Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

 At Archie Schwert’s party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon, Baron Brendon, Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdinge, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald to the Duchy of Aquitaine, ‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘Isn’t this a repulsive party? What are you going to say about it?’ for they were both of them, as it happened, gossip writers for the daily papers.

I tend to prefer older novels to contemporary novels and poetry because they are more unexpected, diverting, free from our narrow and oppressive modern morality and better written. Go any distance into the past and the characters will have better manners and the narrator write a more grammatically  correct English than you get nowadays. There will also be old phrases which I dimly remember from my youth which have now vanished, swamped by all-conquering Americanisms. And, sometimes, you just get scenes which are odder and more unexpected than earnest, issue-led modern fiction can allow itself. Thus, at the opening of Evelyn Waugh’s beautifully written, impeccably well mannered, but ultimately devastating 1932 novel, Vile Bodies, we read:

High above his head swung Mrs Melrose Ape’s travel-worn Packard car, bearing the dust of three continents, against the darkening sky, and up the companion-way at the head of her angels strode Mrs Melrose Ape, the woman evangelist.

Not the kind of sentence you read every day.

Crossing the Channel

Vile Bodies opens on a cross-channel ferry packed with an assortment of Waugh-esque eccentrics, including a seen-it-all-before Jesuit priest, Father Rothschild, a loud and brash American woman evangelist, Mrs Melrose Ape, and her flock of young followers; some members of the fashionable ‘Bright Young People’ aka ‘the Younger Set’ (Miles Malpractice, ‘brother of Lord Throbbing’, and the toothsome Agatha Runcible, ‘Viola Chasm’s daughter’); two tittering old ladies named Lady Throbbing and Mrs Blackwater; the recently ousted Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Walter Outrage, M.P.; and a hopeful young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes, who has been writing a novel in Paris.

Although there are passages of narrative description what becomes quickly obvious is that Waugh is experimenting with the novel form in a number of ways. One is by presenting short snatches of conversation and dialogue between a lot of groups of characters briskly intercut. No narratorial voice gives a setting or description, there is only the barest indication who’s talking, sometimes no indication at all. You’re meant to recognise the speakers by the style and content of what they say. It’s like the portmanteau movies of the 1970s, like a Robert Altman movie, briskly cutting between short scenes of  busy dialogue.

The book as a whole is a concerted satire on the generation of ‘Bright Young Things’, the privileged young British aristocrats and upper-middle-class public schoolboys who were adolescents during the Great War and who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge in the early 1920s, throwing themselves into a lifestyle of wild abandon and endless partying in the rich man’s quarter of London, Mayfair.

As you might expect, we not only get accounts of their activities, but the point of view of their disapproving elders and betters. Here’s the former Prime Minister, who we often find in conclave with Lord Metroland and Father Rothschild:

‘They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade — and all they seem to do is to play the fool. Mind you, I’m all in favour of them having a fling. I dare say that Victorian ideas were a bit strait-laced. Saving your cloth, Rothschild, it’s only human nature to run a bit loose when one’s young. But there’s something wanton about these young people to-day.’

The younger generation’s frivolity is exemplified in the way Adam’s engagement with his fiancée, Nina Blount, is on again, off again, on again, their breaking up and making up punctuating the novel right till the end, in a running gag.

To start it off, Adam telephones Nina to tell her that the customs officials at Dover confiscated his novel and burned it for obscenity. She is sad but has to dash off to a party. In London he checks into the eccentric Shepheards Hotel (note the posh spelling), Dover Street, run by the blithely forgetful owner, Lottie Crump, who can never remember anyone’s name (‘”‘You all know Lord Thingummy, don’t you?’ said Lottie”). Lottie was, apparently, based, as Waugh tells us in his preface, on ‘Mrs Rosa Lewis and her Cavendish Hotel’.

Here Adam discovers the posh and eccentric clientele, including the ex-king of Ruritania (my favourite), assembled in the bar (the parlour) and wins a thousand pounds on a silly bet with a fellow guest. So he rushes to phone up Nina to tell her their wedding is back on again. She is happy but has to rush off to a party, as she always does.

Adam goes back to the group of guests, all getting drunk, and an older chap who calls himself ‘the Major’ offers the advice that the best way to invest his money is bet on a horse. In fact, he knows a dead cert, Indian Runner, running in the forthcoming November Handicap at twenty to one. So Adam drunkenly hands over his newly-won thousand pounds to the Major to put on this horse. The reader little suspects that this, also, will become a running gag for the rest of the book.

Then Adam stumbles back to the phone in the hallway and rings up Nina to ask her about this horse.  It is a comic premise of the novel that the world it portrays is minuscule and everybody knows everybody else, so it comes as no surprise that Nina just happens to know the horse’s posh owner and tells him it’s an absolute dog and will never win anything. When Adam explains that he’s just handed over his £1,000 to a Major to bet on it, Nina says well, that was foolish but she must dash for dinner and rings off. As usual.

Phone dialogue

A propos Adam and Nina’s conversations, Waugh prided himself that this was the first novel to include extended passages of dialogue carried out on the phone. Something about the phone medium offers the opportunity to make the characters sound even more clipped, superficial and silly than face-to-face conversation would:

‘Oh, I say. Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’
‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?’
‘They burnt my book.’
‘Beasts. Who did?’

Beasts and beastly. Dreadful bores. Ghastly fellows. I say, old chap. That would be divine, darling. Everyone speaks like that, and focusing on the dialogue brings this out.

Gossip columns and the press

Vile Bodies is wall to wall posh. That was its selling point. Waugh tells us that the ‘Bright Young People’ were a feature in the popular press of the time, as the characters in Made In Chelsea or Love Island might be in ours. Hmm maybe the comparison with a TV show is not quite right. After all, the characters appear in the gossip columns of the papers and some of the characters are themselves part of the set who make a career on the side writing about their friends.

When I was younger there were gossip columns by Taki in the Spectator and Nigel Dempster in the Express and Daily Mail. I imagine the same kind of thing persists today. Obviously people like to read about the goings-on of the rich and privileged with a mixture of mockery and jealousy. That’s very much the mix Waugh was catering to. He’s well aware of it. He overtly describes the ‘kind of vicarious inquisitiveness into the lives of others’ which gossip columns in all ages satisfy.

But over and above the permanent interest in the comings and goings of the very rich, the subject of the dissolute younger generation just happened to be in the news at the time and so Waugh’s novel happened to be addressing a hot topic at just the right moment. He was instantly proclaimed the ‘voice’ of that generation and Vile Bodies was picked up and reviewed, and articles and profiles and interviews were spun off it, and it sold like hot cakes. His reputation was made.

Interesting that right from the start of his writing career, it was deeply involved in the press, in the mediaVile Bodies is, on one level, about the rivalry between two gossip columnists for popular newspapers, and feature scenes in newsrooms and even with the editor of the main paper. Two of his books from the mid-30s describe how he was hired by a newspaper as a temporary foreign correspondent, the two factual books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia. And he used the experiences and material from both books as material for his satirical masterpiece about the press, Scoop (1938). If we look back at Decline and Fall with this in mind, we notice that a number of key moments in that book are caused by newspaper reports, and that many of the events are picked up and reported by and mediated by the Press.

Waugh’s 1930s novels are famous for their bright and often heartlessly comic depiction of the very highest of London high society, but it’s worth pointing out how the topic of the Press runs through all of them, and the extent to which his characters perform their roles and are aware of themselves as performers (see below).

Bright Young People

Anyway, back to Vile Bodies, it is a masterpiece of deliberately brittle superficial satire, the text’s fragmentation into snippets of speech enacting the snippets of apparently random, inconsequent conversation overheard at a party, the world it comes from being one of endless parties, endless frivolity, which he captures quite brilliantly.

‘Who’s that awful-looking woman? I’m sure she’s famous in some way. It’s not Mrs Melrose Ape, is it? I heard she was coming.’
‘Who?’
‘That one. Making up to Nina.’
‘Good lord, no. She’s no one. Mrs Panrast she’s called now.’
‘She seems to know you.’
‘Yes, I’ve known her all my life. As a matter of fact, she’s my mother.’
‘My dear, how too shaming.’

It’s a set, a group, a clique. They all know each other and many are related, couples, parents, children, aunts, cousins. Waugh’s novels themselves partake of this cliqueyness by featuring quite a few recurring characters. Figures we first met in the previous novel, Decline and Fall, include Lord Circumference and Miles Malpractice, little David Lennox the fashionable society photographer. Lord Vanbrugh the gossip columnist is presumably the son of the Lady Vanbrugh who appeared in D&F and Margot Maltravers, formerly Mrs Beste-Chetwynde who was a central character in the same novel, also makes an appearance under her new name, Lady Metroland, hosting a fashionable party. (She confirms her identity by whispering to a couple of Mrs Ape’s angels that she can get them a job in South America if she wishes, the reader of the previous novel knowing this would be at one of Lady M’s string of brothels there). And quite a few of these characters go on to appear in Waugh’s later novels. The effect is to create a comically complete ‘alternative’ version of English high society, with its narrow interconnectedness.

Thus we know from Decline and Fall that Lord Metroland married Margot Beste-Chetwynde. She was heiress to the Pastmaster title. Therefore her son, Peter Beste-Chetwynde, in time becomes Lord Pastmaster. Margot caused a great stir in Decline and Fall by going out with a stylish young black man.  Here in Vile Bodies there is a sweet symmetry in discovering that her son is going out with a beautiful black woman. Hence Lord Metroland’s grumpy remark:

‘Anyhow,’ said Lord Metroland, ‘I don’t see how all that explains why my stepson should drink like a fish and go about everywhere with a negress.’
‘My dear, how rich you sound.’
‘I feel my full income when that young man is mentioned.’

Sociolect

The snobbery is enacted in the vocabulary of the text. Various social distinctions are, of course, directly indicated by possession of a title or one’s family. But also, of course, by how one speaks. Obviously there’s the question of accent, the way the upper class distinguish themselves from the middle and lower classes. But it’s also a specific vocabulary which marks one off as a member of the chosen, its sociolect – not only its slang but a very precise choice of key words which mark off a group, signal to other members one’s membership of the group and of course, signal to everyone else their very definite exclusion. Thus:

Divine Mrs Mouse thinks a party should be described as lovely. When her daughter describes the party she’s just been to as divine her mother tut tuts because that single word betokens the class above theirs, indicates that her daughter is getting above her station.

‘It was just too divine,’ said the youngest Miss Brown.
‘It was what, Jane?’

Because it is a word very much associated with the hardest core of the upper classiest of the Bright Young Things, represented in this book by the wild and heedless party animal, Miss Agatha Runcible.

Miss Runcible said that she had heard of a divine night club near Leicester Square somewhere where you could get a drink at any hour of the night.

Bogus This is another word much in vogue to mean simply ‘bad’ with the obvious overtone of fake:

  • ‘Oh, dear,’ she said, ‘this really is all too bogus.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.

In fact their use of ‘bogus’ is cited by Father Rothschild as one of the things he notices about the younger generation. He takes a positive view of it, suggesting to his buddies Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland that the young actually have very strict morals and find the post-war culture they’ve inherited broken and shallow and deceitful. (In this way ‘bogus’ for the 1920s was similar to what  ‘phoney’ was to be for Americans in the 1950s as popularised by Catcher In The Rye, ‘square’ was for hippies, and ‘gay’ is for modern schoolchildren).

Too ‘Too’ is an adverb of degree, indicating excess. Most of us use it in front of adjectives as a statement of fact, for example ‘This tea is too hot’. But the upper classes use it as one among many forms of exaggeration, indicating the simply superlative nature of their experiences, their lives and their darling selves. Used like this, ‘too’ doesn’t convey factual information but is a class marker; in fact its very factual emptiness, its semantic redundancy, highlights its role as a marker of membership:

  • ‘I think it’s quite too sweet of you…’
  • ‘Isn’t this too amusing?’
  • ‘Isn’t that just too bad of Vanburgh?’

‘It was just too divine’ contains a double superlative, the adverb ‘too’ but also the adjective ‘divine’ itself, which is obviously being used with frivolous exaggeration. The party was divine. You are divine. I am divine. We are divine.

Such and so Grammatically ‘such’ is a determiner and ‘so’ is an adverb. So ‘so’ should be used in front of an adjective, ‘such’ in front of a noun phrase. In this narrow society, they are both used in much the same way as ‘too’, to emphasise that everything a speaker is talking about is the absolute tip top. After listening to someone telling us they had such a good time at such a wonderful party and spoke to such a lovely man, and so on, we quickly get the picture that the speaker lives a very superior life. To get the full effect it needs to be emphasised:

  • Such a nice stamp of man.’
  • ‘It seems such a waste.’
  • Such nice people.’
  • Such a nice bright girl.’

There’s an element of risk in talking like this. Only a certain kind of person can carry it off. Trying it on among people who don’t buy into the entire elite idea, or among the real elite who know that you are not a member, risks ridicule.

So talking like this is a kind of taunt – I can get away with this ridiculous way of speaking but you can’t. The epitome of this verbal bravado is Miss Runcible, whose every word is littered with mannered vocabulary and superlatives, flaunting her superlative specialness, daring anyone else to compete.

Simply Paradoxically, for a very self-conscious elite, the pose is one of almost idiotic simplicity. Consider Bertie Wooster. His idiocy underpins his membership of the toff class. He is too stupid to do anything practical like have a job and his upper class idiocy is a loud indicator that he doesn’t need a job, but lives a life of privilege. Well one indicator of this attitude is use of the word simply.

  • ‘I simply do not understand what has happened’
  • ‘Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?’
  • ‘Now they’re simply thrilled to the marrow about it .’
  • ‘She’d simply loathe it, darling.’
  • ‘Of course, they’re simply not gentlemen, either of them.’

Darling Preferably drawled, a usage only the very confident and suave can get away with.

‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’ said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

Terribly Another denoter of frivolous giddy poshness, since the time of Oscar Wilde at least, via Saki and Noel Coward. Terribly and frightfully.

  • ‘No, really, I think that’s frightfully nice of you. Look, here’s the money. Have a drink, won’t you?’
  • ‘I say, you must be frightfully brainy.’

-making Many of these elements have survived the past 90 years, they continued into the equally frivolous Swinging Sixties and on into our own times, though often mocked, as in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous (1992 to 1996). A locution which is a bit more specific to this generation, or certainly to this book, is creating phrases by adding ‘-making’ to the end of an adjective. Thus:

  • ‘Too, too sick-making,’ said Miss Runcible.
  • ‘As soon as I get to London I shall ring up every Cabinet Minister and all the newspapers and give them all the most shy-making details.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.
  • ‘Wouldn’t they be rather ill-making?’
  • ‘Very better-making,’ said Miss Runcible with approval as she ate her haddock.

The usage occurs precisely 13 times in the novel, mostly associated with the most daring character, fearless Miss Runcible, and Waugh pushes it to a ludicrous extreme when he has her say:

‘Goodness, how too stiff-scaring….’ (p.174)

This locution made enough of an impression that Waugh singled it out in his preface to the 1964 edition of the novel for being widely commented on, and even taken up by a drama critic who included it in various reviews: ‘”Too sick-making”, as Mr Waugh would say.’ Did people actually say it, or was it a very felicitous invention?

Cockney

In my review of Decline and Fall I noted how much Waugh liked describing Cockney or working class characters and revelled in writing their dialogue. Same here. Thus a taxi driver tells Adam:

‘Long way from here Doubting ‘All is. Cost you fifteen bob…If you’re a commercial, I can tell you straight it ain’t no use going to ‘im.’

This turns out not to be a personal foible of Waugh’s. In Vile Bodies we learn that mimicking Cockney accents was highly fashionable among the creme de la creme of the Bright Young Things.

  • ‘Go away, hog’s rump,’ said Adam, in Cockney,
  • ‘Pretty as a picture,’ said Archie, in Cockney, passing with a bottle of champagne in his hand.
  • ‘Look,’ said Adam, producing the cheque. ‘Whatcher think of that?’ he added in Cockney.
  • ‘Good morning, all,’ she said in Cockney.

At university I knew very posh public schoolboys who had a cult of suddenly dropping into very thick Jamaican patois which they copied from hard-core reggae music (the extreme Jamaican pronunciation of ‘nay-shun’ kept recurring). Same kind of thing here – upper class types signalling their mockery and frivolity by mimicking the accents of the people about as far away from them on the social spectrum as possible.

Alcohol

Everyone’s either drunk, getting drunk or hungover. Their catchphrase is ‘Let’s have a drink’.

‘How about a little drink?’ said Lottie.

The American critic Edmund Wilson made the same comment about the literary types he knew in 1920s New York, and in general about ‘the Roaring Twenties’, ‘the Jazz Era’. Everyone drank like fish.

They went down the hill feeling buoyant and detached (as one should if one drinks a great deal before luncheon). (p.173)

Everyone was nursing a hangover. Everyone needed one for the road or a pick-me-up the next morning, or a few drinks before lunch, and during lunch, and mid-afternoon, and something to whet the whistle before dinner, and then onto a club for drinks and so on into the early hours. At luncheon with Nina’s father:

First they drank sherry, then claret, then port.

It goes without saying that these chaps and chapesses are not drinking beer or lager. Champagne is the unimpeachable, uncritisable, eternal choice for toffs and all occasions.

  • (Unless specified in detail, all drinks are champagne in Lottie’s parlour.)
  • Archie Schwert, as he passed, champagne bottle in hand, paused to say, ‘How are you, Mary darling?’
  • Adam hurried out into the hall as another bottle of champagne popped festively in the parlour.

Drinking heavily and one more for the road and still partying at dawn are fine if you’re in your 20s (and well off and good looking). Give it 40 years and you end up looking and talking like the Major in Fawlty Towers as so many of these bright young things eventually did.

Ballard Berkeley as Major Gowen in Fawlty Towers

The extended scene at the motor races (Chapter Ten) contains a very funny description of four posh people becoming very drunk. Their progressive inebriation is conveyed entirely via their speech patterns, which become steadily more clipped and the subject matter steadily more absurd, so that when a race steward comes round to enquire where the  driver of the car they’re supporting has gone to (his arm was hurt in an accident so he’s pulled into the pits and his car is empty) they immediately reply that he’s been murdered. When the steward asks if there’s a replacement driver, they immediately reply, straight faced, that he’s been murdered too.

‘Driver’s just been murdered,’ said Archie. ‘Spanner under the railway bridge. Marino.’
‘Well, are you going to scratch? Who’s spare driver?’
‘I don’t know. Do you, Adam? I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if they hadn’t murdered the spare driver, too.’

Since they each drink a bottle of champagne before lunch, the three posh friends start to come down at teatime and Waugh is as good on incipient hangovers as on inebriation.

The effect of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance handbooks, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay. (p.177)

More on this scene below.

Politics

The satirical point of view extends up into political circles, one of the jokes being that several of the most extreme and disreputably hedonistic of the Bright Young People are, with a certain inevitability, the sons and daughter of the leaders of the main parties and, since one or other of them is in power at any given moment, children of the Prime Minister.

In fact the mockery extends to the novel’s cheerfully satirical notion that the British government falls roughly every week. In the opening chapter we meet the Prime Minister who’s just been ousted, Outrage, and in the same chapter the supremely modish Miss Runcible. Only slowly does it become clear that she is, with a certain inevitability, the daughter of the current Prime Minister (Sir James Brown).

Half way through the book this Prime Minister is ousted because of stories about the wild party held at Number 10 which climaxed with his half-naked daughter, dressed as a Hawaiian dancer, stumbling drunkenly out the front steps of Number 10 and straight into the aim of numerous press photographers and journalists. Disreputable parties held by Tory toffs at Number 10? Well, it seems that in this, as so many other aspects of British life, nothing has really changed since the 1930s.

Moments of darkness

The best comedy, literary comedy as opposed to gag fests, hints at darker undertones. Shakespeare’s comedies tread, briefly, close to genuine cruelty or torment as, for example, in the hounding of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Comedy generally is an unstable genre. For a generation or more we’ve had the comedy of cruelty or humiliation or embarrassment. I find a lot of modern comedy, such as The Office too embarrassing and depressing to watch.

Waugh’s comedy goes to extremes. It often includes incidents of complete tragedy which are played for laughs, or flicker briefly in the frivolous narrative as peripheral details, which are glossed over with comic nonchalance but which, if you pause to focus on them, are very dark.

It’s there in Decline and Fall when little Lord Tangent has his foot grazed by a shot from the starting gun at school sports day, the wound gets infected and he has to have the foot amputated. A lot later we learn, in a throwaway remark, that he has died.

Flossie’s death

Something similar happens here when a young woman, Florence or Flossie Ducane, involved in a drunken party in the room of one of the posh guests at the posh Shepheard’s Hotel attempts to swing from a chandelier which snaps and she falls to the floor and breaks her neck. Adam sees a brief report about it in the newspaper:

Tragedy in West-End Hotel.
‘The death occurred early this morning at a private hotel in Dover Street of Miss Florence Ducane, described as being of independent means, following an accident in which Miss Ducane fell from a chandelier which she was attempting to mend.

1. All kinds of things are going on here. One is the way moments of real tragedy provide a foil for the gay abandon of most of the characters. Each of these momentary tragedies is a tiny, flickering memento of the vast disaster of the First World War which looms over the entire decade like a smothering nightmare – all those dead husbands and brothers and fathers who everyone rushes round brightly ignoring.

(There’s a famous moment in the story, when Adam is hurrying to Marylebone station to catch a train out to the country pile of Nina’s father [Doubting Hall, Aylesbury], when the clock strikes 11 and everyone all over London, all over the country is still and quiet for 2 minutes because it is Remembrance Sunday. Then the 2 minutes are up and everybody’s hurly burly of life resumes. When I was young I read the handful of sentences which describe it as an indictment of the shallowness of Adam and the world, barely managing their perfunctory 2 minutes’ tribute. Now I see it as a momentary insight into the darkness which underlies everything, which threatens all values.)

2. On another level, the way Adam reads about Flossie’s death in a newspaper epitomises the way all the characters read about their own lives in the press; their lives are mediated by the media, written up and dramatised like performances. They read out to each other the gossip column reports about their behaviour at the latest party like actors reading reviews of their performances, and then, in turn, give their opinions on the columnists/critics’s writing up, creating a closed circle of mutual admiration and/or criticism.

3. On another, more obviously comic, level, what you could call the PR level, Adam smiles quietly to himself at how well the owner of the Shepheard’s Hotel, Lottie Crump, handled the police and journalists who turned up to cover Flossie’s death, smooth-talking them, offering them all champagne, and so managing to steer them all away from the fact that the host of the party where the death occurred was a venerable American judge, Judge Skimp. His name has been very successfully kept out of the papers. Respect for Lottie.

Simon Balcairn’s suicide

Then there’s another death, much more elaborately explained and described. Simon, Earl of Balcairn, has his career as a leading gossip columnist (writing the ‘Chatterbox’ column in the Daily Excess) ruined after he is boycotted by Margot Metroland and blacklisted from the London society through whom he makes his living. He gets Adam to phone Margot and plead to be admitted to her latest party, one she is giving for the fashionable American evangelist, Mrs Ape, but she obstinately refuses. He even dresses up in disguise with a thick black beard and gatecrashes, but is detected and thrown out.

Convinced that his career, and so his life is over, Simon phones in one last great story to his newspaper, the Daily Excess, a completely fictitious account of Margot’s party in which he makes up uproarious scenes of half London’s high society falling to their knees amid paroxysms of religious guilt and renunciation (all completely fictitious) – then, for the first time completely happy with his work, lays down with his head in his gas oven, turns on the gas, inhales deeply, and dies. It is, and is meant to be, bleak.

This feel for the darkness which underlies the giddy social whirl, and the complicated psychological effect which is produced by cleverly counterpointing the two tones, becomes more evident in Waugh’s subsequent novels, Black Mischief (1932) and A Handful of Dust (1934). In this novel he describes it as

that black misanthropy…which waits alike on gossip writer and novelist…

And it appears more and more as the novel progresses, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam. Nina starts the novel as the model of a social butterfly, utterly empty-headed and optimistic. After she and Adam have a dirty night in Arundel i.e. sex i.e. she loses her virginity, she ceases being so much fun. She finds the parties less fun. She starts to squabble with Adam. About half way through the novel she is, uncoincidentally, the peg for an extended passage which sounds a note of disgust at the book’s own subject matter (which is where, incidentally, the title comes from):

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris–all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies…)

Waugh cannily sprinkles among the witty dialogue and endless parties a slowly mounting note of disgust and revulsion.

Comedy is adults behaving like children

From the moment of her deflowering Nina grows steadily more serious, almost depressed. You realise it’s because, in having sex, she’s become an adult. Things aren’t quite so much bright innocent fun any more. At which point I realised that the appeal of the Bright Young Things is, in part, because they behave like children, drunk and dancing and singing (OK, so the drinking is not exactly like young children) but at its core their behaviour is childish, persistently innocent and naive.

The Bright Young People came popping all together, out of some one’s electric brougham like a litter of pigs, and ran squealing up the steps.

Much comedy is based on adults behaving like children. It’s a very reliable way of getting a comic effect in all kinds of works and movies and TV shows. It occurs throughout this book. There’s a funny example when, at Margot Metroland’s party, the ageing ex-Prime Minister, Mr Outrage, gets caught up in the exposure of Simon Balcairn infiltrating the party in disguise but, because of the obscure way the thing is revealed with a variety of pseudonyms and disguises, the PM becomes increasingly confused, like a child among adults and he is reduced to childishly begging someone to explain to him what is going on. The comic effect is then extended when he is made to confess he experiences the same bewildering sense of being out of his depth even in his own cabinet meetings.

‘I simply do not understand what has happened…. Where are those detectives?… Will no one explain?… You treat me like a child,’ he said. It was all like one of those Cabinet meetings, when they all talked about something he didn’t understand and paid no attention to him.

Mr Chatterbox

Balcairn’s suicide creates a vacancy for a new ‘Mr Chatterbox’ and Adam happens to be dining in the same restaurant (Espinosa’s, the second-best restaurant in London) as the features editor of the Daily Excess, they get into conversation and so, with the casualness so typical of every aspect of these people’s lives, he is offered the job on the spot. ‘Ten pounds a week and expenses.’

Adam’s (brief) time as a gossip columnist turns into a comic tour de force. Just about everyone Simon mentioned in his last great fictitious account of Margot’s party (mentioned above) sues the Daily Excess (’62 writs for libel’!) with the result that the proprietor, Lord Monomark, draws up a list of them all and commands that none of them must ever, ever be mentioned in the paper again. This presents Adam with a potentially ruinous problem because the list includes ‘everyone who is anyone’ and so, on the face of it, makes his job as gossip columnist to London’s high society impossible.

He comes up with two solutions, the first fairly funny, the second one hilarious. The first one is to report the doings of C-listers, remote cousins and distant relatives of the great and good, who are often ailing and hard done by. The column’s readers:

learned of the engagement of the younger sister of the Bishop of Chertsey and of a dinner party given in Elm Park Gardens by the widow of a High Commissioner to some of the friends she had made in their colony. There were details of the blameless home life of women novelists, photographed with their spaniels before rose-covered cottages; stories of undergraduate ‘rags’ and regimental reunion dinners; anecdotes from Harley Street and the Inns of Court; snaps and snippets about cocktail parties given in basement flats by spotty announcers at the B.B.C., of tea dances in Gloucester Terrace and jokes made at High Table by dons.

This has the unexpected benefit of creating new fans of the column who identify with the ailments or  afflictions of these ‘resolute non-entities’.

The second and more radical solution is simply to make it up. Like a novelist, Adam creates a new set of entirely fictional high society characters. He invents an avant-garde sculptor called Provna, giving him such a convincing back story that actual works by Provna start to appear on the market, and go for good prices at auction. He invents a popular young attaché at the Italian Embassy called Count Cincinnati, a dab hand at the cello. He invents Captain Angus Stuart-Kerr the famous big game hunter and sensational ballroom dancer.

Immediately his great rival gossip columnist, Vanbrugh, starts featuring the same (utterly fictional characters) in his column, and then other characters begin to mention them in conversation (‘Saw old Stuart-Kerr at Margot’s the other day. Lovely chap’) and so on. This is funny because it indicates how people are so desperate to be in the swim and au courant that they will lie to themselves about who they’ve seen or talked to. It indicates the utter superficiality of the world they inhabit which can be interpreted, moralistically, as a bad thing; but can also be seen as a fun and creative thing: why not make up the society you live in, if the real world is one of poverty and war?

But Adam’s masterpiece is the divinely slim and attractive Mrs Imogen Quest, the acme of social desirability, to whom he attributes the height of social standing. She becomes so wildly popular that eventually the owner of the Daily Excess, Lord Monomark, sends down a message saying he would love to meet this paragon. At which point, in a mild panic, Adam quickly writes a column announcing the unfortunate news that Mrs Quest had sailed to Jamaica, date of return unknown.

You get the idea. Not rocket science, but genuinely funny, inventive, amusing.

Father Rothschild as moral centre

Adam and Nina are invited to a bright young party held in a dirigible i.e. airship.

On the same night their more staid parents, politicians and grandees attend a much more traditional party for the older generation at Anchorage House. The main feature of this is the Jesuit Father Rothschild sharing with Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland a surprisingly mild, insightful and sympathetic view of the behaviour of the young generation. They have come into a world robbed of its meaning by the war, a world where the old values have been undermined and destroyed and yet nothing new has replaced them. A decade of financial and political crises ending up in a great crash. No wonder they make a point of not caring about anything. Genuinely caring about someone or something only risks being hurt. Hence the vehemence of the display of aloofness, nonchalance, insouciance, darling this and divine that and frightfully the other, and refusing point blank to ever be serious about anything.

In fact, Father Rothschild is given an almost apocalyptic speech:

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions.’

And this was written a few years before Hitler even came to power. Everyone knew it. Everyone sensed it. The coming collapse. The bright young things are laughing in the dark.

A touch of Auden

W.H. Auden often gets the credit for introducing industrial landscapes and landscapes blighted by the Great Depression into 1930s poetry, but it’s interesting to notice Waugh doing it here in prose. In a plane flying to the South of France, Nina looks down through the window:

Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots; they were marrying and shopping and making money and having children.

One episode in the sad and dreary strand of English poetry and prose through the middle half of the twentieth century, E.M. Foster’s lament for the cancerous growth of London in the Edwardian era, D.H. Lawrence’s horrified descriptions of the mining country, John Betjeman’s comic disgust at light industrial towns like Slough, Philip Larkin’s sad descriptions of windswept shopping centres. But during the 1930s it had an extra, apocalyptic tone because of the sense of deep economic and social crisis.

Other scenes

The movie

Adam goes back to visit Nina’s father for a second time to try and borrow money, but is amazed to walk into the surreal scene of a historical drama being filmed at her father’s decaying country house (Doubting Hall, set in extensive grounds) by a dubious film company The Wonderfilm Company of Great Britain, run by an obvious shyster, a Mr Isaacs. (Worth noting, maybe, that Waugh has the leading lady of the movie, use what would nowadays be an unacceptable antisemitic epithet. Waugh himself has  some of his characters, on very rare occasions, disparage Jews, but then they disparage the middle classes, politicians, the authorities and lots of other groups. Their stock in trade is amused contempt for everyone not a member of their social circle. Waugh comes nowhere near the shocking antisemitism which blackens Saki’s short stories and novels.)

Isaac is such a shyster he offers to sell Adam the complete movie, all the rushes and part-edited work for a bargain £500. Adam recognises a crook when he sees one. But his prospective father-in-law doesn’t, and it’s a comic thread that, towards the end of the novel, old Colonel Blount has bought the stock off Isaacs and forces his reluctant neighbour, the Rector of his church, to stage an elaborate and disastrous showing of what is obviously a terrible film.

(It is maybe worth noting that Waugh had himself tried his hand at making a film, with some chums from Oxford soon after he left the university, in 1922. It was a version of The Scarlet Woman and shot partly in the gardens at Underhill, his parents’ house in Hampstead.)

The motor race and Agatha

Adam, Agatha Runcible, Miles Malpractice and Archie Schwert pile into Archie’s car for a long drive to some remote provincial town to watch a motorcar race which a friend of Miles’ is competing in. It’s mildly comic that all the good hotels are packed to overflowing so they end up staying in a very rough boarding house, sharing rooms with bed which are alive with fleas. Early next morning they do a bunk.

The car race is described at surprising length, with various comic details (in the pits Agatha keeps lighting up a cigarette, being told to put it out by a steward, and chucking it perilously close to the open cans of petrol; this is very cinematic in the style of Charlie Chaplin).

There is a supremely comic scene where Miles’s friend brings his car into the pits and goes off to see a medic – one of the competitors threw a spanner out his car which hit our driver in the arm. A race steward appears and asks if there’s a replacement driver for the car. Now, in order to smuggle his pals into the pits in the first place, Miles’ friend had handed them each a white armband with random job titles on, such as Mechanic. The one given to Agatha just happened to read SPARE DRIVER so now, drunk as a lord, she points to it and declares: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm.’ The race steward takes down her name and she drunkenly gets into the racing car (she’s never driven a car before) her friends ask if that’s quite wise, to drive plastered, but she replies: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm’ and roars off down the course.

There then follow a sequence of comic announcements over the race tannoy as it is announced that Miss Runcible’s car (‘No 13, the English Plunket-Bowse’) has a) finished one lap in record time b) been disqualified for the record as it is now known she veered off the road and took a short cut c) has left the race altogether, taking a left instead of a right turn at a hairpin corner and last seen shooting off across country.

Our three buddies repair to the drinks tent where they carry on getting drunk. When ‘the drunk major’ turns up, promising to pay Adam the £35,000 that he owes him thanks to the bet he promised to make on a racehorse, they each have a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Eventually it is reported that the car has been spotted in a large village fifteen miles away, town where it has crashed into the big stone market cross (‘ (doing irreparable damage to a monument already scheduled for preservation by the Office of Works)’).

Our threesome hire a taxi to take them there and witness the car wreck, mangled against the stone post and still smoking. Villagers report that a woman was seen exiting the car and stumbling towards the railway station. They make their way to the railway station and the ticket seller tells them he sold a ticket to London to a confused young woman.

(It may be worth noting that this entire chapter, with its extended and detailed description of competitive car racing, was almost certainly based on a real visit to a car race Waugh made, to support his pal David Plunket Greene. The real life race, which took place in 1929, is described, with evocative contemporary photos, in this excellent blog.)

Agatha’s end

To cut a long story short, after interruptions from other strands, we learn that Agatha sustained serious enough injuries in her car smash to be sent to hospital. But that’s not the worst of it. She had concussion and has periodic delusions, so she is referred on to ‘the Wimpole Street nursing home’. Here, in Waugh’s telegraphic style, we are given impressionistic snippets into her nightmares in which she is driving always faster, faster! and the comforting voice of her nurse trying to calm her as she injects her with a tranquiliser.

There’s a final scene in this strand where several of her pals pop round to visit her, bringing flowers but also a little drinky-wink, then some other appear and before you know it there’s a full scale party going on in her room, someone brings a gramophone, they all dance to the latest jazz tune. They even bribe the staid nurse with a few drinks and things are getting rowdy when, inevitably, the stern matron arrives and kicks them all out. Carry on Bright Young Things.

But, long story short, the excitement exacerbates Agatha’s shredded nerves and, towards the end of the narrative, we learn in a typically throwaway comment from one the characters, that Agatha died. Adam:

‘Did I tell you I went to Agatha’s funeral? There was practically no one there except the Chasms and some aunts. I went with Van, rather tight, and got stared at. I think they felt I was partly responsible for the accident…’

The fizzy bubbles mood of the opening half of the novel feels well and truly burst by this stage. Characters carry on partying and behaving like children but it feels like the moral and psychological wreckage is mounting up like a cliff teetering over them all.

Nina’s infidelities

The on again, off again relationship between Nina and Adam comes to a head when she declares she’s in love with a newcomer in their social circle, a man who speaks in even more outrageous posh boy phrases than anyone else. In fact, she casually informs Adam, she and Ginger got married this morning. Oh.

But this is where it gets interesting because Nina is such an airhead that she can’t really decide, she can’t make up her mind between Adam and Ginger. She goes off on a jolly honeymoon to the Med with him, but doesn’t like it one bit, he’s off playing golf most of the day. If you recall, Adam and Nina had had sex, at the hotel in Arundel, so there’s a more than emotional bond between them. Anyway, long and the short of it is she agrees to see him, to come and stay with him and, in effect, to start an affair with him as soon as she gets back to London.

It is all done for laughs but Waugh doesn’t need to draw the moral, to go on about psychological consequences, to editorialise or point out the moral implications for Nina and her set. All of this is conspicuous by its absence. It is left entirely to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Waugh’s text has the chrome-covered sleekness of an Art Deco statuette, slender, stylish, quick, slickly up to date.

He is the English F. Scott Fitzgerald, giving a highly stylised depiction of a generation in headlong pursuit of fun, drinks, drinks and more drinks, endless parties, with the shadow of the coming psychological crash looming closer and closer over his narratives.

The completely unexpected ending

The cinema show

Comedy of a sort continues up to the end, with the scene I mentioned before, of gaga old Colonel Blount, accompanied by Nina and Adam who are staying with him for Christmas, insisting on taking his cinematographic equipment round to the much put-upon local Rector, spending an age setting it up, and then blowing his entire household fuses in showing the terrible rubbish film which the director Isaacs has flogged to him.

It is a great comic scene if, to my mind, no longer as laugh out loud funny as the early scenes, because my imagination has been tainted by a silly death (Flossie), a suicide (Simon Balcairn), the nervous breakdown and death of pretty much the leading figure int he narrative (Agatha).

Anyway, after the power cut, the Colonel, Adam and Nina motor back to Doubting Hall for Christmas dinner and are in the middle of boozy toasts when the Rector phones them with the terrible news. War has broken out. War?

The last world war

In an extraordinary leap in subject matter and style, a startling break with everything which went before it, the very last scene discovers Adam, dressed as a soldier, amid a vast landscape of complete destruction, a barbed wire and mud nightmare derived from the grimmest accounts of the Great War and stretching for as far as the eye can see in every direction. It is the new war, the final war, the war Father Rothschild warned against, the war they all knew was coming and which, in a way, justified their heartless frivolity. Nothing matters. Jobs don’t matter, relationships don’t matter, sobriety or drunkenness, wild gambling, fidelity or infidelity, nothing matters, because they know in their guts that everything, everything, will be swept away.

Waugh’s humour continues till the end, but it is now a grim, bleak humour. For floundering across the mud landscape towards Adam comes a gas-masked figure. For a moment it looks as if they will attack each other, the unknown figure wielding a flame thrower, Adam reaching for one of the new Huxdane-Halley bomb (for the dissemination of leprosy germs) he keeps in his belt. God. Germ warfare. The utter ruined bottom of the pit of a bankrupt civilisation.

Only at the last minute do they realise they’re both British and then, when they take their masks off, Adam recognises the notorious Major, the elusive figure who took his money off him at Shepheard’s all those months (or is it years) ago, to bet on a horse, who he briefly met at the motor racing meet, and now gets talking to him, in that upper class way, as if nothing had happened at all.

‘You’re English, are you?’ he said. ‘Can’t see a thing. Broken my damned monocle.’

Now the Major invites him into the sanctuary of his ruined Daimler car, sunk past its axles in mud.

‘My car’s broken down somewhere over there. My driver went out to try and find someone to help and got lost, and I went out to look for him, and now I’ve lost the car too. Damn difficult country to find one’s way about in. No landmarks…’

It is the landscape of Samuel Beckett’s post-war plays, an unending landscape of utter devastation, dotted with wrecks of abandoned machinery and only a handful of survivors.

Once they’ve clambered into the car’s, the Major opens a bottle of champagne (what else?) and reveals a dishevelled girl wrapped in a great coat, ‘woebegone fragment of womanhood’. On closer examination this turns out to be one of Mrs Apes’ young girls, the laughably named Chastity. When quizzed, Chastity ends the narrative with a page-long account of her trials. It turns out that Margot Metroland did manage to persuade her to leave Mrs Ape’s religious troupe and go and work in one of her South American bordellos –so this fills in the details of the 3 or 4 girls we met during Decline and Fall who were being dispatched to the same fate.

Only with the outbreak of war, she returned to Europe and now presents in a breathless paragraph the story of her employment at a variety of brothels, being forced into service with a variety of conquering or retreating troops of all nations. The Major opens another bottle of champagne and starts chatting her up. Adam watches the girl start flirtatiously playing with his medals as he drifts into an exhausted sleep.

So, Waugh is pretty obviously saying, all of Western civilisation comes down to this: a shallow adulterer, a philandering old swindler, and a well-worn prostitute, holed up in a ruined car in a vast landscape of waste and destruction.

Aftershocks

Vile Bodies is marketed as a great comic novel and it is, and is often very funny, but as my summary suggests, it left me reeling and taking a while to absorb its psychological shocks. The deaths of Flossie, Simon and Agatha, and Nina’s slow metamorphosis into a thoughtless adulterer, all steadily darken the mood, but nothing whatsoever prepares you for the last chapter, which is surely one of the most apocalyptic scenes in the literary canon.

I had various conflicting responses to it, and still do, but the one I’m going to write down takes a negative view.

Possibly, when I was young and impressionable and first read this book, I took this devastating finale to be an indictment of the hollowness of the entire lifestyle depicted in the previous 200 pages. Subject to teenage moodswings which included the blackest despair, I took this extreme vision of the complete annihilation of western civilisation at face value and thought it was a fitting conclusion to a novel which, from one point of view, is ‘about’ the collapse of traditional values (restraint, dignity, sexual morality).

But I’m older now, and now I think it represents an artistic copout. It is so extreme that it ruins the relative lightness of the previous narrative. All the light touches which preceded it are swamped by this huge sea of mud.

And it’s disappointing in not being very clever. Up to this point any reader must be impressed, even if they don’t sympathise with the posh characters, by the style and wit with which Waugh writes, at the fecundity of his imagination, and the countless little imaginative touches and verbal precision with which he conveys his beautifully brittle scenarios.

And then this. Subtle it is not. It feels like a letdown, it feels like a copout. It’s not a clever way to end a noel which had, hitherto, impressed with its style and cleverness. It feels like a suburban, teenage Goth ending. It’s not much above the junior school essay level of writing ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’.

A more mature novel might have ended with the funeral of Agatha Runcible and recorded, in his precise, malicious way, the scattered conversations among the usual characters, momentarily brought down to earth and forced to confront real feelings, before swiftly offering each other and drink and popping the champagne. In this scenario the Major might have turned up as a fleeting character Adam still can’t get to meet, Nina unfaithful thoughts could have been skewered, Margot Metroland’s society dominance reasserted despite heartbreak over her dead daughter, Lord Monomark appointing yet another bright young thing as Mr Chatterbox, the ousted Prime Minister Mr Outrage still utterly confused by what’s going on, and maybe a last word given to sage and restrained Father Rothschild. That’s what I’d have preferred.

Instead Waugh chose to go full Apocalypse Now on the narrative and I think it was a mistake – an artistic error which became more evident as the years passed and the world headed into a second war, which he was to record much more chastely, precisely, and therefore more movingly, in the brilliant Sword of Honour trilogy.


Credit

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1930 by Chapman and Hall. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, and they are sent together on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and turns from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer into a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely, in fact, even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking, crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s, but to everyone else they’re Derek from IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was the lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy, too. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates – short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs and about another band named The Stokers (p.156). This is incredibly tedious.

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later, Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now, Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of fictional ‘locative art’ was…wait for it…a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, who died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307: career peak 1960s and early 70s). On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the writer of the 1967 song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow). And yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and these later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter the world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s now forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned her research into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (a photographer who was at his peak in the 1980s and 90s) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and served by a steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés all over the text like slug trails.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills to monitor a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. All of this makes up a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights, or sober advice his therapist gave him, to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on in the story an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But this sour of the moment act will turn out to have big consequences later on.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer (1997)

It was in the 18th century that the notion of the arts or high art separated from lower, mechanical activities & trade. Poetry, music, painting, sculpture, all dated back to antiquity – but the idea of linking them all into a new category, a separate field of investigation, as done by philosophical pioneers by Kant or Burke, was an 18th century innovation.

The word ‘aesthetics’ was coined in the 1750s – a new area of philosophical study.

The figure of the connoisseur (French) appears, supported by the concept of ‘taste’ and ‘good taste’, separate from the king & aristocracy, the previous sole guardians of taste.

Similarly, the figure of the impresario (Italian) – the middleman, the artistic manager, art dealers, printers & engravers, a Europe-wide network of people feeding the growing demand for ‘art’ from a newly affluent middle class.

David Hume & Adam Smith associated the civilising arts with the influence of commerce in bringing together remote people in a common cause. 18th century polite society was urban – a thing of coffee shops and salons and exchanges and assembly rooms and dining clubs and reading societies – where a wide range of people could meet and debate – no longer with courts.

Critics & sociologists, by defining polite, commercial, refined & tasteful society, also created their opposite, the vulgar, peasant cultures of, for example, the Scottish Highlands – or the backward savage cultures of America & Tahiti. Only later in the century did intellectuals begin to hanker after the folk traditions, stories, poems, legends, songs which had allegedly been expunged by the spread of civilisation – the origins, for example, of the taste for ‘the Celtic’, as explained in the British Museum exhibition Celts: Art and Identity – which also became a component of the Romantic Movement.

The King and Court

After the Civil War no monarch had the money or could get it off Parliament to realise the kind of extravagant building plans executed on the Continent by, for example Louis XVI (Versailles). Charles II couldn’t afford Christopher Wren’s grand plans to rebuild Whitehall, James II didn’t have the time, William III was sour & anti-social, preferring his palaces in Holland, though he grubbed the money to pay for Wren to refurbish Hampton Court. The Georges were foreign and so didn’t want to waste money on English palaces.

First half of the 18th century: The Kit-Kat Club (1696-1720) symbolises the move from Court – royal patronage & libertinage – to the ideals of a civilised society of polite gentlemen, as described in the new Tatler and Spectator magazines. Members; Addison, Steele et al.

Second half of 18th century: Dr Johnson’s Literary Club (1764-94): Johnson, Garrick, Reynolds, Burke.

Polite society

Politeness as a cure for the severe stresses left by the Civil War: politeness more important than ideology or creed: politeness ensuring tolerance & peace. As promoted in the hugely influential Spectator and Tatler.

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