food – he thinks he got there in an ambulance, which instantly aligns him with Molloy who also doesn’t know how he got there, probably in an ambulance (p.168)
  • he lies in a bed, next to a window, he can see buildings, at night he can see the stars (p.169)
  • every day a hand half opens the door and places food on a table which he then pulls over to the bed using a stick with a hook, the table being on castors, a woman used to do it, come in and fuss around, but now he only sees a withered hand [everything declines and falls] (p.170)
  • he was old when he got there, maybe in his eighties, though he doesn’t know maybe he’s only in his 50s or 60s, who knows (p.171)
  • suddenly we are launched into a story about a man named Saposcat and his son, nicknamed Sapo, the son is good at maths and listens to his parents (his father is a salesman in a shop) discussing ways to earn more money, they want Sapo to become a doctor or surgeon and support them (p.172-3)
  • Malone interrupts his story to comment on his inability to tell this story or any other story (p.174) in fact he keeps interrupting  his own narrative to say ‘this is awful’ – presumably his telling of it, and to explain that bits he gets wrong, facts he’s not sure about, are like fragments of darkness which threaten to swell up and overwhelm him
  • Malone tells us the light has gone out in the building across the way, he imagines a man going for walks with a dog till the dog gets too weak and ill to go, at which point the man realises it’s time to have him put down [everything declines and falls] (p.176)
  • all the time commenting on his own inability to tell the story, Malone carries on painting a portrait of young Sapo as a dreamy, sensitive boy who fails his exams and is hurt overhearing his parents making their plans for him. Long, long passages are gibberish:

Here truly is the air I needed, a lively tenuous air, far from the nourishing murk that is killing me. I shall never go back into this carcass except to find out its time. I want to be there a little before the plunge, close for the last time the old hatch on top of me, say goodbye to the holds where I have lived, go down with my refuge. I was always sentimental. But between now and then I have time to frolic, ashore, in the brave company I have always longed for, always searched for, and which would never have me. Yes, now my mind is easy, I know the game is won, I lost them all till now, but it’s the last that counts. A very fine achievement I must say, or rather would, if I did not fear to contradict myself. Fear to contradict myself! If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable, crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel a strange desire come over me, the desire to know what I am doing, and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no more I succeed in being another. Very pretty. (p.178)

  • he has a delirious vision of himself playing with what he insists on calling his playthings, turning, dizzy, falling
  • he tries to struggle on and convey some of Sapo’s ideas, but fails, keeps relapsing into the present and fussing about his current plight, for example the way not all his belongings are in the room as he at first thought, for example the missing boot and a zinc ring (p.181)
  • just like the lush description of Moran getting into bed, Malone describes the weight of his body on the bed, the sheets, the dirty windowpane (p.182)
  • abruptly we are introduce to the Lambert family and the father, Big Lambert, who is a butcher, who loves butchering pigs, who comes back after a hard day at the slaughterhouse to regale his family with descriptions of the slaughter (p.184)
  • and suddenly we discover that young Sapo visits the farm, tells his parents he’s off to the countryside to study, but in fact hides his books and steals off to sit in the Lamberts’ farmhouse kitchen and watch the womenfolk work – the repetition of the silence and the darkness and the dust and the fresh goats milk on the table reminds me of D.H. Lawrence – maybe it’s meant to be a parody of D.H. Lawrence (p.186)
  • sometimes a grey hen comes scumbling into the kitchen – this reminds me of Moran’s concern for his grey hen (p.187)
  • after these encounters Sapo would sneak off leaving a shy present for the Lambert family on their farmhouse table
  • a stream of consciousness description of how he writes, little finger poised to indicate the edge of the page, he didn’t want to write but here he is writing etc (p.190)
  • he becomes aware that it’s a week since he wrote the first words of the book, it’s an exercise book, the pages ruled into square, mathematical symbols at the front, his pencil has five sides and is sharpened at both ends, it has fallen off and rolled under his bed, it takes him a long time to find it and then spear it with the stick with a hook on the end although, phew, it is not too damaged (p.192)
  • Mr and Mrs Saposcat give their son a brand new fountain pen as a good luck present for his exams (p.193)
  • Sapo goes to visit the Lamberts and discovers father and son, Louis and Edward, burying a dead mule and we are given the full story of how Big Lambert bargained it off a farmer at the very gates of the Knackers Yard (p.194)
  • Malone tells us that rabbits sometimes die of fright before you break their necks, whereas chickens have no imagination and carrying on scurrying around even after their head’s been cut off (p.197)
  • after the big family meal, Edward (the son) goes up to his room to masturbate in peace, reminding us of that other masturbator, Moran – incest is in the air since both father and son have considered sleeping with the sister/daughter, Lizzie (p.198)
  • Malone is bored of talking about the bloody Lamberts. What’s the point? He had planned to tell another story about a stone, shall he skip forward to that?

What tedium. If I went on to the stone? No, it would be the same thing. The Lamberts, the Lamberts, does it matter about the Lamberts? No, not particularly…I shall try and go on all the same, a little longer, my thoughts elsewhere, I can’t stay here. I shall hear myself talking, afar off, from my far mind, talking of the Lamberts, talking of myself, my mind wandering, far from here, among its ruins.

  • Cut to memories of talking to a Jew named Jackson who kept a parrot (which reminds me of the parrot in Molloy and of the parrot in Mercier and Camier – I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t written a paper about parrots in Beckett) (p.200)
  • reverting to thoughts about whereabouts in the building he is and on which floor, it crosses Malone’s mind that he might be dead already and not noticed the difference (p.201)
  • he considers the quality of light in his room, and the darkness, and this disintegrates into a Nausea-style hyper-awareness of his own body of his perceptions processed within his skull
  • he lost his pencil for two days – he is only called Malone now i.e. might have been called something else once (p.204) in fact refers to ‘the other’ (p.206)
  • a hallucinatory passage where he remembers becoming soft and liquid as mud or hard and contracted as thread – then fantasises that he not yet born, that he will be born into a charnel house, at other times it seems he has had a long life, wandered in town and country and spent time on a beach, washed by surf (echoing the experiences of Molloy) (p.207)

But what matter whether I was born or not, have lived or not, am dead or merely dying, I shall go on doing as I have always done, not knowing what it is I do, nor who I am, nor where I am, nor if I am.

  • then there seems to be a sequence where the narrator slips down into the body of someone else, of ‘he’, sitting on a bench by the river wearing a greatcoat buttoned up to his throat – he’s going to call him Sapo but that’s no long appropriate so renames him ‘Macmann’, not much better, but we’re in a hurry (p.210)
  • Macmann sits with his back to the river watching the tide of humanity in the city, many of them hastening to rendezvous with lovers, and a page long description of the horse of cabs, sad amid the frames, then trotting briskly to their destinations (p.212)
  • turns into a delirious fantasia about age, about the days passing compared to the liquidation of old age, to having to pull yourself along the ground to allotments where grow brambles, rather acid, and frightening off birds and small mammals – the prose becomes visionary:

All strains towards the nearest deeps, and notably my feet, which even in the ordinary way are so much further from me than all the rest, from my head I mean, for that is where I am fled, my feet are leagues away. And to call them in, to be cleaned for example, would I think take me over a month, exclusive of the time required to locate them. Strange, I don’t feel my feet any more, my feet feel nothing any more, and a mercy it is. And yet I feel they are beyond the range of the most powerful telescope. Is that what is known as having a foot in the grave? And similarly for the rest. For a mere local phenomenon is something I would not have noticed, having been nothing but a series or rather a succession of local phenomena all my life, without any result. But my fingers too write in other latitudes and the air that breathes through my pages and turns them without my knowing, when I doze off, so that the subject falls far from the verb and the object lands somewhere in the void, is not the air of this second-last abode, and a mercy it is.

  • they banged his head on the doorframe taking him out on a stretcher, where was he, oh yes passing the 3 or 4 days til he hope he dies, he remembers murdering four, no five men, notably the butler (p.217)
  • he hallucinates light and shade outside the window are those really stars or are they painted not they’re twinkling lights come on he can see people silhouetted
  • back to Macmann, it starts to rain so he lies on the ground to keep his front dry, then clutches at tufts of grass to move, just as Molloy and Moran did (p.219)
  • suddenly he is in a plain far from town or woods, in ‘a wild and practically illimitable part of the country’, exposed to the elements, but thanking his stars his semen never harmed anyone i.e. he’s never had progeny (p.221)
  • a detailed description of the postures Macmann adopts in the rain on the earth, where the mud mixes with his long hair while the author reflects on his strong constitution (p.225)
  • and thrusting himself about in a restless frenzy he takes to rolling, like a cylinder, an indefinite distance (p.226)
  • back in the present, in bed, Malone reviews his possessions, starting with his two pencils and his exercise book and going on to fondly remember the bowl of a pipe he picked up somewhere and the other worn-smooth objects he’s always like holding in his hand as he falls asleep
  • he weighs various systems of defining what are, and are not, his possessions, and whether he possesses them
  • an old photograph of a donkey on a beach wearing a hat, leads into thoughts about decomposition and the fact his poo pot and his urine pot are filling up and no-one’s changed them (p.231)
  • he has lost his stick! overnight! now he is bereft – does he have any possessions left? (p.233)
  • while he considers whether ‘they’ are trying to poison him among other conundrums, he resumes the story of Macmann, namely he wakes up to find himself in an asylum, the House of St John, and is instructed in its regulations (p.235) reminding us of the asylums where both Murphy and Watt end up
  • he is put in the charge of Moll, an old crazy lady who feeds him, washes him, tells him what is and isn’t allowed (p.236)
  • though both old and impotent, Macmann and Moll have a go at sex, he folding up his penis into a package and trying to insert into her dry vagina like stuffing in a sock (p.238)
  • an example of one of Moll’s comically bizarre love letters to Macmann; it genuinely is funny (p.239)
  • Moll wears earring with a small crucifix of Jesus Christ, then shows Macmann more or less the only tooth on her crone’s mouth is an enormous canine craved with the image of Christ on the cross (p.243)
  • they have a passionate physical affair of two old crones, until Moll falls away, starts rubbing her tummy, her hair falls out, and one day a man – Lemuel – comes to tell Macmann Moll is dead (p.244) this man Lemuel often has fits where he dances, screams and hits himself on the head with a hammer
  • cut to Malone having a memory, he is with his mother at a racecourse watching one of the first airplanes loop the loop
  • suddenly someone is there by his bedside, and hits him on the head (p.247)
  • the man in black attends Malone all the time, he has an umbrella which he leans his weight on, he uses it to poke through Malone’s belongings scattered all over the floor, lift up his bedclothes, the man has muddy boots – I begin to wonder if it is Jacques Moran (p.248)
  • when the man in black leaves, softly closing the door and walking away down the corridor whistling, Malone speculates if a whole series of visitors will come over the following days, and fantasises about ‘a little girl’, who he can teach to strip for him, fondle him, fetch him soup, empty his slop buckets and finally close his eyes, put a bung up his arse when he dies, and follow the hearse to the cemetery: ‘Easy, Malone, take it easy you old whore’ (p.251)
  • Malone finds it harder to breathe or hear anything – he cuts away to the Macmann narrative: since Moll’s death Macmann has been leaving the asylum grounds; sometimes he brings back brambles or an entire hyacinth he had pulled up by the root and then Lemuel hands it to Pat who whips Macmann with it (p.53)
  • a poetic description of the location and grounds of the St John asylum behind its walls topped with broken glass, the big lodges by the gates full of deserving families and their swarming brats (p.255)
  • Macmann carried round a photograph Moll gave him of herself as a 14-year-old girl – one day a group outing is announced led by a Lady Pedal – Lemuel goes to the kitchen and orders six portions of excursion soup which is like normal soup but with chunks of bacon in it – then he visits six cells, each with a florid lunatic in it (p.258)
  • Malone feels the end coming but goes back to the Macmann story – Lemuel assembles the five inmates on the terrace ready for Lady Pedal’s outing – they clamber into a wagonette which sets off down the hill and through the lodge gates at a dangerous pace, being overloaded (p.261)
  • the asylum patients, Lemuel, Lady Pedal and two ‘colossi’ dressed in sailor suits and named Ernest and Maurice alight from the wagonette at a quay and take a ferry to an island for a picnic
  • this ends horribly when Lemuel briskly murders the two sailors who brought them there with his hatchet, Lady Pedal on returning faints and breaks her hip, the narrative collapses on the last page, sentences starting in mid word, paragraphs breaking, Lemuel gets Macmann and the other prisoners into the ferry and they set off somewhere, he raises his hatchet but not to kill nobody, nevermore, no, not no-one

And the narrative breaks off like that into a last few lines of prose poetry or maybe fragments.

Maybe this abrupt ending is meant to represent Malone finally bloody dying, although it would be funnier if, à la Tristram Shandy, the last page had had a jagged ink line running down and off the page as of someone dying and their pen sliding across the page.


Arcana

The prose itself is rarely difficult to understand. It’s just the sentences the words are organised into are so often stupefyingly dull. It kept me going through the arid wasteland of his dessicated prose to look for out-of-the-way and rarefied vocabulary, but there are notably few juicy words. Beckett has come a long way since the show-off, arcana-packed diction of the 1930s novel, Murphy.

  • Perhaps I shall not have time to finish. On the other hand perhaps I shall finish too soon. There I am back at my old aporetics.
  • I shall not finish this inventory either, a little bird tells me so, the paraclete perhaps, psittaceously named.
  • Then with clasped hands and tears in my eyes I would have begged it of him as a favour. This humiliation has been denied to me thanks to my aphony.

Rudery

A surprising but regular component of Beckett’s style is his frequent descent into blunt anglo-saxon vulgarity.

  • Lambert was feared and in a position to do as he pleased. And even his young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heel, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives. For she knew what he would do to her if she did not open it to him. (p.184)
  • For my arse for example, which can hardly be accused of being the end of anything, if my arse suddenly started to shit at the present moment, which God forbid, I firmly believe the lumps would fall out in Australia.
  • They think they can confuse me and make me lose sight of my programmes. Proper cunts whoever they are. (p.246)
  • Those are men and women, you know, people, without being able to specify further. A stream at long intervals bestrid — but to hell with all this fucking scenery. (p.354)
  • All is ready. Except me. I am being given, if I may venture the expression, birth to into death, such is my impression. The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence. (p.260)

Some critics speak high-mindedly about Beckett’s quest to probe the limits of the text or writing. They tend to gloss over the consistent, chest-poking use of cunt and fuck.

Poetic prose

But the point of the novels isn’t their characters, it isn’t even the characters’ quests or journeys or intentions which can be made into metaphors of ‘man’s struggle to find meaning in a meaningless universe’. It’s Beckett’s way with prose.

Weary with my weariness, white last moon, sole regret, not even. To be dead, before her, on her, with her, and turn, dead on dead, about poor mankind, and never have to die any more, from among the living. Not even, not even that. My moon was here below, far below, the little I was able to desire. And one day, soon, soon, one earthlit night, beneath the earth, a dying being will say, like me, in the earthlight, Not even, not even that, and die, without having been able to find a regret.

And he has lots of ways, uses lots of techniques, creates new ways of combining words and sentences, overlays meanings. Thus all the mini-narratives in Malone Dies – about Sapo and Macmann and Moll and Lemuel – exist in counterpoint with the passages where we revert to Malone’s first-person narrative, or the stream of his obsessions.

But absolutely all discussion of Beckett’s work makes it sound too sane and approachable, whereas the whole point is its rebarbatively unapproachable attitude.

And I must say that to me at least and for as long as I can remember the sensation is familiar of a blind and tired hand delving feebly in my particles and letting them trickle between its fingers. And sometimes, when all is quiet, I feel it plunged in me up to the elbow, but gentle, and as though sleeping. But soon it stirs, wakes, fondles, clutches,
ransacks, ravages, avenging its failure to scatter me with one sweep. (p.206)

All the way from this kind of weird poetry to ‘Proper cunts whoever they are.’ It feels like the multiple layers or registers of the book could be taken to pieces like blocks of coloured Lego and you could identify different strands and building blocks. Once you start, I bet you’d find hundreds.

Pontificating

To pontificate is to ‘express one’s opinions in a pompous and dogmatic way’.

Wikipedia tells me this text contains the famous line, ‘Nothing is more real than nothing’. Is that line famous? Is it worth remembering? Does it mean anything? To quote Beckett – I don’t know. Perhaps.

But once it was pointed out, I realised a key component of Beckett’s style is a taste for delivering resonant and grand-sounding generalisations, not about life and a variety of subjects, that would be too interesting: about Beckett’s one subject – the decay and collapse of the mind and the inability of the mind, the narrator or language to convey it, the thing, the collapse of language, of writing… but the determination to keep on writing…

  • The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness.

It is a style designed to create acolytes and followers, and these are indeed what Beckett created, from his breakthrough in the 1950s, through the 60s, 70s and 80s, in larger and larger numbers.

Humour

Some passages, taken in isolation, as standalone passages, and read aloud, have power and coherence and are bizarrely funny, a prize example being the love affair of Macmann and Moll. This points forward to the plays where the simple fact of dialogue breaks up the novels’ walls of prose into much more quotable snippets.

But taken as huge, 100-page walls of solid prose, the novels are very difficult to read or process. Selections, snippets, little passages or episodes – it makes sense that this was how they were broken up in the earliest BBC radio or TV adaptations, into something more like speeches. Vastly more accessible.

Thus a reading of selected passages from Malone Dies was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 18 June 1958. Beckett selected the passages, which were read by the actor Patrick Magee, and incidental music was composed by Samuel’s cousin John S. Beckett.

Trouble is, you can’t read the entire book like that. Or maybe you need to read the entire thing, marking up shorter passages, and then go back to review and reread just those. To consider these long texts as sort of anthologies of shorter, self-contained passages, more than novels. Perhaps. I don’t know.

Self referentiality and creating a fictional universe

In all three novels the narrators refer, at some point, to protagonists of other Beckett texts:

  • Oh the stories I could tell you if I were easy. What a rabble in my head, what a gallery of moribunds. Murphy, Watt, Yerk, Mercier and all the others.
  • But let us leave these morbid matters and get on with that of my demise, in two or three days if I remember rightly. Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave.
  • They fell and I saw them no more. I naturally thought of the pseudocouple Mercier-Camier.
  • I am neither, I needn’t say, Murphy, nor Watt, nor Mercier, nor — no, I can’t even bring myself to name them, nor any of the others whose very names I forget,
  • they taught him thinking, it’s always he who speaks, Mercier never spoke, Moran never spoke, I never spoke
  • All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing,
  • Am I clothed? I have often asked
    myself this question, then suddenly started talking about Malone’s
    hat, or Molloy’s greatcoat, or Murphy’s suit.

Presumably references in each novel of the trilogy to protagonists from the other novels helps ‘bind’ them together and also brings out the theme of shifting and very unstable identities.

But there is also a mythologising aspect to it, which reminds me of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes? Yes, quite early in the Holmes stories, Dr Watson starts referring to numerous other cases, giving them florid titles, promising to tell us more about them sometime, before he settles on the one he’s going to describe this time. It creates a sense of spaciousness, it makes it feel like the Holmes texts aren’t just a handful of stories, but ramify out in all directions to create the sense of an entire imaginative universe.

Same here.

The Spanish Civil War

In 1937 Nancy Cunard sent out a questionnaire to famous artists and writers asking them to state their position on the Spanish Civil War. 148 writers sent in their replies which were published in a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for refugees. Beckett sent back the shortest contribution – ¡UPTHEREPUBLIC! – which continues to divide critics, undecided whether to interpret it as passionate or ironic.

Half way through Malone Dies Malone writes:

Yes, that’s what I like about me, at least one of the things, that I can say Up the Republic! for example, or Sweetheart!, for example, without having to wonder if I should not rather have cut my tongue out, or said
something else. (p.216)

So the book contains sneaky references to Beckett’s life as well as works. I wonder how many. I bet hundreds of scholars have spotted thousands of such references.

‘What tedium’

The bottom line is that Malone isn’t dying or anything as grandiose. In my experience, people who know they are going to die are shit scared, whereas Malone is just bored. His phrase ‘what tedium’ clangs throughout the text like that of a bored aristocrat. He confesses to being ‘bored to howls’ (p.206). The text is a way for him to impose his insufferable boredom on the reader. It is an extraordinarily complex labyrinth of language and lexical and literary experimentation. But God, reading it was like having my teeth pulled out. In small selected chunks, yes, a page or so can be attractive, particularly if read aloud. But the full-on hundred pages are a challenge.

But still.. once you’ve made it through… scattered, isolated passages stay in the mind, and many passages repay rereading to relive the peculiar, mind-bending place the book takes you to.

M

Commentators have pointed out that Beckett was attached to the letter M. His protagonists include Murphy, Mercier, Molloy and Malone and one commentator pointed out that Watt’s name begins with an M upside down. In the same jokey, tricksy spirit, Malone can be simply read a ‘M alone’.


Credit

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1951. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1956. Page references are to the 1979 Picador paperback edition of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler (1943)

Warning: This review contains disturbing content about sexual violence and the Holocaust.

Arthur Koestler, a potted biography

Arthur Koestler was born to a Jewish mother in Budapest, capital of the Hungarian part of the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1905. So he was 14 when the short-lived Hungarian communist government of Bela Kun seized power in 1919 and Koestler later remembered his teenage high hopes for it and for a better future. The Bela Kun regime was crushed and replaced by the authoritarian rule of Admiral Horthy, but Koestler retained that youthful idealism

Koestler became a journalist and travelled widely in the late 1920s and early 1930s, reporting from the Soviet Union, Palestine and Germany, for a variety of German newspapers. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931.

In 1936, early in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler got access, as an accredited journalist, to General Franco’s headquarters and gathered evidence of the support the regime was getting from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which was published, a great scoop at the time. This and other experiences were incorporated into his book Spanish Testament.

On a second trip in 1937, Koestler was caught in Málaga when it fell to Mussolini’s troops, was arrested, and convicted for spying because of the revelations from the Franco HQ. He was sentenced to death and from February to June 1937 he was imprisoned in Seville under sentence of death.

Quite an experience, which he also wrote about in Dialogue with Death. Eventually he was released in a prisoner exchange for the wife of one of Franco’s favourite flying aces.

Koestler moved to Paris where in 1938 he completed The Gladiators, a novel about the rising of ancient Roman slaves under Spartacus. The same year he quit the Communist Party and began writing the novel he’s most famous for, Darkness at Noon. His then girlfriend, English sculptor Daphne Hardy, translated Darkness at Noon from German into English and smuggled it out of France when she left ahead of the German occupation (June 1940).

Koestler’s life story is extremely colourful. First he was arrested by the French authorities in late 1939 and held in a French internment camp as an enemy alien. He described this experience in the hastily written memoir Scum of the Earth. He was eventually released at the request of the British authorities and as the result of intense lobbying by Hardy.

But how to get out of France without official papers, which the sclerotic French bureaucracy wouldn’t give him because he was ‘an enemy alien’? Koestler came up with a mad scheme. On the very day the French surrendered to the invading Germans, in May 1940, Koestler joined the French Foreign Legion in a desperate expedient to get out of the country.

He was accepted, trained and packed off to North Africa where he promptly deserted, made his way to Lisbon and so by boat to Britain. However, because he arrived without an entry permit, Koestler was again imprisoned.

Surely the only major writer to have been imprisoned in three different countries.

Koestler was still in prison when Daphne Hardy’s English translation of Darkness at Noon was published in Britain in early 1941 to great acclaim. This, and influential friends, helped get Koestler released from prison and he immediately volunteered to fight for the British Army, serving 12 months in the Pioneer Corps.

In March 1942 Koestler was assigned to the Ministry of Information, where he worked as a scriptwriter for propaganda broadcasts and films. During his spare time he wrote Arrival and Departure, the third in what had now become a trilogy of ‘political’ novels that began with The Gladiators and continued with Darkness at Noon.

Arrival and Departure

Although Darkness at Noon is transparently about the grotesque show trials which Stalin organised in the Soviet Union to discredit and liquidate all the old Bolshevik leaders who could be a threat to him, a striking feature of the book is that it nowhere actually mentions Russia, the Soviet Union or Stalin, preferring to use generic terms such as ‘the Party’ or ‘Number One’.

Clearly, Koestler felt there was value in trying to generalise the experience he was describing. Presumably the same wish not to be tied down by details and specifics underlies his approach in Arrival and Departure which continues to use some of the same generic terms.

Arrival and Departure is arranged in five parts which also bear very general titles.

Part 1: Arrival

The book opens mysteriously with an unnamed male protagonist leaping from the deck of a ship carrying a waterproof bundle. He swims to the anchor chain of the large ship, a cargo ship, the Speranza, which he’s been stowing away in while he orientates himself. He’s been hiding in the cargo hold for fifteen long days and nights. Now he can see a shoreline not too far away and swims towards it, eventually hitting the sloping shoreline and walking up through the waves onto the beach. He hides in one of the long row of bathing huts. His nose has been broken, his two front teeth smashed. His body has cigarette burns at various places (we later learn there are three: on one heel, behind one knee and on his penis), the result of torture. He is 22.

On the beach were sandcastles made by children. One of them carried a little toy flag, the flag of ‘Neutralia’ – so that’s where he is. Hidden in the beach cabin he weeps with relief.

Next day, things feel very relaxed. His clothes have dried overnight, it is very bright and sunny, he walks into town along a road lined with palms, there’s a square, he manages to change some of the money he had in his bundle, sits at a cafe table and orders a slap-up breakfast.

A family sitting nearby recognise him. They’re waiting to get visas to move on. So are friends. They tell him where the consulate is. As he walks on people recognise him. We learn from a woman in a queue that his name is Peter Slavek, he was a leading figure in the Party, and was arrested. Her husband mutters it’s best not to remember anything. Nonetheless the woman remembers that ‘they’ broke his nose, smashed his teeth out and extinguished cigarettes on his body. ‘He was the hero of our generation’.

Another woman, Dr Sonia Bolgar, watches Peter pass. She tells her companion Peter’s mother was a friend of hers. She thought ‘they’ had shot him. She says an accident happened in his family when the boy was just five and he has blamed himself ever since. He was a star student at the university, joined the party and was arrested a couple of times.

The combination of extreme heat (‘blazing street’, ‘hard glare’, ‘the sun was like a furnace’) and tropical fruit in the market stalls Peter passes made me wonder if it’s set in a North African colony. The waiter and others speak French, so a French colony – Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria.

Peter walks to the consulate and tries to persuade the officials that he wants to enlist in their army. Their country is at war. The official (incongruously named Mr, not Monsieur, Wilson) accepts Peter but shrugs and says it’s for ‘the authorities at home’ to decide. The problem is Peter comes from a nation which is an ally of the country the country he’s in is fighting. (Hungary? Allied with Nazi Germany? against France?) Mr Wilson says he’ll see what he can do but off the record suggests he tries the American consulate.

He sees Nazi posters in the shops but, in line with the ‘allegorical’ approach, the posters which describe a New Europe dominated by a newly arisen Central Power, under its stern-faced leader – neither the country nor leader are actually named. Walking on Peter comes to another shop window which shows photos of the New Nation’s opponents, led by their king and a cabinet minister in a bowler hat who flashes a V sign.

Peter bumps into the couple who discussed him earlier. He refers to the man as Comrade Thomas. They were both once part of the Movement. But the Movement has tacked and veered and changed directions so many times it has strangled itself. Presumably he is talking about the Soviet Union and the staggering impact it had on communists around the world when Stalin abruptly announced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939.

He had thought it would be so easy. Stowaway. Get to a safe destination. Find the consulate. Volunteer for their army. Be greeted with open arms, taken right in, given somewhere to sleep and papers. But no. None of that. He’s out walking the blazing hot streets, rejected with officialdom, with nowhere to stay and no papers.

By about this stage I realised it’s CasablancaCasablanca for intellectuals. There’s an extended community of refugees from all over Europe

Part 2: The Present

Five weeks later, Peter is in the queue at the American consulate. Dr Sonia joins him. He is evidently feverish and weak. She realises he is starving, making one loaf of bread last four days. She takes him back to her flat, feeds and washes him, and he moves in. It isn’t a sexual thing. She is huge (her size is repeatedly emphasised) and was a friend of his mother’s i.e. twice his age.

Sonia is a practising psychotherapist. Half the refugees in town come to her for advice and comfort, even representatives of ‘the other side’. The young woman Odette often comes to visit and the two women make it plain they expect Peter to leave.

Over the coming days Peter slowly falls in love with Odette, well, develops a one-sided obsession with her.

One day she calls round when Sonia is out, one thing leads to another, she gets up to walk out, he slams the door shut, she struggles, he grips her, they stumble to the floor and in a red mist he rapes her. I didn’t see that coming.

Peter doesn’t acknowledge the enormity of what he’s done, he insists that he loves her while the raped woman remains in a foetal position on the sofa facing the wall, crying.

But after a while of Peter pleading, Odette loses her temper and tells him to shut up. He holds her hands and insists that he loves her and after a while she stops crying and start commenting sarcastically on this so-called ‘love’, on men and their brutish ways, how they beat a woman down, bullying and nagging until she eventually says, ‘After all – why not?’ And as he lowers himself towards her again, she says that to him: ‘After all – why not’, indicating her self-abandonment. Athough she adds: ‘But don’t hurt me this time.’

For ten days he lives in a sensual paradise, absolutely head over in heels in love. Every day he spends at Odette’s room in a her boarding house, they have sex, then laze around chatting, then get dressed and go for mussels and local wine at a harbourside restaurant. Paradise. On the tenth day he knocks and immediately sense the flat’s emptiness. Inside it has been stripped bare. A note on the table says she got her visa, had a place booked on a ship and has left.

Part 3: The Past

Peter undergoes a complete nervous collapse. He can’t walk. He has deep dreams and waking hallucinations. Deliriously he thinks he’s flying a fighter plane. He has snapped. Sonia calls Dr Huxter who does a thorough physical. Nothing wrong. It is mental. Huxter describes himself as ‘an old Jew’, ‘a general practitioner of the old school’, and is sceptical of Dr Sonia’s depth therapy methods, in fact he sees her as a huge beast, Leviathan from the Bible, dabbling in arcane and unhealthy powers.

Peter is delirious for three days. When he comes out of it he is very weak. Big Sonia nurses him but also does therapy. In his delirium he repeated a psalm about Jerusalem. Now he remembers an incident from his childhood when the family had a pet rabbit, and he overheard the cook say they were going to eat it, and he decided to save it, and his mother repeated the psalm and the little boy picked up the word Jerusalem and applied it to the rabbit and knew that, so long as he thought about Jerusalem the rabbit would be safe. But one day at the park he saw a little girl his age by the pond and fell in love with her and forgot all about Jerusalem, When he got home hungry he wolfed down the chicken stew and only then did the family cook (it was that kind of bourgeois family) tell him it was rabbit stew. He vomited.

Now he remembers that story.

But much worse follows. Suddenly, from pages 78 to 87 he gives a detailed account of the time he was taken out of prison and sent (by mistake it turns out) on a mixed transport, a long train of cattle trucks which included ‘Useless Jews’, women who’d been selected to become prostitutes for Nazi officers, and gypsies who were going to be sterilised.

Only a few pages ago we were reading about the sensual bliss of being young and in love. Now Koestler delivers a really stomach-churning account of how the journey takes days, each truck too packed for people to sit down, then all treading in each other’s excrement, before they are parked in a siding by a disused quarry and here, his truck load watch the ‘Useless Jews’ be forced along a corridor of guards and up steps into removal-type vans which have airtight doors, and in which the Jews are gassed to death in batches.

It takes all afternoon and long into the night, and in their cattle trucks and then as they are hustled along to the vans, the Jews sing, sing defiantly, a song about the return of the Messiah as they are led to be murdered.

Then the scene switches: Peter describes being caught. He was distributing leaflets for the Movement in a working class area near a mill when cops spotted them and gave chase. His three colleagues fell behind, but Peter made it to the main street, jumped on a tram, switched to a bus, made it home to the apartment where he lived with his poorly mother and the maid, a peasant girl. Later the same day, three detectives arrive. The take the place to pieces, ripping open pillows and cushions and sofas, smashing lamps, breaking chairs, looking for evidence. Then they take him away, handcuffing him and punching him in the face. It was the last time he saw his mother.

Peter explains the arrest was nothing to do with the leafleting. It was because he was on the executive committee of ‘the Movement’ at the university.

He is taken in to be questioned by the legendary interrogator, Raditsch, in his deep-carpeted interview room. Raditsch is a burly peasant who has risen to the top of his career. He disarms Peter by revealing he knows all about his career, and knows the identities of half the members of the Movement, who the authorities are about to arrest. He explains that this country will never go communist because it is a land of peasants. Raditsch understands them, he came from a peasant family.

Worse, Raditsch then proceeds to enumerate the failings of Marxism during which it becomes clear that he knows and understands its theory, history and practice fact better than peter does. Raditsch is familiar with Rosa Luxemberg’s arguments with Bukharin, with the shortcomings of the labour theory of value, he explains to Peter how the theory of working class consciousness is based on an inadequate theory of psychology (p.100).

In other words Raditsch quietly and confidently strips Peter of all his intellectual and organisational protection. Then he gives him thirty seconds to confess, thirty seconds to avoid being taken away and tortured and puts his pocket watch on the table and they both watch the second hand tick round.

At the end of 30 seconds Peter has kept silent and so with a sigh Raditsch orders him to be taken away, down stairs, along a corridor and into a room with six strong men dressed in black who in a friendly ungrudging way proceed to beat him black and blue, breaking his nose, smashing his face, stretching him across a table and whipping him with some metal implement that makes it feel like his body’s been cut in two. He screams, he wets himself, he shits himself, his face is covered in blood and tears and snot, he passes out.

All this is in flashback. Peter pieces together the scene over a series of sessions with Sonia, who sits quietly and rather formally, apparently doing her knitting, only occasionally asking a question to prompt Peter, to help him over a bump in the road.

All kinds of mental images and memories and layers overlap and interpenetrate. For example, Peter explains that despite the most outrageous torture he refuses to ‘confess’ not because of Party discipline, he’s long forgotten the Movement, it’s something deeper, a sense that he has already betrayed the Party with a thousand little mental infidelities and witholdings, which he’s told Sonia about. On page 119 he makes a list for Sonia of all his betrayals, starting with feeling guilty about getting away after the leafleting episode when his three comrades were captured, for breaking his mother’s heart, for being powerless to help the Jews as they walked off to be gassed, working backwards through a long list of excuses for guilt.

Anyway, the text gives a very detailed description of the four days of intense torture, beatings, whippings, waterboarding and bastinado that he received, very detailed and stomach-churning, not for the faint-hearted.

But all this is only really preparatory to Sonia’s psychotherapy. Peter was to emerge as a hero for the Movement, a legend because he didn’t break under torture. But he had nothing to confess because in his heart he had already betrayed everyone. It is the root of this guilt which Sonia is really interested in, she calls it his Christmas tree of guilt on which he has spent his life (he is now 23 years old) hanging all kinds of decorations. Backwards she goes through his memories till we reach the real bedrock.

When he was five he was playing half-maliciously with his younger brother in a disused rowing boat by the sea on a family holiday, when they both tripped and fell forward and his little brother’s eye was impaled on a rusty rowlock, permanently blinding him. But even that isn’t it, because digging deeper we learn that aged just three he remembers reaching into the cot of the little baby, the newcomer who had taken everyone’s love and affection away from him. Not long before a beloved toy of his, a teddy bear, had been taken away supposedly because its eyes had fallen out. Now, aged just three, little Peter thought that if he put the eyes out of the screaming baby it, too, would be taken away and he would be restored to the centre of his mother’s love. He was disturbed in the mere beginnings of the attempt, but the memory of the murderous impulse remained with him, and when the accident in the rowing boat happened he was stricken, because it felt like his murderous wish had come true.

And for the whole of the rest of his life, he had sought pretexts and excuses for blaming himself for everything. Feeling guilty at the way the cops trashed his mother’s apartment, feeling guilty about his comrades being arrested – these are just decorations on the really deep, swarming, brooding feeling of worthlessness and guilt pullulating at the core of his mind. As Dr Sonia says:

‘The hardest sentences are those which people inflict on themselves or imaginary sins.’ (p.97)

Peter’s nightmares disappear. His leg begins to move again. His fever goes. He feels calm and awake. He is cured.

And not only cured of his personal demons. He had joined but then abandoned the Movement, disillusioned, but these complicated personal motivations, the memories, the guilt and the cataclysm of the torture, had kept him tied to it. Now he has exorcised both chains which held him back.

That was over. He was cured; never again would he make a fool of himself. He was cured of his illusions, both about objective aims and subjective motives. The two lines had converged and met. No more debts to pay, no more commands to obey. Let the dead bury their dead. For him, Peter Slavek, the crusade had come to an end. (p.128)

Outside of Freud’s own case studies, I think this is the most extended, detailed and compelling account of a psychotherapeutic cure of neurosis I’ve ever read.

Part 4: The Future

Just as he fell ill, Peter had received a letter to go see Mr Wilson at the Consulate. There he received the papers he needed to apply at the American consulate for permission to emigrate. Now he has been given permission to travel to the United States, and immediately visits a travel agency and books a berth in a ship sailing from Neutralia to the US in three weeks time.

Sonia has left on a boat to the New World. He stays on in her flat. He is in limbo. She has exorcised him of the past, but the new world has yet to begin. This part is made up of scattered scenes set against his mounting anticipation of boarding the precious ship.

By far the most interesting is the long scene (pp.136-151) where ‘Bernard’ drops by to collect some books he’d loaned Sonia. Peter politely lets him in and their conversation immediately turns into a schematic confrontation. Bernard is a Nazi (nobody uses that word, but that’s what he is), a fervent Nazi, a believer that it is Germany’s destiny to carry the next stage of human evolution which will sweep away all traditions, parliaments and liberal notions of individual liberty, it will sweep away old nations and national boundaries and usher in a world built entirely on the rational use of Europe’s resources for a racially purified population.

There’s much more to it than that. Bernard skewers the compromised motives of all the upper-class university-educated liberals who claim to be one of the ‘workers’, while many of those ‘workers’ actually flocked to the Nazi party because they wanted a way out of their proletariat destiny. He accurately describes a lot of revolutionaries as neurotic middle-class mummy’s boys. They argue back and forth about the legacy of the French Revolution. Bernard puts the view that the Thirty Years War set back German nationhood by 150 years, but this means she is coming to the notion of nationhood completely new and unshackled by nineteenth century ideas, free to create a new future for all mankind.

What’s vivid and exciting about this passage is the plausibility of much of what he says – about the bankruptcy of old economic systems, the ineffectiveness of old parliaments, and the vigour of new scientific discoveries and technologies, not least genetics and selective breeding. If of plants, why not of humans? And when he goes on to explain how similar the Soviet Union is to Nazi Germany, particularly in their totalitarian systems designed to crush individual liberty in the name of a greater social good, Peter is uncomfortably aware of the similarities and overlaps.

There are other short sections. Peter has a drink at a cafe with Mr Taylor from the Consulate who introduces him to ‘Andrew’, a young man who’s been horribly burned flying planes during an early phase of the war, and his face reassembled with skin grafts from other parts of his body, with grotesque results. Worse, Andrew is cynical about people’s motives for fighting. Everyone feels guilty about someone else who is doing more, is closer to the action, is more at risk, he says. Maybe this four-page section is a coda to the de-guilting of Peter during the psychotherapy scenes.

Peter dreams dreams. The book is full of dreams. Before his therapy, they were anxiety dreams and nightmares. During his therapy they are hideously vivid memories of torture, guilt and self-hatred. After his therapy he continues to have them but they are now diffuse and mysterious.

He dreams of reuniting with Odette. Her letter to him, the one explaining that she’d abruptly left with no goodbye, had left it open whether he wanted to follow her, be reunited with her. Now he is obsessing about that possibility, he dreams of her and her naked body.

Cleaning out the drawers on his last few days before leaving he comes across a fragment of letter written from Odette to Sonia which strongly hints that they were lesbian lovers. He’d sort of guessed that from the way he had to leave the flat every time Odette came round but, it exacerbates his uncertainties about leaving (p.166).

Bernard drops by for another brief fascinating exchange in which he makes the telling point that Marxism has preserved the class divisions of the nineteenth century in aspic and brought them into the 20th, where they are utterly irrelevant. His movement on the other hand is more dynamic and fluid. Nobody can deny that large sections of the so-called working classes have gone over wholesale to the fascists while, conversely, a lot of the upper-class intelligentsia have gone over to communism. In short, a class-based analysis is hopelessly out of date for modern conditions. Bernard is badgering him because he wants to recruit him to work for ‘them’ in America. He drops the bombshell that he will be sailing on Peter’s ship (the Leviathan).

On the day of departure Peter arrives early, is checked on board and dismayed to discover how cramped Third Class quarters and the pitiful lower deck promenade. To cover his anxiety he drinks two bottles of wine for lunch and passes out in a deckchair. When he regains consciousness, it is to discover the deck heaving like a Bank Holiday crowd. He looks up just in time to see Bernard walking up the gangplank and waving down at him. He bursts free, goes down to his hot sweaty cabin and feels like throwing up. Through the porthole he sees a former party member, Comrade Thomas and his wife and Ossie (!) the comrade he thought had been caught by the police at the leafleting fiasco.

Suddenly he feels morally sick. He rushes out the cabin, up the crowded staircases, across the deck to the gangplank and, as the final hoots of the enormous funnel sound above him, safe onto shore, runs to the ticket booth (empty) and then runs runs runs back into the city.

He runs all the way to Mr Wilson’s office. The latter is disappointed to see him but not altogether surprised and happens to have a military man visiting. On the spot Peter manages to volunteer to fight, to fight the enemy. He walks back into the city enormously relieved. Sometimes decisions just have to be taken. Maybe he is motivated by romantic idealism. But if, like him, you have seen the Jews being herded towards the gas vans in the name of a shiny new technocratic Europe, then it behoves you to take up arms against it. When he had joined the Movement, he hadn’t been fully aware of his motives, which were largely personal. Now he is aware of his motives, which are just as flawed and personal but it is a fully conscious decision.

Peter has been writing short stories. In the last few days before he’s called up he writes a short story about the Last Judgement. It is a very powerful fable, very impressive. The Last Judgement is the nightly court of the unconscious which we are all called to and to which we must all return every night of our lives.

Part 5: Departure

The novel concludes with a five-page envoi (‘an author’s concluding words’). Peter is driven to an English RAF aerodrome, shown into officers quarters, introduced to his pilot, given a cup of tea. He waits. In the other room the pilots are playing ping-pong. He is being parachuted into enemy territory. He just has time to finish a hurried letter to Odette telling her he will lover her always. then the pilot appears and it is time to go.

Some hours later he jumps out of the plane and into the night just as he did at the start of the novel when he jumped from the deck of the Speranza into the dark, but this time he knows why and is determined to see it through.

Wow. What a brilliant ending.


Style

Koestler the Hungarian has an infinitely clearer, cleaner and more enjoyable prose style than the other two, English novelists from the same period who I’ve been reading, Rex Warner and Edward Upward. He just describes things in cool, clear flowing prose.

Out in the blazing street again, Peter had to narrow his eyes against the impact of the hard glare on walls and pavement. He felt in his breast-pocket for a cigarette and his hand touched the flag in his buttonhole. He automatically put it away in his pocket and strolled slowly uphill through the steep, narrow street towards the main Avenue. (pp.25-26)

This directness and clarity means that when he comes to describe the two really harrowing scenes – the Mixed Transport and gassing of the Jews, and Peter’s torture – he is able to do it with factual, unsentimental phrasing which makes it all the more harrowing, I mean really harrowing.

If you are squeamish you shouldn’t read this book. On day three the torturers tie Peter naked and spread-eagled to a table and then just look at his bruised bleeding broken body.

This silence, fraught with the expectation of the unknown, brought him nearer to breaking down than the physical pain they had inflicted upon him the previous days. Pain had its limits, fear had none. It was all-pervading like a sustained electric shock, it made his bared teeth vibrate although he clenched his jaws to prevent them from clattering. (p.112)

In these scenes you are right there, inside the character’s terrified mind, feeling every new bolt of shattering pain.

And it means that when Koestler discusses ideas, or has Peter and Bernard argue about the historical, philosophical, economic and psychological basis of Nazism, he does it crisply and logically, making the arguments in sharp clear sentences which are readable and powerful to this day.

Science metaphors

Koestler wrote a lot. Trained as a journalist, he churned out words every day and produced a wealth of articles, essays and books. But it’s notable that after Arrival and Departure he more or less abandoned fiction. He wrote memoirs and books against communism and about Zionism and the Jews in Palestine – but most of his later books are about science or pseudo-science, beginning with an account of the astronomy of Kepler and moving on to tackle Lamarckism, psychedelic drugs, parapsychology, and euthanasia. By the time I started reading in the mid-70s a lot of these books had been discredited and Koestler was seen as an eccentric or fringe character.

You can see the scientific side of his mind already at work in his fondness for scientific metaphors throughout Arrival and Departure.

Touched with the magic rod of cause and effect, the actions of men were emptied of their so-called moral contents as a Leyden jar is discharged by the touch of a conductor. (p.116)

[Peter] listened to [Sonia] with eager excitement, as one listens, at the end of a crime-story, to the detective explaining the clues which had been all the time before one’s eyes; and as at last they begin to yield their meaning, one feels a new pattern of understanding emerge, like symmetrical crystals in a liquid solution. (p.120)

He felt the exultation of his early student days, when he suddenly grasped the principle of Kepler’s laws of planetary movement and the chaotic world around him was tamed. (p.126)

His interest in scientific metaphors can be considered just one aspect of Koestler’s obvious quest for a factual, unrhetorical style and approach, for a clear-headed factual approach – one which eventually led him out of fiction altogether.

N.B.

It is interesting that Arrival and Departure keeps faith not only with the ‘allegorical’ method of Darkness at Noon but with some of the same nomenclature. Neither Germany nor Russia nor the Communist party nor the Nazi party nor Hitler or Stalin are mentioned by name. As in Darkness the ruler of the people’s state is referred to simply as ‘Number One’, and Bernard jovially agrees that his own country (the one bent on uniting Europe and cleansing it of the mentally and racially impure i.e. Germany) has its own ‘Number One’.

We all know who he’s referring to but this use of generic terms keeps the story floating just above actual historical reality, giving it an allegorical, generalised power.

Conclusion

Arrival and Departure – with its detailed description of torture, its harrowing account of the murder of the Jews, with its complex treatment of the psychotherapy of the traumatised central character, and the clear and powerful arguments between Bernard and Peter about the merits of communism and fascism – is a far more varied, powerful and intellectually stimulating novel than Darkness At Noon.


Related reviews about totalitarianism

Holocaust reviews

Alan Furst’s ‘Night Soldier’ novels

Alan Furst’s ‘Night Soldier’ series of novels are unashamed thrillers, but they are set in the same murky world of spies, and communist and fascist agitators in Eastern and central Europe in the mid and late-1930s which Koestler is depicting, and the best of them (arguably, the first two) capture the mood of paranoia and fear (and brutal violence) which is the subject of Arrival and Departure.

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Journey To A War by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1939)

When we awoke early next morning the train was crossing a wide valley of paddy fields. The rising sun struck its beams across the surfaces of innumerable miniature lakes; in the middle distance farmhouses seemed actually to be floating on water. Here and there a low mound rose a few feet above the level of the plain, with a weed-grown, ruinous pagoda, standing upon it, visible for miles around. Peasants with water-buffaloes were industriously ploughing their arable liquid into a thick, brown soup.
(Journey To A War, p.191)

Collectively, perhaps, we most resemble a group of characters in one of Jules Verne’s stories about lunatic English explorers. (p.104)

The Sino-Japanese War

In July 1937 – exactly a year after the start of the Spanish Civil War – Japan attacked China. It was hardly a surprise. In 1931 the so-called ‘Mukden Incident’ had helped spark the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the large area to the north east of China, just above Beijing). The Chinese were defeated and Japan created a new puppet state, Manchukuo (setting up the last Qing emperor as its puppet ruler) through which to rule Manchuria.

Going further back, in 1894–1895 China, then still under the rule of the Qing dynasty, was defeated by Japan in what came to be called the First Sino-Japanese War. China had been forced to cede Taiwan to Japan and to recognise the independence of Korea which had, in classical times, been under Chinese domination.

In other words, for 40 years the rising power of militaristic, modernising Japan had been slowly nibbling away at rotten China, seizing Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. Now the military junta in Tokyo decided the time was right to take another bite, engineered an ‘incident’ at the Marco Polo bridge on the trade route to Beijing, and used this as a pretext to attack Beijing in the north and Shanghai in the south.

Thus there was quite a lot of military and political history to get to grips with in order to understand the situation in China, but what made it even more confusing was the fact that China itself was a divided nation. First, the nominal government – the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang under its leader Chiang Kai-shek – had only with difficulty put down or paid off the powerful warlords who for decades had ruled local regions of China after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

But second, Chiang faced stiff competition from the Chinese Communist Party. The two parties had lived in uneasy alliance until Chiang staged a massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927 which brought the tension between Chinese nationalists and communists into the open.

It was the three-way destabilisation of China during this period – warlords v. Nationalists v. Communists – which had helped Japan invade and take over Manchuria. Prompted by the 1937 Japanese attack the Nationalists and Communists formed an uneasy alliance.

Auden in Spain

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the great political issue of the age was the Spanish Civil War which began when General Franco led a military uprising against the democratically elected government in July 1936. Like many high-minded, middle class liberals, Auden and Isherwood both felt the time had come to put their money where their mouths were. Auden did actually travel to Spain in January 1937 and was there till March, apparently trying to volunteer to drive an ambulance in the medical service. Instead, red tape and the communists who were increasingly running the Republican forces apparently blocked him from getting a useful job. He tried to help out at the radio station but discovered its broadcasts were weak and there were no vacancies.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Auden was back in England by mid-March 1937. The long-term impact of the trip was his own surprise at how much it upset him to see the churches of Barcelona which had all been torched and gutted by a furious radical populace as symbols of oppression. Auden was shocked, and then shocked at his reaction. Wasn’t he meant to be a socialist, a communist even, like lots of other writers of his generation? The Spain trip was the start of the slow process of realisation which was to lead him back to overt Christian faith in the 1940s.

Also Auden saw at first hand the infighting on the Republican side between the communist party slavishly obeying Stalin’s orders, and the more radical Trotskyite and Anarchist parties who, later in 1937, it would crush. Later he paid credit to George Orwell’s book Homage To Catalonia for explaining the complex political manoeuvring far better than he could have. But watching the Republicans fight among themselves made him realise it was far from being a simple case of black and white, of Democracy against Fascism.

So by March 1938 Auden had returned to Britain, where he was uncharacteristically silent about his experiences, and got on with writing, editing new works for publication (not least an edition of his play The Ascent of F6 and Letters From Iceland).

Meanwhile, Christopher Isherwood was living in Paris managing his on-again, off-again relationship with his German boyfriend Heinz. And although he had accommodated Auden on an overnight stop in the French capital and waved him off on the train south to Spain, Isherwood hadn’t lifted a finger for the Great Cause.

Then, in June 1937, Auden’s American publisher, Bennet Cerf of Random House, had suggested that after the reasonable sales of his travel book about Iceland, maybe Auden would be interested in writing another travel book, this time travelling to the East. Isherwood was a good suggestion as collaborator because they had just worked closely on the stage play, The Ascent of F6 and had begun work on a successor, which was to end up becoming the pay On The Frontier. The pair were considering the travel idea when the Japanese attacked China, quickly took Beijing and besieged Shanghai.

At once they seized on this as the subject of the journey and the book. Neither had really engaged with the war in Spain; travelling east would be a way to make amends and to report on what many people considered to be the Eastern Front of what was developing into a worldwide war between Fascism (in this case Japan) and Democracy (in this case the Chinese Nationalists).

China also had the attraction that, unlike Spain, it wouldn’t be stuffed full of eminent literary figures falling over themselves to write poems and plays and novels and speeches. Spain had been a very competitive environment for a writer. Far fewer people knew or cared about China: it would be their own little war.

And so Auden and Isherwood left England in January 1938, boat from Dover then training it across France, then taking a boat from Marseilles to Hong Kong, via Egypt, Colombo and Singapore.

Journey to a War

Journey To A War is not as good as Letter From Iceland, it’s less high spirited and funny. There isn’t a big linking poem like Letter To Lord Byron to pull it together, and there isn’t the variety of all the different prose and verse forms Auden and MacNeice cooked up for the earlier book.

Instead it overwhelmingly consists of Isherwood’s very long prose diary of what happened to them and what they saw in their three months journey around unoccupied China.

The book opens with a series of sonnets and this was the form Auden chose to give the book poetic unity – sonnets, after all, lend themselves to sequences which develop themes and ideas, notably the Sonnets of Shakespeare, or his contemporaries Spencer and Sidney. There’s a collection of half a dozen of them right at the start, which give quick impressions of places they visited en route to China (Macau, Hong Kong). Then, 250 pages of Isherwood prose later, there’s the sonnet sequence titled In Time of War.

But instead of the bright and extrovert tone of Letters From Iceland, Auden’s sonnets are often obscure. They are clearly addressing some kind of important issues but it’s not always clear what. This is because they are very personal and inward-looking. Auden is clearly wrestling with his sense of liberal guilt. The results are rather gloomy. Spain had disillusioned him immensely. He went to Spain thinking the forces of Evil were objective and external. But his first-hand experience of the internecine bickering on the Republican side quickly showed him there is no Good Side, there are no Heroes. History is made by all of us and so – all of us are to blame for what happens. Travel as far as you want, you’re only running away from the truth. If we want to cure the world, it is we ourselves that we need to cure first.

Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,
As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes
And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?

Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real…

(from The Voyage by W.H. Auden)

‘An illness on a false island’ which is clearly England, a place ‘where the heart cannot act’. The traveller is trying to escape himself but cannot and glumly realises ‘he is weaker than he thought’. Or the thumping final couplet of the sonnet about Hong Kong:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Isherwood’s diary

Luckily, the prose sections of the book are written by Isherwood and these are much more fun. He keeps up the giggling schoolboy persona of the novel he’d recently published, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), he notes the way the Chinese pronounce their names Au Dung and Y Hsaio Wu, he sounds wide-eyed and optimistic. He hadn’t seen what Auden had seen in Spain, wasn’t struggling with the same doubts.

On February 28 1938 they leave Hong Kong by steamer for Canton and Isherwood finds everyone and everything hilarious. Look a Japanese gunboat! Listen, the sound of bombs falling! He has same facility for the disarmingly blunt image which he deploys in the Berlin stories. The mayor of Canton (Mr Tsang Yan-fu) is always beaming, has a face like a melon with a slice cut out of it. After dinner the Chinese general entertains them by singing Chinese opera, showing how different characters are given different tones and registers (‘the romantic hero emits a sound like a midnight cat’).

He refers to the whole trip as a dream and as a landscape from Alice in Wonderland – they expected Chinese people to behave as in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and had rehearsed elaborate compliments, and are disarmed when they’re much more down to earth. The train journey on through Hunan province is boring, the tea tastes of fish, they amuse themselves by reading out an Anthony Trollope novel or singing in mock operatic voices.

But this sense of unreality which dogs them is simply because both of them didn’t have a clue what was going on, what was at stake, the military situation,  had never seen fighting or battle and weren’t proper journalists. They were privileged dilettantes, ‘mere trippers’, as Isherwood shamefacedly explains when they meet real war correspondents at a press conference (p.53).

In Hankow the Consul gives them Chiang, a middle-aged man with the manners of a perfect butler to be their guide. They attend the official war briefings alongside American and Australian journalists, they meet Mr Donald, Chiang Kai-shek’s military adviser, the German adviser General von Falkenhausen, Agnes Smedley, Madame Chiang Kai-shek herself, and with delight are reunited with Robert Capa, the soon-to-be legendary American war photographer who’d they’d met on the boat out. They attend traditional Chinese opera, which Isherwood observes with the eye of a professional playwright.

They catch the train to Cheng-chow which has been repeatedly bombed by the Japanese, capably looked after by their ‘boy’, Chiang. They are heading north on the train when they learn that Kwei-teh has fallen, nonetheless they decide to press on to Kai-feng. With them is an exuberant and seasoned American doctor, McClure, who takes them to watch some operations. They walk round the stinking foetid town. They go to the public baths which stink of urine. Then they catch a train to Sü-chow. And then onto Li Kwo Yi where they argue with Chinese commanding officers (General Chang Tschen) to allow them to go right up to the front line, a town divided by the Great Canal.

If you’ve no idea where any of these places are, join the club. I was reading an old edition but, even so, it had no map at all of any part of the journey. Which is ludicrous. The only map anywhere appears to have been on the front cover of the hardback edition, replaced (uselessly) by an anti-war cartoon on the paperback editions, and even this doesn’t show their actual route.

First US edition (publ. Random House)

With no indication where any of these places are, unless you are prepared to read it with an atlas open at your side, Isherwood’s long prose text becomes a stream of clever observations largely divorced from their context. Even an atlas is not that useful given that Isherwood uses the old form of the placenames, all of which, along with most people’s names, have changed. Thus Sian, capital of Shen-si province, is now Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province, Sü-chow is now Suzhou, and so on.

We are intended to enjoy the surreal aspects of travelling in a deeply foreign land – the village restaurant which was papered entirely with pages of American tabloid magazines, and so covered with photos of gangsters and revelations about fashionable divorcees (p.126); or the expensive hotel in Sian whose menu included ‘Hat cake’ and ‘FF potatoes’ (p.141). Beheading is a common punishment because the Chinese believe a body needs to be complete to enter the afterlife. They meet lots of tough and brave American missionaries, mostly from the American south.

Finally, back in Hankow (Hankou) they become part of polite society again, are invited to a party of Chinese intellectuals, a party given by the British admiral and consul, where they meet the legendary travel writer Peter Fleming and his actress wife Celia Johnson, the British ambassador Archibald Kerr, the American communist-supporting journalist, Agnes Smedley (p.156). Fleming pops up a lot later at their hotel in Tunki, and is too suave, handsome and self-assured to possibly be real.

Militarily, Journey To A War confirms the opinions of the modern histories of the war I’ve read, namely that the Nationalist side was hampered by corruption, bad leadership and, above all, lack of arms & ammunition. When they retook cities which had been under communist influence the Chiang’s Nationalists realised they needed some kind of ideology which matched the communists’ emphasis on a pure life and so, in 1934, invented the New Life Movement i.e. stricter morals, which Madame Chiang politely explains.

Isherwood notices the large number of White Russian exiles, often running shops, come down in the world. This reminds me of the Russian nanny J.G. Ballard had during his boyhood in 1930s Shanghai, as described in his autobiography Miracles of Life.

From pages 100 to 150 or so our intrepid duo had hoped to approach the front line in the north and had crept up to it in a few places, but ultimately refused permission to go further, to visit the Eighth Route Army, and so have come by boat back down the Yangtze River to Hankou. Now they plan to travel south-east towards the other main front, where the Japanese have taken Shanghai and Nanjing.

On the Emperor of Japan’s birthday there is a particularly large air-raid on Hankow and they make themselves comfortable on the hotel lawn to watch it. The Arsenal across the river takes a pasting and they go to see the corpses. 500 were killed. Nice Emperor of Japan.

They take a river steamer to Kiukiang and stay at the extraordinary luxury hotel named Journey’s End and run by the wonderfully eccentric Mr Charleton. They catch the train from Kiukiang to Nanchang, stay there a few days, then the train on to Kin-hwa (modern Jinhua). Here they are horrified to discover their arrival has been anticipated and they are treated like minor royalty, including a trip to the best restaurant in town with 12 of the city’s top dignitaries.

Auden and I developed a private game: it was a point of honour to praise most warmly the dishes you liked least. ‘Delicious,’ Auden murmured, as he munched what was, apparently, a small sponge soaked in glue. I replied by devouring, with smiles of exquisite pleasure, an orange which taste of bitter aloes and contained, at its centre, a large weevil. (p.195)

They are taken by car to the town of Tunki. They try to get permission to push on to see the front near the Tai Lake, They have to cope with the officious newspaperman, A.W. Kao. This man gives a brisk confident explanation of what’s happening at the front. Neither Auden nor Isherwood believe it. Isherwood’s explanation describes scenes they’ve seen on their visit, but also hints at what Auden might have seen on his (mysterious) trip to civil war Spain. Auden is given a speech defining the nature of modern war:

War is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it and killing a few old women. War is lying in a stable with a gangrenous leg. War is drinking hot water in a barn and worrying about one’s wife. War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth. War is waiting for days with nothing to do; shouting down a dead telephone; going without sleep, or sex, or a wash. War is untidy, inefficient, obscure, and largely a matter of chance. (p.202)

Peter Fleming turns up looking gorgeous, professional, highly motivated, speaking good Chinese. He attends briefings, manages the locals with perfect manners. They organise an outing towards the front, with sedan chairs, bearers, two or three local notables (T.Y. Liu, A.W. Kao, Mr Ching, Major Yang, Shien), Fleming is indefatigable. On they plod to Siaofeng, Ti-pu and Meiki. Here the atmosphere is very restless, the miltary authorities are visibly unhappy to see them, half their own Chinese want to get away. The spend a troubled night, with people coming and going at the military headquarters where they’ve bivouaced and, after breakfast, they give in to the Chinese badgering, turn about, and retrace their steps. Twelve hours later the town of Meiki fell to the Japanese. On they plod up a steep hillside, carried by coolies, and down the precipitous other side, down to Tien-mu-shan and then by car to Yu-tsien (p.229).

We stopped to get petrol near a restaurant where they were cooking bamboo in all its forms – including the strips used for making chairs. That, I thought, is so typical of this country. Nothing is specifically either eatable or uneatable. You could being munching a hat, or bite a mouthful out of a wall; equally, you could build a hut with the food provided at lunch. Everything is everything. (p.230)

Isherwood hates Chinese food and, eventually, Auden agrees. At Kin-hwa Fleming leaves them. It’s a shame they’ve ended up getting on famously. It’s interesting that both Auden and Isherwood initially were against him because he went to Eton. The narcissism of minor differences knows no limits.

They say goodbye to all the people they’ve met in Kin-hwa and set off by bus for Wenchow. They take a river steamer from Wenchow to Shanghai.

Arrival in Shanghai on 25 May signals the end of their adventures. They stay in the chaotic, colourful, corrupt city till 12 June. Fascinating to think that over in his house in the International Settlement, young James Graham Ballard was playing with his toy soldiers, dreaming about flying and laying the grounds for one of the most distinctive and bizarre voices in post-war fiction.

And Isherwood confirms the strange, deliriously surreal atmosphere of a Chinese city which had been invaded and conquered by the Japanese, who had destroyed a good deal of the Chinese city but left the International and the French Settlements intact. They attend receptions at the British Embassy, are the guest of a British businessman hosting high-level Japs.

There is no doubt Auden and Isherwood hate the Japanese, can’t see the flag hanging everywhere without thinking about all the times in the past four months when they’ve ducked into cover as Japanese bombers rumbled overhead and fighters swooped to strafe the roads.

This is the only section of this long book with real bite. Isherwood interviews a British factory inspector who describes the appalling conditions Chinese workers endure and notes that they’ll all be made much worse by the Japanese conquerors.

Schoolboys

It’s a truism to point out that the Auden Generation was deeply marked by its experience of English public schools, but it is still striking to see how often the first analogy they reach for is from their jolly public schools, endless comparisons with school speeches and prize days and headmasters.

  • Under the camera’s eye [Chiang kai-shek] stiffened visibly like a schoolboy who is warned to hold himself upright (p.68)
  • Mission-doctors [we were told] were obliged to smoke in secret, like schoolboys (p.88)
  • They scattered over the fields, shouting to each other, laughing, turning somersaults, like schoolboys arriving at the scene of a Sunday school picnic (p.142)
  • The admiral, with his great thrusting naked chin… and the Consul-General, looking like a white-haired schoolboy, receive their guests. (p.156)
  • [Mr A.O. Kao] has a smooth, adolescent face, whose natural charm is spoiled by a perpetual pout and by his fussy school-prefect’s air of authority (p.201)
  • Producing a pencil, postulating our interest as a matter of course, he drew highroads, shaded in towns, arrowed troop movements; lecturing us like the brilliant sixth-form boy who takes the juniors in history while the headmaster is away. (p.200)
  • The cling and huddle in the new disaster
    Like children sent to school (p.278)
  • With those whose brains are empty as a school in August (p.291)

The photos

At the end of the huge slab of 250 pages of solid text, the book then had 31 pages of badly reproduced black and white photos taken by Auden. In fact there are 2 per page, so that’s 62 snaps in all.

I don’t think there’s any getting round the fact that they’re average to poor. Some are portraits of people they met, notably Chiang kai-shek and Madame Chiang, Chou en-lai of the communists, and celebrities such as Peter Fleming the dashing travel writer and Robert Capa the handsome war photographer. A dozen or more named people, Chinese, missionaries and so on. And then lots of anonymous soldiers and scenes, the dead from an air raid, the derailed steam train, coolies in poverty, a Japanese prisoner of war, a Japanese soldier keeping guard in Shanghai, Auden with soldiers in a trench and so on.

Remarkably, few if any of these seem to be online. I can’t imagine they’re particularly valuable and their only purpose would be to publicise the book and promote Auden and Isherwood’s writings generally, so I can’t imagine why the copyright holders have banned them. If I owned them, I’d create a proper annotated online gallery for students and fans to refer to.

In Time of War

The book then contains a sequence of 27 sonnets by Auden titled In Time of War. In later collections he retitled them Sonnets from China. They are, on the whole, tiresomely oracular, allegorical and obscure. The earlier ones seem to be retelling elements of the Bible, Genesis etc as if recapitulating the early history of mankind. These then somehow morph into the ills of modern society with its bombers.

But one of them stands out from the rest because it reports real details and rises to real angry eloquence.

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(Sonnet XVI from In Time of War)

Those last lines have stayed with me all my life. Nanking. Dachau. The darkness at the heart of the twentieth century.

Commentary

The last thing in the book is a long poem in triplets, from pages 289 to 301 and titled simply Commentary.

It’s a sort of rewrite of Spain, again giving a hawk’s eye view of history and society, the world and human evolution. It starts off describing what they’ve seen in Auden’s characteristic sweeping style, leaping from one brightly described detail to another, before wandering off to give snapshots of great thinkers from Plato to Hegel.

But at quite a few points voices emerge to deliver speeches. Then, on the last page, the Commentary becomes extremely didactic, ending with a speech by the Voice of Man, no less, the kind of speech he turned out by the score for his plays and choruses and earlier 1930s poems.

But in this context it seems inadequate to the vast and catastrophic war in China which they have just glimpsed, and which was to last for another seven years (till Japan’s defeat in 1945) and was itself followed by the bitter civil war (1945-48) which was only ended by the triumph of Mao Zedong’s communist party early in 1949.

The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned out to be just the start of a decade of terror and atrocity, and Auden’s response is to have the ‘Voice of Man’ preach:

O teach me to outgrow my madness.

It’s better to be sane than mad, or liked than dreaded;
It’s better to sit down to nice meals than nasty;
It’s better to sleep two than single; it’s better to be happy.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a silent witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubble;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till they construct at last a human justice,
The contribution of our star, within a shadow
Of which uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All other reasons may rejoice and operate.

It yet another of his prayers, deliberately personal in scale, addressed mostly to chums from public school, fellow poets, friendly dons and reviewers. It is calling on people who are already well-fed, well-educated and mostly decent chaps to be a bit more decent, if that’s alright. But ‘ruffling up your perfect manners’ wasn’t going to stop Franco or the Japs, Hitler or Stalin.

It is ironic of Auden to ask people to remove from their heads ‘impressive rubble’, which I take to mean the luggage of an expensive education in the arts – as that is precisely what he was going to use to make a living out of for the next 35 years and which was to underpin and inform all his later works.

And there are numerous small but characteristic examples of learnèd wit it here, such as when they light a fire which is so smokey that it forces them out of the room and Auden wittily remarks, ‘Better to die like Zola than Captain Scott’ (i.e. of smoke asphyxiation rather than from freezing).

In this respect the Commentary is another grand speech which, like the grand speeches in the plays he’d just written with Isherwood, was, in the end, addressed to himself. Once again, as with Spain, Auden has used a huge historical event to conduct a lengthy self-analysis.

Auden’s contemporary readers were impressed, as ever, by his style and fluency but, as ever, critical of his strange inability to engage with anything outside himself and, specifically, to rise to the occasion of such a massive historical event.

Half way through the text Isherwood tells a story about Auden’s complete conviction that the train they’re on won’t be shot at by the Japanese, whose lines they are going to travel very close to. Sure enough the train emerges on to a stretch of line where it is clearly visible from the forward Japanese lines, which they know to contain heavy artillery, and so they pass a few minutes of terror, petrified that the Japanese might start shelling any second. In the event, there is no shelling, and the train veers away to safety. ‘See. I told you so,’ says Auden, and Isherwood reflects that there’s no arguing with ‘the complacency of a mystic’.

It’s a joke at his old mate’s expense and yet I thought, yes – complacency – in Auden’s case complacency means undeviating confidence in his own mind and art to hold off, inspect and analyse. He creates a rhetoric of concern but it is nothing more than that, a poet’s rhetoric, fine to admire but which changes nothing.

And he knew this, had realised it during the trip to Spain, and had lost heart in the political verse of the 1930s. The pair returned from China via America, where all mod cons were laid on by his American publishers and Auden realised that here was a much bigger, richer, more relaxed, open, friendly and less politically pressurised environment in which to think and write.

He returned to England just long enough to wind up his affairs, pack his bags, then in January 1939 he and Isherwood sailed back to the States which would become his home for the next 30 years, and set about rewriting or suppressing many of his most striking poems from the troubled Thirties, trying to rewrite and then censor what he came to think of as his own dishonesty, pursuing a quest for his own personal version of The Truth.


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