Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (1587)

Information about Marlowe’s plays is patchy. Dido is generally thought to be Marlowe’s first play but it is anyone’s guess when it was written, sometime between 1587 when Marlowe arrived in London from Cambridge and 1594 when it was published. The Marlowe scholar Roma Gill thinks it was probably written before Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587. The title page of the 1594 edition credits the hack writer Thomas Nashe as co-writer, though scholars query this.

The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, a company of boy actors in London a fact – like the performance of many of Ben Jonson and Dekker’s plays by companies of boy actors, which I find gob-smacking.

Dido is based on books 1, 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid which opens with the Trojan soldier Aeneas, having fled Troy after it fell to the Greeks, sailed west across the Mediterranean and found refuge in Carthage, the city on the north coast of Africa, then ruled by Queen Dido, herself an exile.

The gods interfere, Venus using Cupid to trick Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, rather than with Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, her local suitor, who gave Dido refuge when she and her people were exiles, and expects to be rewarded with her hand in marriage.

Dido and Aeneas pledge their love to each other, but the Trojans remind Aeneas that their future is in Italy, which is also where Mercury and the other gods order Aeneas to proceed. The play ends when Aeneas leaves for Italy with the Trojans and despairing Dido setting off a triple suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre, followed by her despairing suitor Iarbus and then by Anna, her sister, who loved Iarbus all along.

A suitably lurid and exorbitant subject for the theatrical genius of extremity and intensity. The play, of course, features the main human characters, as you’d expect – what is surprising is the inclusion of quite so many gods and goddesses. Marlowe is not shy about putting words into the mouths of gods.

Cast

Immortals

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Cupid, son of Venus, impish god of love
Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods

Mortals

Aeneas, prince of Troy
Ascanius, son of Aeneas
Dido, queen of Dido
Anna, her sister
Achates, companion of Aeneas
Ilioneus
Iarbus, King of Gaetulia
Cloanthes
Sergestus

Act 1

Indeed the play opens in heaven with Jupiter ‘dandling’ Ganymede on his lap (‘that female wanton boy’) and flirting with his beloved boy (‘Come gentle Ganimede and play with me,’). Ganymede complains that Juno whacked him round the head when he was serving wine. Here, right at the beginning of his career, Marlowe’s ambition reaches to the utter heights, putting words into the mouth of the king of the gods on Olympus, and not just casual chit-chat, Zeus threatening vengeance on his bossy wife.

JUPITER: What? dares she strike the darling of my thoughts?
By Saturn’s soul, and this earth threatening air,
That shaken thrice, makes Nature’s buildings quake,
I vow, if she but once frown on thee more,
To hang her meteor like twixt heaven and earth,
And bind her hand and foot with golden cords,
As once I did for harming Hercules.

What scale! What bombast! Nature quaking and the king of the gods hanging his wife between heaven and earth – these are enormous image of vast power. Not only that but Ganymede cackles, like a spoilt catamite, at Zeus’s suggestion and says, Go on, go on, he would bring all the gods to marvel at the sight.

So right at the start of the play the tone is set of 1. world-reaching, heaven-aspiring settings 2. a kind of spoilt teenager cruelty and amorality, and 3, of course, Marlowe’s powerful sensuality:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of time,
Why are not all the Gods at thy command,
And heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine Daughters sing when thou art sad,
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face,
And Venus’ Swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed

It starts out being about Power but ends up with Venus’ swans feathering the boy’s bed, power and sensuality are amorally mingled.

Anyway, back to the plot and enter Venus berating Zeus for his frivolity and indifference when her beloved son, Aeneas, is struggling against stormy seas. More than that, she conjures a vision of the seas stirred up by Juno, queen of the gods, against Aeneas and so re-enacting a second overthrow of Troy (since Aeneas and his twenty ships carry all the survivors of the city), Aeolus god of winds summoning the waves as Agamemnon leader of the Greek army summoned his soldiers to attack.

Zeus snaps out of gay flirting mode to assure Venus that Aeneas is safe, and describes his destiny, to voyage on to Rome, to fight and defeat the native inhabitants, to found a city where, 300 years later, a priestess will be impregnated by Mars and bear the twins Romulus and Remus who will go on to found the greatest city in the world.

Ganymede and Zeus exit and Venus thanks him for saving her beautiful son, and then, next thing we know, Aeneas and some of his companions come onstage having obviously survived the storms. Venus hides so she can overhear her beamish boy. The men praise Aeneas for his leadership, and wonder where they’ve been driven ashore. Aeneas tasks them with fetching wood to make a fire to cook the meat they’ve killed.

At this point Venue steps out before them, in disguise as a native of the land. Aeneas immediately spots her for a goddess and asks what land is this. Venus explains it is the Punic shore where Sidonian Dido rules as queen. Aeneas introduces himself which gives him an opportunity to explain his backstory i.e. how he fled defeated Troy with all the survivors in 24 ships, though they’ve been battered by storms and only seven have survived to find haven here on this rocky shore. Venus assures him that all his ships have arrived safely then quickly departs, just as Aeneas realises she is his mother, the goddess Venus and laments that she never stays for them to have a proper conversation.

Act 2

Scene 1 Outside the walls of Carthage, near a temple to Juno, Aeneas laments with his friend Achates and his son Ascanius for lost Troy and her dead and momentarily mistakes a statue in the temple for old King Priam. But then Cloanthus, Sergestus, Ilioneus and others of their comrades appear, they are all joyfully reunited, and tell Aeneas they were taken in and given food, new clothes etc by Queen Dido.

Dido is introduced to Aeneas and to his son, Ascanius, who she takes a liking to. They appear to sit as for a banquet and Aeneas’s renewed laments prompt Dido to ask him to tell them all what happened when Troy fell. Which he does at length and very vividly (lines 177 to 369) how the Trojans were fooled by lying Sinon to take the wooden horse into the city walls and how that night the scheming Greeks got loose and massacred the inhabitants, how old King Priam was found at the altar of his gods by Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who first chopped off the old man’s hands, held up in supplication, then cut him open like a fish.

Amid the mayhem, Aeneas put his father Anchises on his back, took his son Ascanius by one hand and his wife Creusa by the other and made his way out of the burning city ankle deep in blood. His wife let go his hand and was lost and he never regained her, he saw Cassandra sprawling in the street, bloodied after being raped by Ajax and, as he reached the sea and the Trojan ships, Priam’s daughter Polyxena cried out from the shore, so Aeneas saw his son and father safe onto a ship and turned to wade back for her, but as he watched Pyrrhus’s Myrmidons seized and murdered her.

Aeneas is so overcome with grief that Achates takes up the story, telling how they think Queen Hecuba was led off to slavery while Helen – the cause of all the trouble – betrayed her Trojan lover, Deïphobus, to the Greeks and so was reconciled with Menelaus.

Scene 2 Dido decides everyone needs cheering up and leads them off. The last to leave is little Ascanius and Venus and Cupid enter at just that moment, seizing his hand and Venus promises him sweets and treats to lull him, takes him in her arms and sings and… Ascanius falls asleep. They carry his sleeping body to a grove of trees where they lay him and half cover him with flowers.

Now is he fast asleep, and in this grove,
Amongst green brakes I’ll lay Ascanius,
And strew him with sweet-smelling violets,
Blushing roses, purple hyacinth:
These milk-white doves shall be his centronels,
Who, if that any seek to do him hurt,
Will quickly fly to Cythereä’s fist.

They have a Cunning Plan. Cupid will impersonate Ascanius, insinuate himself into Dido’s embrace and while she is dandling him on her lap, touch her with one of his golden arrows and make her fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Why? So that Dido will repair his ships, victual his soldiers and give him wealthy gifts.

Act 3

Scene 1 In Dido’s palace King Iarbas is trying to persuade Dido much in love with her she is, but Dido is bewitched by Cupid-disguised-as-Ascanius and confuses Iarbas with contradictory instructions, that she will listen to his love suit, then telling him to leave and never come back. Eventually, deeply upset, Iarbas does exit.

Anna, who had entered with them and watched all this, is Dido’s sister and encourages her growing love of Aeneas because she – Anna – carries a torch for Iarbas. Cupid inflames Dido with love, so that when Aeneas does enter with comrades-in-arms she is infatuated for him. When Aeneas chastely asks if she can help the Trojans rerig their ships, Dido replies they shall have all they want so long as… Aeneas stays with her.

The verse in which she describes how she will help with the ships is typical of Marlowe’s wonderful and rich descriptive ability:

I’ll give thee tackling made of riveled gold,
Wound on the barks of odoriferous trees,
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water shall delight to play:
Thy anchors shall be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which, if thou lose, shall shine above the waves;
The masts, whereon thy swelling sails shall hang,
Hollow pyrámides of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought
The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow…

As if caught out, she hastens to say she doesn’t want Aeneas to stay because she is in love with him, no no no no, she needs a general to lead her army in war against her neighbours. She emphasises she has been wooed by famous men from around the Mediterranean, in fact she has a gallery of portraits, and indeed Aeneas’s men examine these portraits and recognise many of the great men who wooed but could not win her.

To be honest, Dido’s being in two minds about her feelings seems to me clumsily done. She says he might be her lover – but then again not. She wants him to stay as her general… but maybe something more… but no, don’t think he could become her lover… and yet he might…

Scene 2 A grove near Carthage Juno comes across Ascanius laid asleep under the flowers in the grove and is minded to murder him. But as she stands pondering the deed, Venus enters, alerted by the turtle doves she set to guard over him, and furiously accuses Juno. Juno admits she has sent storms and waves to batter Aeneas’s fleet but says she now realises it is futile to battle against fixed fate and so has come round to wanting to help him. Venus believes her and is much softened, saying that if Juno will help Aeneas, she (Venus) will give Juno all the gifts of love.

Juno points out that Dido and Aeneas are now both firmly in love (thus conveying a sense of the passage of time). She thinks it best that Dido and Aeneas, Juno’s favourite and Venus’s son, are married and thus the two goddesses will be united. Venus thinks it is good but doubts that Aeneas can be deterred from his resolution to travel on to Italy.

Juno has a plan. The couple are going hunting this afternoon, accompanied by all their attendants. Juno will send s rainstorm, separate them from their followers, make them take shelter in a cave where they will finally ‘seal their union’. Venus agrees and meanwhile lifts Ascanius and will take him ff to safety on Mount Ida.

Scene 3 The woods Enter Dido, Aeneas, Anna, Iarbas, Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, and Followers. Once again Dido humiliates Iarbas in front of everyone, Aeneas joining in on her side, leaving the Gaetulian king furious.

Scene 4 A cave As Juno promised, a rainstorm has broken and Dido and Aeneas been separated from everyone else and taken shelter in a cave. It takes a while of coyness on both parts but eventually Aeneas promises to stay in Carthage and be her love and Dido is delighted and showers him with presents.

Hold; take these jewèls at thy lover’s hand,
These golden bracelets, and this wedding ring,
Wherewith my husband wooed me, yet a maid,
And be thou king of Libya by my gift.

Act 4

Scene 1 In front of the same cave Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, Iarbas, and Anna all marvel at the sudden onset of the storm which they suspect had divine origins. When they see Dido and Aeneas emerge from the cave Iarbas is consumed with envy and anger.

Scene 2 A room in Iarbas’ house Iarbas sacrifices and makes a prayer to Jove, remembering how Dido was herself a refugee on this shore and how he, Iarbas, gave her land and help to build her city and now she scorns his love in favour of this interloper, Aeneas. At which point Anna enters and asks him what he’s praying for. To get rid of Aeneas, he explains, and win Dido’s love.

Why, Anna says, doesn’t he forget Dido and think of plighting his love somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home. Take her for example. But Iarbas laughs and says his heart is set on Dido. Anna abandons all discretion and declares she loves him ‘more than heaven’, but Iarbas rejects such a ‘loathsome change’.

Scene 3 A room in Dido’s palace Aeneas declares he must leave, his destiny calls. He summons his companions. God, Marlowe has such a way with a driving cutting line of verse:

Aboard! aboard! since Fates do bid aboard,
And slice the sea with sable-coloured ships

Enter Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus, and Ilioneus who all reinforce Aeneas’s decision, lamenting that dallying with women effeminates warriors like them. To Italy! To Italy! They exit leaving Aeneas to lament that he ought to tell Dido they’re going, but he knows she will take him in her arms, and cry tears of pearl and beg, and he will weaken.

Scene 4 Another apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Dido and Anna. Dido laments that the Trojans seem to be doing a runner without saying goodbye. At which enter Aeneas, Achates, Ilioneus, Sergestus and Carthaginan Lords. Dido accuses Aeneas of panning to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas lies that he had merely gone down to the harbour to see his friends off: how could he depart and leave behind his son, Ascanius? Did on the spot gives him her crown and sceptre and says he is her king, she will obey him. Dido sings the praise of how kingly, how godly Aeneas looks.

Aeneas says he will never leave, if he leaves her let death be his punishment. Which is odd because we saw him a few minutes earlier pledging to leave immediately for Italy. Is this meant to be an example of the spell she holds over him? She orders Anna to prepare her horse and have Aeneas led in triumph through the city as its new king, and Aeneas tells Achates they will stay and train and raise a host with which to voyage to Greece and punish the Greeks for destroying Troy, and he and the Trojans exit.

Left to herself Dido begins to worry that he’ll leave nonetheless, and 1. orders Anna to tell the nurse to take Ascanius away into the countryside 2. to bring her all the Trojans’s ship tackle and rigging so they cannot leave. As in the scene with Iarbas and then in the cave with Aeneas, Dido gives way in successive lines to waves of doubt, sure that he loves her yet paranoid that he will leave.

Lords enter and tell her her commands have been obeyed, Ascanius has been taken into the countryside and they have brought all Aeneas’s rigging and tackle. Dido addresses the wood and spars and ropes and rigging in a wonderfully high and eloquent speech about how all these objects were going to betray her and her love, but now she will lock them up safe and sound.

Scene 5 The country Enter the nurse, with Cupid as Ascanius. the nurse tells Cupid-as-Ascanius she is going to take him to the country. As written, the scene has the same strange schizophrenia and Dido and Iarbas and Dido with Aeneas in the cave, namely that in alternate lines she on the one hand declares she is still young and frisky and ready to take a lover and in the other lines declares, no, she is old now and ripe only for the grave. Is this odd back and forth meant to be the result of Cupid maybe touching her with his love dart – was it almost comic the way Cupid touches her and makes her feel randy, then stops and she feels old and wizened again? There are no stage directions, so we can only guess. (It’s worth mentioning that all the locations described in this review are the inventions of a British scholar named Alexander Dyce in the 1870s. This man has, therefore, had a huge impact on the way all modern readers envision, imagine and conceive the play’s action.)

Act 5

Scene 1 An apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Aeneas, with a paper in his hand drawing the platform of the city, with him Achates, Cloanthus, and Ilioneus. Aeneas is drawing a map of Carthage’s walls and confidently describe to his companions how he will make the place magnificent, borrowing the river Ganges from India to form the moat, the sun from Egypt, what shall they call it? Troy? Aenea? Anchseon after his father? We, the audience, know these are bootless fantasies.

Enter Hermes carrying the real Ascanius and explains he has been kept safe by the gods while Dido has been frolicking with Cupid in disguise. In a flash Aeneas realises why Dido is so besottedly in love with him, it is the god’s influence.

Hermes tells Aeneas he is forgetting his duty to the future, he must sail for Italy. Aeneas says, ‘How can I since Dido has taken all my masts and rigging?’ At this exact moment Iarbas enters and asks Aeneas why he looks so gloomy. When Aeneas explains that Jove is ordering him to leave for Italy but he has no rigging for his ships, Iarbas enthusiastically offers to give him everything he needs. Aeneas orders his followers to go with Iarbas and collect the necessary.

Enter Dido who asks Aeneas why his ships are fully equipped and lying in the roads off the harbour as if ready to leave (that happened quickly! in theatre there is no time). He tells her straight out that Hermes brought orders for Jove that he MUST leave. That is the only reason. But you can’t be leaving. But I am. But I will die if you go. But the father of the gods orders me to go.

Dido accuses Aeneas of being selfish and using the gods as an excuse. No I want to stay. Then why don’t you stay? Because the father of the gods has ordered me to go etc.

At which point Dido pivots round to woman scorned mode, and calls down dire revenge and hate on Aeneas, calls him a serpent she has harboured in her bosom, she hopes the waves smash their ships and their lifeless bodies are thrown up on the Libyan shore where she will leave them. Is he going to go? She opens her arms wide: Stay, stay here with me. Aeneas walks away.

Dido raves, sees him changing his mind at the last minute. Anna enters and Dido orders her to make haste to the harbour and persuade Aeneas to return. The nurse enters and tells Dido that Ascanius vanished overnight as if raptured away by the gods. He was, of course, Dido’s security, her hostage to prevent Aeneas leaving. Now nothing can prevent him. Dido orders the nurse thrown in prison.

Anna returns to say she saw the Trojan fleet set sail and cried out to Aeneas to stay but he hardened his heart and went below deck so as not to see her. Dido raves that she will follow him in verse typically full of extreme images of imaginative power and fantasy.

I’ll frame me wings of wax, like Icarus,
And, o’er his ship, will soar unto the sun,
That they may melt, and I fall in his arms;
Or else, I’ll make a prayer unto the waves,
That I may swim to him, like Triton’s niece:
O Anna! fetch Arion’s harp,
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore,
And ride upon his back unto my love!

She is beside herself with grief. She orders servants to go fetch all Aeneas’ belongings. Iarbas enters and asks Dido how much longer she will humiliate herself by mourning for a lost lover. What comes over from this as from other  moments in the play, is how time is wonderfully telescoped onstage, so that Aeneas’ ships have been rigged and set sail minutes after they were unrigged and docked. Everything takes place in this imaginative zone where wishes and thoughts come true almost immediately, where key bits of the plot take place in the time it takes to describe them.

Dido bids Iarbas help her build a large fire, ostensibly to burn all Aeneas’s things, then leave her. She is left alone onstage. One by one she throws onto the all the tokens of Aeneas and her love for him, the sword he swore love on, the tunic she first clothed him in, his letters and papers, and finally requests of the gods the Aeneas and his line may never live in peace, and from her city will arise a race to plague and pester Aeneas’ lineage (as the Carthaginians were to be the chief rivals in the Western Mediterranean for centuries).

Dido throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Anne enters, sees it, shrieks for help. Iarbas comes running, sees that Dido is dead, and kills himself. Anna makes a short speech saying life isn’t worth living and also kills herself.

Footnotes

Aeneas would sail onto Italy, where he fought the local tribes, the Rutulians led by King Turnus, as described in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Aeneas’ son Ascanius, will be the first king of Alba Longa and his descendants will rule for 300 years.

Until Silvia, a vestal virgin, would be ravished by Mars (Ares) and give birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, the former of whom would, of course, found the city of Rome a few miles north-west of Alba Longa and where, five hundred years later, Virgil would dedicate his epic treatment of the foundation of his city to the Emperor Augustus.

And Dido’s descendants, the Carthaginians, would rise to become the main opponents of Rome in the western Mediterranean for centuries. In fact the Carthaginians were themselves recent immigrants from Phoenicia, an ancient kingdom on the coast of the Levant, whose principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. Hence Dido is sometimes referred to as Sidonian Dido or queen. They were welcomed on the north African shore of what is now Tunisia by the local king, Iarbus, which is why he is so bitter that, after everything he did for her and her people, Dido rejects him and even mocks him publicly.

For those who don’t know the ancient Romans took over Greek mythology and the Greek gods wholesale, giving them their Roman names. In what follows the Roman god is named first (because these are the names used by Virgil in his epic, and by Marlowe, following him) and the Greek name in brackets.

Ceres is the Roman goddess of crops from which we get the word cereal.

Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, was the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god (making her the sun’s bright sister). As a virgin-goddess, Diana’s woodland followers – her nymphs – were also expected to retain their maidenhoods.

Ganymede was a Trojan prince, captured by Jove (Zeus) in the shape of an eagle and carried up to Olympos to be cup-bearer at the gods’ feasts.

Hector, a cousin of Aeneas, was a Trojan prince, a son of Troy’s King Priam, and the greatest fighter on the Trojan
side. Killed in a duel by the Greeks’ great champion, Achilles.

In a single night, the Greek princess Leda both slept with her husband and was seduced by Jupiter, who had taken on
the form of a swan for this episode. The result was the birth of both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra, and the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

Helen was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta in Greece, from where, on a goodwill visit, Paris son of Priam, King of Troy, abducted her. That was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Menelaus reached out to his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and senior king among the many Greek rulers, who rounded up the other Greek leaders and assembled the fleet of a thousand ships which sailed for Troy and besieged it for ten long years.

Ulysses (Odysseus) king of Ithaca, widely described as cunning and crafty, he was credited with coming up with the scheme for a wooden horse to end the siege of Troy. The second great epic by the legendary Greek poet, Homer, the Odyssey, describes Ulysses’ ten-year-long journey home from the war, during which he had adventures with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scilla and Charybdis and the sorceress Circe who turned his crew into pigs.

Vulcan (Hephaestus) was the god of fire and the blacksmith god. He was lame leading the other able-bodied gods to mock him. But when he discovered Mars (Ares) god of war, was having an affair with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Aphrodite) Vulcan wove a net of metal in which he caught the adulterous gods and exposed them to the ridicule of all the other gods.

Venus (Aphrodite) the goddess of beauty, was the daughter of Jupiter with the Titan goddess Dione. She was the mother of Aeneas, who got pregnant by the Trojan prince Anchises.

Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was the greatest poet of the golden age of Roman poetry, as the Republic collapsed and was replaced by the Empire under its first emperor, Augustus. Virgil wrote exemplary shorter forms before creating one of the most influential epic poems in history, the Aeneid, the epic story of Aeneas’ post-Troy travels and adventures.


Related links

Dido, Queen of Carthage on the Elizabethan Drama website This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text, full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929)

Who is it standing in Berlin Alexanderplatz, very slowly moving from leg to leg? It’s Franz Biberkopf. What has he done? Well, you know all that. A pimp, a hardened criminal, a poor fool, he’s been beaten, and he’s in for it now. That cursed fist that beat him. That terrible fist that gripped him. The other fists that hammered at him, but he escaped.
A blow fell and the red wound gaped.
But it healed one day.
Franz didn’t change and went on his way.
Now the fist keeps up the fight,
it is terrible in its might,
it ravages him body and soul,
Franz advances with timid steps, he has learned his role:
my life no longer belongs to me, I don’t know what to set about.
Franz Biberkopf is down and out. (p.418)

Alfred Döblin

Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878 – 1957) was a German novelist, essayist, and doctor, best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles, Döblin is one of the most important figures of German literary modernism. His complete works comprise over a dozen novels ranging in genre from historical novels to science fiction to novels about the modern metropolis, several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays, a true crime story, a travel account, two book-length philosophical treatises, scores of essays on politics, religion, art, and society, and numerous letters. (Wikipedia)

Berlin Alexanderplatz – ‘modernist’ aspects

Berlin Alexanderplatz is not only considered Döblin’s masterpiece but a central achievement of German Modernism. It is often compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses because it, also, is:

– long (478 packed pages in the Penguin paperback edition I own)

– urban (not just set in Berlin, but rejoicing in the hectic urban bustle of trams and railway stations, and pubs and bars and music halls and tenements, in 1928 Berlin had a population of four million, p.198)

– concerns ordinary people (The ‘hero’ of Ulysses is Leopold Bloom, a hard-up seller of newspaper advertising space, and Joyce’s novel takes place in just one day, following him as he traipses round Dublin, hustling for work, popping into bars or the public library, attending a funeral and going shopping; the hero of Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf, is distinctly lower down on the social scale from Bloom; he is an uneducated huckster, fresh out of prison, and the novel is set not on one day but much more conventionally, over quite a few months. But, just as in Joyce, we follow the hero around the noisy bustling streets of a ‘modern’ city, seeing adverts and shop windows, overhearing popular tunes and drinking songs)

The most obvious similarity is the shared use of modernist techniques like montage, multi-textuality and stream of consciousness.

Multi-textuality or Tatsachenphantasie

The narrative often switches, casually and with no warning, from third-person storytelling to direct quotation of texts such as newspaper adverts, magazine articles, anatomical textbooks, tram timetables, legal documents, an official breakdown of causes of mortality in Berlin 1928 and so on.

This approach was so novel at the time that it was given a name, Tatsachenphantasie. To quote the Wikipedia article about Döblin’s technique:

His writing is characterized by an innovative use of montage and perspectival play, as well as what he dubbed in 1913 a ‘fantasy of fact’ (Tatsachenphantasie) – an interdisciplinary poetics that draws on modern discourses ranging from the psychiatric to the anthropological to the theological, in order to ‘register and articulate sensory experience and to open up his prose to new areas of knowledge’.

This it certainly does, and I found many of the interpolated documents more interesting – certainly more comprehensible – than the main plot.

Montage

At a slightly higher ‘level’, the narrative is ‘bitty’: it often cuts and jumps to completely different scenes or points of view, sometimes in the one paragraph – directly copying the cutting between shots, between shot sizes and different angles which is the basic technique of movies.

Headlines

An obvious example of this multitextuality is the way the text is broken up by headings which are in the style of newspaper headlines, such as ‘LINA STICKS IT TO THE NANCY BOYS’ or ‘VICTORY ALL ALONG THE LINE! FRANZ BIBERKOPF BUYS A VEAL CUTLET’.

This is easy to understand and can be fun: after all, most novels up to the late 19th century included chapter headings which rambled on at length about the upcoming contents. Think of Charles Dickens; as a random example, chapter 14 of The Pickwick Papers is described as ‘Comprising a brief Description of the Company at the Peacock assembled; and a Tale told by a Bagman’, and all the other chapters in this and all his other early novels are given similarly extensive introductory descriptions.

So using newspaper headlines can be thought of, and easily assimilated, as an easily understandable variation on a time-honoured tactic.

Stream of consciousness

Almost continually the narrative of events is interspersed with Franz’s memories of prison, fragments of songs, or short phrases running through his head.

In fact, as the novel progresses, this applies to almost all the other characters as well. We are introduced to them by a third-person narrator, then suddenly gets sentences starting with an ‘I’ and realise we have dropped inside their heads to see things from their point of view. The next sentence might be a quote from a song (we know this because it rhymes). The next sentence is the strapline for an advert ‘I’d walk a mile for Mampe’s brandy, It makes you feel like Jack-a-dandy’ (p.33). The next sentence mashes together ‘thoughts’ the characters had in an earlier scene – the whole thing recombined to depict the way thoughts purl and slide around inside our minds.

So there can be passages, paragraphs, made up of elements like the above, the interesting thing is how quickly you get used to it, and to read it. Occasionally a lot of quick cuts are confusing, but not often. So far, so similar with Joyce, then.

But I’d say Berlin Alexanderplatz differs from Ulysses in one big respect: in the basic attitude to prose.

Joyce was not just a great writer, he was a writer of genius with a Shakespearian ability to command the English (and other languages) to perform almost any trick he wanted. All his works go beyond brilliant experiments in style and diction, beyond amazingly accurate parodies and pastiches, to actively dismantle the English language altogether.

Take the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, which uses baby talk to try to capture the infant thought processes of a baby which can barely speak, or almost any passage once you get into the main body of Ulysses.

What most characterises Ulysses is less the ‘mechanical’ and obvious aspects of modernism listed above (collage, stream of consciousness) but Joyce’s crafting of different prose styles to reflect each of the chapters and episodes in his story, each successive chapter becoming harder to read as it accumulates verbal references to previous events, given in evermore fragmentary form, and as the English language itself starts to break down as words merge and recombine.

As Ulysses progresses, it becomes more involved in a huge range of verbal special effects designed to convey the mood of, say, a Dublin pub full of heavy drinkers, the section in a library in which Joyce performs a tour de force, describing the scene in language which mimics the evolution of the English language from its roots in Anglo-Saxon right through each century’s changing styles up to the present day.

At the novel’s climax, language breaks down completely as it mimics a host of drunken minds caught up in a drunken riot in a brothel. Then the famous final chapter which consists of one vast flowing stream-of-consciousness rendition of the thoughts of a dozing woman, (Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife).

There is nothing at all like this level of verbal ambition in Berlin Alexanderplatz. On the contrary, long stretches of the prose – at least in the 1931 translation by Eugene Jolas which I read – is surprisingly flat, colourless and factual.

Thus Franz Biberkopf, the concrete-worker, and later furniture-mover, that rough, uncouth man of repulsive aspect, returned to Berlin and to the street, the man at whose head a pretty girl from a locksmith’s family had thrown herself, a girl whom he had made into a whore, and at last mortally injured in a scuffle. He has sworn to all the world and to himself to remain respectable. And as long as he had money, he remained respectable. Later, however, his money gave out: and that was the moment he had been waiting for, to show everybody, once and for all, what a real man is like. (p.42 – last words of book one)

See what I mean? The prose, in and of itself, often holds little or no interest. It is routinely as flat and grey as old concrete.

One effect of this prose flatness is to make the multi-textuality, the montage and the modest fragments of stream-of-consciousness much easier to recognise and to assimilate whenever they appear. The transitions may be abrupt, but the prose of each fragment is always complete and definite.

That crook Lüders, the woman’s letter, I’ll land you a knife in the guts. OLORDOLORD, say, leave that alone, we’ll take care of ourselves, you rotters, we won’t do anybody in, we’ve already done time in Tegel. Let’s see: bespoke tailoring, gents’ furnishings, that first, then in the second place, mounting rims on carriage wheels, automobile accessories, important, too, for quick riding, but not too fast. (p.135)

A little tricky, but from the context you know this is Franz walking through the streets, his eyes registering advertising hoardings and shop frontages (bespoke tailoring, automobile accessories), angrily thinking how the crook Lüders betrayed him, which he knows from the letter she sent him, and in his violent fantasy thinks about stabbing him in the guts, but then contradicts this thought using ‘we’ to refer to himself, trying to quell his appetite for violent revenge by telling himself that ‘we’ (i.e. he, Franz) are not about to ‘do anybody in’, because ‘we’ have already done time in Tegel.

And – another crucial difference – even if some passages like this take a bit of effort (though not much) the prose, sooner or later, returns to normal. We return to fairly flat, factual prose and know where we are again.

So Alexanderplatz is a bit confusing, yes, but not impenetrable as a lot of Ulysses quickly becomes (without repeated study). Compared to Joyce’s extraordinary and extended experiments with English prose, reading Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t present any real verbal challenge.

By far the hardest thing about reading this book, I found, was nothing to do with its (fairly tame) modernist techniques: it was trying to figure out why the devil the characters behave as they do. At almost every key crux in the plot I didn’t understand what the characters were doing or why (see plot summary, below). The net effects of reading the book were:

  1. enjoyable modernist experimentalism (I liked the insertion of newspaper headlines, official documents etc into the text)
  2. repulsion at the casual lowlife brutalism of almost all the male characters (see below)
  3. complete inability to understand why the characters behaved as they did (for example, the complex sex/love lives of Franz and Mieze and Eva, described from book seven onwards)

Nine books

Berlin Alexanderplatz is divided into nine ‘books’. Each book is prefaced by a couple of paragraphs describing in general terms what will happen in it, reminiscent of 18th century novels. Indeed, the entire text is preceded by a one-page summary anticipating the shape of the action, a little as a Greek tragedy is introduced by a chorus telling us what is going to happen.

The obvious difference is that these half-page introductions have more the quality of a fable or children’s tale, not least because they generally include deliberately trite jingles or doggerel.

Biberkopf has vowed to become respectable and you have seen how he stayed straight for many a week
but it was only a respite, so to speak.
In the end life finds this going too far,
and trips him up with a wily jar.
To him, Franz Biberkopf, however, this doesn’t seem a very sporting trick,
and, for a considerable time, he finds this sordid, draggle-tailed existence, which contradicts his every good intention, a bit too thick.
(Intro to Book Three, p.105)

This fondness for cheap songs, doggerel poetry, advertising jingles, and sometimes just random rhymes, becomes more noticeable as the book progresses and is every bit as prominent as the more obvious NEWSPAPER HEADLINES, insertion of official documents etc.

In Switzerland, on Tyrol’s height,
One feels so well by day and night,
In Tyrol the milk comes warm from the cow,
In Switzerland there’s the tall Jungfrau. (p.358)

The fairy tale feel is emphasised by the way that, in this one-page preface to the whole text, we are told Franz will suffer three blows – three being the canonical number in fairy tales (little pigs, Goldilocks bears, billy goats gruff etc).

Three times this thing crashes against our man, disturbing his scheme of life. It rushes at him with cheating and fraud. The man is able to get up again, he is firm on his feet. It drives and beats him with foul play. He finds it a bit hard to get up, they almost count him out. Finally it torpedoes him with huge and monstrous savagery. (p.7)

Greek and Bible imagery

Joyce’s Ulysses is (although it’s hard to make this out on a first reading) loosely structured on Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, with Leopold Bloom wandering round Dublin rather as Odysseus wanders round the Mediterranean, loosely sought by young Stephen Daedelus, in roughly the way Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, searches for his father – until, at the climax of the book, they are reunited.

Again, Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t have anything like the same ambition or scope as the Joyce. Instead it contents itself with occasional references to ancient Greek legends or Bible stories, which pop up as ironic references, sometimes taking up a couple of pages of extended description, and thereafter popping up again as anything from paragraphs interrupting the main narrative, sometimes just one-phrase reminders.

So, for example, the sense that Franz’s story is like a Greek tragedy is made explicit in the numerous references throughout the book to the plot of the Oresteia i.e. while King Agamemnon is away at the Trojan War, his wife Queen Clytemnestra has an affair and, upon his return, murders the king in his bath. Whereupon their son Orestes returns and murders his mother and her lover. Whereupon he is pursued everywhere by the Furies who torment murderers. On a number of occasions Franz’s self-torment over his killing of his girlfriend Ida is compared to Orestes and the Furies.

Towards the end of the book, as Franz’ tribulations build up, there are some extended (two- or three-page-long passages) which quote the Book of Job from the Bible, explicitly comparing Franz to Job (pp.146-149, 399).

There’s an extended comparison with Abraham teetering on the brink of sacrificing his son, Isaac (pp.298-299). And as we see more of the murderous underworld Franz has got involved in, the text interpolates quite a few references to the Whore of Babylon, quoting her description from the Bible’s Book of Revelation (pp.266, 306, 400, 446)

The woman is arrayed in purple and scarlet colour and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand. She laughs. And upon her forehead is a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (p.266)

These high literary references sort of enrich the text though, to be honest, I found them a bit boring, less interesting than the newspaper reports Döblin interjects about scandalous murder trials being reported in the newspapers or quotes from communist or Nazi articles or even the extended description of the Berlin slaughterhouses in chapter four (pp.138-145).

Collapsing house imagery

Also – sewn in among all the other impressions of the city or of Franz’s scattered consciousness – Franz has a recurrent vision of Berlin’s houses collapsing, their roofs sliding off, cascades of tiles sliding off rooftops and crashing down on him.

Repetition makes this recurring metaphor for Franz’s panic attacks acquire a real charge and ominousness.

Collapsing house imagery pp.13, 120, 240, 265, 314, 471


Plot summary

Book one (pp.11-42)

It is 1927 (p.97).

Franz Biberkopf (the surname translates literally as ‘beaver head’) is released from Tegel prison on the outskirts of Berlin. He is 5 feet 10-and-a-half inches tall (p.176).

He has served four years for the manslaughter of his girlfriend, Ida (‘I knocked that tart’s ribs to pieces, that’s why I had to go in jug’, p.34. A detailed anatomical description of their fight, which quotes Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics, is given on page 98).

Franz had been a cement worker, then a furniture remover, among numerous odd jobs (p.96). He catches a tram into town and wanders, dazed at being a free man, through the hectic streets, terrified of the hustle and bustle.

Terror struck at him as he walked down Rosenthaler Strasse and saw a man and a woman sitting in a little beer shop right at the window: they poured beer down their gullets out of mugs, yes, what about it? They were drinking: they had forks and stuck pieces of meat into their mouths, theyn they pulled the forks out again and they were not bleeding. (p.12)

Crude, isn’t it. In fact it’s almost as crude as language and psychology can get without sinking below the level of human articulation altogether.

Franz retreats into the courtyards of tenements in Dragonerstrasse (p.35), where he is taken in by a couple of Jewish men who (bizarrely) argue fiercely among themselves while they tell him the life story of young Stefan Zannovich the con man who ended up committing suicide in prison, and whose body was taken away by the knacker. It is a strange, offputting start to the book. First time I read it, I gave up at this point.

Having sobered up, as it were, Franz sets off into the streets again, dazed by freedom and the hustle and bustle of the Berlin crowds. A population of four million.

He decides – in the blunt crude German way we got used to in Hermann Broch’s novels – that he needs ‘a woman’ to calm down, but when he picks up and goes home with two successive prostitutes, can’t get an erection with either of them. Cue some multi-textuality when a textbook account of impotence is inserted into the text and, a little later, an advert for an aphrodisiac.

Day three and Fritz finds himself knocking at the door of the sister of the girlfriend he murdered, Minna, who reluctantly lets him in, then he rapes her, rather as August Esch rapes Mother Hentjen in Hermann Broch’s The Anarchist and then Wilhelm Huguenau rapes Mother Hentjen in The Realist.

German rapists, eh, well worth writing novels about. Well, all their wives and girlfriends would be raped to death 16 years later by the invading Russians, so it was good practice.

Finally Fritz feels content, released, free, like a real man again (p.37).

He leaves but comes back in the following days to bring her presents, but Minna rebuffs him every time. She is married and her husband Karl asks her how she got the black eye and bitemarks on her neck, which are the signs of Franz’s assault. Still, they talk quite affably. He comes round with some aprons to replace the ones he tore to shred in the initial rape. She listens, chooses an apron, but is terrified of the neighbours seeing, and keeps crying. The big hearty brute Fritz is quite oblivious to all this.

Book two (pp.45-103)

Opens with the characteristic quoting of official texts which read like small announcements from a newspaper, then a detailed technical description of the weather forecast (‘Weather changing, more agreeable, a degree or two below freezing-point’ [which, incidentally, echoes the opening of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities]) and then a list of the main stops of tram number 68, from which Fritz alights amid a blizzard of ad straplines (‘Eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish!’)

It strikes me this is collage: ‘A collage is a composition of materials and objects pasted over a surface.’ The quoted texts may or may not be related, but in a way their unrelatedness demonstrates quite well the classic modernist impulse to embody or describe the chaotic, overwhelming sensory and mental stimulation of the ‘modern’ city.

And so the main action, if you can call it that, is surrounded by side actions, snippets and vignettes of life in the big city. A couple of old geezers chatting in a billiard hall about one of them losing his job. A young woman gets off a tram, is met by her older lover, who takes her to the flat of a friend, while she worries all the way about what mummy and daddy would say if they found out.

It is a few weeks later and Franz has found somewhere to live, has raised some money from savings and selling off furniture, and so is smartly dressed and going round with a plump new Polish girlfriend, Lina, Lina Przyballa of Czernowitz, the only legitimate daughter of the farmer Stanlislaus Przyballa (p.74), according to Lüders, a ‘little fat thing’ (p.118).

They come across a newspaper seller located in a doorway and – this is very obscurely described – he appears to also sell illicit gay magazines and persuades Franz to take some. Franz presents them to Lina in a café but she is disgusted and insists they go back to the shabby old seller and Franz watches from across the road as she yells at the seller then throws the magazines on the floor.

It is typical of the book’s technique that this ‘story’ is interrupted by an imaginary vignette of a respectably married old chap (a ‘greypate’) who one day picks up a pretty boy in the park and calls him his sunshine and takes him to a hotel room. It’s not even suggested that they have sex, but the hotel room has peepholes and the owner and his wife spy on the pair and then report them to the police. He is hauled up in court but persuades the judge nothing happened; but a letter detailing his court appearance and aquittal is posted to his home where, away on business, his wife opens it and the poor man returns home to weeping and lamentation from his wife (pp.72-3)

Meanwhile, Franz rejoices over his girlfriend’s victory over the magazine seller by forking her on the sofa, then they stroll along to the Neue Welt pub in the Hasenheide Park – musicians in Tyrolese costume, beer drinking songs – ‘Shun all trouble and shun all pain, Then life’s a happy refrain’ (p.76) a Charlie Chaplin impersonator on stage, you can buy tickling sticks. Döblin, like a camera, roams among the crowd, alighting briefly on the second fitter of an engineering firm in Neuköln, two couples necking, soldiers with their floozies, there’s weight-lifting competitions and see-your-future-wife stalls. Franz gets plastered and ends up at the bar with a fellow drunk complaining about having fought the French, being a patriotic German, but no job, down on his luck, he’s going to join the Reds.

It’s a deliberately whirligig chaotic depiction of a set of connected, loud, smoky, drunken music halls, yet it’s worth noting that the prose never ceases to be correct. It’s just broken up into short sentences, with frequent quotes from the cheap songs. But the sentences themselves don’t collapse, neither do the word themselves break up and intermingle, as they do in Joyce.

Franz now peddles Nordic Nationalist papers. He’s not against the Jews but he’s for law and order. The narrative immediately includes block quotes from said Nationalist papers, well conveying the wheedling tone of aggrieved Fascist propaganda. Franz is down the pub with mates, some of whom reminisce about their service in the war, then the trouble afterwards i.e. the communist uprisings in Berlin and elsewhere. Then the inflation and the hunger.

Franz’s drinking buddies (Georgie Dreske and Richard Werner, the unemployed locksmith, p.80) down at Henschke’s bar take exception to the Fascist armband Franz has taken to wearing. They argue about their war records.

Next night, when Fritz goes there, there are a few strangers with his mates, they all look at him surlily, the sing the Internationale. Franz recites a poem written by a fellow inmate, Drohms, then overcome with sentiment goes on to sing The Watch On The Rhine. This doesn’t stop one of the new boys starting a fight, a table is overturned, a plate and glass smashed, but then they back off and Franz walks out to bump into Lina who’d come to meet him there. She shows him a Peace newspaper with a sweet poem about love. She snuggles up to him and quietly suggests it’s time they got engaged.

Franz is prone to bad dreams, pangs of conscience. It is partly to quell this psychological eruptions that he longs for Order and Discipline which means escape from his personal demons. This leads to an extended passage about the fate of Agamemnon home from the Trojan War who is murdered by his wife Clyemnestra, who is then murdered by her son Orestes, who is pursued by the Furies – as Franz is by his bad dreams. The section includes a clinical description of how Franz murdered his wife – in fact, in the heat of a row, he hit her twice in the guts with a whisk, but the blows were enough to break a few ribs, rupture a lung, prompt several infections from which she died miserably in hospital five weeks later. And a characteristically ironic modernist juxtaposition of the hilltop flares which signalled the arrival of Agamemon home, with a technical description of the activity of modern radio waves.

Book three (pp.107-121)

In this fairly short book, Franz is embroiled with Otto Lüders, a more than usually disreputable prole who’s been out of work for a couple of years (a factual interlude in the previous book detailed the rise in unemployment at the end of 1927). Franz is now selling bootlaces on the street or hawking them door to door. He arrives in the pub for a drink with Otto and swankily tells him he’s made 10 marks (apparently a tidy sum) out of a woman, a skinny widow women who invited him in for a cup of coffee and he left his whole stock there. I wasn’t sure, but I think the implication is that Franz gave her one, as the saying goes. He also seems to have left his entire stock there, though whether as a gift or an oversight I couldn’t work out.

Anyway, next day Lüders sneaks along to the building, finds the same widow woman, forces his way in under pretence of being a door to door salesman, extorts a coffee out of her and terrifies her so much, he is able to nick a whole load of stuff, her table cover, sofa cushions etc, and legs it.

With the result that, next day when Franz goes round to see her with a bouquet of flowers, the widow woman slams her door in his face. Franz tries a few times more then leaves her a note telling her to bring his stuff to a pub. But she doesn’t. Otto enters said pub, spots Franz looking hacked off, turns and legs it. Franz puts two and two together.

Interlude of a war veteran whose four-year-old son has just died because the doctor was too busy to come and see him. He’s loitering outside their apartment house then goes to see the doctor to give him a piece of his mind, then goes upstairs to where his wife is weeping.

Franz is so distraught at Otto’s betrayal that he ups and leaves. Pays off his landlady, packs his things and leaves his flat. Doesn’t even tell Lina. Lina asks their friend (‘little’) Gottlieb Meck to find him. Meck goes for a beer with Lüders and then, in one of those scenes I find so disconcerting about this German fiction, walking down a dark street pounces on him, knocks him to the floor, beats the crap out of him and threatens him with a knife, telling him to locate Franz.

Next day Lüders reports back. He’s found Franz in a boarding house just three numbers down from his former place. Like Meck, Lüders keeps his hands on an open knife in his pocket as he goes into Franz’s room, finds him on the bed with his boots on, depressed. Frane yells at him to get out, then throws the bowl of washing water at him, Lüders insists he’s not right in the head.

Book four (pp.125-167)

It is February 1928 (p.151)

Lengthy description of all the inhabitants of the tenement in Linienstrasse which Franz has moved to, with intertextuality e.g. the description of lawyer Herr Löwenhund is interrupted by direct quotes from legal documents he’s dealing with or letters he’s written. Tatsachenphantasie.

Franz is lying around in the squalid room he’s renting, drinking all day. I still can’t figure out why Lüders going behind his back to threaten the skinny widow woman has affected him like this.

A lengthy description of the abattoir and slaughterhouse district of North Berlin, giving facts and figures as in a government report, then moving on to a precise and stomach-churning description of precisely how they slaughtered pigs and cattle.

With a weird interlude about the story of Job from the Bible.

Which then goes on to an extended yarn about the caretaker of a warehouse, a Herr Gerner, who is persuaded to fall in with a bunch of burglars who want to break into it, to the extent that after the break-in he allows them to stash all the stolen goods in his house. In some obscure way which is hedged around, I think he allows his wife to sleep with the youngest, tallest and handsomest of the thieves. I think. I couldn’t make it out. Anyway, the next morning the police call round and arrest him. Franz saw some of this happening i.e. an initial attempt of the burglars to climb over the wall and pinch some stuff, but he refuses to squeal to the cops.

It is freezing cold February morning and on a whim, Franz decides to go and visit Minna who he hasn’t seen for a while. But the door is opened by Minna’s husband, Karl, who sends him packing with a flea in his ear.

Book five (pp.171-223)

A very enjoyable panoramic overview of Alexanderplatz with its roadworks, shops, trams and hustling crowds. It is the evening of 9 February 1928, and little Meck bumps into Franz selling newspapers again. They go to a bar and have inconsequential chat with other working class men. All the antagonism Franz prompted by selling nationalist papers and wearing a swastika armband seems to have disappeared.

Franz gets into a some kind of ‘scheme’ with a slim stuttering man who wears a shabby army greatcoat named Reinhold (‘that quite insignificant figure, a mouse-grey lad in mouse-grey’, p.203). This Reinhold is a serial womaniser and takes a new girlfriend each month and shifts his previous one onto Franz. I really didn’t understand what anybody has to gain from this or why they’d do it, but a certain Fränzl comes to be Franz’s grilfriend for a month or so, and then she’s replaced by silly Cilly, and I think Franz then passes them onto little Ede the hunchback. I think that’s what happens.

As I mentioned above, I find the passages where the character’s walking through the streets, and the text cuts from his thoughts to advertising straplines, song jingles, a Berlin tram timetable, a leader from that day’s newspaper – the familiar technique and content of ‘modernist’ literature – easy to understand and enjoyable to read. In fact the passages where Döblin just inserts highlights and stories from the day’s newspaper are interesting social history.

But I find many passages of the apparent plot inexplicable: how exactly did the thieves persuade the nightwatchman Gerner to join them and what went on between the handsome one and Gerner’s wife? Why did Lüders going round to see the skinny widow woman upset Franz so much that he dumped Lina and moved apartment? What had Lina done wrong?

The modernism stuff is easy-peasy to process and, as the book progressed, I enjoyed the cumulative collage of Berlin life circa 1928 which it built up. Whereas the bones of the plot – what the characters were doing and why – I frequently found incomprehensible.

Franz gets fed up of getting Reinhold’s hand-me-downs every month. Cilly puts up a fight and Franz decides to stick with her and tells Reinhold, who storms off in a huff. Characteristically, that night Reinhold dreams of murdering his current squeeze, Trude.

Disaster strikes It is the second week of April 1928. Easter. Franz pops out from his 4th floor apartment, leaving Cilly. It’s snowing. He bumps into an asthmatic man who tells him about a scam he carries out, which is to offer to buy old junk off people, he turns up, removes the junk, then slips a mimeographed card through their doors saying that ‘due to unforeseen circumstances’ he can’t pay, and legs it, Franz thinks he’s a bit bonkers.

They come across a brawl, a crowd has gathered round it. Franz pushes to the front and is enjoying the fight when he realises one of the fighters is Emil, a mate of Reinhold’s he’s seen around. Just then the cops arrive to break up the fight and Franz charitably helps Emil away to shelter in a doorway.

Here Emil tells Franz he’s going to stagger home – he got fairly beaten in the fight – but asks Franz to do him a favour: can he pop round and tell a man named Pums (who we’ve met knocking about the bars) that he, Emil, won’t be able to help with a spot of removal they’re planning to do. Franz pleads that he ought to go home & see Cilly, but Emil persuades him to go and see Pums, the house is just nearby. So he does. And Pums offers Franz money to help out with the removal, say five marks an hour for a few hours.

Franz is still reluctant and wants to go tell Cilly where he is, but Pums says there’s no time, they’ll be leaving soon, they give Franz a pen and paper and he scribbles a note to Cilly saying he’s unexpectedly on a little job. Pums’s girlfriend takes it – takes it next door and burns it in the fire…

To cut a long grim story short, Franz is piled into one of two cars with Pums and a few other guys including Reinhold, who we discover is one of ‘Pums’s men’. They drive for a long time to the outskirts of Berlin. And here he suddenly finds himself tasked with acting as lookout while the men comprehensively loot a warehouse, filling the cars with booty. Franz is basically an honest man and gets cold feet, makes to protest but Reinhold hits him very hard on the arm, while the men shuttle past him in the dark, their arms full of loot. Franz makes a second bid to leave, but they’ve finished anyway and drag him into the car, as both accelerate off.

But they see that someone’s spotted them and another car is in pursuit. Then something strange happens in the second of the two escaping crim cars. When Franz hears that another car is in pursuit, Franz stupidly grins. He was very anxious about being the lookout and resented being hit and threatened by the others and now, like an idiot, grins. Reinhold, squashed in next to him, asks him why he’s grinning, the damn idiot and then Reinhold’s resentment at Franz bubbles up. I found this – as I found all the motivation and psychology in the book – hard to understand, but it seems that although Reinhold persuaded Franz to join his scheme of taking his cast-off women, now – obscurely – in the stress of this tense moment – he resents it, comes to think Franz exploited him somehow, knows dangerous things about him. Franz’s idiotic grinning in the flickering light of the streetlamps which whizz by triggers a sudden surge of hatred in Reinhold and…

Reinhold signals to one of the other guys to fling the car door open… someone punches Franz in the face… Reinhold pushes Franz away from him and over the pile of stolen goods… Franz slips out the car but clinging onto the running board but the others hit him on the arm and thigh and then a crashing blow on the head.

Franz falls into the road and the car following close behind runs over him.

Book six (pp.227-315)

Is Franz dead? The narrative cuts to Reinhold the next day, drunk as a skunk before noon, his girlfriend, Trude, who he’s tired off, whines a little, so he beats her face to a pulp, smashing up her mouth and ruining her looks for ever, she runs away taking her stuff. Still drunk, Reinhold swanks around, remembering the job they did last night and feeling mighty proud of himself.

Poor Cilly waiting in his apartment for him to return, then going out into the snowy streets to find him. She bumps into Reinhold dressed up to the nines and very confident. She had brought a kitchen knife with her to tab him with (!). He doesn’t know this, but blames everything on Franz, says Franz has run off with Reinhold’s last girl, Trude, and promises Cilly they’ll get back together soon, and somehow casts his magic over her so she goes off mooning over him.

Now we learn that some other motorists find Franz in the road, load him into their car. Half conscious he asks to be driven to a bar in Elsasser Strasse and request an old friend of his, Herbert Wischow. Herbert is found and he and his girlfriend Eva taken Franz to their flat and change and dress him. Only then do they drive him to a private hospital in Magdeberg.

Why? I don’t know. This, as so much of the actual plot, seems incomprehensible to me. Why didn’t Franz just ask to be rushed to the nearest hospital?

In the hospital at Magdeburg the doctors amputate his right arm (!) and fix other broken bones. Then Wischow and Eva take Franz home to recuperate with them. Old friends from before Tegel drop by. Wischow is upset because Franz didn’t come to see them when he got out of prison and, now, that he’s gotten involved with a crook like Pums. Slowly it comes out that Franz didn’t want to go on the job, didn’t know what they were up to, is a victim in every way. Wischow asks questions about Pums and the gang and spreads the word about how they ill-treated Franz. The mood of the underworld turns against Pums’s mob. Some of them suggest having a whip round to give Franz compensation, and they raise several hundred marks but when Schreiber goes round to deliver it and puts his hand in his pocket, Eva has a hysterical fit thinking he’s going to pull a gun and shoot Franz, Franz staggers back, chairs fall over, panic, Schreiber runs off down the stairs, later claiming he gave the money to Eva, and which he keeps for himself.

It’s June 1928 (p.246). Franz determines 1. not to squeal 2. to live independently. He goes to the Charity Commission, he gets a job calling out circus attractions. He bumps into his buddy Meck and, realising the Pums gang have told him one story, tells him a far more heroic version where he, Franz, fired a gun at detectives stumbling over the burglary and the tecs shot back injuring his arm. The aim is to let the Pums gang know he’s not peaching.

Franz determines to resume normal life, to get a job. He picks up a pretty little thing named Emmi who’s been stood up in a bar. Franz is entertaining, they go to a crowded bar. A man with no legs pushes himself along in a kind of trolley. The younger men say anyone who fought and was injured in the war is a fool. When they ask Franz’s other arm is he says his girlfriend is very possessive, so he left it at home with her as a pledge that he’d come home. Laughter.

Franz buys a smart suit, wears a stolen Cross of Iron, looks like a respectable butcher, uses a set of false papers belonging to one Franz Räcker, which have done the rounds of the criminal world. Herbert & Eva have been away at a spa. She is the part-time fancy woman of a rich banker. He takes her to the spa, dresses her, dines her and ****s her. One evening, just after he’s withdrawn 10,000 marks from the bank, they go down for dinner and it is burgled. The implication is it was stolen by Herbert, her lover, who’s followed the couple out there and is tipped off about the money.

Back they come to Berlin, Eva having to live in the fancy apartment the banker puts her up in, hoping he soon tires of her. She can get away fairly often, and she and Herbert introduce Fritz to a pretty young girl they’ve picked up tarting at the Stettin station. Franz is bowled over by this pretty little thing, fresh as a schoolgirl – initially she’s called Sonia, but Franz prefers to call her Mieze (her real name is in fact Emilie Parsunke, p.269).

Franz becomes a pimp There’s a hiccup in their relationship when Franz discovers she’s getting letters from admirers. Upset, he goes round to Herbert and Eva’s, Eva pushes Herbert out the door and then falls on Franz, ravishing him. She has been in lust with him for ages and seeing him all upset triggered her off. After they’ve had sex, Eva gets dressed and rushes off to find Mieze. Then returns, all straightened out. Mieze loves Franz but has been meeting during the day with ‘admirers’ and extorting money out of them. Franz is relieved, overcome with love, and hastens off to find Mieze, they return to his flat and are more in love than ever.

See what I mean about being confused by the behaviour of the characters. So Franz can have sex with the wife of one of his best friends, all the time upset about her being unfaithful to him, then the best friend’s wife goes to interpose on his behalf, and when it comes out that Mieze has other male admirers who (I think) she has sex with in order to generate income for Franz, everyone is relieved!

And so, in a way which I once again didn’t understand, Franz acknowledges that he has become a pimp (pp.278, 286, 313). Has he? Alright, if the narrator says so, but I found the events & behaviour of the characters hard to follow and almost impossible to understand.

Eva invites Mieze round to their nice apartment but when she admits that she’d like to have a child by Franz, Miese is overjoyed and kisses her and makes a lesbian pass at her (?)

Mieze soon gets set up with a rich admirer, married, who sets her up in a nice flat, though she carries on adoring Franz. Eva comes round and ravishes Franz again, although he’s in love with little Mieze. What if she gets pregnant, worries Franz. Oh she’d love to, replies Eva.

Franz attends political meetings with a mate, Willy, in fact a lowlife pickpocket but who enjoys getting chatting to politically minded workers at communist or anarchist meetings. Both Eva and Mieze want Franz to stop attending the meetings and/or hanging out with Willy.

Extended passage where an old anarchist explains to a sceptical Franz how the ruling class of every nation exploits the workers, but how a communist regime would just substitute a new exploiting class (pp.281-286). Willy, by contrast, is a devotee of Nietzsche and Stirner, and believes a man should do as he pleases.

August 1928. Mieze is settled into being her married man’s mistress, meanwhile remitting the money to Franz, who is thus living off immoral earnings, while Eva continues to love him. Franz pays a visit to Reinhold, who is terrified he’s going to do something. Franz does noting, goes away, feels restless and so returns to Reinhold’s apartment.

What is incomprehensible to me is Franz’s fatalism, the way he seems to bear no grudge against Reinhold for making him a cripple, he says he knew some kind of change had to happen in his life.

Somehow having confronted Reinhold and got it off his chest makes him happy. That night he dances the night away with Eva, while all the time imagining the two he loves, little Mieze (fair enough) and Reinhold. As I keep saying, it’s difficult to follow or understand the psychology. (Though, to be fair, Herbert and Eva are puzzled as to why Franz keeps going round to see the man who was responsible for him losing his arm, p.325).

Book seven (pp.319-372)

Opens with pages devoted to some Tatsachenphantasie with an account of one-time air ace Beese-Arnim who is convicted of murdering his girlfriend. And we are given a list of notable America officials who are visiting the German capital. And brief factual accounts of some of the cases passing through the Labour Law Courts. And then a working class girl Anna posts a letter to her boyfriend suggesting they split up. And a young woman of 26 writes in her diary how miserable and weak her periods make her feel, and how she often wants to kill herself.

August moves into September. Franz has unashamedly joined Pums’s gang. They’re as puzzled as Herbert and Eva but when Franz stands there in front of them saying let bygones be bygones, and they all know he hasn’t snitched to the cops, they have to admit he’s right. So they let him in.

Then we learn some of the challenges of selling on stolen goods. Pums’s fence is playing up. Eventually they carefully plan and pull off a job which requires teamwork, one duo lying low in offices above a place where valuables are kept, waiting till the early hours then drilling down through the ceiling, lowering a rope, while they open the door to this upstairs apartment to let other members get in and pass up the swag, pile it, take it down to the car, clear up after themselves with the smoothest member of the gang, elegant Waldemar Heller, taking a dump on the floor as a calling card (p.335).

Reinhold decides to pay Franz’s woman a visit, when he’s not there. He climbs the stairs to ominous accompaniment by the narrator, and slicks his ways past Mieze at the door, and lolls on her sofa and calmly describes the way he and Franz used to pass on women between each other. I was scared he was going to murder her, why? Because he’s German and this is a German novel, but in fact he just heavily implies that Franz might be considering swapping her – all the time openly eyeing her up, before slipperily seeing himself out. Which leaves Mieze with her heart pounding and her thoughts all mixed up with the lyrics of a sentimental love song being played by an organ grinder outside the house (‘In Heidelberg Town I lost my heart…’)

Anyway, a few days later another peculiar scene unfolds. Knowing Mieze is out, Franz takes Reinhold back to his apartment and hides him in the bedroom. Reinhold has been pestering Franz about Miese, what’s she like, remember when they used to swap girls etc, so Franz hides Reinhold with the intention of showing him what a Lady is like, what a pure good girl is like. But unfortunately Mieze comes in and clings to Franz really closely. She’s been away for a few days with her middle-aged gentleman lover. But now she tearfully confesses to Franz that the man brought his young son, a dashing handsome man who made advances to Mieze and so Franz asks whether she loves him and Mieze makes the bad mistake of saying Yes.

At which point Franz goes mental and I thought was going to batter her to death, he slaps her, beats her to the floor, throws himself on her I thought he was going to crush her, one of her eyes is closed, blood is running from her broken lips. Ironically, this is the night Franz chose to bring a witness home to their love and Reinhold watches in amazement, then tries to pull Franz off the cowering whimpering girl. Franz pulls on his coat and storms out and the girl staggers to the staircase shouting after that she still loves him.

Reinhold hesitates to make sure she’s alright, then stumbles down the stairs and out, wiping the blood from his hands.

It is barely believable that the passage ends a few hours later with Franz back in his apartment and Mieze making up to him, billing and cooing, them both in love, and her besotted more than ever with him, the wife-beater.

OK, I can grant that some women become in thrall to their beating partners. But the next scene is a ball given by the Pums gang which Mieze attends in a ball mask as the guest of Karl the tinsmith, dances with all of them, even Franz who doesn’t recognise her (?really) then allows herself to be driven home in a cab with Karl who heavily seduces her, if not has sex with her, in the back of the cab, for some reason having sex with another member of the gang is not being unfaithful, because she’s doing it for Franz, in order to find out more about the gang and help him.

She goes out with Karl a couple of times (telling Franz she’s with the rich gentleman friend). Then Reinhold gets wind of this liaison and muscles in. On a couple of odd occasions he persuades Karl to let him come along when they go on outings to the Freienwalde and its pretty Kurgarten, they stroll past the bandstand, through the woods, back to a hotel where Mieze stays the night, locking her door, the two men sit on the terrace smoking their cigars. That’s Wednesday 29 August 1928.

On Saturday 1 September, they repeat the experience, Karl making himself scarce while Reinhold goes into seduction mode, chatting sweetly to Mieze, while she is happy to go along with his sweet-talk. In an odd moment he undoes his shirt to show her the tattoo on his chest – an anvil – and harshly grabs her head and tells her to kiss it. She recoils, shouting at him, he’s mussed her hair. Nonetheless they move on. He guides her towards a bowl, a hollow in the grass by the woods. by now it’s dark. This entire sequence is very long, some 20 pages and 11 pages are devoted to just this evening walk, which changes in mood as Reinhold is now aggressive, now sweet, Mieze is frightened, then seduced back to walking hand in hand. But when he manhandles her down into the hollow, she starts screaming and fighting back and – in a horrible scene – he pushes her to the ground, kneels on her spine and strangles her from behind (p.370). Murders her. Buries her body under brush, goes fetches Karl who’s waiting at the car, they return and bury her properly, really deep in the soil, then sand, then scatter underbrush over the tomb. Poor Mieze’s smashed and broken body.

Reinhold gives Karl money to get out of Berlin and lie low for while, and keep his mouth shut.

Book eight (pp.375-431)

Mieze’s murder turns out to be the motor for the climax of the book. Franz becomes slowly more distraught as Mieze’s disappearance persists, Eva tries the cheer him up and announces she’s pregnant. Franz doesn’t tell many people because it’s shameful to admit his girl has abandoned him.

Weeks pass. It is early October (p.382) The criminals are restless at Pums’s leadership; they want to steal money, he prefers to steal goods and fence them, but they claim he keeps too much of the money. They pull a job on Stralauer Strasse, breaking into a bandage factory at night where there’s meant to be money in the safe. But Karl the tinsmith burns himself on his acetylene torch, none of the others can use it properly, in frustration and anger they pour petrol over the office and set it on fire but throw the match a bit too early and Pums himself gets burned on h is back. They all blame Karl the tinsmith for the fiasco and Karl grumbles, and also resents the way he was used by Reinhold to bury the dead girl.

Karl meets a wheelwright in a bar and they go in together, with two others, on the burglary of a clothing store in Elsasser Strasse. They get chatting to the nightwatchman, get invited in to share a coffee, then break it to him that they’re going to burgle the place, they’ll tie him up, give him some of the proceeds – although when they have tied him up they amuse themselves by beating him a bit round the face and nearly smothering him with a coat over his head. They are not cartoon thieves, they are thoughtless brutes, almost all the male characters in this book.

Next time the Pums gang invite Karl to join a job he is high and mighty and words are exchanged, between Karl and Reinhold especially. Which makes them suspicious of him. Then Karl and the wheelwright are arrested by the police. Their fingerprints match the ones found all over the clothing store watchman’s office and he identifies them. Karl is convinced that Reinhold snitched on him as revenge for him not joining that last job.

Karl asks a respectable in-law to find a lawyer for him and then runs past the lawyer where he would stand if he reveals he was involved in burying a dead body. The lawyer cautiously asks if he had any part in the body’s death. No. Lawyer leaves. Karl stews all night. Next day, hauled up in front of the judge, he snitches on Reinhold, telling the judge and police in great detail how he helped Reinhold bury the body of the young woman he, Reinhold, had murdered.

Karl leads the police to the burial site, they dig, there’s no body in the hole but some scraps of clothing and the hole has obviously recently been dug up i.e. Reinhold got wind of what was happening and moved it. When police publicise the case two garden labourers (p.395) come forward who saw Reinhold lugging a heavy case to another part of the woods. Digging here, the police finally find Mieze’s corpse.

This narrative – in itself not unlike a basic murder thriller plot – is given a light dusting of ‘modernism’ with the insertion of some Tatsachenphantasie – newspaper reports about a tenement block collapsing in Prague, an ambitious early flight of the new Graf Zeppelin over Berlin, and so on (p.397).

Meanwhile, Reinhold gets wind of all this & tries to diffuse the blame by getting Franz involved. He comes round to tell Franz they’re arresting people for the last Pums gang job, telling him to do a runner. Franz goes into hiding in a villa in Wilmersdorfer Strasse (p.401) owned by a woman called Fat Toni. Franz takes to wearing a wig.

Days go by then with a great fuss Eva arrives with a newspaper with big front-page photos of Reinhold and Franz next to each other, both equally Wanted by police for Mieze’s murder!! Initially Fat Toni and Eva are horrified at the thought that Franz might actually have done it, but when he dissolves into helpless tears and sobbing they realise he didn’t.

It is autumn 1928. Franz wanders the streets in a stupor, devastated by Mieze’s murder. For obscure reasons he finds himself drawn back to the Tegel prison, then goes to the cemetery to see her grave, he hallucinates conversation with other dead people.

It is November (p.410). The Graf Zeppelin makes a low flight over Berlin, Weather conditions are given. Herbert is incensed at Mieze’s murder and scours Berlin to find Reinhold and take revenge. Franz slowly joins him. Franz takes a can of petrol to Reinhold’s house. The house speaks. the house has a conversation with Franz (pp.412-13), but Franz sets fire to it anyway, and it burns down.

Two angels, Terah and Sarug, follow Franz everywhere. They discuss his sad fate (pp.414-15). Eva calls Doctor Klemens to come assess Franz who is sunk into a deep depression, and recommends a break, a rest cure. Franz hangs round in bars. We meet other drinkers, overhear their conversations and even songs.

Hush-a-bye
Don’t you cry
When you wake
You’ll have a little cake.

As the text becomes evermore full of rhymes and jingles.

All his crying, all his protests, all his rage was idle prating,
Evidence was dead against him, and the chains for him were waiting. (p.421)

There is a big police raid on a bar in Rückerstrasse. I can’t make out whether it’s because the bar was a brothel or unlicensed or a criminal hangout or what, but some fifty cops in lots of cars raid it and round up all the customers who file out. All except for some guy who persists in sitting at his table sipping his beer. When several cops approach shouting at him to gt up and come along Franz (for it is indeed Franz Biberkopf) takes a revolver out of his pocket and shoots one. He falls but the other cops rush Franz, hitting his arm to make him drop the gun, beating him to the floor, he takes a rubber baton to the eye (p.430), and handcuffing him.

Some Tatsachenphantasie as Döblin quotes police arrest forms (Christian Name, Surname, Place of residence etc). Franz is brought in and taken to an office for interrogation.

Book nine (pp.435-478)

At the police station they quickly identify Franz as one of the two men wanted for the murder of Mieze. Meanwhile Reinhold, seeing the way things were going, uses the old crook’s method of getting arrested for a minor offence, using false papers. He mugs an old lady, is convicted with papers which identify him as Polish (a certain Moroskiewicz, p.435) and locked up in Brandenberg prison as a mugger, thus evading the death penalty for murder. Or so he thinks.

Threats come from two quarters. First, as luck would have it, there’s another petty criminal, Dluga, in the prison who knew the real Moroskiewicz and quickly susses out that Reinhold is neither Moroskiewicz nor a Pole. Reinhold has to bribe him with tobacco then accuses him of snitching, which gets him beaten up.

But worse is to come. Reinhold falls in love with a pretty boy, a petty criminal named Konrad, spends all his time billing and cooing with him. But Konrad is soon to be released, so Reinhold spends a last evening with him getting drunk on illicit alcohol and, oops, telling Konrad the whole story, about Franz and Mieze and burying her and his false name etc.

Konrad is soon released, looks up Reinhold’s most recent girlfriend, gets money out of her, meets another young lad and makes the mistake of boasting about his criminal mates inside, telling stories and before he knows it has told the full story about Reinhold, the murder, and his fake identity. The mate he’s told this swears to keep it a secret, but the next day goes to the police station and discovers the stuff about Reinhold is true and there’s a reward of 1,000 marks for anyone who turns him in. So he turns him in, tells the cops Reinhold is in Brandenberg prison under a false name. Cops investigate and arrest Reinhold, who is so beside himself with rage and frustration that they nearly take him to an asylum.

Meanwhile, Franz has gone into a catatonic trance so is taken by the cops to Buch Insane Asylum. He refuses to wear clothes, refuses to eat, loses weight, can be easily carried to the bath where he plays like a child. They force feed him through tubes but Franz vomits it all up.

Cut to a learned discussion between the physicians, with the young doctors enthusiastically prescribing either electro-shock therapy, or talking therapy copied from Freud in order to address the patient’s unresolved psychic conflicts.

As he loses weight his soul escapes his body, he has reached deeper strata of consciousness, his soul wants to be an animal or wind or seed blowing across the fields outside the asylum.

Franz hears Death singing (I couldn’t help thinking that Joyce’s epic ends on a wonderful note of life affirmation while this book, characteristically German, is obsessed with Death). Death tells Franz to start climbing the ladder towards him, illuminating the way with a barrage of hatchets which, as they fall and strike, let out light. Death lectures Franz, telling him that he insisted on being strong – after he was thrown under the car he resolved to rise again; when he had pretty little Mieze all he wanted to do was brag about her to Reinhold. He has insisted on being strong, seeing life on his terms and swanking, self-centred, instead of being meek and realising life is mixed.

Franz screams, screams all day and all night. But silently. To outward appearance he is catatonic and unmoving. Inside his head Death torments him with his stupidity and then a procession comes of all the crims he took up with, Lüders and Reinhold, why did I like them or hang out with them or try to impress them, Franz asks himself.

Ida appears before him, repeatedly buckling and bending, he asks her what is wrong, she turns and says ‘You are hitting me, Franz, you are killing me’, no no no no he cries. Mieze appears to him at noon, asking his forgiveness, Franz begs her to stay with him, but she can’t, she’s dead.

Crushed, Franz realises what a miserable worm he is. He sinks into a world of psychological pain, is burnt up, annihilated and, after much suffering, reborn.

Somehow his recovery is connected with a historic panorama of Napoleon’s army invading across the Rhine, of marching armies which have marched in the Russian Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, the Peasants Wars and so back into time, Death drawing his vast clock across the ravaged landscape and smiling, oh yes oh yes oh yes.

The old Franz Biberkopf is dead. A new man is reborn, call him Biberkopf. He starts talking. He answers all the police’s questions, though reluctantly. He doesn’t want to go back. But his alibis stand up and he is cleared of Mieze’s murder. And even (hard to believe) shooting a police officer appears to be only a cautionable offence. So after some weeks of slow physical and mental recovery, Biberkopf is released.

DEAR FATHERLAND, DON’T WORRY
I SHAN’T SLIP AGAIN IN A HURRY

Biberkopf returns to Berlin a changed man. Döblin gives us some Tatsachenphantasie, some facts and figures about Berlin’s train and subway and tram systems, about current building works and the latest advertising campaigns (‘Everybody admires the shoe / That’s brightly polished with Egu’).

Biberkopf meets up with Eva. Herbert’s been arrested by the cops and sent to prison for two years. Eva had been excited about carrying Franz’s baby but she had a miscarriage. Just as well. She is still supported by her sugardaddy ‘admirer’. They go out to visit Mieze’s grave and Eva is struck by how sober and sensible Franz is. Lays a wreath but then walks Eva across the road to a coffee shop where they enjoy some honey cake.

Franz is a witness at the trial of Reinhold. He tells all that he knows but isn’t malicious. He still has feelings of friendship for Reinhold. Reinhold, for his part, is puzzled by the new strange blank look on Biberkopf’s face. Reinhold is sentenced to ten years in prison.

Immediately afterwards Biberkopf is offered the job of doorman at a medium-sized factory. He has learned that one man alone is overwhelmed by fate. But a hundred or a thousand are stronger. The novel ends with military imagery, of drums rolling and soldiers marching, ‘we march to war with iron tread’.

It is a powerful image of determination and unity, of a mass of people united so that it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a communist or a fascist image, of people determined to look fate in the face, grab it, make it. And at the same time an odd way to end the novel.

Is that the most positive image Döblin can conceive, of free people marching to war with iron tread. Well, ten years later his people did march to war with iron tread and much good it did them.


I find reading these German books hard not because of their ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ ‘modernism’; as described at length, above, all of Döblin’s techniques are child’s play compared with Joyce.

No, I found Berlin Alexanderplatz hard to read for the much more basic reasons that 1. I found the character’s behaviour at key moments and in general throughout the book, incomprehensible, and 2. I was deeply repelled by the characters casual violence in their thoughts and deeds.

1. Incomprehensibility

So I got to the end of the book and I still didn’t understand:

  • the entire opening scene with Franz blundering into the home of some Jews who proceed to tell him a long-winded story about some Polish con artist (?)
  • why Lüders going behind Franz’s back to threaten the skinny widow woman was so devastating to Franz (major plot crux 1)
  • what the thinking was behind the scheme whereby Reinhold handed his discarded women over to Franz every month or so
  • what made Reinhold suddenly snap and decide to chuck Franz out of the speeding getaway car (major plot crux 2)
  • why Franz not only forgives Reinhold for trying to kill him, but ends up liking him and wanting to impress him
  • the psychology whereby both Herbert and Franz were perfectly content to let their girlfriends (Eva and Mieze) go off and spend nights and weekends having sex with rich sugardaddies
  • the psychology of Eva ‘finding’ young and beautiful Mieze ‘for’ Franz and making her his mistress while, at the same time, being hopelessly in love with Franz and wanting to have his baby
  • why, in the end, Reinhold had to murder Mieze (major plot crux 3)
  • why the devil Franz decides to start firing a revolver at the police during the raid of the club instead of going quietly?

So all the modernist techniques were easy and fun, but the basic psychology of the characters escaped me at almost every important turn of the plot.

2. Casual brutality

What horribly brutal people they are.

The reader searches high and low in vain for a touch of humour or gentleness. Kicking and stabbing, beating and raping appear to be the only way Germans can communicate with each other.

  • Franz assaulted his wife violently enough to rupture her lung leading to her death.
  • Walking through the Berlin streets, Franz fantasises about smashing all the shiny shop windows.
  • On his first day out of prison, Franz rapes his wife’s sister, giving her a black eye in the process.
  • Franz gets into a fight with commies at Hentchke’s pub.
  • Franz enjoys watching his girlfriend fling the gay magazines at the newsvendor and yell at him in the street.
  • When Meck tries to find out from Lüders where Franz has disappeared to, he doesn’t ask him firmly, he knocks him to the ground, beats him badly and threatens him with a knife.
  • When Lüders goes to Franz’s flat, he keeps hold of an open knife in his pocket in case Franz turns nasty.
  • In a casually brutal aside, Döblin makes a simile comparing Franz emerging into the slushy slippery Berlin streets, ‘just like an old horse that has slid on the wet pavement and gets a kick in the belly with a boot’ (p.164), yes that’s how Germans treat their animals
  • The brutal way Pums’s gang treat Franz, even before they throw him out of the speeding car.
  • The brutal way Reinhold beats his girlfriend’s face to a pulp without even thinking about it, permanently disfiguring her (p.228).
  • The horrible way Franz beats Mieze when she tells him she’s in love with the young gentleman, knocking her to the floor and smashing her mouth.
  • The horrible way Pums’s back gets burned during the bungled break-in at the factory and the rest of the gang laugh at him.
  • The really horrible way Reinhold tries to rape and then murders Mieze.

Yuk.

I know the casual brutality reflects the working class, and criminal, characters Döblin has set out to depict but a) surely there were a few working class people who weren’t thieves and rapists b) surely even the roughest thugs have a few moments of charity and affection, c) Joyce was not only far more avant-garde and experimental in his form, but his selection of fairly ordinary characters to describe at such length are loveable and humane.

3. German humour

In fact there are a few moments of comedy in this 480-page-long book, but a close examination suggests how German comedy doesn’t seem to be verbal, to involve wit or word play, puns or irony. It consists mostly in laughing at others’ misfortune or stupidity.

  • Lūders laughs at Lina’s anxiety about Franz when the latter goes missing (p.118)
  • Cilly humorously suggests to Franz a headline story in the newspaper such as, a paper-seller had to change some money and gave the right amount by mistake! (p, 208)
  • Eva has a hysterical panic attack when she thinks Schreiber is about to pull a gun on Franz, leaping to her feet, screaming, making the two men themselves panic, knock over furniture, Schreiber hares off down the stairs, two men from the café come up to find out what one earth the noise is about, the landlady eventually comes in and throws a bucket of water over Eva to calm her down and now, finally calm and quiet, the soaking Eva softly says: ‘I want a roll’, and the two men from the café laugh (p. 246)
  • Franz amuses a young woman named Emmi. When she asks where his other arm is, he says his girlfriend is so jealous, he leaves it back home with her as a pledge that he’ll return. And goes on to say he’s taught it tricks: it can stand on the table and give political speeches: ‘Only he who works shall eat!’ (p.258)
  • Franz is joshing with some younger blokes down the pub. ‘As the Prussians used to say: hands on the seams of your trousers! And so say we, only not on your own!’ (p.261)
  • Franz is in a getaway car with the Pums gang after pulling a job. The driver accidentally runs over a dog and is really upset. Reinhold and Franz roar with laughter at the bloke being so soft-headed. The man says: ‘A thing like that brings you bad luck’. Franz nudges the bloke next to him and says: ‘He means cats’ and everybody ‘roars with laughter’ (p.336)
  • Reinhold pays Mieze a visit when Franz is out and flirts with her, rather intimidatingly. She asks him if he hasn’t got any work to do rather than lounging round with her. he replies: ‘Even the Lord sometimes takes a holiday, Fräulein, so we plain mortals should take at least two.’ She replies: ‘Well, I should say you’re taking three,’ and they both laugh (p.344)
  • Reinhold keeps pestering Franz to tell him about his new girl (Mieze), saying it does no harm to describe her, does it? Franz admits, ‘No, it doesn’t harm me, Reinhold, but you’re such a swine,’ and they both laugh. (p.347)
  • In a bar, three companions are drinking and joking. One says: An aviator walks onto a field, and there’s a girl sitting there. Says he: ‘Hey, Miss Lindbergh, how about some trick-flying together?’ Says she: ‘My name isn’t Lindbergh, It’s Fokker,’ and the three ‘roar with laughter’ (p.381)
  • Some detectives come snooping the Alexander Quelle club. Two boys who’ve recently escaped from a reformatory are sitting chatting with the tinsmith. He has papers but they don’t, all three are ordered to the local police station where the boys immediately blab about what they’ve been up to. Ten the sops reveal they had no idea who they were and weren’t particularly looking for them. Damn, says the boys. ‘In that case we wouldn’t have told you how we hooked it’, and they all laugh together, boys and cops (p.385)
  • The chief doctor in charge of Franz’s treatment in the mental institution listens to his two juniors squabbling about theories and ways to treat their catatonic patient, then gets up, laughs heartily and slaps their shoulders (p.450)

Setting them down like this I can appreciate that some of them are funny, I suppose. My negative perception is coloured by the often brutal or cruel remarks which jostle around them.

And in any case, old jokes are difficult to recapture even in English novels from the 1920s and 30s, let alone jokes in a foreign language, from the vanished world of 1920s Berlin.

And at least there is some humour in Alexanderplatz, unlike the solemn, philosophico-hysteria of the Hermann Broch trilogy I just completed.

Summary

All that said, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a quite brilliant novel which gives you a vivid panoramic impression of 1920s Berlin and more insight into Germany and German-ness than anything else I’ve ever read.

It is full of Weimar touches (the crippled war veterans, the legless man moving around on a wheeled trolley, the immense amount of prostitution, the pretty young things entertaining rich old sugardaddies, the casual sexual partners and the casual bisexuality of Reinhold, the threat of violence in the street from either the communists or the swastika-men, the hectic sense of things being hustled along given by the inclusion of newspaper headlines and events) which really do make it read like a verbal equivalent of classic Weimar Republic artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix.

Twilight by George Grosz (1922)

Credit

Berlin Alexanderplatz was published in Germany in 1929. This translation by Eugene Jolas was published as Alexanderplatz by Martin Secker in 1931. All references are to the 1979 Penguin paperback translation.





Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Romantic by Hermann Broch (1931)

It was only fragments of the past that fleetingly emerged, and important and trivial things flowed chaotically through one another… (The Romantic, page 11)

Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951) is considered one of the major European Modernist authors. He was born in Vienna to a prosperous Jewish family and worked for some time in his family’s factory. In 1909 he converted to Roman Catholicism and married Franziska von Rothermann, the daughter of a knighted manufacturer. In 1927 i.e. aged 40, Broch sold the textile factory and decided to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna, and to pursue a full-time career as a writer. At the age of 45, in 1931, his first major literary work, the trilogy The Sleepwalkers, was published in Munich.

The Sleepwalkers consists of three medium-sized novels:

  • The Romantic (1888)
  • The Anarchist (1903)
  • The Realist (1918)

The dates are not my addition, they’re part of the formal, full titles of each novel, indicating:

  1. That each novel is, among other things, a portrait of its era
  2. That Broch is quite a schematic writer. Recall that he chose to study maths at university. Note that 1888 to 1903 is 15 years, and 1903 to 1918 is 15 years. So a span of 30 years. And it is symmetrical. And it is a trilogy, suggesting three points of focus…

Reading Hermann Broch

I read the trilogy in the English translation made by prolific translators Willa and Edwin Muir soon after the original German publication, back in the early 1930s.

There’s no getting round the fact that Broch is pretty difficult to read, for a number of reasons:

Long paragraphs Weaned on a hundred years of post-Hemingway minimalism, Anglo-Saxon readers are used to short sentences in short paragraphs. Whereas Broch – like Kafka – routinely deploys paragraphs which last an entire page, sometimes two, sometimes even more, so that the reader is confronted by what initially appears to be a wall of words.

In the modern Anglo-Saxon tradition, dialogue is broken up so that each exchange starts on a new line, making it visually and psychologically easy to follow. Not here. Extended dialogues are presented as unbroken blocks of text, which can make them hard to follow. If your focus drifts at all, it’s quite easy to find you’ve ‘read’ an entire page with absolutely no memory of what happened.

Long sentences The very long paragraphs contain some very, very long sentences. Routinely I got into the habit of having to reread entire paragraphs, and certainly some of the half-page-long sentences. Rereading helped them swim up into meaning.

The translation In almost every sentence there are ungainly and sometimes grammatically questionable turns of phrase.

Besides, visiting Berlin but twice a year, he had abundance to do when he was there. (p.11)

Perhaps his mother was really against his being sent to Culm, but one could put no dependence on her. (p.13)

Nevertheless she resolved to ask Joachim some time what was his birthday. (p.74)

Is this because German has such a different language from English, and the Muirs have stuck as close as possible to German word order? Or is it because Broch’s ‘Modernist’ German would be difficult even for a German speaker and the translators have tried to capture that difficulty?

There is no real way of knowing, but reading Broch is emphatically not like reading an English author.

Difficult descriptions Some of the text swims into view and suddenly you understand what is going on, who is talking, and what they’re saying. Then at other moments the text becomes blurry, describes the characters’ confused emotions or intuitions or misperceptions even, at moments (particularly when seen through the eyes of the central character, Joachim von Pasenow) what seem almost to be hallucinations.

Yet now suddenly everything had receded to a great distance in which Ruzena’s face and Bertrand’s could scarcely be told from each other. (p.56)

A lot of the time you’re not sure whether this is carefully calculated effect, or the cumulative impact of the long sentences in long paragraphs rendered into unidiomatic English. Is it you or him?

Stream of consciousness After a while I began to realise that, at least in part, it’s him i.e. it is a calculated effect. As you get used to Broch’s ‘background’ style, you begin to be able to make out passages where the characters have giddy, dizzy moments of misperception, the central character, Joachim von Pasenow, in particular being subject to all kinds of odd and confusing thoughts.

Things were as elusive as a melody that one thinks one cannot forget and yet loses the thread of, only to be compelled to seek it again and again in anguish. (p.114)

And you realise that at least part of Broch’s intention is to capture the flow of thoughts, and the evanescence of consciousness. Broch takes us into the mind of Joachim, and then of the two other central characters, in order to show us how multi-levelled consciousness is, and how often half-formed ideas or impressions float across our minds without ever coming into focus, often because we don’t want to fully acknowledge them.

Phenomenology I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied at the University of Vienna because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna.

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience. (Wikipedia)

That’s not a bad summary of what Broch appears to be doing in this novel. Here’s how one character feels about ‘love’:

It was an almost joyful ground for reassurance that the feeling which she hopefully designated as love should have such a very unassuming and civilised appearance; one had actually to search one’s mind to discern it, for it was so faint and thin that only against a background of silvery ennui did it become visible. (p.70)

Just one example of from hundreds of a Broch character seeking, searching to define and make out feelings or ideas or notions which hover on the edge of consciousness or definition.

Novel of ideas The ‘novel of ideas’ is a notoriously slippery concept to define. This is more of a novel with ideas.

This is most obvious in the cleverest character, Eduard von Bertrand, who makes subtle, sophisticated or ironic speeches about love or religion or the notable speech about African Christians over-running Europe (see below).

But other characters also struggle to define and understand ideas. When Elisabeth is at home with her parents in the country there is a two- or three-page passage where she reflects at length on the special nature of her parents’ marriage, which includes a meditation on the true meaning of collecting, of making collections (to overcome death, p.71) and of age, which she experiences not as an idea but like a serpent stifling her consciousness.

Joachim spends his entire time trying to sort out his ideas about honour, duty, the army, the uniform and so on and, in the final third or so of the novel becomes obsessed with religious imagery, with a conviction of his own sinfulness and that God is punishing him (what for? well, that’s what he spends his time agonising about).

But the most philosophical character is the narrator. Personally I feel the novel gets off to a rocky start, we are introduced to too many characters in a quirky and almost incomprehensible way. But once it beds in, you are never more than a few pages from an extended description which tends to morph into ‘philosophical’ thoughts about many aspects of the quiet bourgeois style of life the book describes: the effect of the music Elisabeth plays in a piano trio (p.92) or an extended description of the landscaping of the garden round the Baddensens’ manor house, or so on.

It is not a novel of ideas in the sense that it proposes a massive concept of society like 1984 or is full of clever character sitting round discussing Important Subjects, as in an Aldous Huxley novel. It is more a novel which describes the complex feelings and intuitions of its characters which sometimes invoke larger ideas or notions. In one scene Elisabeth and her mother pay a visit to the von Pasenows. The conversation is getting a little rocky when the pet canary starts singing.

They gathered round it as round a fountain and for a few moments forgot everything else; it was as though this slender golden thread of sound, rising and falling, were winding itself around them and linking them in that unity on which the comfort of their living and dying was established; it was as though this thread which wavered up and filled their being, and yet which curved and wound back again to its source, suspended their speech, perhaps because it was a thin, golden ornament in space, perhaps because it brought to their minds for a few moments that they belonged to each other, and lifted them out of the dreadful stillness whose reverberations rise like an impenetrable wall of deafening silence between human being and human being, a wall through which the human voice cannot penetrate, so that it has to falter and die. (p.77)

There aren’t any real ‘ideas’ in this passage. Maybe it would be accurate to call it a kind of philosophically-minded description. A novel written by a philosophically-minded author. Not so much a novel of ideas as a novel of thoughtful descriptions.

The Romantic (1888) – plot summary, part one

So, I found the book quite difficult to get into because its style, layout, and approach are all alien to the super-accessible, Americanised prose we are all used to in 2020.

But, rather like getting into a cold swimming pool, if you persist, your body acclimatises to the style and you begin to grasp the basic structures of the novel, and on the back of that, to understand and appreciate what, after a while, you realise are moments of great beauty and sensitivity.

And you also come to realise that the book is built about sets of binary opposites with an almost mathematical precision (see my comment about schematic, above).

Joachim von Pasenow was sent by his landowning family to army cadet school aged ten (p.24), unlike his elder brother, Helmuth, who remained on the estate to run the family farm. The story opens with Joachim now aged about 30 (he has spent 20 years away from home, p.40), still in the army, a lieutenant (p.15) and about to be promoted to captain (p.89).

Town versus country Thus the brothers represent alternative destinies: Joachim lives in barracks in Berlin; Helmuth has stayed on the family farm in the country to help his ageing parents. So a basic binary in the novel is the contrast between urban people and values (‘you people who live in cities’) and rural lives and values (p.29).

One must not judge things merely from the standpoint of the city man; out there in the country people’s feelings were less artificial and meant more. (p.52)

But Joachim is not quite the representative of urban life I’ve just suggested. We soon get to know about a good friend of his who he met in the boy cadets and became a brother officer, Eduard von Bertrand. Bertrand quit the army and has become a businessman, a cotton importer (p.26), familiar with the Stock Exchange and the mysteries of banking and business ledgers. He has a

sureness and lightness of touch, and his competence in the affairs of life (p.147)

He has grown his hair curly (his ‘far too wavy hair’, p.51), wears smart suits, and has travelled widely, most recently to America, all qualities which Joachim mistrusts or actively despises.

So if Helmuth represents life back on the farm and Bertrand represents smart wheeler-dealer city life – then Joachim is the man in between – attracted but repelled by Bertrand’s stylish cynicism, equally attracted by his memories of simple life on the family farm, but repelled by the reality of his parents’ stultifying boredom and vulgarity.

The virgin versus the whore Same when it comes to women. Joachim’s father comes to see him in Berlin and the son is, reluctantly, obliged to take him to see the sights, which includes dinner at the Jäger Casino, where they come across two fancy women. (I think they’re high class prostitutes, but the social manners of the time being depicted and the elliptical way everyone refers to them don’t make it utterly clear.) Joachim’s father bluntly hands the dark-haired woman a 50-mark note with the apparent idea that he’s buying her for his son, but she suddenly runs off to cry with the lavatory attendant (?).

Joachim is, characteristically, disgusted by his father’s crudeness, but also haunted by the girl’s beauty and by the fleeting moment when she flirtatiously runs her hand over his close-cropped army haircut. His dad goes back to the farm, and Joachim spends days scouring the working class districts of Berlin with a half-formed intention to find the girl. One day she steps out of the crowd and into his life.

She is named Ruzena. She is not German but Czech, to be precise Bohemian (p.17), and speaks German badly (‘Not like you friend; he’s ugly man’) in a harsh staccato style.

Joachim takes Ruzena for lunch, then they take a carriage out to ‘the Havel’ – a park in West Berlin – she takes his arms under hers as they stroll beside the misty river, till it starts to rain and they take shelter under a tree where she leans against him. They kiss.

Back in Berlin he walks her to the door of her apartment where they kiss again, he turns and begins walking away, but turns again, runs up to her. She takes him upstairs and strips him and they have sex, for days afterwards he is haunted by the vision of her long black hair spread like a fan across her white pillow.

But – as usual – Joachim is conflicted. On his visit up to town, his father had suggested that Joachim pay court to the daughter of an aristocratic family in the neighbourhood, the Baddensens. She is named Elisabeth, who (to make things as simplistically symbolic as possible) is a posh, innocent blonde compared with Ruzena’s sensuous dark colouring. Elisabeth is the daughter of the Baron and Baroness von Baddensen, who live in the old manor-house on an estate at Lestow (p.24).

So Joachim is caught between the pure, angelic, blonde virgin of an eminent, rich family – or a raven-haired sex goddess, a courtesan who’s not even properly German, but has stolen his heart… or his loins, anyway.

Honour versus cynicism Yet another binary pairing occurs when Joachim’s elder brother is unexpectedly shot dead in a duel. a) In plot terms, since Joachim is now the only heir of the farm, his father wants Joachim to return to the land, to rural life with its illiterate peasants and simpler, Christian values. b) But in terms of the schema, Bertrand now grows in weight as a symbolic figure. He is given speeches praising city life, and deprecating rural values, especially rural – and by extension European – Christian faith.

In a striking speech he compares the waning of European Christianity with the passionate adherence of the African converts German and other European missionaries are making in Africa right now (1888). One day, Bertrand fancifully predicts, a great tidal wave of African Christians will sweep into a heathen Europe, reconverting it, and enthroning a black Pope in the Vatican (p.29).

The cause of Helmuth’s death wasn’t accidental. It was a duel, an old-fashioned duel, fought over ‘an affair of honour’ with a Polish landowner (though we never find out the precise cause).

So Helmuth’s straightforward ‘honour’ is compared & contrasted with Bertrand’s more worldly-wise cynicism. It’s not that Bertrand is a particularly fiery atheist, he is just a modern, successful business man who doesn’t understand how such 17th century values as duels and ‘honour’ have lived on into the age of trains and factories (p.51).

The character of Joachim von Pasenow

And, as usual, Joachim is the man in between, caught between his brother’s impeccable rectitude, which he himself feels was excessive, but repelled by Bertrand’s casual dismissal or at least questioning of it.

It is this aspect of being a man caught in between two worlds which really defines Joachim’s character, and the phrase ‘two worlds’ occurs a number of times in his internal monologues. He is perpetually uneasy.

During the last few days he had become uncertain about many things, and this in some inexplicable way was connected with Bertrand; some pillar or other of life had become shaky… and there had grown within him a longing for permanence, security and peace. (p.31)

Joachim, the man in the middle of all these binary opposites, could, I suppose have been wise and witty, or brisk and soldier-like – but instead he comes over as neurotic and tense, so profoundly confused, about even simple things like who he’s walking behind in the city streets, ‘so susceptible to this feeling of insecurity’, that the reader starts to think he must be having a nervous breakdown.

For a moment everything was confused again and one did not know to whom Ruzena belonged… (p.56)

Joachim is easily confused. He doesn’t understand other people’s motives, or over-thinks them. He confuses people in a surreal way, so that the sight of his fiancée Elisabeth climbing up into a train departing for the country is so exactly like the movements of his father undertaking the same action, that Joachim momentarily confuses them both, to such an extent that he becomes speechless.

‘In his fantasy’ (p.24), Joachim imagines Ruzena lives in one of the small shops he walks past in Berlin, with her dark-haired mother. All fantasy.

He sees an Italian-looking man at the Opera with black hair, hears him speaking a foreign language, and in a fantastical way comes to believe that it is Ruzena’s brother, on no evidence at all. He proceeds to superimpose her features on his, and the ‘brother’s’ features onto Ruzena – all baseless fantasia.

It is typical of Joachim’s diseased fantasy that, when he returns home for his brother’s funeral and sits in the room with the coffin he fantasises that it is he, Joachim, in the coffin (p.41). He dreams that Ruzena has killed herself by drowning herself in the river at the Havel Park – but next thing, is fantasising that it is he who has drowned, or that it is his eyes which look up out of her face (p.123).

A fantastic association led his thoughts quite into the absurd, and the confusion became almost inextricable… (p.88)

Walking through Berlin he finds himself following a fat bearded man waddling along and on absolutely no evidence concludes that he must be Bertrand’s business agent.

Even though Joachim knew that what he thought was without sense or sequence, yet it was as though the apparently confused skein concealed a sequence… (p.48)

He can’t control his neurotic and destructive fantasies.

After a while I noticed the number of sentences which include two perhapses: perhaps it was this, perhaps only that –

Perhaps they were tears he had not noticed, perhaps however it was only the oppressive heat… (p.44)

Well, that might be taken as sarcasm, or it might not (p.76)

Ambiguity and uncertainty are sewn into the fabric of the text throughout.

Joachim often gets confused by the actual experience of his thoughts. His thoughts hove into view but don’t quite crystallise or complete, before they melt away. His mind has many levels and on all of them he is subject to confused impressions, misidentifications, and ungraspable insights.

… at the same time and in some other layer of his mind… (p.35)

Then, just when it was becoming visible, the thought broke off and hid itself… (p.67)

A new feeling had unexpectedly risen in him; he tried to find words for it… (p.74)

Some of this feels a little like the interior monologue brought to unmatched heights in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but only a little. In Joyce’s novel entire passages are conveyed in a swirl of consciousness, in which language itself breaks down. Nothing like that happens here. Language remains correct and grammatical, it’s the characters thoughts which break down and evade their grasp.

Urban alienation The most obvious way that the book is ‘modernist’ is the way the central character’s confusion and neurosis is directly linked to the bustling crowds of late-nineteenth century Berlin (what the book describes as ‘the labyrinth of the city, p.22) which he finds overwhelming.

But now his thoughts jostled each other like the people in the crowd round about him, and even though he saw a goal in front of him which he wanted to reach, it swam and wavered and was lost to view like the back of the fat man before him. (p.49)

Against the anarchy of modern values Joachim the soldier struggles to hold himself erect and firm but is constantly fighting a losing battle.

It often required an actual effort to hold things firmly in their proper shapes, an effort to difficult that many a time all those people who bustled about as if all was in order seemed to him limited, blind and almost crazy. (p.113)

This is epitomised by the odd, extended passage early in the novel where Joachim tries to express to himself why the concept of the uniform is so important. For him his uniform is a ‘bulwark against anarchy’ (p.23) and the sight of civilian clothes sometimes makes Joachim feel physically sick.

The dangers of civilian life were of a more obscure and incomprehensible kind. Chaos and disorder everywhere, without a hierarchy, without discipline. (p.60)

When he meets Bertrand wearing civvies, Joachim is as embarrassed and ashamed to be seen with him as if he were naked (p.27). When his parents start sending him letters requesting that he quit the army and go to run the family farm, Joachim likens the idea to being stripped of his uniform and dumped naked in the Alexanderplatz (p.59).

The tangle of nets which stretched over the whole city, the net which he felt everywhere… an impenetrable, incomprehensible net of civilian values which was invisible and yet which darkened everything. (p.62)

Interlude: Why is the novel titled The Romantic?

It would be easy to answer that Joachim is a man whose head is full of ‘romantic’ notions of honour, duty, love and Christian faith and rural values, and the novel shows the stress all these ideas come under – but it’s not quite that simple.

For Joachim is far beyond having a ‘romantic’ turn of mind. He’s mad, actually. He regularly hallucinates – as in merging different people – is puzzled and confused about how to behave and what to think. And also he is simply too stupid to understand what Bertrand is saying half the time. I.e. Joachim is not a portrait of a throwback to an earlier, more romantic era – he is a neurotic on the edge of a breakdown, quite a lot more of a hard-edged figure.

Also he is a soldier. There’s a moment in Joachim’s rooms where Bertrand proposes an elaborate and humorous toast to Ruzena and, seeing it through Joachim’s eyes, we realise that he simply doesn’t understand what Bertrand is on about. He suspects it’s some complicated ploy to take Ruzena away from him, whereas the reader can see it’s just an elaborate and humorous toast.

Later in the book, Joachim tries to provide a regular income for Ruzena, and Bertrand recommends him to his lawyer to arrange it all, and the lawyer quickly sees that Joachim is useless at making decisions, in all the aspects of practical life.

Later still, in conversation with Elisabeth, Betrand tells her point blank that the ability to ‘love’ requires a modicum of wisdom, or at least cleverness – and that Joachim lacks both.

After a while I realised that Joachim is scared of everything and everyone. He is certain Bertrand is out to ‘get’ him, to drag him into civilian life, to steal his black-haired beauty or his blonde virgin. He is insistently paranoid. Unless his uniform is done up just so, unless he hold himself stiff and erect, then some nameless, dreadful thing will happen.

So it seems to me that Joachim is less a ‘romantic’ than a delusional, borderline hysterical, neurotic, extremely uptight and dim junior army officer. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see him as precisely the kind of narrow, patriotic, sexually tortured junior officer who went on to carry out countless coups throughout the 20th century, imprison and execute the liberal opposition, close bars and brothels and impose a strict sexual morality which reflects his own neuroses.

In conclusion, the protagonist of this novel is not at all what the title ‘The Romantic’ might lead you to believe.

Also, he isn’t the only ‘romantic’ character in the book. Elisabeth is, in her way, a desperate romantic i.e. she wants wishful fantasies to outweigh reality. She wants to live with her mummy and daddy forever and ever. And then there’s Ruzena who, Bertrand decides, is a romantic child, as helpless as a little animal.

So maybe the novel would more accurately be titled The Romantics.

The Romantic (1888) – plot summary, part two

Joachim is called down to his parents’ farm for the funeral of Helmuth. This means abandoning Ruzena in Berlin. She has just recently got a job as a showgirl-cum-actress through contacts of Bertrand’s.

Characteristically, Joachim had no idea about how to fulfil this ambition of hers ‘with all his mooning, romantic fantasies’ (p.64), whereas Bertrand was easily able to pull a few strings and make it happen. Which is why Joachim envies and despises him. (As the novel progresses we get more and more ‘leaks’ as to what Bertrand makes of his former comrade in arms; he thinks of Joachim as a ‘clumsy fellow’, p.92, and later on will simply call him stupid.)

Bertrand pays a courtesy call on Ruzena and walks her home and then Ruzena leans into him and lifts her mouth to be kissed, exactly as she did with Joachim. But Bertrand chastely kisses her cheek, she goes into her apartment block while he lights a cigar and strolls jauntily away. You begin to realise Bertrand has the measure of both Joachim and Ruzena, and is amusing himself with them.

Similarly, when Bertrand goes down to stay with the von Pasenow family at their estate in Stolpin, Joachim has a (characteristically) fatalistic intuition that Bertrand will take Elisabeth from him and, just as inevitably, Bertrand does.

The three go riding together and – in a strange and persuasive moment – Joachim reins his horse in just as it was about to take an easy jump, making it stumble and hurt its ankle; so that he reluctantly says he better walk it home – leaving Bertrand to embark on an extended and highly philosophical seduction of Elisabeth.

It is a characteristically Broch touch that Joachim doesn’t understand then or forever after just what impulse made him rein in his horse, thus almost certainly hurting it, thus forcing him to leave Bertrand and Elisabeth alone, thus almost certainly pushing them together, thus almost certainly sabotaging the plans the parents of both families have to make a convenient match between them.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s typical of Joachim’s puzzled personality that he agonises about it; and it’s typical of Broch’s approach to the novel, to the idea of fiction, that this is the kind of psychologically charged moment he likes to depict and then have his characters mull over for pages of dense, psychologically-charged prose.

Joachim’s father has a stroke. He begins behaving oddly. The stroke occurred when he was writing a furious letter disinheriting Joachim for his ‘treachery’ of insisting on going back to Berlin and refusing to stay and run the family farm. Joachim goes down to see him and stay. He pays some visits to Elisabeth where their relationship proceeds in a halting, frosty kind of way. After vegetating at the farm for some time, Joachim makes an excuse to return to Berlin for three days and immediately sends for Ruzena. She comes running, cooks for him, they go to bed. Joachim is unhappy with Ruzena’s career on the stage – where she gets plaudits from strange men – and suggests to her that he sets her up running a little lace shop.

This is a typically stupid Joachim suggestion based solely on the warm impression he gained from looking into a lace shop in which a mother and daughter were bent over their needles on one of his many walks around Berlin. Ruzena enjoys the attention she gets as a showgirl and so she angrily rejects Joachim’s suggestion, and angrily asks if he’s been put up to it by his ‘bad’ friend, Bertrand, who she’s never liked (p.117).

Joachim’s father deteriorates and so he is compelled to accompany a nerve specialist from Berlin down to the family home. Here the father makes another scene in a small gathering of his wife, Joachim, the village priest, the family doctor and the nerve specialist. He insists on rising from his sick bed and taking the head of the table from where he issues denunciations, telling everyone that his son Joachim is dead and buried in the local cemetery but still doesn’t write to him anymore. The people round the table look at each other. Father is losing his mind.

Meanwhile, Bertrand, back from a business trip to Prague, drops by Joachim’s flat to pay a courtesy call on Ruzena. Here he unwittingly presses all the wrong buttons, exacerbating her sense of grievance that Joachim wants to take her off the stage (and deny her the first really fulfilling activity she’s ever had in her life) and in a rather surprising development, she becomes so furious that she rummages around in Joachim’s drawers, finds his service revolver and shoots Bertrand.

Not badly. In the arm. She drops the revolver, he bleeds. It is a scene from an opera or a late 19th century melodrama. He insists she accompanies him in a hansom cab to the hospital where he has the wound dressed but when he comes out she has gone.

After seeking her in vain for a few days, Bertrand writes to Joachim who comes up from the farm. He explains what happened. Joachim sets out on a trawl of Berlin nightclubs, cafes etc. Eventually he finds Ruzena sprawled in the loos of a louche club. She is in a terrible state and has become a prostitute again. When he pleads with her to come home with him she locks herself in a cubicle. Joachim waits outside for an hour and then is horrified to see her emerging on the arm of a fat client, and getting into a cab together. Looks like his affair with the Bohemian beauty is over.

This leads to the sequence of scenes where Joachim, driven by ‘romantic’ notions, decides to settle some money on Ruzena. Bertrand’s lawyer sizes him up quickly, realising that the stiff-necked man in front of him is ‘helpless’ in the face of the real world (p.131). To Joachim, inside his head, everything feels tangled and entrapped in a closing mesh over which presides a vengeful God. Whereas to the lawyer facing him, Joachim’s case is one of a type he sees all the time – army officer of good family needs to pay off illicit lover, in order to clear way for marriage to eligible heiress, and he gives him brisk practical advice on how to do it, while useless Joachim sits in front of him, racked by terror of The Evil One.

Joachim goes straight from this meeting (stopping only to put on his best pair of army gloves) to the house in the western suburbs of the city which the von Banndensen family take for the season, knocks, enters, and asks Freiherr von Baddensen for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He and his wife are thrilled, but caution that they must speak to Elisabeth first.

A day or so later Joachim meets Bertrand and explains what he’s done. Bertrand is shrewd and supportive. In a classic piece of dramatic irony, the narrator then tells us why: that Elisabeth came to see Bertrand the day before, taking a carriage to the hospital and insisting on seeing him in a small private reception room to ask his advice.

Here they have a reprise of the semi-philosophical love-sparring which they had first had on the day of the horse ride. During this, Bertrand a) points out that Joachim is ‘too stupid to love’ (p.135) b) that he, Bertrand, loves Elisabeth, but will be leaving the country soon and so they cannot marry. Therefore c) she should marry Joachim.

It was difficult to gauge the tone of this. Is it light satire or – what it feels more like – Bertrand being quite brutally unfeeling and playing with Elisabeth’s emotions. All the time he is telling her they can’t be together, he is kissing her and telling her how much he loves her. Is he deliberately tormenting her? Or is he himself not quite in control of the situation? Anyway, having exhausted themselves, Elisabeth decides that she will marry Joachim and leaves the feverish Bertrand  to return to his hospital bed.

The narration returns to the ‘now’ from which this flashback occurred i.e. to Joachim talking to Bertrand, and Joachim declares more fiercely than ever that he will marry Elisabeth.

This leads on to an extraordinary scene where Joachim pays a formal visit to the von Baddensens, there is a formal dinner, toasts are proposed in champagne, and then everyone leaves the happy couple alone. And there follows an extremely tense and embarrassing scene where the two lovers, neither of whom really wants to get married, have to go through the ghastly farce of Joachim getting down onto his knees to propose. In a very ‘modern’ touch, Joachim has a hallucination of the room’s walls moving away, of all the furniture moving away from him to an infinite distance while his heart freezes as he touches Elisabeth’s dainty little fingers which are as cold as ice (p.142), a chill which is like ‘a dreadful foreboding of death’ (p.153).

Not the least weird aspect of this very weird scene is that they both end up talking about Bertrand who is a more central part of their lives than each other.

In the coach back from the von Baddensens, Joachim has a typical one of his hallucinations, an overwhelming sense that both his father and Bertrand must have died, together, that evening. Of course, neither of them have. Joachim isn’t a ‘romantic’. He is delusional.

Joachim goes to see Bertrand in hospital and tell him about his proposal and acceptance and Bertrand is humorously supportive and, as always, Joachim feels he is being deluded, deceived, having rings run round him.

Elisabeth and Joachim get married. they fuss and fret about whether she’ll come to stay at his house, given that his father is now an invalid, or she go separately to stay with her parents, or whether they should go to the house in the suburbs of Berlin which her parents have gifted the couple. Joachim urgently needs the worldly wisdom of Bertrand to answer these questions for him, but Bertrand is not there.

During the marriage ceremony, Joachim is overcome with religious terror, that he is an imposter, one of the damned, and barely hears the words of the service at all. He is an Expressionist hysteric. He is screaming inside like Munch’s picture.

They go to stay in a hotel in Berlin and several pages are spent describing the inner turmoil of Joachim’s mind. In his head Elisabeth has always been a pure virginal figure – he is agonised by the presence a toilet next door, he cannot possibly imagine her using it – and he sees himself as her knight in shining armour devoted to protecting her. Thus the last few pages of the novel describe his agonising before he can bring himself to knock on her hotel door (they have separate rooms), going to the bed, kneeling beside it and kissing her hand. He wishes Bertrand were there to help him. He wishes Elisabeth were Ruzena with whom everything seemed easy and natural. By slow steps he lies down on the bed beside her and falls asleep. Elisabeth smiles and, after a while, falls asleep too.

This, I suppose, we are meant to take it, was the manner of the wooings and marriages of the Broch’s parents’ generation. Joachim is nuts, that’s extremely clear. And yet the message is subtler. For all the lies and evasions it is based on, I for one ended the book admiring the determination of both these dim, unprepared innocents to make the most of the situation they find themselves in. If they go on to have a formal, staid, distanced but affectionate and respectful marriage, who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that?

Religion

In the second half of the book, religion becomes a more and more dominant theme. Joachim’s confused thoughts gather together bits and pieces from the village priest, memories of extravagant religious pictures he saw in Dresden, attendance at church parades with his corps, and a few private visits to churches, to convince him that God is punishing him for his sins.

Inevitable fate, inescapable discipline of God! (p.122)

I can see how some readers might take this at face value and I’d be surprised if there aren’t hundreds of academic essay about religious imagery in the book. And yet to me it seems obvious that it’s all due to the fact that Joachim is an idiot.

He is terrified of civilians. He can’t handle the chaotic hustle and bustle of the big city. He doesn’t understand what Bertrand does, he doesn’t understand business. He has no idea how to make a bequest to Ruzena. He has no sense of how to run his parents’ farm as a business.

He is, in other words, hopeless and impractical and dim. His increasing turn to God and religion, therefore, seems to me the refuge of an idiot. Because he doesn’t understand anything about the actual world he finds himself in, he retreats to thinking it’s all part of a Divine Plan against him.

So, in my opinion, the religious aspect of the last third of the book has no real religious content but represents Joachim’s stupidity and his paranoia. It is more an investigation of how the stupid and the paranoid come to have religious faith. It’s not so much that it’s consoling (which it is) as that it is easy to understand. God is Daddy. Daddy is punishing me. I have been a bad boy. Not difficult, is it?

Descriptions

Once you have slowed right down to the speed of this odd book, and once you get into the habit of often rereading entire paragraphs to decipher what they’re about, I found myself admiring whole passages for their evocativeness and beauty.

They are not examples of good English prose, in fact they are often disfigured by unbeautiful phraseology (is that Broch or the Muirs?) but nonetheless there are passages of extended description which really manage to convey a room, a view, a landscape, a scene or setting and, in particular, the strange evanescent feeling of fleeting thoughts – with a depth and power which I found increasingly rewarding.

You really feel like you are entering the minds of the characters, above all the neurotic army lieutenant Joachim von Pasenow. Although, by the end, I wondered if the novel wasn’t about a so-called ‘romantic’ at all, but really about a near-simpleton. A good deal of Joachim’s agonising and tortured reflections about God or his uniform or civilian life etc really boil down to the fact that he’s a stupid person who doesn’t understand what’s going on around him, and finds it a real challenge coping with even the basics of adult life.

Maybe the book could have more accurately been titled The Idiot.

The dense crowd around him, the hubbub, as the Baroness called it, all this commercial turmoil full of faces and backs, seemed to him a soft, gliding, dissolving mass which one could not lay hold on. Where did it all lead to? (p.49)

Where indeed?

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume which was first published in 1996.


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György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

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

Women first

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

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

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

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

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

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

Collaborations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tsunami of information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that enough to think about yet?

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

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

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

Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

I came to roughly two conclusions.

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

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

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

Small is not necessarily beautiful

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

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

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

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

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

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

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

Big rooms where art can breathe

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

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

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

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

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

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

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

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

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

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

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

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

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

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

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


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


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