Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

Camus by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970)

O’Brien (1917-2008) was Irish and had a long and varied career alternating between politics (Irish Foreign Office, United Nations, MP), journalism (editor-in-chief of the London Observer) and teaching (at universities in Ghana and New York). So he was well-placed to give an all-round assessment of Camus’s role as a novelist, playwright and above all, politically engaged writer and intellectual, 10 years after the Frenchman’s tragic death.

Only when I’d finished it did I understand the blurbs on the back of the book which point out that the entire study is written to a thesis, with a particular political interpretation in mind.

The Arab problem O’Brien starts by briskly outlining Camus’s biography and then gets on with ruffling feathers and questioning received opinion. He quotes a French writer on Camus who claims that all the working class inhabitants of the slum where Camus grew up were happily inter-racial. No, they weren’t says O’Brien; that kind of community is always troubled and there is evidence of outbreaks of unrest throughout Camus’s life.

O’Brien quotes some of Camus’s earliest essays which already make generalisations about Mediterranean Man, invoking images of Greek temples and so on. Absolutely nowhere in these portraits of his homeland does he mention mosques, muezzin, nowhere in any of his fictions is Arabic spoken. (Arabic was, in fact, banned in Algeria’s French-controlled schools.) Just a few pages into his study, O’Brien claims that, regardless of his conscious intentions, throughout his career Camus’s concept of ‘Mediterranean culture’ – by completely erasing Arab culture – served to legitimise French colonialism.

The Outsider (1940) Tough attitude, eh? O’Brien takes it on into his reading of L’Etranger. Here he points out that the account of Mersault’s trial is misleading. a) Mersault’s defence lawyer would have shown that he was defending himself against an Arab who had drawn a knife and had already attacked his friend, Raymond. Chances are a French court would only have charged him with manslaughter and possibly let him off altogether. No way it would have condemned him to death for self-defence against an Arab. b) The entire trial subtly implies that Frenchman and Arab had identical legal and civil rights in French Algeria, but they didn’t.

By gliding over this basic fact, the entire novel softens and conceals the harshness of French rule. This partly explains why the entire second part, devoted to the improbable trial and a schematic encounter with the prison priest, although its central to the plot, is less well remembered than the first half, set in the streets of Algiers, the beach, the desert heat.

O’Brien voices the misgivings I myself had on recently rereading L’Etranger, that the killing of the Arab is not really real. It is for his entire detachment from society that we feel Mersault is convicted – and this mood of rebellious detachment appeals now as it did then to adolescent minds everywhere. But no longer being a troubled adolescent, for me what stood out was the way the Arab has no name, never speaks and goes completely unlamented.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) O’Brien suggests this long essay is less a work of philosophy than the soliloquy of an artist meditating on suicide and death. He questions the novelty or viability of Camus’s notion of ‘revolt’, claiming that the post-God stance was the common currency of the time, and that every nation had rebelled against the Nazi occupation. O’Brien says that nonetheless the book had a big imapct on him and  his contemporaries because of its vivid affirmations of life in the face of death and despair.

The Plague (1947) O’Brien says The Plague is a masterpiece but it is not a novel; it is an ‘allegorical sermon’, and quotes Camus who himself referred to it as ‘a tract’.

O’Brien points out its flaws. For a start, Camus was apparently influenced by a recent article of Sartre’s on bourgeois fiction, to drop the notion of an omnipotent narrator. Apparently this explains why there is a fallible ‘Narrator’ who makes a fuss explaining how he has collated other documents, including Tarrou’s diary, to create his text, but this subterfuge is a) not consistently carried through – it ought to have had more newspaper reports or other sources to give it a real documentary feel b) is clumsily undermined when the text reveals at the end that ‘the Narrator’ is none other than Dr Rieux – who has been its central character! Puzzling and unsatisfactory.

But O’Brien goes, once again, for its most striking feature – the complete absence of the Arabs who, of course, made up eight-ninths of the population of Oran, the supposedly Algerian city where the plague breaks out.

O’Brien suggests they have to be erased from the narrative if it wants to be an allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France; for that allegory to work the chosen city must be a purely French city; the presence of Arabs complicates the allegory, in fact would ruin it, because you would have an oppressed population within the oppressed population. But O’Brien speculates that Camus might also have been aware of a more subversive interpretation of his allegory: that it was the French in Algeria who were the plague, the violent conquerors of the free Arabs.

By now O’Brien’s tone is scathing. He refers to the erasure of Arabs from the novel as ‘an artistic final solution to the problem of the Arabs’ – and points out how breath-takingly hypocritical it is that this genocide of the imagination takes place in a book stuffed so full of worthy characters calling for ‘total honesty’ about describing their situation; in a book whose central message is honesty and integrity in the face of the world’s injustice. Ha!

The Rebel (1951) O’Brien concentrates on the political message of The Rebel, specifically its anti-communism, using it as a focus to trace the slowly increasing vehemence of Camus’s anti-communism from the ambivalence of the Resistance days, to his final speeches and essays.

Argument with Sartre (1951) Camus’s attitude to communism was the crux of the break with Sartre when a journalist reviewed The Rebel unfavourably in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. O’Brien, surprisingly, takes Sartre’s side by suggesting it needed more integrity to stand up to the immense weight of anti-communist feeling at the time, much of which was stoked up by CIA-funded publications and journalists. Sartre never joined the communist party but for writing in general terms about revolution he was subjected to lots of criticism. Via the same agents of cultural control, Camus found himself being championed as an exponent of liberal democracy and freedom (which he largely was, but with the vulnerabilities O’Brien is pointing out).

Colonialism O’Brien thinks the mounting vehemence of Camus’s hatred of communism and the historical/philosophical arguments he put forward in The Rebel to argue that communist regimes were uniquely, and inevitably, evil and repressive – masked a very bad conscience about the equally inevitable violence and repression of the French Empire, which had started as soon as the World War ended with violent suppression of independence movements in Algeria and Indo-China, to name the two biggest.

Exile and the Kingdom (1957) O’Brien dates these six short stories to just before the Algerian war broke out. Interestingly, O’Brien sees La Femme adultère and Le Renégat as a diptych contrasting heaven and hell. In the first a bored ignored wife has a mystical experience under the stars of the Algerian night sky; the latter is the demented monologue of a Christian missionary to native tribes who has had his tongue ripped out and been reduced to madness.

O’Brien notices how all the stories, even the realistic one about workers at a small workshop in Algiers who go on strike – have a dream-like quality. Everything he wrote, no matter how brutally realistic, was pulled towards a kind of allegorical abstractness.

Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) In 1958 Camus published an entire collection devoted to bringing together all his writings on Algeria, O’Brien is correct to describe them as ‘depressing’. I have just read those of them which Camus selected to be included in his selection of journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961). What’s depressing is their growing irrelevance, which is matched by a steady escalation of high-minded sentiment.

O’Brien catches this in a neat formulation, when he describes them as ‘categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.’ Yes, it’s the categorical style of all Camus’s factual writing which I find so wearing, the sense that every sentence is pointing out important distinctions and subtleties in what are, in actual fact, a depressingly narrow range of ideas – freedom, oppression, death, life, suicide, freedom, death, rebellion, freedom. Round and round like hamsters in a cage.

The Algerian War of Independence broke out with attacks on French military and civilians on 1 November (All Saints Day) 1954. After a year of escalating massacres and political deadlock, in January 1956 Camus went in person to Algeria and held a public meeting at which he presented his one contribution, the idea of a ‘truce for civilians’ which both sides could abide by. (The speech is reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.) He was barracked by the Europeans and ignored by the Muslims and the meeting broke up in disarray. He wrote numerous articles and interviews, but that was his one and only public intervention. His suggestion sank like a stone. The massacres continued for another six years, spreading to mainland France and leading to the widespread use of torture, before the French eventually conceded defeat and granted Algeria independence on 5 July 1962.

O’Brien is cutting. The Algerian war fatally undermined Camus’s position.

  • In his articles Camus was always careful to balance both sides. This sounds fair but what it really means is that he can’t bring himself to come out and state the fact that the entire disaster is the result of French colonialism, government incompetence, cultural arrogance, and systematic repression (rather like the defeat of France in 1940 – almost like there’s some kind of pattern).
  • Camus consistently ruled out any negotiation with the Front de Libération Nationale (the FLN, the leaders of the Algerian revolt), insisting that: 1. Algeria be restored to peace before 2. discussions with moderate Arab representatives could take place, but 3. Algeria could never be given independence because of its economic and social backwardness. But Camus’s central positions – no negotiation with the FLN, no independence – echoed and in effect supported the main French government policy and the military strategy which, with horrible inevitability, led on to the torture and massacres, and to the rise of the French terrorist organisation, OLS, which would end up trying to assassinate the president and organise a military coup in France. It was a complete dead end.

The volume of essays, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, counterpoints the writings on Algeria and his trip there in 1956, with Camus’s two long pieces about the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control which took place on October-November of the same year. O’Brien dwells on the way Camus really goes to town on the evil repression of the Hungarian Uprising, and repeats in summary form the argument of The Rebel that communism is somehow uniquely and especially inhumane and violent. Camus tries here (as everywhere in his later writings) to be balance the two sides in the Cold War, to talk about two poles of repression. He goes out of his way to mention that the West, too, practices its oppressions and injustices, but he doesn’t even mention the stupid fiasco of Suez (another great triumph for French strategy and arms) and nowhere gives any sense that Western imperial repression was perceived as just as total and unjust as he thinks communist oppression. He can’t escape his Eurocentric point of view.

For O’Brien, although Camus continued for the last few years of his life with his ‘categorical and resonant’ defences of freedom, in practice he was now a right-wing apologist for the colonialist French government.

The Fall (1956) Camus’s third and final novel began life as a short story for the Exile and the Kingdom  volume. Like many of those stories it has a strong dreamlike quality, what with its fairy tale setting in a foggy, allegorical Amsterdam.

O’Brien brings out the centrality of Christian themes and imagery in this story of a successful society lawyer who loses his confidence, who comes to realise he is a fraud, who undergoes voluntary exile in Amsterdam and can only find release (like the Ancient Mariner) by buttonholing strangers and telling them his strange confession. (Having aligned Camus with the French colonialist government and now emphasising the essentially religious nature of his imaginative vision, for a moment I thought O’Brien might go on to predict that, given another 20 years, Camus might have turned into a crusty, right-wing French chauvinist and Catholic. But no.)

O’Brien says that, in contrast to the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom which are (mostly) hard and unrelenting, The Fall involves a return to irony, pleasure, mystery – the positive and enjoyable qualities of his two earlier novels. He has an interesting reason for this. He speculates it’s because the short stories – especially The Guest – dramatise Camus’s excruciating in the early 1950s, caught between two cultures and two irreconcilable armed camps. Whereas, by the time of The Fall a year or so later, Camus has to some extent reconciled himself to his position as an outsider from both sides.

Thus the Amsterdam of the novel is not only, in thematic terms, the anti-Algeria: foggy and wet to Algeria’s blazing sunshine. Its political significance derives from the narrator of The Fall‘s insistence that it is also like the Limbo of the theologians, neither heaven nor hell, a place outside time, a dream-place where one man sits condemned to tell his story over and again. It is the corner into which Camus has painted himself.

Conclusion

O’Brien heads towards the thundering conclusion that Camus’s political position was flawed and wrong. O’Brien believes that Sartre was right and if Camus had allied himself more equivocally with the Sartre group in criticising Western imperialism, much trouble in both Algeria, and then Vietnam, might have been avoided.

He seriously undermines the idea of Camus as some kind of secular saint, a hero of free speech and humanism. Instead, he sees Camus as the most representative voice of Western consciousness and conscience of his era, not because he was a great liberal, but because he had a crippled, fatal relationship to the colonised Third World.

Trying to do the right thing but according to an entirely Eurocentric set of values, incapable of understanding the rights and demands of the colonial peoples, putting up one impractical idea after another while all the while, in effect, acquiescing in the repressive policies of his government – and finally forced into a humiliating silence – he is the representatively troubled intellectual of the Great Decolonising Era, of the end of the European empires.

This is all brought out much more clearly in the title the book was given in America – Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. It is a grimly tragic view of the man and his stance, but I find it very persuasive, having myself noted the elimination of the Arab presence in his novels, the vehement anti-communism of The Rebel and the surprising presence of Christian themes and ideas throughout his work.

And it isn’t all negative. O’Brien also pays reverence to the strengths of his three flawed but haunting novels and, in particular, his deeply political interpretation of the man and his times lends a new depth and resonance to the short but haunting masterpiece, La Chute.


Credit

Camus (Modern Masters) by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970. All quotes & references are to the 1976 paperback edition (which cost me 65p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing (p.62)

Part one

Mersault is a young French man, born and bred in Algeria, living and working in the capital Algiers. He is directionless, aimless, never really knows what to say to people, goes along with whatever people suggest. His mother’s been living in a home for over a year and the story opens as Mersault receives news of her death. He doesn’t know which day she actually died on, the telegram could have been delayed a day or two. Doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. He never used to visit her. It would have been too much bother.

Mersault catches a bus out to the village of Marengo and walks to the home to attend a night-long vigil and then the funeral, all of which he finds a chore. When they ask him if he wants a last look at his mother before they put the coffin lid on he says no. They look at him. He realises it was a mistake. The home and church officials talk to him but he hesitates, says whatever comes into his mind and generally makes a bad impression. When asked, he guiltily realises that he doesn’t know how old she was. He looks out the window and thinks what a nice walk he could have had, if only his mother hadn’t gone and died.

Back in Algeria his boss commiserates with him but Mersault, typically, doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Once or twice he lets slip his real feelings which is that he doesn’t feel anything but this goes down badly so he errs on the side of keeping his mouth shut. We meet his neighbours in his shabby tenement block (he can hear his neighbours through the walls), notably the old guy, Salamano, who walks his mangy mutt every day, and spends all his energy shouting and abusing it, until one day it runs off never to return.

Mersault observes the street life of his quarter of Algiers, the hot sun climbing the sky, the shop shutters opening, a bourgeois family going to church. Later, in the evenings, he observes the lads, the local ‘bloods’, coming back from the cinema, eyeing a gaggle of girls on the corner. All very laid back and evocative.

Mersault himself has picked up a girlfriend he meets casually at the beach, Marie Cardona who used to be a typist at his office. There are long sensual descriptions of swimming at the public pool or at a secluded bay. On the beach, in the cinema he touches her breast. They kiss. They go back to his flat and make love. Sunday follows Sunday in this lazy sensual way. When she asks him whether he loves her, he shrugs: probably not. She asks if he wants to get married. OK. Why not? He has no idea how much his indifference hurts her. Doesn’t care, either.

Also in his block is a loud young man, Raymond Sintès, who the neighbours often hear beating up his Arab girlfriend. Local rumour has it he’s a pimp, though he denies it. Mersault, drifting as usual, finds himself getting to know Raymond. He listens passively to Raymond’s harrowing description of how he routinely beats up his girl. In fact he’s recently been in a fight with the girl’s Arab brother. Mersault nods vague approval.

This is enough for rough Raymond to think Mersault is his friend and he asks Mersault to write a letter to the girlfriend, asking her to come to Raymond’s flat so they can make up. Them he explains, he’ll get her sexually aroused, begin to make love to her – and spit in her face.

Mersault can’t see any reason not to. A few days later, after the unfortunate girl does come back to Raymond’s flat, he beats her up, the cops are called, Mersault even allows himself to accompany Raymond to the police station to testify that it was the girlfriend’s fault, that Raymond caught her cheating on him. He doesn’t know whether this is true, it’s just Raymond asked him to help out and, you know, why not.

Thinking Mersault is now his pal, Raymond invites Mersault and Marie out to the house of a friend of his, Masson, on the coast. As they leave the apartment building to head for the bus station, Raymond points out a couple of Arabs watching from across the street: it’s the brother of the woman he beat up, and a mate.

Out at Masson’s place, they swim. They cook. They drink and chat. Raymond flirts with Marie who is uncomfortable but Mersault doesn’t really care. They have a massive lunch, fried fish then steak and chips with lots of wine, till they’re all pretty tipsy.

The menfolk decide to go for a stroll. They notice they’re being followed by the brother and his mate. Suddenly there’s a confrontation. Masson beats up the mate while Raymond takes on the brother. The latter pulls a knife and cuts Raymond badly on the arm and lip but the Europeans manage to fight them off. Masson and Mersault help Raymond back to the beach cottage and Masson recommends a doctor who always spends his Sundays out there, so he takes Raymond off to get patched up. A hour later he reappears, stitched up and in a bad mood. He insists he wants to go for another walk, the others discourage him, he gets cross and sets off with Mersault following.

Inevitably they come across the Arabs, again, tending their wounds by a stream across the beach. Raymond is now packing a gun, a revolver. He asks Mersault whether he should plug the Arabs and Mersault finds himself saying the first thing which comes into his head which is – Not unless they strike first. ‘Here, let me take the gun,’ Mersault says, and Raymond passes it over. All four actors stare at each other, turned to stone under the pitiless sun.

Then the Arabs have gone, ‘like lizards’ disappearing into the rocks. The spell is broken and Raymond and Mersault return to the cottage, Raymond swaggering and happy. As they climb the steps Mersault decides, on a whim to go back along the beach. The sun is pressing on his skull. He’s vaguely thinking of the shade under the rock and the tinkling stream. But the Arab is there, the brother, lounging by the little stream. They look at each other. Mersault walks closer. The Arab pulls a knife and there is a still moment while he holds it up, glinting in the fierce sunlight. Mersault fires the gun. Pauses. Then fires four more shots.

Part two

He’s in prison, charged with murder. Mersault is held on remand for an interminable 11 months during which he carries on feeling nothing whatsoever, either about his plight or his responsibility, while he is interrogated by the magistrate, discusses the case with his lawyer, goes to trial and slowly rumbles along the conveyor belt of the Law.

The magistrate reveals that he is a devout Catholic and claims that if only Mersault will acknowledge God and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord etc will he experience forgiveness and be relieved of his guilt. But Mersault feels no guilt. He doesn’t know what the magistrate’s on about. Instead of regret and guilt Mersault appals the magistrate by saying he feels, on reflection, ‘a kind of vexation’ (p.74). From then on the magistrate humorously refers to Mersault as ‘Mr Antichrist’.

Killing a man has made no difference at all to Mersault. Marie comes to visit him but he can’t get very worked up. She’s in floods of tears, and says they’ll fight for his freedom and when he gets out they’ll get married. Oh. Alright, he shrugs, in his usual listless way.

When the trial finally comes round Mersault discovers that everything he did and said in since his mother’s death (and which we saw being carefully annotated in part one of the book) has been collected up and is now being thrown in his face and used against him. His lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral is reported as ‘great callousness’ (p.68). His listless replies to the people at the Home or at the funeral or to his boss incriminate him. Marie is made to admit that they started their liaison the day after the funeral, swimming on the beach and going to a comic movie. In the hands of the prosecution all this goes to demonstrate that Mersault is:

an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense. (p.97)

His lack of concern for his girlfriend is brought up. Even the way he fired once and then paused before firing a further four times. We know this is all the result of Mersault’s profoundly hollow lack of emotion, of affect or personality – but to the prosecuting lawyer it can all be built up into the image of a cold calculating killer.

The text reports the apparatus of the court and the palaver with the barristers for the prosecution and defence but Mersault, typically, zones in and out of their arguments and the development of the trial.

Finally, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by a judge who finds him repellent, cold murderer.

In the last few pages there’s a set piece scene between Mersault and a priest who comes to try and persuade him to repent and have faith in God. This strikes me as unimaginative, a cliché of this kind of meaning-of-life novel stretching back to the vast arid wastes of Dostoyevsky’s obsession with religion. The priests’ persistence in trying to get Mersault repent finally drives him to his only display of emotion in the book, when he grabs the priest’s collar, shaking him, and shouting what right has he got to impose his lifeless creed on Mersault? Mersault’s destiny is what it is, when he’s dead that’ll be it, done, over.

Guards come and release the priest. Mersault collapses on  his bed exhausted and drifts into sleep. When he awakes it is the middle of the night and he can see the stars shining out of a pitch black sky. He knows in the morning he will die. But suddenly he feels cleansed and free.

For the first time, the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. (p.120)

He realises that he is happy.


Commentary

Contemporary critics went mad for this book. It caught the mood of the times and made Camus a literary phenomenon.

  • It chimes with the tough guy films noirs coming out of America at the time (This Gun For Hire, Journey into Fear, The Glass Key), with their brutal but highly stylish violence. I visualised the scene where Marie visits Mersault in prison and has to struggle to make herself heard among the other prisoner-visitor conversations, in black and white, out of a James Cagney movie.
  • It chimes with something fatal about the Second World War, about the Nazi occupation of France and the undermining of French Enlightenment values, the end – possibly – of European civilisation.
  • It seems to say something about our post-Christian age and confirm Dostoyevsky’s worst fears – if there is no God, everything is permitted; Mersault kills with no guilt whatsoever.
  • For others Mersault is a symbol of the mindless superiority complex of European colonialism – a hollow shell himself, he doesn’t give a damn about the Arab woman getting beaten up or about murdering the Other, the Arab, the colonised. None of the Arabs are given names or even speak.
  • Or Mersault is a type of the rootless young European male, no values, no role models, living a casual empty life, a type of the tough or hoodlum threatening society, a precursor to the rebellious rockers of the 1950s.
  • To the Communists Mersault is the type of the rootless petit bourgeois, obsessed with his own petty affairs, whose life is meaningless and aimless – he needs to find solidarity with the working classes and join himself to the Forward March of History by joining the Communist Party.
  • To yet others, Mersault is like the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, an everyman figure who is caught up in a terrifying web of misunderstandings, whose life takes a turn for the worse through no fault of his own.
  • The long trial scene is enough to put anyone off getting involved in the Law, especially criminal law where barristers are paid to twist the truth out of all recognition in order to get a result
  • To the philosophically-minded, Mersault is an epitome of Camus’s own philosophy of ‘the Absurd’ as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus: the lumbering mechanism of the rational, common sense Law can’t hope to capture the intensity, the weirdness, the irrationality of human nature.
  • To feminists The Outsider is a typical patriarchal story of men fighting over the body of a woman who isn’t even named – all three women in the story – his mother, Marie, the unnamed Arab woman – are victims of male indifference or violence.
  • To literary types Mersault’s central defining act is like the acte gratuit idea of André Gide – the notion that life is empty and meaningless and that we must rebel against its emptiness with one great decisive irrevocable act, which has no meaning in itself but represents our protest against meaningless existence.
  • To other commentators Mersault is a representative of ‘Mediterranean Man’, a kind of throwback to pagan times, untroubled by Christian conscience or guilt, he lives in a permanent present of the senses, a kind of post-Christian hero.
  • To yet others the protagonist of the story isn’t the man Mersault at all, it is the pitiless landscape of Algeria with its blistering heat and inhuman craggy landscape. Arguably, the ‘scorching hot’ sun is as much a character in the book as any human.

The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. (0.58)

The sand was as hot as fire and i could have sworn it was glowing red. (p.59)

It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. (p.60)

  • Rereading it carefully, it struck me that Mersault is an uneducated, working class man living in a pretty rough milieu. Surprisingly, he admits that he was once a student but, more true to form, says that when he was forced to give up his studies he realised ‘all that’ i.e. studying, was pretty futile anyway (p.48). He gets on just fine with the violent bullying abuser Raymond, Marie is a callow typist, his mate Emmanuel often doesn’t understand what’s going on at the cinema. Noscitur a socio. I think Mersault is rougher, chavvier, than is often realised. This is certainly the impression the prosecution lawyer seeks to give, that Mersault is part of a squalid low-life vendetta.
  • The final chapter, with its protagonist crying out against the ‘brutal certitude’ of his execution could easily be taken for a tract against the death penalty which was only abolished, in France, in 1981.
  • There’s even a theory that Mersault is on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger’s Syndrome: incapable of making out other people, lacking the ability to know what is required in pretty much every social situation he finds himself in. Which also explains why he sees things in such uncomfortable detail – the blobby red ears of an old man, the sopping wet hand towel at work – while not having a clue what to say to people. An indication of this comes late on when we learn that he hasn’t looked once at Marie who has come day after day to support him through the trial. And when he does, for the once and only time, look at her and she smiles wanly and gives him a little wave – his face doesn’t flicker. He neither waves nor smiles back. Heart of stone.

I could go on.

What strikes me rereading The Outsider today is that the descriptions of lazy swimming in the sun are not quite as good as I remembered. I prefer Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of swimming off the Riviera in The Sun Also Rises. I liked the scene where he watches from his balcony a gang of young men sauntering along the boulevard, backchatting with young women – I feel I’ve seen that scene hundreds of times.

I’ve just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. What bursts from Sartre’s texts is their enormous super-abundance of hyper-sensitive self-awareness, a prolific stream of profuse and varied perceptions, characters bursting with ideas about ‘existence’ and ‘freedom’, sensations turning into ideas, ideas turning into feelings, freedom and anguish mingled with night and the cold snow, a bombardment of ideas and concepts.

Camus’s novel, by contrast, feels empty. The hollow shell which is the central character goes about his life, barely involved in it, certainly not thinking anything, finding himself in situations with other people rather than creating them, and always taking the easy way, out, saying whatever first comes to mind. He is not even stupid, he’s just not there.

  • I just nodded to cut things short. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
  • I had nothing to say and the silence lasted quite a while.
  • After that I don’t remember much. Somehow the night went by.
  • I nodded… I made no comment… I had no objection… I just listened without speaking… I didn’t say anything… I kept silence… I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever… I told him I had no objection…
  • really I didn’t care one way or the other…
  • I found him rather boring but I had nothing to do…
  • I said the first thing that came into my head…
  • I said the first thing that crossed my mind…
  • I found that my mind had gone blurred: everything was dissolving into a greyish, watery haze…
  • I had stopped thinking altogether…

As he says, with deliberate downbeat irony, ‘Imagination has never been one of my strong points’ (p.111).

It is a portrait of vacancy. And that’s why so many different critics and interest groups were able to fill the novel up with their own interpretations. It is an empty vessel, a mirror.

Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence broke out in 1954 but there had been violent incidents of rebellion and harsh repression immediately following the end of the Second World War. Knowledge of this later  history sheds a harsh historical light back on Camus’s novels set in Algeria. His people, the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, would eventually be forced to flee into exile back in France, all one million of them.

At the time of its publication the book was most widely read as an epitome of ‘existential man’, confronting the meaninglessness of existence on a rocky coastline stripped of all colour and help. Seventy years later it is hard not to read it, at least in part, as a record of the hollow, heedless, empty-headed arrogance of French colonial culture… whose days were numbered.


Credit

L’Étranger by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1946, and as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 60p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

War Stories and Poems by Rudyard Kipling (1990)

An excellent Oxford University Press collection edited by Andrew Rutherford, showcasing Kipling’s fictional and poetic responses to three distinct military eras:

  • the small wars of the Late Victorian period 1889-1899
  • the Boer War 1899-1902
  • the Great War 1914-18.

Despite setbacks and defeats, in the first period nobody doubted the duty of Empire to expand and spread good government and law; the Boer War disheartened both the nation and Kipling with its evident mismanagement and incompetence; and the Great War left millions bereaved, not least Kipling himself, who lost his only son, John.

Thus, as Rutherford shrewdly points out, the tone of Kipling’s writing about the three periods can be broadly divided into epic, satiric, and elegiac.

Having seen the incompetence of the Boer War at first hand, Kipling spent the next decade warning the country that it wasn’t taking the threat to its security seriously enough, despite some military and naval reforms, in a series of minatory poems and warning stories.

When the Great War came, Kipling was goaded to fierce anger by the aggression and cruelty of the Hun, resulting in the white hot anger of the early war stories, such as ‘Swept and Garnished’ and Mary Postgate, both written in 1915. In September of the same year his son was declared missing presumed dead on his first day in action. For the rest of the war Kipling kept up a steady, indeed impressive, rate of journalistic reporting in support of the war effort – writing France at War, The Fringes of the Fleet, Destroyers at Jutland, The War in the Mountains and The Eyes of Asia – but avoided writing fiction about it.

Moreover, in 1917 Kipling took on the task of writing the official history of his son’s regiment, the Irish Guards, a task which required interviewing soldiers in person, and reading soldiers’ letters and diaries over a sustained period. It was a demanding labour which took until 1923 to complete.

It is only then, with his debt to the dead fulfilled, that Kipling seems to have been able to return to the subject of the War in fiction, and the stories he wrote in the 1920s – especially the series of tales set in the London Freemasons’ Lodge for ex-soldiers – ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, The Janeites, A Madonna of the Trenches, A Friend of the Family – have a new depth and subtlety, an empathy and pity which is a new flavour in his work. This deeper mature tone is part of what helps to make his post-war collection, Debits and Credits, his best book.

Imperial Frontiers

  1. The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889)
  2. A Conference of The Powers (1890)
  3. The Light That Failed, chapter two (1891)
  4. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891)
  5. The Lost Legion (1892)
  6. Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897)

The Boer War

  1. The Way That He Took (1900)
  2. The Outsider (1900)
  3. A Sahibs’ War (1901)
  4. The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902)
  5. The Captive (1902)

The Great War

  1. ‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915)
  2. Mary Postgate (1915)
  3. Sea Constables (1915)
  4. Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War
  5. A Friend of the Family (1924)
  6. A Madonna of The Trenches (1924)
  7. The Gardener (1925)

1. The Imperial Frontiers

The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889) Quite a long story, the gist of which is that an inexperienced Indian Army regiment is brought up to the North-West Frontier, and involved in a massed attack on a force of Pathans, alongside a Gurkha regiment and some Highlanders. Being completely inexperienced and – crucially – lacking older soldiers and officers with experience of the terrain and of fighting Afghans, the first attack of fifty or so Muslim fanatics armed with terrifying man-high machetes makes the Fore and Aft break in a screaming panic and run back to the pass they emerged from. The two coarse orphan fourteen-year-old drummer boys who were with the band, Jakin and Lew, are left behind in the mad flight, recover a drum and fife, have a swig of rum from a canteen of one of the casualties, and set about playing the stirring military tune, ‘the British Grenadier’, marching up and down between the Afghan lines and the trembling regiment cowering in its retreat. Shamed by their officers and humiliated by the example of the boys Jakin and Lew, the regiment regroups and charges back out, this time co-ordinated with attacks by the Gurkhas and Highlanders on its flanks, and decimates the Afghans, though not before both boys have been shot dead by the enemy.

There’s story enough here, but not much below the surface is a blatant tract or pamphlet lamenting the lack of training, the shortness of service and the disorganisation which can lead to such lamentable catastrophes. Also it is very violent. Early on, while still in barracks, Lew and Jakin establish their street credentials by kicking the crap out of an officer’s son they find spying on them. The battle itself is described with, for its day, pretty stomach-churning realism.

The English were not running. They were hacking and hewing and stabbing, for though one white man is seldom physically a match for an Afghan in a sheepskin or wadded coat, yet, through the pressure of many white men behind, and a certain thirst for revenge in his heart, he becomes capable of doing much with both ends of his rifle. The Fore and Aft held their fire till one bullet could drive through five or six men, and the front of the Afghan force gave on the volley. They then selected their men, and slew them with deep gasps and short hacking coughs, and groanings of leather belts against strained bodies, and realised for the first time that an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them.
But they had no old soldiers in their ranks.
The Gurkhas’ stall at the bazar was the noisiest, for the men were engaged — to a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block — with the kukri, which they preferred to the bayonet; well knowing how the Afghan hates the half-moon blade.

‘To a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block’. Wow.

A Conference of The Powers (1890) The narrator hosts a reunion in his London apartment for his friends, ‘Tick’ Boileau, ‘the Infant’ (who is to appear in other Kipling stories for the next 30 years), and Nevin. All are under 25 and have seen active service in India and on its frontiers. They are yarning away and putting the world to rights when there’s a knock and in comes the noted older novelist, ‘Eustace Cleever’. The rest of the ‘story’ amounts to the older man listening to the stories the young Army officers tell about their experiences and realising how little he understands about the lives of the men who maintain the Empire and keep him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. Particularly a long account by the Infant of a punitive expedition he led into Upper Burma to capture the leader of some dacoits or bandits, known as the Boh.

The story emphasises the pampered ignorance of London-based Liberals – and contrasts it with the clear-eyed enthusiasm and modesty of the Empire’s devoted servants. It also doesn’t scant on the reality of guerilla warfare and the dacoits’ savagery:

The Burmese business was a subaltern’s war, and our forces were split up into little detachments, all running about the country and trying to keep the dacoits quiet. The dacoits were having a first-class time, y’ know — filling women up with kerosine and setting ’em alight, and burning villages, and crucifying people.’
The wonder in Eustace Cleever’s eyes deepened. He could not quite realise that the cross still existed in any form.
‘Have you ever seen a crucifixion?’ said he.
‘Of course not. ‘Shouldn’t have allowed it if I had; but I’ve seen the corpses. The dacoits had a trick of sending a crucified corpse down the river on a raft, just to show they were keeping their tail up and enjoying themselves. Well, that was the kind of people I had to deal with.’

No wonder Kipling’s forthrightness made such a shattering impact on a literary world used to Tennysonian idylls.

The Light That Failed, chapter 2 (1891) The protagonist of Kipling’s early novel is an artist, Dick Heldar. His boyhood love for Maisie is frustrated so, like so many Victorian young men, he goes off adventuring round the Empire, only not as a soldier but as a freelance war artist. He bumps into a journalist named Torpenhow and Kipling packs in references to a lot of the small wars of the late 1870s and 1880s which they report and illustrate together, before they find themselves part of the expeditionary force sent up the Nile to rescue General Gordon, trapped in Khartoum, capital of Sudan, by the forces of the Muslim religious leader, the Mahdi. In the climax of the novel, Dick, Torpenhow and a host of British troops are all relaxing by the Nile, fixing boats and sails and clothes when they are subject to a surprise attack by several thousand Sudanese. The Brits quickly form into a square to fight off wave after wave of fanatical attackers, until the square gives and becomes the cockpit for savage hand-to-hand fighting.

Dick waited with Torpenhow and a young doctor till the stress grew unendurable. It was hopeless to attend to the wounded till the attack was repulsed, so the three moved forward gingerly towards the weakest side of the square. There was a rush from without, the short hough-hough of the stabbing spears, and a man on a horse, followed by thirty or forty others, dashed through, yelling and hacking. The right flank of the square sucked in after them, and the other sides sent help. The wounded, who knew that they had but a few hours more to live, caught at the enemy’s feet and brought them down, or, staggering into a discarded rifle, fired blindly into the scuffle that raged in the centre of the square.
Dick was conscious that somebody had cut him violently across his helmet, that he had fired his revolver into a black, foam-flecked face which forthwith ceased to bear any resemblance to a face, and that Torpenhow had gone down under an Arab whom he had tried to ‘collar low,’ and was turning over and over with his captive, feeling for the man’s eyes. The doctor jabbed at a venture with a bayonet, and a helmetless soldier fired over Dick’s shoulder: the flying grains of powder stung his cheek. It was to Torpenhow that Dick turned by instinct. The representative of the Central Southern Syndicate had shaken himself clear of his enemy, and rose, wiping his thumb on his trousers. The Arab, both hands to his forehead, screamed aloud, then snatched up his spear and rushed at Torpenhow, who was panting under shelter of Dick’s revolver. Dick fired twice, and the man dropped limply. His upturned face lacked one eye.

I wonder if anyone had described contemporary warfare with quite such brutal honesty before.

The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

The Lost Legion (1892) Told as if to a journalist (as Kipling indeed was). Some officers are leading a night-time cavalry foray into the foothills of Afghanistan to arrest a persistent bandit leader, Gulla Kutta Mullah. But they keep on hearing the chinking of cavalry behind them rather than in front; it isn’t their own forces and the bandits’ horses are silent.

Our boys are able to penetrate beyond the watch towers of the bandits because the bandits are calling to each other in terror about something. Our chaps realise it’s because down in the valley the Afghan bandits can see the ghosts of an entire native Indian regiment, which rebelled in the Great Mutiny of 1857, which fled the British into the marches of Afghanistan, and which was massacred a generation earlier. Now their ghosts have returned to haunt and paralyse the Afghans. Their dread allows the little expeditionary force to take Gulla Kutta Mullah’s village by surprise and (much to Kipling’s ironic disgust) politely arrest him and his other men wanted for various crimes and murders.

Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897) ‘The Infant’ who told the novelist Eustace Cleaver the long account of his capture of the dacoit Boh in Burma in the story ‘A Conference of the Powers’ – is now 30 and has inherited a vast country house. He invites the narrator – identified as ‘Beetle’ from the Stalky stories – to come along to a reunion of boys, now men, from the old Coll.

There’s much larking about and reminiscing which, basically, turns into hero worship of Stalky himself, three of the men describing their encounter with him in the North-West Frontier, fighting the Afghans. Stalky is portrayed as a super-hero, at one with his men (Sikhs) who worship him, given to sneaking off for acts of derring-do. Since he and his men are besieged in an old fort by two Afghan tribes, Stalky sneaks out and kills some of one tribe, marking them with the victor’s sign of the other tribe. Next day, when the fort is under attack, he again sneaks out of the secret passage he’s found, with his Sikhs, and shoots at one tribe from the lines of the other, thus leading both tribes to end up fighting each other.

The others compound this by saying Stalky went on to pacify the border, dragoon the tribes into building roads, doing everything bar mint his own coinage, before being called to Simla to explain himself to the Imperial authorities.

The story brims over with schoolboy slang and enthusiasm. Stalky had adopted a tune from the pantomime of Aladdin which the boys had put on as schoolboys, as a signal to his troops, and the group of men convened at the Infant’s house keep stopping their tale to sing it, falling about laughing, all clamouring for more details of Stalky’s acts of heroism. Alas, Kipling’s boundless schoolboy confidence was to come a cropper in the Boer War, where the true Stalkies, the canny, sassy, unconventional fighters, turned out to be the Boers.

2. The Boer War (1899-1902)

The Way That He Took (1900) One of four stories about the Boer War published in the Daily Express then collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. It is a good atmospheric depiction of the landscape and people of South Africa, showcasing Kipling’s trademark research and understanding. In the first part a troop train pulls into a siding where detachment of Mounted Infantry are waiting. A captain gets talking to a nurse from the train and she turns out to have been born in the country, and have wonderful memories of a carefree childhood in the wide open spaces. This is the only scene of a man and a woman being tender and speaking softly under the stars that I can recall in any Kipling.

The second part commences a few months later when the captain has joined his regiment and they are in operations out on the veldt. In fact we first of all have a long scene where the leader of a Boer commando outlines a cunning plan – to send off the cattle trucks and some auxiliaries to stir up a lot of dust, and then wait on the low hills surrounding a little valley for the British regiment to come up – and shoot them like pigs in a pen. He knows the Brits will send a scouting party – who will poke around, draw the false conclusion the Boers are retreating, and return to the main force – and then lure them into the trap. It is crucial that a handful of men on a slope take a few pot shots at the scouting troop, enough to give them the impression they’re a rear-guard action – this will make the retreat seem even more real.

Sure enough the Brits see the dust cloud and send a scouting party. It is led by the captain we met talking to the nurse. He trots with his men through the twisting valleys to the place where a camp has apparently been struck and seems to be falling for the ploy. But then in a few vivid paragraphs, he realises something is wrong. It is as vivid as a movie. The hairs on his neck rise as he realises it’s a trap and it seems like someone else’s voice speaking when he gives the order to his sergeant, calmly to turn the men and go back.

At the last minute he remembers something the nurse had told him about her childhood, about how she and her siblings, on all their many ramblings, never went back the way they came. And suddenly taking this as his inspiration, the captain orders the men not to go back through the winding valley where (we know) a handful of Boers are waiting to take pot shots at them and one of them had singled him out as the officer to be killed. Thus, into this very military story, an element of voodoo slips. For it was the happenstance of remembering the nurse’s casual words, which saves the captain’s life.

The Outsider (1900) Another of the stories originally published in June 1900 (i.e. still in the early phase of the Boer War) in the Daily Express and only much later collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. Like the one above, it is a vivid impassioned story. Simply, but with great detail and persuasiveness, it contrasts the hard professional life of Jerry Thumper, an engineer on the Rand, and the privileged, limited worldview of a dunderheaded Army officer named Walter Setton. While his father the vicar and his mother fuss about buying Walter the correct socks for his posting to South Africa, Jerry is commanding men at the gruelling work of gold-mining on the Rand.

Their separate lives and experiences clash when Walter – wounded after a stupid attempt to capture a solitary Boer which turned out to be a trap and from which he only escaped with his life due to the canniness and bravery of Australian Irregulars – is posted to the most out-of-the-way railway station the Army can find to hide him. But even here he causes damage, because Jerry and his mates – kicked out of the Rand by Dutch rebels – have formed a corps of Railway Volunteers and are skilfully repairing the railway lines which the Boers have been at pains to blow up, and which are vital for ferrying British troops around the battlefield.

Kipling describes in great technical detail the engineering challenge Jerry and his men face trying to rejoin two severed lengths of railway line, and are right at the vital moment of riveting them together, when ignorant, stupid, blinkered, narrow-minded, officious Lieutenant Setton intervenes, demanding to know who gave them orders to do this work, and insisting they stop immediately until he receives written authority etc etc – intervening just long enough for the girders to collapse and knock over some braziers which start a small bush fire, insisting his soldiers escort the furious engineers to his tent for a dressing-down. In fact later that day it is Setton who is visited by an incandescent Colonel of Engineers who gives him an epic bollocking, and we last see him reduced to overseeing a saddle-cloth and boot-lace division.

The ‘story’ seethes with Kipling’s anger at the grotesque incompetence, narrow-mindedness and baseless snobbery of the English officer class – a long way from the hero worship of Stalkey and his mates. Every other nationality – the Australians and New Zealanders, the Canadians and especially the Boers themselves, are superior men and soldiers in every way.

The life of Second-Lieutenant Walter Setton followed its appointed channel. His battalion, nominally efficient, was actually a training school for recruits; and to this lie, written, acted, and spoken many times a day, he adjusted himself. When he could by any means escape from the limited amount of toil expected by the Government, he did so; employing the same shameless excuses that he had used at school or Sandhurst. He knew his drills: he honestly believed that they covered the whole art of war. He knew the ‘internal economy of his regiment’. That is to say, he could answer leading questions about coal and wood allowances, cubic-footage of barrack accommodation, canteen-routine, and the men’s messing arrangements. For the rest, he devoted himself with no thought of wrong to getting as much as possible out of the richest and easiest life the world has yet made; and to despising the ‘outsider’ — the man beyond his circle. His training to this end was as complete as that of his brethren. He did it blindly, politely, unconsciously, with perfect sincerity. As a child he had learned early to despise his nurse, for she was a servant and a woman; his sisters he had looked down upon, and his governess, for much the same reasons. His home atmosphere had taught him to despise the terrible thing called ‘Dissent’. At his private school his seniors showed him how to despise the junior master who was poor, and here his home training served again. At his public school he despised the new boy — the boy who boated when Setton played cricket, or who wore a coloured tie when the order of the day was for black. They were all avatars of the outsider. If you got mixed up with an outsider, you ended by being ‘compromised’. He had no clear idea what that meant, but suspected the worst. His religion he took from his parents, and it had some very sound dogmas about outsiders behaving decently. Science to him was a name connected with examination papers. He could not work up any interest in foreign armies, because, after all, a foreigner was a foreigner, and the rankest form of outsider. Meals came when you rang for them. You were carried over the world, which is the Home Counties, in vehicles for which you paid. You were moved about London by the same means, and if you crossed the Channel you took a steamer. But how, or why, or when, these things were made, or worked, or begotten, or what they felt, or thought, or said, who belonged to them, he had not, nor ever wished to have, the shadow of an idea. It was sufficient for him and for high Heaven (this in his heart of hearts, well learned at his mother’s knee) that he was an officer and a gentleman incapable of a lie or a mean action. For the rest his code was simple. Money brought you half the things in this world; and your position secured you the others. If you had money, you took care to get your money’s worth. If you had a position, you did not compromise yourself by mixing with outsiders.

Rarely has Kipling’s dichotomy between the dirty-handed, practical-minded men who do things – his beloved engineer class – and the superior, snobbish, ignorant English upper-classes been more fiercely delineated. It’s brilliant.

A Sahibs’ War (1901) – Umr Singh is a Sikh in the British Army who is in South Africa, tasked with going to Stellenbosch to collect horses. The text is his monologue to a Sahib who helps him get a ticket for the right train, in which he a) shows off his knowledge of Indian customs, religion, traditions and service in the Indian Army b) laments the British setbacks in the Boer War due to their being too courteous and considerate of the Boer guerrillas. The Sikh thinks it silly of the British not to have used the Indian Army to put down the Boers, silly and subversive, for if the Brits fail in South Africa other colonies will take note of their weakness.

But privately to me Kurban Sahib said we should have loosed the Sikhs and the Gurkhas on these people till they came in with their foreheads in the dust.

The reason being it is a White Man’s war. Umr is not happy to be given command of a load of ‘niggers’, Kaffirs, who are ‘filth unspeakable’. But the core of the story is how Umr and his Sahib, Captain Corbyn – both of whom volunteered to take ‘sick leave’ from their Indian regiment to come and fight the Boers – are tricked by Boers in an ‘innocent’ farmhouse who in fact organise an ambush of them in which Corbyn is killed.

In a rage Umr and the Muslim servant Sikandar Khan go back to the farmhouse to take revenge, beheading one of the wounded Boers inside it and taking the mentally sub-normal son to hang him in a nearby tree as punishment for the treacherous farmer-priest and his wife. At which point the spirit of Kurban Sahib appears to Umr and three times forbids him from hanging the boy, ‘for it is a Sahibs’ war’.

This latter part of the text, the account of the ambush and then the narrator’s revenge, is vivid and powerful, and the appearance of the Sahib’s ghost eerie – it has a real imaginative force – Kipling’s daemon pushing through. But it is embedded in a text which overflows with contempt, hatred, resentment and is continually teetering on the edge of, not just violence but sadistic violence, vengeful hateful violence.

Epitomised in the last few lines when Umr returns to the site of his Sahib’s death and rejoices to find, not only a memorial carved by the Australians (a platoon of whom were with Corbyn and Umr when they were ambushed) – but that the farmhouse, the well, the water tank, the barn and fruit trees – all have been razed from the face of the earth, by the ‘manly’ Australians, who aren’t shackled by the British concern for ‘fair play’. The narrator rejoices, Kipling rejoices, and the reader is meant to rejoice in this act of nihilistic vengeance – the kind of scorched earth policy which will characterise so much of 20th century history.

The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902) – A Boer guerrilla captures Private Alf Copper who had strayed unwisely far from his platoon. The Boer descants at length to Alf about how his father, a Transvaal shop-keeper, was deceived out of his livelihood by the British. But he gets a shade too close to Alf, who lays him out with one well-aimed punch.

Kipling couldn’t be more frothingly on the side of the British Army and against the treacherous, arrogant, deceiving Boers. Now it’s Alf who takes the stunned Boer captive and marches him back to the the English lines. Here they arrive to discover that Alf’s mates are looking over a British Liberal paper, which is, as usual, blackening their names, attacking the whole idea of ‘Empire’ and accusing British soldiers of abuse and worse. A fellow Tommy of Alf’s jokingly quotes it:

‘You’re the uneducated ‘ireling of a callous aristocracy which ‘as sold itself to the ‘Ebrew financier. Meantime, Ducky”— he ran his finger down a column of assorted paragraphs —“you’re slakin’ your brutal instincks in furious excesses. Shriekin’ women an’ desolated ‘omesteads is what you enjoy, Alf . . ., Halloa! What’s a smokin’ ‘ektacomb?’

The general idea is that both the arrogant Boer and the treacherous Liberals back home think the British Tommy doesn’t know what he’s fighting for and is a poor, badly educated pawn – but, Oh yes he does, and Oh no he isn’t, respectively! The humiliation of the Boer is part of the enjoyment of the story and, by extension, the humiliation of the hated Liberals at home by the reality of the tough-minded, no-nonsense British soldier.

The Captive (1902) – Starts as a third-person account of a journalist visiting a Boer prisoner of war camp during the Boer War (1899 to 1902). He is free to walk among the prisoners and gets talking to one in particular, at which point the narrative changes into a long, rambling, first-person account given by an American – Laughton O. Zigler from Akron, Ohio.

Zigler brought over a field gun and ammunition of his own design to sell to the Boers and ended up getting involved with one of their commandos, led by Adrian Van Zyl, fighting in the field alongside them against the British, until finally captured and brought to this camp. Kipling characteristically stuffs the man’s monologue with technical know-how about the artillery piece, the ‘hopper-feed and recoil-cylinder’, trying to out-man and out-engineer the reader.

It’s hard not to find Zigler’s facetious tone as he jokes about ‘laying out’ the British boys with his gun, offensive.

‘They [the Boers] fought to kill, and, by what I could make out, the British fought to be killed. So both parties were accommodated.’

The war is seen as a comradely adventure between ‘friends’ and all the British officers admit to being ‘a bit pro-Boer’. Is this how combatants saw the Boer War? Or is it the sentimental self-serving view of a privileged observer? In this account both sides spend half the time trying to kill each other and the other half being complimentary; often the combatants had actually met socially, dined and gossiped: now they are trying to kill each other.

The second half of the monologue describes a dinner the British General and officers give for Zigler and Van Zyl, comparing notes like professionals. The British General is mighty lofty and complacent, hoping the war will go on another five years or so, so that he can knock his ragtag collection of floor-walkers and stevedores into a professional army. Nothing is mentioned of the rank incompetence and idiocy which made the Boer War such a shambles for the British. (See The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.) And a ghost walks over the text when the General boomingly declares:

‘It’s a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon.’

These are the kind of heartless pro-war sentiments for which, although put into the mouths of fictional characters, Kipling was so criticised. The ‘story’ is rammed full of political point scoring, relentless sarcasm about the stupidity of politicians and so on – though these are couched in Zigler’s down-home Yankee terminology:

‘Well, you’ve an effete aristocracy running yours, and we’ve a crowd of politicians. The results are practically identical.’

‘I tell you, Sir, there’s not much of anything the matter with the Royal British Artillery. They’re brainy men languishing under an effete system which, when you take good holt of it, is England…’

Overall the story is of a piece with Kipling’s other ‘warning’ poems and stories, warning that only eternal vigilance could keep Britain safe from her ever-present enemies, and lamenting the failure of peacetime politicians to pay enough heed.

3. The Great War

‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.

Sea Constables (1915) ‘A tale of ’15. In February 1915 the German High Command declared the North Sea a war zone in which all merchant shipping, including neutral ships, were liable to be attacked and sunk without warning. This story describes four Royal Navy men meeting at a choice restaurant in London.

The four men sat down. They had the coarse-grained complexions of men who habitually did themselves well, and an air, too, of recent, red-eyed dissipation. Maddingham, the eldest, was a thick-set middle-aged presence, with crisped grizzled hair, of the type that one associates with Board Meetings. He limped slightly. Tegg, who followed him, blinking, was neat, small, and sandy, of unmistakable Navy cut, but sheepish aspect. Winchmore, the youngest, was more on the lines of the conventional prewar ‘nut,’ but his eyes were sunk in his head and his hands black-nailed and roughened. Portson, their host, with Vandyke beard and a comfortable little stomach, beamed upon them as they settled to their oysters.

In Kipling’s usual late manner they settle down to telling stories, then concentrate on swapping notes about the Neutral vessel (presumably American, though it isn’t stated) which they were all partly involved in tailing through the North Sea, down the Channel and round into the Irish Sea. Winchmore starts it and hands over to Maddingham who played the lion’s share. The ‘Newt’, as they nickname the neutral vessel and its captain, claims to be carrying oil for Antigua, which they think a likely story. Maddingham follows him into an unnamed West coast port where the American captain prompts a Court of Inquiry into the way he’s being closely tailed and chased. This is given as one of the several examples in Kipling where the British bend over backwards to be fair and above board to an enemy which is utterly unscrupulous – an approach he thought bedevilled our efforts in the Boer War, the kind of ‘health and safety gone mad’ sentiment you can read any day in the Daily Mail. One of the four at table, Tegg, was a lawyer during the inquiry.

And that’s what you get for trying to serve your country in your old age!’ Maddingham emptied and refilled his glass.
‘We did give you rather a grilling,’ said Tegg placidly. ‘It’s the national sense of fair play.’

The Newt goes back to sea, closely followed again by Maddingham who tags him up and down the Irish Sea, in stormy foggy weather, regularly hailing the captain on his bridge and exchanging insults. Maddingham and the others suspect he was planning to rendezvous with a German submarine and transfer his cargo of oil to it. Eventually the Newt puts into Cloone Harbour, where the captain takes to his bed, ill with bronchial pneumonia. Dying, he asks Manningham to help him organise his affairs and write a will. Manningham sticks to his orders and refuses.

This is taken as the crux of the story, where a usually decent man fails to show common humanity / oversteps some moral mark, and is interpreted in some commentaries as an example of how war deforms morality. As usual the text is dense with naval jargon as swished around by a bunch of chaps used to shorthand expressions, fleeting references, who share the same values and so don’t have to explain their sentiments and views. A number of critics point to the clipped approach of these later stories, and the way they’re couched in talk, in reams of highly technical or slang or dialect speech, as evidence that Kipling had forged a kind of ‘modernist’ style of his own. Maybe. This is how the main talker, Maddingham, talks:

‘He set the tops’ls in his watch. Hilarity won’t steer under any canvas, so we rather sported round our friend that afternoon, I believe. When I came up after dinner, she was biting his behind, first one side, then the other. Let’s see — that would be about thirty miles east-sou-east of Harry Island. We were running as near as nothing south. The wind had dropped, and there was a useful cross-rip coming up from the south-east. I took the wheel and, the way I nursed him from starboard, he had to take the sea over his port bow. I had my sciatica on me — buccaneering’s no game for a middle-aged man — but I gave that fellow sprudel! By Jove; I washed him out! He stood it as long as he could, and then he made a bolt for Harry Island. I had to ride in his pocket most of the way there because I didn’t know that coast. We had charts, but Sherrin never understood ’em, and I couldn’t leave the wheel. So we rubbed along together, and about midnight this Newt dodged in over the tail of Harry Shoals and anchored, if you please, in the lee of the Double Ricks. It was dead calm there, except for the swell, but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre in, and I wasn’t going to anchor. It looked too like a submarine rendezvous. But first, I came alongside and asked him what his trouble was. He told me he had overheated his something-or-other bulb. I’ve never been shipmates with Diesel engines, but I took his word for it, and I said I ‘ud stand by till it cooled. Then he told me to go to hell.’

Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923) A few years after his son’s death in 1915, serving with the Irish Guards, Kipling was approached to write the official history of the Irish Guards during the war. He took the task very seriously, suspending his fictional writing and working his way through a mountain of official records, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and also interviewing scores of survivors of the various battles and campaigns. The result has often been praised as a thorough and unflashy chronicle of the regiment’s war. Throughout Kipling is concerned with the life of the soldier, from the soldier’s point of view, consistent with the Tommy’s-eye-view he had developed even before the Barrack Room Ballads.

The introduction is short but powerfully conveys the speed of events, the complete unpreparedness of the British forces, the scale of the slaughter and the terrifying turnover of men, and all the time the buzz of men’s conversations.

They speculated on all things in Heaven and earth as they worked in piled filth among the carcases of their fellows, lay out under the stars on the eves of open battle, or vegetated through a month’s feeding and idleness between one sacrifice and the next.
But none have kept minutes of those incredible symposia that made for them a life apart from the mad world which was their portion; nor can any pen recreate that world’s brilliance, squalor, unreason, and heaped boredom. Recollection fades from men’s minds as common life closes over them, till even now they wonder what part they can ever have had in the shrewd, man-hunting savages who answered to their names so few years ago.
It is for the sake of these initiated that the compiler has loaded his records with detail and seeming triviality, since in a life where Death ruled every hour, nothing was trivial, and bald references to villages, billets, camps, fatigues, and sports, as well as hints of tales that can never now fully be told, carry each their separate significance to each survivor, intimate and incommunicable as family jests.

A Friend of the Family (1924) Frame: The fourth in a series of stories Kipling wrote set in the Masonic Lodge, ‘Faith and Works 5837’. Four chaps get chatting over dinner – Bevin, Pole, a sassy Australian with a glass eye named Orton, and the narrator. They yarn about their respective trades (Bevin owns a chicken farm and is diversifying into herbs). They all grumble that all they wanted after the War was Judgement and justice, instead of which they got talk talk talk. Grumble grumble grumble.

‘We didn’t want all that talk afterwards — we only wanted justice. What I say is, there must be a right and a wrong to things. It can’t all be kiss-an’-make-friends, no matter what you do.’

But if any generation had a right to grumble it’s the men who went through the war. Kipling conveys the way they fall to remembering incidents e.g. on the beach at Gallipolli, then go quiet, their faces suddenly tight, with the awful memories.

Story: Once they’re all comfortably settled after dinner, Bevin tells the story of Hickmot, a quiet Australian from the back of beyond, ‘brought up among blackfellas’, who was the only survivor of his battalion at Gallipolli and seconded to what was left of Bevin’s battalion. He was very quiet, very unobtrusive. Then a new draft came out including a man from the narrator, Bevin’s, village, one Bert Vigors. His dad was a market-gardener and they tried to exempt Bert on account of the family business but the local tribunal didn’t listen and he was drafted. The same tribunal exempted the son of a Mr Margetts, also a market gardener, because he hired a canny lawyer and was friends with some of the tribunes. Result: Vigors’ business goes bust, Margett’s old man buys it up.

Vigors won’t stop moaning to anyone who’ll listen about his Grievance, so quite quickly all the boys nickname him ‘the Grief’ and avoid him – all except Hickmot. He’ll listen to Vigors about his Grievance for hours so long as Vigors will then listen to him talking about sheep in the Outback. The two become inseparable. Soon Hickmot cops it in the leg and is shipped home and then Vigors is killed.

Bevin knows he right on the edge of a breakdown and wonders whether he’ll win a VC for some reckless exploit or go postal and shoot everyone around him. Just in time he is brought out of the trenches. He is posted back to England as a bomb instructor. Since the training camp is near his home village, he is able to marry his sweetheart – who just happens to have been Bert Vigors’s sister – and sleeps at home in his own bed, before going off to instruction duty every day.

Then they get a letter from the Brighton hospital where Hickmot is recovering from his wounds, asking if he can come and stay. Since Bert’s sister (now Bevin’s wife) had read so much about Hickmot in the letters which Bert sent home, she says Yes. Hickmot arrives for  his visit, with one leg amputated above the knee, hardly says a word, but fits right in and does all the chores. One day he unobtrusively accompanies Bevin to bomb instruction, holing up in the dugout where the duds are kept till used, then accompanying Bevin home at the end of the day. Then they see him onto the train to Roehampton, where he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg.

That night there is a series of explosions in the village, the villagers initially thinking they must be stray bombs from an air raid and running out into the street in panic. But Bevin and another officer quickly realise the damage is suspiciously localised; in fact, it is limited to the market gardener Margett’s property: the roof of his house has been bombed, so it burns down, two hay ricks set afire, the furnace in his greenhouse has exploded, demolishing the building and all his horses been mysteriously released to trample and graze in the new fields he’d bought off Vigors’s dad. Oddest of all, Bevin had applied to the local council to dam a local stream to create a duck-pond for his wife’s ducks but been refused permission. But a bomb happens to have exploded under the bank of the stream and blocked it exactly where Bevin wanted. Fancy that!

By now Bevin’s dinner companions are laughing. Silent Hickmot must have listened to all Vigor’s grievances in the trenches, and made a plan to enact justice for the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and his death. Asking to come and stay with Bevin was just a ruse to see the lie of the land and, when he learned that Bevin was giving bomb training, Hickmot hatched his brutal revenge on the all-conquering Margett family.

Revenge: So it is one of Kipling’s many ‘revenge’ stories, but this time the brutality of the war somehow justifies it, and also justifies it as comedy, or farce – and also – in the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and death – makes it very moving. On the surface it’s a story about how at least one soldier carried out poetic justice. But the real impact of the story comes from the many little touches in it indicating just how psychologically damaged and scarred by war the talkers are. There are several moments in his telling where Bevin’s face grows stiff and his hands go to tighten a belt he isn’t wearing, unconsciously carried back to the trenches.

More overtly, he admits that, after Hickmot’s wounding and Vigors’s death, he was reaching breaking point: he had a funny taste in his mouth and a sense of being distant from everything – just when his superiors had the sense to post him home as a bomb instructor. He is, in fact, just one more of Kipling’s many, many men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

‘It took ’em five minutes to make me understand I was saved. Then I vomited, an’ then I cried. You know!’ The fat face of Bevin had changed and grown drawn, even as he spoke; and his hands tugged as though to tighten an imaginary belt.’

A Madonna of The Trenches (1924) Frame: One of several post-War stories set in the Freemason Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. The narrator is helping the Senior Warden who is also a doctor, Dr Keede. During a lecture a new recruit, Strangwick, has a nervous attack, has to be helped out and administered a sedative. The noise of scraping chairs had reminded Strangwick of the noise made by the leather straps of the corpses which the French used to build their trenches over, of the squeaking noise the straps made when you walked on the duckboards laid over them. God. What horror. But as Keede gently questions and sympathetically listens to the stammering man, he draws out a story which is far weirder and stranger than mere post-traumatic stress.

Story: Strangwick was in the same regiment as an older man, Sergeant Godsoe, who he’d known since a boy and had been a father figure to him and his sister. On the day in question, Godsoe was found dead in a sealed gas room in the trenches, with two lighted braziers. Asphyxiation. Dr Keede knew about the incident but thought, like everyone else, it was an accident – that the gas-proof door banged shut and locked Godsoe in by accident.

Now Strangwick slowly, hesitantly, in his working class idiom, explains that Godsoe had been having an affair with his (Strangwick’s) auntie Armine, his mum’s sister (real name, in fact, Bella). Auntie Armine had given Strangwick, on his most recent leave, a note to take back to Godsoe, saying her little trouble would be over on the 21st and she was dying to meet him as soon as possible thereafter.

Strangwick, in his job as a runner on the fateful 21 January, thinks he sees his Auntie Armine at a corner of an old French trench, and, when he tells Godsoe, the latter realises what it means and makes Strangwick take him back to the scene. Here Strangwick’s hair stands on end as he realises that the apparition he thought was a trick of the light earlier on, really is the ghost of his Auntie who – he later finds out – had died of cancer that morning. The ghostly figure is holding out her arms to Sergeant Godsoe, imploring him with a terrifying look on her face to join her – and the Sergeant calmly beckons her into the gas room with the braziers and barricades the door behind him. He deliberately asphyxiated himself, killed himself, so that he can be with his lover for all eternity.

Frame: Having got all this out of his system, Strangwick sleeps. The Brother who introduced him comes along and apologises for his behaviour. He’s been under a lot of strain, he explains, on account of a ‘breach of promise’ action brought against him by his sweetheart, after Strangwick broke off the engagement. The Brother doesn’t know why he broke it off – but we know the full story and the way the sight of a) a middle-aged love affair b) and the ghostly horror of his ‘uncle’s death, have unhinged Strangwick. And there is a final irony because the Brother who brought him to the Lodge… is his actual Uncle, Auntie Armine’s husband! Only Strangwick knows that his Uncle’s wife was so totally unfaithful to him. And this is another element or level in his hysteria.

A spooky story, sure enough – but for me the ghost story element is outweighed by the touching sensitivity to hysterical soldiers shown by the narrator, the doctor and the other Masonic members, who quietly come to enquire if they can help. It is a community of men looking after men.

Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down.

It feels a world away from the cocky young men kicking their native servants in Plain Tales, nearly 40 years earlier.

The Gardener (1925) Written 10 years after Kipling’s own son, Jack, went missing during the Battle of Loos, this short story is about a well-off single woman, Helen, who adopts the orphaned son of her scapegrace brother, George, who had got an unmarried woman pregnant.

When George died in India, Helen arranged the passage home of the baby, named him Michael, and raised him as his ‘Aunty’. Michael goes through prep and public school and is scheduled to go up to Oxford when the Great War breaks out. He enlists into a regiment which is posted to fill the gap in the Loos Offensive. (This is the prolonged battle during which Kipling’s only son was killed, aged barely 18.)

Helen at once accepts the terrible message of the telegram, and communes with the vicar and others in the village who have also lost sons.

After some years she gets an official letter notifying her that Michael’s body has finally been found and buried in Hagenzeele Third graveyard, the letter giving the grave’s row and number.

Helen decides to go and visit it and finds herself entering what Kipling describes as a well-established process for travelling to France, feeling like she is entering a sausage factory, a production-line type machine, which had been set up to process literally millions of grieving relatives.

She arrives at the pre-booked hotel in France, where she has a strange encounter with an insistent fellow grave visitor, who insists on sitting with her at dinner and nattering on about this and that, before she more or less forces her way into Helen’s bedroom to confess that, when she said she was visiting her friends’ sons’ graves, she was lying – she is in fact compulsively visiting and revisiting the grave of the only man she ever loved but who belonged to another.

Helen gets rid of her and lies in bed shaking. Everybody’s lives seem wracked. Next morning she walks to the graveyard and is appalled by the rows upon rows of graves, some 20,000 in total. A young man planting flowers helps her, asking the number of Michael’s grave and takes her to it. In the very last line there is the strong, ghostly implication, that the young man is Christ.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’
‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

A masterpiece, a genuinely great story, which is all in the selection, the paring back to the barest essentials, just three short scenes conveying the relationship between the growing Michael and his Aunt – the disconcerting scene at the hotel with a distraught fellow grave visitor – and then just these seven sentences at the end. I’m crying as I write this.


Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish and accessible layout, and to the comprehensive notes provided on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth (2015)

The chief reporter was the veteran Frank Keeler, a terrific journalist who became my mentor. He was a stickler for accuracy, dunning into all cubs he ever mentored his personal philosophy: check, check and check again. Then write. I still do. (p.107)

This is a very entertaining, amusing, informative and life-affirming book. What a great life Forsyth has had and with what brio he sets it down in his brisk, non-nonsense style.

The challenge of autobiography

We think and feel and speak and interact with other people all the time in a myriad of complex ways. Just writing down everything that happens in a day would be challenging, because so much of our interactions have a long history of interactions preceding them, and ramify out in all directions. So if describing everything that happens in a day would be challenging, how do you go about writing about your entire life? I was born here. My dad did this, he started out doing that but someone offered him a job, but he was never really happy, I remember him saying one day that… It could go on forever.

Forsyth solves the problem of what to write about yourself by converting his life story into a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales. He has been turning complex political and social issues into 500-word columns for the Daily Express for decades. Briskly told in short declarative sentences, he now applies the same style and technique to his own life, turning it into 60 short (3- or 4-page) chapters, each focusing on a telling moment, incident or event, generally concluding with a humorous or resonant punchline.

A month later I turned six and the dream [of one day flying a Spitfire] did not die.

That summer of 1948 was the first time I had seen a human corpse. It would not be the last. Not by fifty thousand. (p.36)

So much for official denials. (p.245)

I have never emigrated and never will. (p.314)

And that is why I hate mortars. (p.250)

Biographical sketch

Forsyth was born in 1938 and turned out to be an only child. His parents appear to have run a furrier shop in Ashford, Kent (only referred to once or twice with, alas, no detail of furs, skins, pelts etc).

His father had started out as a rubber planter in Malaya in the 1930s but – as is described in one of the early ‘articles’ – was advised to get out and return to England. He did so, a few years later the war started, the Japanese invaded, and none of his fellow planters ever returned from the Japanese prison camps.

Forsyth was evacuated from Kent during the Blitz, but returned later in the war and then had what sounds like an idyllic childhood – camping in the countryside, learning to skin and cook rabbits, cycling round country lanes, fishing in lakes etc. Towards the end there were Americans who let him climb up on their tanks and introduced him to chewing gum.

Around age 10 he was sent to France for four consecutive summers and learned perfect colloquial French. Then to Germany for several more summers and learned perfect German. There followed a spell staying with a Russian countess in Paris to pick up colloquial Russian. His language skills were to hold him in good stead throughout his career.

But the most personal moment comes when he was five and his dad took him to an RAF airfield where, while dad did business, the crew played with the little boy and put him in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From that moment he became determined to fly one.

Tonbridge school and travelling abroad

The furrier shop obviously makes OK money because his parents send him to the fee-paying Tonbridge school which, like so many beneficiaries of a private education of his generation, he hates. We hear nothing about his fellow pupils or teachers. Instead he takes his O- and A-levels precociously young but his main focus is getting onto an RAF training course. Here he secures 30 hours flying training and becomes a qualified pilot capable of solo flying by the age of 17.

He hitch-hikes across France with a friend, having the usual adventures. Back in Blighty he is sent to Cambridge for an interview, where he candidly tells the Master of Clare college that he doesn’t want to go there, he wants to be a fighter pilot.

Age 17 he gets a scholarship to Granada University for a three-month course in Spanish language, history and culture but he skips every lecture and instead enrols in the bullfighting college (where he discovers he is not a natural). He gives a typically interesting account of the training school, the cape and equipment, the moves and the fake bull machine you train with.

Oh and has an affair with a 35-year-old German countess, an ex-Nazi who likes to sing the Horst Wessel song at the critical moment. Too good to be true? At the end of the course, his parents fly in and take him for a week’s holiday in Tangiers, where he encounters Africa, Islam, Third World poverty and a group of Marines from a Royal Navy ship moored in the harbour. Not for the last time his fluent languages come in handy and he becomes the squaddies’ unofficial translator and drinking buddy. God, what a life!

Learning to fly then becoming a journalist

Back in Blighty strings are pulled (his father, the furrier, donates a leopard-skin to the local OTC for their band drummer) and he gets permission to go to RAF training camp before his 18th birthday. His RAF training reads just like the military CVs he gives to so many of the heroes of the books, being mainly a list of bases: RAF Hornchurch, RAF Cardington, RAF Ternhill, RAF Worksop, training first on a Tiger Moth then a Provost, then a de Havilland Vampire!

He gets his flying wings 44 days before his 19th birthday, the award ceremony being the proudest day of his life. But career prospects in the RAF are not good, the real high flyers go to a special fast track college and his training so far will only qualify him for cargo flights or just a lot of desk work, whereas he wants to fly fly fly.

And see the world. So he quits at the end of his short-term contract and makes a complete switch, applying to become a journalist, with a view to working his way up to be foreign correspondent.

He gets an apprenticeship at the Eastern Daily Press and is posted to the westernmost outpost at King’s Lynn, under the tutelage of the veteran Frank Keeler. Three years of reporting magistrates court, births, marriages, deaths and local fetes. Excellent training.

Reuters, in Paris and Berlin

In 1961 Forsyth spends a day walking along Fleet Street, walking unannounced into every newspaper office and trying to get an interview with the editor. Obviously he is turned down everywhere and is taking lunch at a pub when he gets chatting to a hack who had also served apprenticeship in East Anglia, and knows old Frank.

They finish their pints and the veteran takes him to Reuters, where the domestic editor, hearing he can speak four languages, sends him upstairs to the Foreign Desk. They test his French on a genuine Frenchman working in the office – his teenage years in the depths of France come up trumps – and he is offered a posting in Paris.

Here he is taken under the wing of another old pro, the renowned Harold King, just as the Algeria crisis is reaching a head. Thus Forsyth finds himself reporting the various attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, which – though he didn’t know it at the time – were to form the basis of his bestseller, The Day of The Jackal, ten years later.

After two years getting to know Paris, following the crisis and sharing drinks with de Gaulle’s bodyguards, Forsyth is offered sole charge of the East German office, with responsibility for other Redland countries eg Czecho, Hungary etc.

Cue anecdotes about life in East Berlin, sending scotch and cigarettes to the surveillance team watching him, disappearing into the countryside for days on end to interview real people, and cultivating a dim Bertie Wooster persona, complete with shocking German accent, to disarm suspicion whenever he’s stopped. There are short bite-sized accounts of the time:

  • He tracked down the US spy plane shot down near Magdeburg, by disappearing off the main roads and using his fluent German to wheedle the location out of local peasants.
  • He nearly set off World War Three by reporting on the huge convoy of tanks he saw rumbling through East Berlin towards the Wall, in the dead hours of one spring morning – only for Western diplomats panicking that the Sovs are about to invade to extract from their puzzled Russian counterparts that the convoys are practicing for the annual May Day parade.

Man of the world bonhomie is the tone throughout these stories, which have the feel of having been honed to perfection at a thousand dinner parties and diplomatic receptions.

Forsyth decides it’s time to leave, and fast, when he discovers the young woman he’s been sleeping with is the mistress of the East German Defence Minister who, if he found out, could have FF locked away forever. He packs his bags and asks London to be withdrawn immediately, which they do.

Bad time at the BBC

Back in Blighty Forsyth joins the BBC full of optimism and ambition to become a foreign correspondent. In the event he had a very bad experience, which obviously still rankles 50 years later. Here, as everywhere in the book, you feel you’re not getting the full picture, that there must be more to it, but Forsyth’s view is that he joined at a chaotic moment when the heads of the Beeb were under fire and resigning, and that – fatally – his head of department was cross that he wasn’t involved in FF’s recruitment and so bore him a grudge right from the start.

Biafra

Forsyth was packed off to Biafra to cover what he was assured, at a Foreign Office and then a BBC briefing, would be a two-week insurrection. Biafra was the eastern most part of Nigeria, which had gained independence in 1960. The majority population belonged to the Ibo people; there had been attacks on the successful, and therefore unpopular Ibos in the north and west of the country and this slowly escalated into a demand for full independence.

As soon as he arrived in the capital of the newly-declared Biafra, FF realised the conflict was much larger than he’d been told and reported back to this effect – but his reports were quashed. He slowly began to realise that the BBC was parroting the line put out by the Foreign Office, itself generated by the High Commissioner in Lagos, all of which supported the official Nigerian government view that Biafra had no right to secede from Nigeria and the ‘rebels’ would soon be quashed. It was the way the BBC didn’t question the official, deeply misleading, line – in fact collaborated with it – which disgusted Forsyth then and now.

In the event the war dragged on for three years (1967-70) and, in its final year, with Biafra totally sealed off from the outside world, approximately 1 million Nigerian children starved to death. It was the first time photos of black children with distended bellies, covered in flies, and dying like flies, had been widely distributed in the West, and caused outrage, as well as mobilising charities and public calls for action.

Forsyth remains disgusted to this day by the deceitfulness of the Labour government of the day, which a) held to the fatuous claim that it would all be over in a few weeks, and b) denied supplying the Nigerians with arms – while all along doing so. He was disgusted with the Foreign Office for supporting such an immoral policy, refusing to concede Bifran claims and help broker a ceasefire or peace conference. And he was disgusted with the BBC for parroting the official line, instead of ripping it to shreds as a proper news operation should.

The experience made him realise the BBC is not a news operation, but a bloated bureaucracy, not a caller-to-account of the powers-that-be, but merely an extension of the smug, sanctimonious Establishment. Fifty years later he is still angry.

That is why I believe this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honour of my country for ever and I will never forgive them. (p.239)

Forsyth quit the BBC and returned to Biafra to report the whole of the rest of the conflict as a freelancer, and these years have more space devoted to them than any other subject, about 90 pages in the middle of the book. When the war ended in January 1970 Forsyth was on one of the last planes out (itself a thrilling adventure, and a scene he reuses in the opening of The Dogs of War).

Accidental novelist

Forsyth’s career as a novelist is dealt with briskly. Back in London after his African adventure, he found himself broke with no hope of a job, having blotted his copybook with the all-powerful FO and BBC. He was able to doss on a friend’s sofa for a while and conceived the mad plan of writing a novel, having never written one before or never thought about it. In 35 days, through January and February 1970, Forsyth knocked out The Day of The Jackal on a second-hand typewriter.

He then hawked it round publishers with predictable rejections, until he met a man at a party and hassled him into reading the manuscript. When he returned to his office, the agent offered him a three-book deal on the spot! Soon afterwards a film company offered £20,000 cash for all rights in perpetuity to the Jackal which, like the innocent he was, he accepted (it’s made millions over the past 50 years).

Writing was only ever meant to be a stopgap measure and his attitude to writing fiction is as dismissive as can be.

It just occurred to me that if I could make a good living dashing off this nonsense, why get my head blown off in an African rain ditch? (p.271)

Forced to think of two other book subjects he revisited his knowledge of Germany and alighted on the issue of the networks of surviving Nazis. He undertook his trademark in-depth research with the help of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal – and this led to The Odessa File.

Then he put his knowledge of Africa – and the white mercenaries he’d met in Nigeria – to use for The Dogs of War, his incredibly long, detailed account of how to mount an armed coup.

We knew about the thoroughness of the research he did for both books – it’s interesting to discover how autobiographical they are, in that he based whole scenes, journey and encounters on the ones he actually had. Thus the journey of discovery which the hero of The Odessa File goes on closely follows the actual driving round Germany and interviewing ex-Nazis, lawyers and journalists which Forsyth himself undertook. The long interview with a Jewish survivor early on in the book is a retelling of a long interview with a Jewish survivor which Forsyth carried out, with only the name and the city changed.

A little showbiz gossip

There are one or two stories about the director of Jackal, Fred Zinneman, and the actor Edward Fox, but by and large the book is striking for the complete absence of gossip or stories about other writers or people in the arts.

Once these three key books are published, the text reverts to anecdotes which leap over big periods of his life, leaving huge gaps. Thus a chapter on the time he went fishing in a boat off Mauritius and nearly got killed when a tropical cyclone changed course and bore down on the boat. (This experience was recycled into the powerful short story The Emperor.Or accounts of taking his two young sons game hunting in Africa, or scuba diving in the Indian Ocean.

It’s almost like being shown a book of holiday snaps, each one coming with a well-polished comic story.

Jobs for ‘the Firm’

In its final sections Forsyth breaks the omerta of the security services by describing several jobs he did for ‘the Firm’ aka MI6 aka the Secret Intelligence Service. One was a full-scale mission, carrying a package containing documents to a rendezvous with a top agent, a communist General inside East Germany, which reads exactly like the rendezvous you read about in Deighton, le Carré and so on and which Forsyth used as the basis for a similar incident in one of his novels.

On a different occasion his contact at ‘the Firm’ asked him to take advantage of his friendship with senior South African officials, specifically Defence Minister Pik Botha, to ask about the future of SA’s nuclear weapons after the upcoming multi-racial elections and the end of the apartheid system (1994). Botha disarms Forsyth by matter-of-factly telling him to tell ‘his masters’ back in London, that SA will safely dispose of them before the ANC government comes to power.

He loses his money and has to start again

In the early 1990s Forsyth’s financial adviser was revealed to be a crook who had stolen the investments of all his clients, not only leaving them penniless but, in Forsyth’s case, £1 million in debt. Result? He had to start all over again to restore his fortunes.

Forsyth doesn’t spell it out but presumably this explains the latter part of his bibliography, the series of thrillers from The Fist of God onwards which, as I’ve pointed out in my reviews of individual novels, become increasingly repetitive in terms of setting (Islamic terrorism), of factual references (the same anecdotes from the same recent conflicts) and of repeated (wafer-thin) characters.

But his first three novels (Jackal, Odessa, Dogs) are the only ones which merit even a page or two of explanation – the majority of his books aren’t even mentioned in this brisk, business-like overview. The short stories? Not mentioned. The experimental continuation of The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom of Manhattan? Not a whisper. The genesis, writing and reception of each book? Silence.

This would be an odd oversight if this were the autobiography of a writer, but more than anything this series of well-honed, after-dinner anecdotes is keen to emphasise that Forsyth is a man who has lived, been a journalist, travelled widely, had many adventures and, only last and very much least, been lucky enough to fund it all by churning out his impressively-researched, shallow and undemanding poolside thrillers.

Barely any family

The same skimming over the surface applies to his almost complete absence of references to his family. Only a passing mention of the end of his first marriage, and similarly only a handful of allusions to the second Mrs Forsyth, Sandy. The two boys, Stuart and Shane, are referred to in the context of the fishing or hunting expeditions but barely anywhere else: there’s certainly no detail or feeling about family life, of the prolonged trials and tribulations of being a parent.

His autobiography is, in other words, as devoid of emotion and character as any of his books. Except that, like the books, the lack of character is the character, and instead of the usual sympathies for family or friends, what there very much is is the love of machines – of cars, fishing boats, of recent military history, armies, weapons and, above all, of planes.

A dream come true

Thus it is entirely fitting, and unexpectedly moving, that in the autumn of his years, the 76-year-old author was finally able to fulfil his childhood dream and not only go up in a Spitfire, but (being a specially adjusted two-seater model) was able to fly it solo for a spell. It is a wonderfully uplifting ending to this account of a charmed life and I found it impossible not to be moved by Forsyth’s simple, boyish joy.

It was over too soon but it was done. The seventy-year-old promise was fulfilled and the little boy’s dream had come true. (p.366)

Comment

If this book is anything to go by Forsyth has led a charmed and wonderful life in a world he regards with tolerant good humour, flecked with occasional outrage at injustice and suffering. The most attractive thing about the book is its buoyancy. Nothing seems to get him down. With the unflinching nervelessness displayed in all his novels, he just gets on with it, waltzing through extraordinary situations and the direst peril (as when he gets caught, a white man in his 70s, in a real-life coup in Guinea-Bissau) with extraordinary sang-froid.

He has been a happy man, a lucky man, a man with the knack of presenting himself in the right place at the right time, and if this autobiography lacks almost any psychological or emotional depth or complexity, it is still a marvellous record of an extraordinary life, and its robust optimism is a welcome counterbalance to the all-too-familiar negativity and pessimism of our age.


Credit

The Outsider: My life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2015. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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