The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard (1987)

The sutures of my skull were opening, letting the cool wind into the chambers of my brain. I stared up at the cloudless, cyanide sky, like the domed roof of some deep psychosis. (p.275)

This is a poor book. It is long, packed with detail, has an exotic setting, a reliably demented protagonist on a mad, quixotic quest – and yet it feels like a shadow of Ballard’s earlier works.

The Day of Creation shows the peculiar thing that happened to Ballard’s writing after he had revealed the source of his strange delirious worldview by describing his boyhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in Empire of the Sun. It was like cutting off Samson’s hair. Overnight the neuroses which had enmeshed Ballard’s fiction, were freed and disappeared. The weird alchemy which held together Ballard’s first ten or so classic novels, and nearly a hundred short stories of obsession and psychological collapse, didn’t exactly disappear but somehow, magically, lost their genuinely disturbing power.

One symptom of this is that Ballard’s novels got longer. The Atrocity Exhibition barely stretches to 110 pages but I think it’s his best book. Crash, 171 pages, Concrete Island 126 pages, High Rise 140 – he was best in short, extremely concentrated, bursts.

By contrast The Day of Creation is a bloated 287 pages long and has lost its reason for existence long before the end.

The plot – part one

The story is told in the first person by Doctor John Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). Having been born and raised in British Hong Kong, Mallory didn’t fit in at medical school in Cambridge or in England more generally, and so took up jobs with aid agencies, ending up working for the World Health Organisation.

A series of overseas assignments ends with one bringing him to the dead end town of Port-la-Nouvelle somewhere in the heart of Africa, between Chad and Sudan.

I found the opening chapters of the book deeply confusing. It took me a while to understand that it opens with Mallory being forced to his knees by a soldiers from a rebel group led by skinny, angry rebel leader, General Harare, once a dental student, now afflicted with boils and bad teeth, whose guerrillas periodically invade what is left of Port-la-Nouvelle, do a little gentle looting and return to the forest.

Specifically, he finds himself on the wrong end of a rifle held by a 12-year-old rebel girl who probably has a tale of terrible suffering behind her but when Mallory moves to take the rifle off her, she pulls the trigger. Luckily there’s a duff cartridge in the chamber so the gun doesn’t fire. He seizes the rifle and throws it away.

We learn that all this is being photographed by a young Japanese woman photographer, Miss Matsuoka, a type of the ambitious and amoral photojournalist. About fifteen minutes later the rebels have been fled as the town’s official army force arrives led by the ‘huge and clumsy’, 6-foot (p.28) Captain Kagwa and the situation sort of returns to normal.

‘Normal’ is that Mallory has been here in this empty town for the best part of six months, living in a scruffy trailer and, by his own admission, hitting the whiskey bottle at breakfast and carrying on drinking all day (p.72).

He had a brief affair with one of the only other white people in the locality, Nora Warrender. She kept a little sanctuary for wild animals with her husband till her husband was shot dead by the rebels. Mallory caught her on the rebound and they slept together for a few days until Mallory realised she had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever.

What seems like half an hour after the traumatic encounter with the rebels, a light airplane flies in and disgorges none other than Professor Sangar, sometime biologist-turned-television documentary maker, who has flown in on some cock-and-bull mercy mission with a plane full of rice, an assistant and a camera crew for whom he can pose as saviour.

Except that, as the deeply antagonistic Mallory who takes an instant dislike to the preening fool bluntly points out to him: a) the locals don’t eat rice, at all, their stock food is manioc, and b) there’s no locals here, anyway; they’ve all long ago fled the rebel guerrillas.

Sangar is actually laconically laid back about all this but is accompanied by an extremely tense and jumpy assistant, an Indian named Mr Pal who takes umbrage at every one of Mallory’s sarcastic quips.

All this is presumably intended to be satire on TV bullshit artists, particularly scientists-turned-TV gurus (remember that the car-sex-obsessed lead figure of Crash is a once-reputable scientist-turned-TV presenter). But not only is it crude satire, but it feels very clumsily deployed.

In fact the whole opening thirty or forty pages felt deeply clumsy, introducing characters pell-mell in the midst of events which are so badly described I didn’t understand what was going on.

What is the book about?

In a similar manner, it took me some while to understand the central plot of the book, in fact I only actually understood it from the blurb on the back:

Mallory has remained in Port-la-Nouvelle, despite having no patients to speak of (they’ve all run off to avoid the rebels) because he has developed the entirely irrational, quixotic and obsessive idea of rewatering this dry, arid part of central Africa.

The Port has jetties and quays which stretch out into Lake Kotto but this is bone dry, having dried up two years earlier, and whose bottom is not just dry but covered in parched dust.

Similarly, the one-time river which flowed into it is an arid ditch. Mallory has been using the small funds given to him by the WHO to pay for the drilling of a series of wells across the lake bottom, driven by a mad fantasy of a third river Nile to fertilise this whole region.

What happens next I found incomprehensible in every way. Mere pages after the rebels have left, and way before we have really understood and processed the depths of Mallory’s quest, and entirely by accident, a bulldozer which is meant to be extending the town’s small runway, lifts the immense root of a rotted old oak tree out of the sand at the end of the runway and… a trickle of water emerges. A trickle which turns into a stream, and then a good solid flow of water.

I didn’t really understand how such a flood of water comes from one dislodged tree root and I struggled to understand what happens next: which is that the source of this water appears to move, to shift location from coming out of one small scooped hole, and turns into a flood which moves further and further back into the jungle. As well as flowing downstream to begin to refill the barren lake, the source moves backwards, upstream. We find Mallory wading miles into the jungle to try and find the ever-receding source.

In some mystical way the accidental breaking open of a small spring changes morphs into a mighty river whose source is deep in the jungle, and the river becomes so mighty that, as the days go by, it gets bigger and bigger, it refills Lake Kotto, so that Port-la-Nouvelle’s piers and jetties are once more lapped by water and the level rises so high that it starts to threaten the runway and the lower parts of the town with inundantion.

But here’s the thing which I found genuinely incomprehensible: because the water didn’t come from the wells he’s sunk – and despite the fact that the river is doing just what he wanted it to, namely rewatering the region – Mallory takes against it and declares the river his enemy.

As futilely as he once drilled wells in a bone dry lake-bed, now he futilely tries to block, dam and reroute the river. It’s become Him against The River. I didn’t understand this, follow it or believe it, but it becomes the core of the remaining two hundred or so pages.

Ballard loses it

Now, I have faithfully accompanied Ballard as he described the manias of obsessed protagonists who feel compelled to revisit the derelict gantries of Cape Kennedy, or live in hotels in abandoned resorts, or go to die on the derelict beaches of nuclear testing sites, or set off south towards the radioactive wastelands and — I understood all of them.

Ballard had the gift of taking you inside the heads of each of his deranged protagonists to the unnerving extent that you began to understand their obsessions and visions.

But not in this book. The basic obsession is overthrown in the first thirty pages. Mallory’s abrupt taking against the river and declaring it The Enemy seems utterly irrational and unnecessary. His alienated relations with Captain Kagwa or the worn widow-woman Nora Warrender are, on paper, right out of the standard Ballard handbook for the detached, alienated relationships between the handful of characters which his books normally describe. But somehow, eerily, without any of the real psychological punch which all his previous novels conveyed.

Lacking the strange and uncanny setting of so many of his earlier stories, the unnamed African location comes over as strangely dull and boring. Ballard’s described tropical jungle before. Compare and contrast Day of Creation with the opening scenes of The Crystal World which are dazzling, or the just-as-good opening pages of the brilliant short story A Question of Re-Entry.

Those stories had some pretty cheesy, clichéd elements (like the globetrotting media star who’s turned his back on fame to live with a primitive tribe in the Amazon rainforest who is at the heart of Re-Entry). But they were carried by the fierceness of vision, the charge of Ballard’s imagination, and also the sentence-by-sentence brilliance of Ballard’s language.

But overnight his gift with the English language seems to have abandoned him, and the force that drives his earlier fictions – the powerful combination of intense scenario with crisp but somehow visionary prose – has evaporated. Instead the book is a collection of mannerisms. Whatever ‘it’ is, Ballard had lost it.

The plot – part two

The first effect of Mallory’s ill-fated attempts to dam and reroute the river (why?) is that the half-built dam made of logs and empty oil drums suddenly gives way. Mallory himself is caught by the flood and tumbled down to the bottom of the gravelly torrent, is nearly drowned and only just rescued up by Kagwan’s soldiers to spend the next few weeks recuperating at Nora Warrender’s refuge for rare animals, where he lives in uneasy company with her group of feminist black women.

And where he learns that the collapsing dam made of oil drums and logs had caught up the Japanese snapper Miss Matsuoka and killed her. This seems to have no impact on anyone at all, least of all the reader.

After all this confused motives and off plotting, it’s only around page 100 that the book finally settles into a groove. Recovered from his near-drowning, Mallory decides to steal the knackered old ferry, the Salammbo, which has just arrived at the newly navigable quayside of Port-la-Nouvelle, and to use it to follow the river to its source. I still don’t understand why he wants to do this, but it is at least a comprehensible narrative device: the quest, the odyssey.

The 12-year-old girl who tried to shoot him, then ran off into then jungle, has emerged in recent days as a kind of damaged orphan and built herself a home-made coracle made from plastic wrapped over a metal frame. She’s paddling around in the river in the darkness on the night when Mallory wades out into the river under the noses of a couple of Captain Kwanga’s half-asleep guards, and stealthily unties the front and rear mooring ropes.

As the boat slowly starts to drift away from the quay, the soldiers realise what’s up and start shouting, one of them clambers down into the shallow river and bangs with his rifle butt on the steamer’s sides. But Mallory manages to ignite the starter motor, then get the big diesel motor engaged and, as the Salammbo heaves about and begins to head upstream into the magic river, two things happen: the soldiers start shooting at it, and the girl paddles enthusiastically close to the steamer but then loses control and, just as her coracle is crushed under its heavy progress, Mallory pulls her to safety, then returns to the helm.

And so they set off up this fanciful African river, this unlikely pair, Mallory the shiftless doctor, a heavy drinker crushed by a sense of failure and inadequacy, who has entered into an irrationally intense love-hate relationship with the river, and the girl whose name, we learn, is Noon, whose black face bears networks of scars she’s picked up in an obviously abused childhood and who, as a result, Mallory thinks suffers from mutism. She is dumb.

It is a journey or metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Mallory, just as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a metaphysical quest up a river in Africa undertaken by a man named Marlow. Hence the Heart of Darkness-style illustration on the first edition of the book. But unfortunately, Conrad’s novel is a timeless classic, whereas this novel is a confused mess.

Cover of the first edition of The Day of Creation showing the old steamboat Salammbo which Mallory steals

The steamer had been operating as a ferry. It is carrying on its deck a black Mercedes limousine, ordered by Captain Kwanga who has grand visions of himself rising to become governor of a province which is newly enriched by the new river flowing through it. For the next hundred pages or so Kwanga’s repeated attempts to recapture the Salammbo are motivated by angry wish to get hold of his stolen limo.

Things happen. Noon turns out to be a handy pilot, warming Mallory about sandbanks and blockages ahead, as they chug forward under the protection of the overarching tropical canopy. There’s a bag of rice in the boat, which Mallory boils a ration of each day, and Noon turns out to be a dab hand at jumping into the river and spearing fish on a spear she’s made from a sharp leaf. Nonetheless, quite quickly Mallory is feeling feverish. He hadn’t been eating properly to begin with, had been drinking heavily, and now is not eating enough. This combined with his weakness from his near-death experience when he was half-drowned when the ramshackle dam collapsed fifty pages earlier, all means that he is in very poor shape, and quickly becomes feverish.

And THIS, you realise, is the place Ballard wanted to get to: the first half of the book often felt clumsy and rushed because this is the point, the core, the aim, the focus of the narrative, possibly the image Ballard began with: the image of a half-mad, obsessed, feverish white man struggling to steer a decrepit steamer up a mysterious river in the heart of Africa, helped only by a dumb-mute African girl. Possibly this is the key image you’re meant to take away from the novel, and it is weird and intense, if with a rather heavy sense of déjà vu.

Captain Kagwa comes chasing him in a military helicopter which, to being with, strafes the steamer with machine guns. The second time they return, the helicopter is equipped with pontoons which means they can land on the water, and discover that Mallory has run aground on the half-submerged equipment of a quarry which the river has flooded. Thus Kagwa can warily clamber out along the submerged metal to within hailing distance of the bridge.

At that point Kagwa lets off a pistol shot which misses Mallory although a ricochet cuts part of his scalp. Mallory lifts the rusty old Lee-Enfield rifle which originally belonged to Noon (the one she nearly shot him with) and shoots, not Kagwa, but one of the helicopter’s landing pontoons which bursts and starts to deflate so that the helicopter almost immediately starts to lapse into the water. The pilot shouts at Kagwa who clambers his way back to it and just about manages to climb in as the chopper rises into the sky.

Exhausted, and bleeding from his head, Mallory collapses. He’d found a deckchair from somewhere and now Noon resourcefully rigs up a sun canopy over it. In this deckchair Mallory lapses into the classic Ballardian mental state of fever dreams, delirium, hallucination and driving obsession. He must get to the source of the river (whether to block it for good or rechannel it into the desert to make the Sahara bloom, is unclear and increasingly inconsequential).

There I sat like a totem, propped in the bows of this strange ship piloted by a child on its journey towards the sun. (p.139)

(This, incidentally, reminds the hard-core Ballard fan of the scene in The Drowned World where the central figure, Dr Robert Kerans, is captured by the crew of a pirate ship and tied to an old chair placed on a table and worshipped as a tribal god.)

I didn’t mention something which happened earlier. Irrationally convinced that it was he who created the river (although we saw that it arose by sheer accident when a bulldozer clearing the huge stump of a dead oak tree at the end of the town’s runway unwittingly releasing an underground stream), Mallory is not surprised when Sangar laconically informs him that rivers need to be registered with the authorities and with national geographic societies etc, and so he – Sangar – has used his radio to contact world geographical societies and magnanimously named the river – the Mallory.

This seemed improbable and silly at the time, and becomes more and more silly as the book progresses. But then again, the book’s intention is not ‘realistic’, but entirely programmatic. Contriving to get the river named after him allows Mallory to hallucinate that the river is his alter-ego, his other self, an ally and an opponent, as he enters the increasingly fevered state.

After our escape from Captain Kagwa I was aware that a duel was taking place between myself and the Mallory (p.139)

This sounds intriguing, if pretty contrived, but repetition soon drains it of meaning and brings out its silliness.

Already I had begun to resent the river, and realised that in the Mallory I had created a dangerous rival. (p.143)

I needed to destroy the Mallory, but at the same time I wanted to enlarge it… (p.146)

During his numerous trips to the engine room to adjust and fix the motor, Mallory has picked up an elaborate set of oil streaks across his increasingly thin and wasted body, not to mention rust and paint marks and blood stains from the wound in his head. When Noon looks at him, Mallory realises that he is turning into a savage. Heart of Darkness all over again.

And then they bump into Sangar the documentary film-maker and his sidekick, Mr Pal again. The pair are cruising the other way down the River Mallory (with the current) in a long ancient launch, loaded, obscurely with defunct television monitors, and Sangar greets Mallory in his sly, laconic way. The ferry collides with their overloaded launch and Mallory has to help the pair aboard with as much of their equipment as they can save before the launch sinks. He discovers that both Sangar and Mr Pal are as emaciated and malnourished as he is.

Suddenly I realised that the entire dynamic of the story is from Waiting For Godot. In part one of Waiting For Godot we are introduced to a handful of characters engaged in absurd projects, led by the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon. But the play is in two parts, and part two opens to reveal the same handful of characters, but this time in a significantly advanced state of decay. Same here: Sangar and Mr Pal are in almost as bad shape as Mallory, both have lost lots of weight and have running sores.

  • With its swollen eyelids and fungal skin infection, [Mr Pal]’s youthful face resembled that of a starved apprentice in a backstreet tannery. (p.158)

And I thought again of Godot when I read this sentence, right at the end of the book when a weakened Mallory tries to help injured Sangar to his feet amid the mud and detritus of the burst barrage:

Together we tottered in the shifting earth, trying to find our footing in the sliding mud, two tramps dancing on a garbage hill. (p.262)

Surely that is a conscious decision to reference Godot which is about two utterly destitute tramps.

More than that, their intention of making some kind of ‘documentary’ about Mallory and his quixotic quest, has also degraded. They don’t have batteries for their equipment. No lights, no tapes. They do appear to actually film sequences of Mallory and the girl, but it appears hopelessly random.

Ballard’s intention is obviously to say something important about the TV Age. He has his illiterate, mute freedom-fighter girl-child, Noon, become entranced with Sangar’s camera equipment and, finding herself caught on tape by Mr Pal, she begins to practice posing for the camera. Ballard editorialises that she has leapt from the Stone Age to the late 20th century in a few days, bypassing language on the way (p.160)

In these passages about the decrepit TV presenter and his desperately ill assistant (who ends up dying of malnutrition-caused infections) you get the strong sense that it is probably more interesting to read Ballard’s interviews about the TV age and the other subjects touched on in the book, than these rather clumsily fictionalised ‘ideas’.

In another surreal touch (one of many consciously surreal touches with which the book is stuffed) Sangar and Pil’s equipment – cameras and tapes and monitors and mixing desks – which Mallory brought aboard the steamer from their sinking launch, contains tapes of what appear to be radio programs about Africa. These are of a jokey Marxist provenance so that the words ‘neo-colonial’ and ’empire’ are liberally thrown around. The satirical-surreal aspect is that the mute damaged black girl, Noon, is fascinated by the tapes, and spends hours inside the limousine playing them over and over on the car’s expensive sound system. Damaged, mute African girl plays expensive tapes of Western lecturers sounding off about neo-colonialism. That rustling sound you can hear is a thousand doctorates about Ballard and neo-colonialism being finalised for submission to their Cultural Studies tutors.

Sangar and Pal both go drastically downhill as the steamer putters north. Pal slips into a delirious fever and eventually dies. Sangar is covered in sores and eventually tries to attack Mallory, who pushes him overboard into the river, before passing out.

Mallory wakes up in a bed surrounded by bare bosoms. Slowly he realises he has been ‘rescued’ from the Salammbo by none other than Nora Wallender, now with short cropped hair, and leader of a gang of four tough, possibly vengeful black women.

He has woken up aboard the Diana, ‘a bordello boat, the white ship of the widows’ – previously a floating brothel to service government soldiers, hence the way its bedrooms or ‘cubicles’ are covered with rococo paintings of topless nymphs cavorting in a fantasy French countryside.

He remains there for three or four days, fantasising about taking control of the boat and captaining these black Amazons, only to discover he is barely strong enough to stand up, and any of the women can just nudge him and he collapses. He realises some of the women go ashore, not only to stalk and shoot birds to cook and eat, but he watches them stalk and shoot a male soldier. Maybe they’re taking their revenge on all the men who ever fucked them.

Suddenly one day the Diana starts sinking. The women think it’s holed, but Mallory realises the level of the river is falling. While the women try to identify the leak, Mallory grabs Noon’s arm, they jump into the river and make it back to the Salammbo.

One week later they arrive at the place where passage of the river becomes impossible because of cataracts. Not only that, but local farmers have dammed one wing of the river with an extensive barrage and siphoned the water off into an extensive system of irrigation channels. ‘His’ river has turned the desert green again.

He is promptly arrested by General Harare and brought to him at the ruined infirmary of the abandoned French airfield at Bonneville. All of the scenes with either Captain Kagwa or General Harare are tripe. Ballard’s ear for dialogue was always poor, and the ‘conversations’ between these characters are a mix of raw ‘ideas’ and show-off sentences – ‘They have water now, doctor, their precious see-through gold’ – with very little concern for notions of character or psychology. They all sound the same.

The plot becomes even less rational than before. Close up Mallory can see that the water from the makeshift-dammed river has been used very badly; the nomad farmers simply don’t know how to manage water. Thus most of it is polluted with human faeces, and mixed with engine oil so it ends up polluting not nurturing their crops, while the nomads continue to live on hovels assembled from the detritus of the abandoned French air base, sheets of asbestos and the like.

Similarly, having been more or less co-opted into General Harare’s ragtag crew, Mallory suggests that they completely dam the Mallory, dry it up and so prevent Harare’s enemy, Captain Kagwa advancing up the river with his boats.

Harare agrees and so Mallory rams the Salammbo into place on the cascades between the river bank and a central island, thus creating a caisson around which the native women can build a dam across the second branch of the Mallory, damming it for good and drying up the river course all the way back down to Port-la-Nouvelle. The barrage is an impressive collection of post-industrial detritus:

Less than a month later the barrage across the river was complete, and the Salammbo, which had carried us so untiringly from Port-la-Nouvelle, sat in its last anchorage, surrounded by a refuse tip of freezers and enamel stoves, water coolers, aircraft tail-planes and radio antennae, together forming a terminal moraine of modern technology.

Ballard-land! Like the ziggurats of abandoned washing machines or televisions erected around the The Unreal City.

Mallory gets used to life in Harare’s crew. They let him continue sleeping in the wrecked bridge of the Salammbo, while he treats Harare’s sick soldiers with ineffectual medicine. Everyone is suffering fevers brought on by the foetid, malarial waters of the River Mallory, which have been diverted into a thousand blocked, unflowing, brackish irrigation channels, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and infectious diseases.

There is some kind of satirical irony going on here – that Mallory’s intention had been to ‘turn the Sahara green again’ but the reality turns out to be a poisonous fiasco. Is he telling us it is pointless digging wells and irrigating the Third World?

Meanwhile, the Diana, the brothel ship, which Mallory and Noon had escaped from a few chapters earlier, shows up and moors next to the barrage built around the Salammbo. Nora Warrender and her crew of four black widows quickly recruit young widows from the surrounding nomad villages, rig up the ship’s lights to a generator, open a bar and it’s business as usual, with groups of soldiers rowing out to the ship to drink beer and then be taken below by the sometimes teenage whores, to be serviced.

Ballard, as usual alert to surreal possibilities, has his almost-blind and malnourished TV presenter Sangar rig up a basic closed-circuit TV network playing into a TV monitor set up in the bar, so the drunken sailors can watch themselves getting drunk. Sangar sits out of the way of the violent drunks, leaning his head against a cage of marmosets, these fierce creatures chatting away as if describing to Sangar a seen he can no longer see with his own eyes.

In a deep fever, staggering with hunger, Mallory finds himself stumbling belowdecks on the Diana, waking to find a very young whore dressed in flashy clothes wiping his feverish brow, who he then only half-remembers touching up, pushing back onto the sweat and semen-stained mattress, and fucking. He drifts back to sleep. Later, the presence of her ancient Lee-Enfield rifle clinches the fact that this was Noon.

I know Ballard’s books are meant to be transgressive in all kinds of ways, but – personally – I didn’t like the way the central character is described increasingly lusting after Noon’s barely pubescent body, noticing her budding breasts etc, as the journey progresses.

And now this ritual deflowering. It’s not so much that it’s a pedophilic scene, as that it’s just so horribly inevitable: hairy, sweaty, deranged middle-aged man is put into forced proximity with a 12-year-old girl who keeps stripping off to go fishing in the river and… It seems so hairily, sweatily inevitable that he’ll end up fucking her. How much more interesting if they had kept up a strange adult-damaged child relationship right to the end.

I felt soiled by this scene.

Next thing that happens is Captain Kagwa’s gunships and helicopter arrive, having fought their way steadily upstream despite the river being dammed up. They make a heavily armed attack on the Diana and in doing so destroy the barrage, unleashing a tidal waves which sweeps down into the pool below it, sweeping away all Kagwa and Harare’s fighting men.

The next chapter starts with Mallory surveying the devastation. On the one hand this is an impressive scene; on the other, Mallory subjects it to the same rubbish, cheapjack psychology which underpins the entire narrative, the notion that Mallory somehow ‘created’ the river, has been engaged in a duel with it, and has finally ‘destroyed’ it, although not before it poisoned and infected a host of nomads who dammed it up and are now dropping like flies due to malaria.

‘You poisoned her, Mallory, with your sick river, like all these desert people. They’re sick with your dream…’ (p.263)

He sets out in search of Noon (as he has done plenty of times before), kicking the decrepit Sangar out of the way after having a typically stagey dialogue with him about who’s to blame for this disaster, ‘It’s all your fault etc’.

Mallory climbs the muddy, rubbish-strewn river bank up to the (by now) heavily battered limousine parked on the bank of the now empty, slimy river. Sure enough Noon is inside, sick and ill. Mallory is just trying to reassure her when Kagwa’s helicopter clatters into the clearing (yet again). It lands with the same old French pilot handling a carbine and watching as Captain Kagwa gets out and walks towards the limo, unbuttoning his holster.

At that moment Noon pushes her hand into Mallory’s hand. She is clutching some bit of metal which, he suddenly realises, is a bullet. For the entire length of this humungous narrative she has guarded this, the third and final of her bullets. In a typically salacious detail, Noon forces Mallory’s nails into her nipple ‘to give him courage’.

Mallory puts the bullet into the breech, cocks the bolt and, as Kagwa walks towards them coolly taking his gun from his holster, Mallory shoots him through the head.

That kind of blunt assassination reminds me of similar moments in previous fictions, particularly when the protagonist of The Drought simply rises to his feet and shoots dead the man who’d been preventing his people get to the beach.

Anyway, so that’s General Harare and Captain Kagwa dead. Mallory goes to check on Sangar but when he gets back to the limo, Noon has gone. Again.

Cut to a few days later and Mallory has rigged up a kind of raft with an outboard motor and has headed up over the cataracts, into the upper river, looking for Noon (again). He’s brought Sanger along with him. He was about to abandon him by the wrecked barrage, but suddenly saw Nora Warrender and the widow whores watching him (like a Greek chorus) and was shamed into bringing Sanger along, clutching his (by now) utterly broken and ruined cine-camera.

(This demented character clinging on to a cine-camera which is broken beyond repair but has become a psychological talisman is a direct copy of Wilder, the TV documentary maker who sets off to climb the massive luxury apartment building in High Rise, at first to make a documentary about the occupants, but by the end he has forgotten the point of his quest, and the gutted camera is just one among many trinkets and talismans he has picked up in his increasingly psychotic odyssey.)

Mallory and Sangar now enter a primeval zone of hard rocks and lizards. In case we hadn’t realised it, Ballard rams home the symbolism that the journey up the river is also a journey back in time, or at least time zones. They keep glimpsing Noon in her metal skiff, just half a mile ahead then disappearing round a bend in the narrowing river.

Finally they arrive at a ‘When dinosaurs ruled the earth’ landscape of volcanic rock and trilobite fossils where the water smells of sulphur and hot springs and the Mallory opens out into a huge ‘primeval lake… the original mud world’.

Here Mallory repeats the rather forlorn attempt to explain how the river came about: some tectonic shift fractured the bed of a huge primeval lake and created an underground river which the soldier in his bulldozer released when he dug up the giant tree root way back at the start of the novel; and then, in the bit that doesn’t make any sense, the river somehow went overground, creating an actual surface river; and that’s the river which the narrator, with breath-taking irrationality, is convinced that ‘he created’ (p.279).

I never really understood or bought into this basic premise of the book, which is why I remained outside its imaginative forcefield.

Finally, exhausted beyond endurance, the reader arrives at the final pages, in which Mallory clambers out of the river into the warm sulphur mud banks and wades through these towards the last of several pools above which rises the source of the damn river. It narrows, three feet wide, two feet wide, then only a hand’s-width wide. Mallory kneels by its silvery presence amid the hot sand, trying to cradle it, to separate it from the silver sand and then:

The Mallory died in my arms.

We are now so far beyond narrative logic that we are in a Surrealist painting: a mad doctor kneels at the source of a mythical African river cradling it as it dies in his arms.

Looking up he scans around for Noon and sees her in the distance, turning to look back at him, with the body and face of a woman his own age. Surrealism. Drugs. Hallucination. And then, of course, she vanishes without a trace.

He kicks the walls of some pools which are drying out, makes them puddle together and push Noon’s abandoned skiff into a further pool, he lets himself slip and be carried down back towards the raft where Sanger is still desperately clinging with his smashed cine-camera, and both of them, too weak to move, let the raft slowly set off on its last journey to the sea.

Epilogue

Two years later. The river has long disappeared and Lake Katto and Port-la-Nouvelle have returned to their former dusty barrenness. It took three weeks for Sanger and Mallory’s raft to drift back the full length of the river, and then for them to be picked up police and taken to hospital. During his long recovery, Sanger disclaimed all knowledge of Mallory.

Did Mallory dream the whole thing? Above all, did he dream Noon? Did such a girl ever exist, or was she an entirely fictional justification for his psychotic quest to go to the source of the river?

The events definitely happened. He’s been flown by government helicopters up the dry bed of the river and seen the Salammbo still embedded in the ruined barrage. But of Captain Kagwa and General Harare and their men, and Nora Warrender and her vengeful widow women, no trace has ever been found.

Mallory has got another job working for WHO 30 miles away to the south-west. But every weekend Mallory drives back to this dusty town, and scours the footprints left in the dry mud along the river bank. He swears he has seen the distinctive footprints of his dream girl-woman.

Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart. (p.287)


Ballardian clichés

Antagonists Ballard characters, even as they go slowly mad, always need an antagonist. In some ways his stories are like narratives stripped down to the basic bare-bone structure:

Protagonist sets out on Quest; has one loyal Helper; two or three peripheral characters; and is pitched against an Antagonist, who dogs his steps and blocks his path.

In this book the Antagonist is Captain Kwanga, and this explains the surreal detail of the captain’s Mercedes limousine being trapped aboard the steamer Mallory has stolen. It gives a sort of rational pretext for what is really a far deeper narrative structure which Ballard wants to construct (and which, by this stage, the regular Ballard reader may well be a bit bored with).

Calm The other characters are always telling Mallory to calm down and not get so carried away, there are continual references by everyone to his unhealthy obsessions.

I totally understand how these references are designed to portray Mallory as a deeply unreliable narrator, and how it justifies Ballard’s intention to make Mallory’s obsession with the river so utterly irrational. My complaint is that, in the half dozen or so narratives preceding Creation, Ballard had used just the exact same technique and precisely the same word, so that the narrator of Hello America or Empire of the Sun is repeatedly told by the other characters to calm down. I get it. He is using a tried and tested technique. Except that in the other books, it works. Here it just feels like going through the motions:

  • Calming myself, I stood and watched Captain Kagwa climb the gangplank

Dreams All-too-easily the word ‘dream’ slips off the end of Ballard’s pen, to describe the protagonist’s hopes, ideas and intentions. Everything becomes a dream. The whole location and situation becomes a dream.

  • When I returned to the launch Sangar and Mr Pal were still sitting together against the engine-locker, two Alice-like figures stranded in this backwater of the wrong dream. (p.156)
  • I knew now why I liked her to bathe naked in the river, to immerse herself in that larger dream that sustained our journey. (p.169)
  • ‘You’re still obsessed with this absurd dream? To reach the source of the river?’ (p.174)
  • An immense white dream flows silently across the land, spreading over the drained surface of the lake. (p.284)

Fever The narrator quickly gets a fever as most Ballard characters do. Then, up at the barrage, the rancid waters of the dammed Mallory ensure that everyone gets a fever. The word ‘fever’ or ‘feverish’ appears on every page. The idea and the word ‘fever’ are essential and utterly predictable elements in Ballardland.

Illness In pretty much all his core stories, Ballard characters become ill and quickly deteriorate to advanced stages of malnutrition and illness. It’s where Ballard like to have his characters.

  • Exposure sores covered my face and forehead, flourishing in my beard like fungi in a damp meadow. (p.172)
  • Sangar’s face was covered by the brim of his wide straw hat, but I could see that his lips and cheekbones were pocked with insect bites that had festered for weeks, his neck inflamed by a sun-induced viral response. (p.173)

Put bluntly, Ballard has to move his protagonists as quickly as possible into a condition of almost complete collapse in order to justify his prose style, which is one of almost continual fever dreams and hallucinations.

The plots are not sequences of meaningful events in the traditional sense, but scenarios concocted to position his characters into situations where they can experience Ballard’s intense, weird and visionary psychological states.

There were unstated bonds between myself and this antique vessel. The metal debris in which it was embedded set up a constant wailing and groaning, and in my fever I almost believed that I was embarked on an even stranger voyage across the garbage pits of the planet. (p.235)

Ballard’s imagination is a non-stop fountain of weird sentences like that, but the rest of his creative mind sometimes struggles to concoct the ‘plots’ or situations which can justify them.

Motives Ballard characters are always unsure of their own motives and everyone else’s motives. In pre-Empire books this creates an unsettling ambience of uncertainty and human alienation. It makes all the human relationships ‘ambiguous’ and fractious. In the post-Empire books it is just part of his schtick.

  • I was wary of revealing myself to this likeable but sly opportunist, particularly as I was still unsure of my own motives. (p.157)

Naked Nakedness has become an increasingly prominent aspect of these later stories. It’s a very prominent feature of The Unlimited Dream Company that the protagonist early on strips off and from then on dares the inhabitants of Shepperton to look at him and acknowledge it. It’s an important part of the apparition of ‘President Manson’ in Hello America that he is naked, sitting naked in an old wicker chair in front of a huge array of TV monitors so that Ballard gets to describe the images projected from the screens flickering across his pale, fat naked body.

And here, in this book, it’s an important element that soon after he’s stolen the steamer, Mallory strips off, partly to be naked with all the continual sense of sexual arousal that implies, partly so that his body can display the increasingly complicated matrix of diesel oil smears, rust from old machinery, paint from the peeling ship’s hull and bloodstains, a coded indication of his decay.

It is typical that it is only after three or four days aboard the Diana and mingling with its female crew, that Mallory realises he has been naked all along. Neither he nor any of the women have noticed or commented on it. It’s as if Ballard is mounting a sustained campaign to get his readers to relax about being naked. Like every other aspect of his liberal 1960s treatment of human sexuality, this seems terribly naive and dated now, now we are in the grip of a new Victorianism which is reviving fear and revulsion at male sexuality.

Physical collapse In Empire of the Sun the extreme physical deterioration of the characters was explained by their situation i.e. years of slowly starving on minimum rations from their Japanese gaolers which, in the last months of captivity, dwindled almost to nothing.

So it’s all-too-easy to believe in the bone-thin characters, wasted and exhausted, covered in festering sores and with bleeding gums, who stagger through that narrative. In this book, however, all Mallory or Sangar would have to do it contact the outside world and a World Health Organisation plane would fly in all the money and food they wanted. Thus the malnutrition to which Ballard submits both Mallory and Sangar seems utterly wilful and contrived and unnecessary and therefore silly, therefore a bit insulting to the memory of the genuinely starved characters in Empire.

Audiobook

Credit

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard was published by Victor Gollancz in 1987. References are to the 1993 Flamingo paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)

[K.’s assistants] rushed to the [telephone], asked for the connection – how eager they were about it! in externals they were absurdly docile – and inquired if K. could come with them next morning into the Castle. The ‘No’ of the answer was audible even to K. at his table. But the answer went on and was still more explicit, it ran as follows: ‘Neither to-morrow nor at any other time.’

‘When can my master come to the Castle?’
‘Never,’ was the answer.

Plot

In The Trial Joseph K is ‘arrested’ (although he remained, in practice, entirely free to continue going about his business as he wishes) and spends the rest of the increasingly fraught story having encounters with Court officials, friends, lawyers and other advisers who (he hopes) can help him make his case to the Court and clear his name. But there never actually is a trial, Joseph K never gets to meet any important official, all the officials he does meet turn out to be powerless, he never manages to clear his name and, in the sudden, short, final chapter, he is taken to a quarry and miserably murdered. Kafka wrote The Trial in an intense burst in the second half of 1914 and abandoned it in January 1915.

Seven years later, Kafka began writing The Castle, working intensely on it from January to September 1922. But didn’t finish this novel, either, and the manuscript breaks off in mid sentence.

It opens with a Land Surveyor, referred to throughout simply as K., arriving in the depths of a snowy winter at an unnamed village in the shadow of a looming castle (which turns out more to be a ramshackle collection of low buildings) and checking into a rundown inn, the Bridge Inn, for the night. Here he is not made particularly welcome, and a young man bursts in to tell him he needs a pass to be there, and rings up the Castle to confirm the fact.

This sets the tone for the rest of the (unfinished) novel which K. spends trying to get an audience or meeting with anyone up at the Castle who can tell him what his task is, and what he’s been hired to do. In this he fails as completely as Joseph K. does to find anyone to present  his case to. Instead K. ends up wasting most of his time in interminable conversations with characters from the village – starting with the landlord and landlady of the Bridge Inn, and their daughter, and his two so-called assistants, and a messenger from the Castle who K. hopes will get him an entrée there but rapidly turns out rarely to actually visit it. And so on. K’s asks them all for help and advice about how to get an interview with anyone of importance at the Castle, but their replies and interpretations are so tortuous, convoluted and contradictory hat he never makes it anywhere near the famous Castle, and then the text stops in mid sentence.

Just like The Trial, then, The Castle is an exercise in long-winded, verbose and dialogue-heavy delaying.

Just like Joseph K, K. meets a sequence of people, and has long exchanges with each of them about his plight, which, far from clarifying the situation, leave him steadily more puzzled and confused than when he started.

‘You misunderstand everything, even a person’s silence.’ (The landlady to K., p.72)

Just like Joseph K, K. forms immediate and very sexual relationships with the women that he meets. In K’s case this is Frieda, the serving woman in another inn which K. goes to in the hope of meeting the legendary Castle official, Klamm. In a bizarre scene, which i had to reread to make sure I had it right, K. ends up making love to this barmaid who he’s only just met, on the floor behind the counter, among the beer slops and fag ends.

Just like Joseph K, K. becomes increasingly obsessed with his forlorn quest, until it is all he can think about day and night – the simple goal of gaining access to the Castle, which is turned down by officials on the phone, pooh-poohed by the peasants that he meets, mocked by his landlady, and generally ridiculed by everyone he meets, while he is slowly, step-by-step, reduced in status, worn down and humiliated.

Decline and entropy

Reading The Trial acclimatised me to numerous aspects of Kafka’s approach or worldview. One is that things are never as grand or formal or impressive as they initially seem; they are always disappointing. The movement is always downwards.

‘You’re still Klamm’s sweetheart, and not my wife yet by a long chalk. Sometimes that makes me quite dejected, I feel then as if I had lost everything, I feel as if I had only newly come to the village, yet not full of hope, as I actually came, but with the knowledge that only disappointments await me, and that I will have to swallow them down one after another to the very dregs…’ (p.126)

In The Trial an impressive-sounding magistrate turns out to be a shabby little fat man with no control over anything. Joseph’s uncle recommends a well-connected advocate who, in the event, turns out to be ill and bed-ridden, and who candidly admits that advocates like himself are virtually powerless – in fact they may end up damaging a client’s chances. People’s reputations and power decay virtually in front of us. Every new opportunity turns out to be a dead end or worse, a setback.

Well, The Castle is dominated and defined by the same trajectory, by a hundred little fallings-off and declines and disappointments. The very first disappointment is that the Castle itself turns out to be a lot less castle-ey than we were led to believe.

It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town… on approaching it he was disappointed in the Castle; it was after all only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses, whose sole merit, if any, lay in being built of stone, but the plaster had long since flaked off and the stone seemed to be crumbling away.

An early example of people being disappointing is the young man who bullies K. within an hour of him arriving at the Bridge Inn, officiously telling K. he needs a pass to stay at an inn and documents to prove he is who he says he is, who rings up the Castle and generally throws his weight about. But later the landlord of the inn tells K. that this young man is only the son of an insignificant under-castellan, a man of no importance or authority.

Also early on, there’s a small symbolic enactment of this relentless entropy in the incident of the bell. The morning after his arrival in the village K. sets off to walk up to the Castle but gets bogged down in the deep snowdrifts in the village, eventually has to knock on a peasant door for help, before being given a sleigh ride back to the inn where he’s staying. As he’s being driven away:

A bell began to ring merrily up there, a bell which for at least a second made his heart palpitate for its tone was menacing, too, as if it threatened him with the fulfilment of his vague desire. This great bell soon died away, however, and its place was taken by a feeble monotonous little tinkle which might have come from the Castle, but might have been somewhere in the village. It certainly harmonized better with the slow-going journey, with the wretched-looking yet inexorable driver…

It’s a small moment, but it’s typical of the way that in things great and small, from the overall shape of the entire narrative down to tiny details – everything falls away into a state of confusion and uncertainty:

‘If you had followed my explanation more carefully, then you must have seen that the question of your being summoned here is far too difficult to be settled here and now in the course of a short conversation.’
‘So the only remaining conclusion,’ said K., ‘is that everything is very unclear and insoluble…’ (p.66)

Take the handsome, slender messenger who comes to the Bridge Inn from the Castle and announces himself as Barnabas. Initially K. hopes Barnabas, as an official messenger, can take him with him up to the Castle, but it turns out that this is a misunderstanding and, after a trudge through the snow, they arrive not at some official residence but at the house of Barnabas’s parents, who turn out to be two decrepit old crones. K.

had been bewitched by Barnabas’s close-fitting, silken-gleaming jacket, which, now that it was unbuttoned, displayed a coarse, dirty grey shirt patched all over, and beneath that the huge muscular chest of a labourer.

Barnabas goes from being a slender official messenger, elegant in fine silk, to a coarse and oafish peasant wearing dirty patched clothes, even as we watch.

It is typical of Kafka that when K. finally manages to see the village Mayor he finds him far from being a superb figure of fitness and power, but ill in bed with gout, fussing and fretting and cared for by his wife, Mizzi. Later (and there’s almost always a ‘later’ moment in Kafka, when someone else comments on an important encounter Joseph K or K. has had, generally undermining and contradicting it), later the landlady tells K. that the Mayor is actually pretty powerless, it’s his skinny mousey wife who’s the power behind the throne.

‘The mayor is someone entirely without consequence, didn’t you realise?’ (p.77)

And so it goes on, Decline. Fall. Entropy. It is characteristic that beautiful young Frieda, within days of starting her affair with K., loses her beauty and goes into a decline (p.122) Everywhere, in aspects large and small, people, bells, buildings turn out to be less impressive or authoritative or even comprehensible than first imagined. Everything disappoints, everywhere the protagonist’s hopes or plans are dashed, on every front he finds himself being squeezed into a narrower and narrower corner.

‘If that is so, madam,” said K., ‘then I beg your pardon, and I’ve misunderstood you. For I thought – erroneously, as it turns out now – that I could take out of your former words that there was still some very tiny hope for me.’

Crowded with people

Another quick and obvious thing you notice is that The Castle, like The Trial, is packed with people. It has a surprisingly large cast:

  • the landlord and the landlady of the Bridge Inn where K is staying
  • Schwarzer, the son of the Castellan who bullyingly tells K. he needs a pass to stay at the inn
  • the peasants drinking in the hotel bar
  • the schoolteacher who tells him everyone is disappointed by the Castle
  • the cottage K. stumbles into up in the village, which contains two men in a bath (one of them the tanner Lasemann), an old man a woman breast-feeding, and a horde of screaming children
  • Arthur and Jeremiah, two thin men walking by the cottage who are hailed by the owner
  • the stooping coachman called Gerstacker who drives K back to the Bridge Inn in his sledge, after K. has got lost wandering the streets of the village
  • Barnabas the messenger who arrives at the Bridge Inn with a letter for K.
  • Barnabas’s family, consisting of his aged mother and father and sisters Olga and Amalia
  • Klamm, the legendary official from the Castle who everyone talks about and K. becomes obsessed with meeting
  • Momus, Klamm’s secretary
  • Vallabene, Castle official Momus works for
  • Frieda, daughter of the Bridge Inn landlady, and mistress of Klamm, who is working at the Count’s Inn where K. goes to find Klamm, and who K. has an affair with
  • the Mayor and his mousey wife, Mizzi
  • Sordini, a minor official in the Castle, who features in the Mayor’s extremely long-winded explanation of the bureaucracy up at the castle
  • the schoolmistress Gisa who sets her cat to scratch K. (p.117)
  • Pepi the stocky sturdy replacement for Frieda as barmaid at the Herrenhof (it is a minor element of the ‘Kafkaesque’ that the male protagonist is always horny; within moments of meeting Pepi K. is lusting after every bit as much as he did after Frieda [and the word used is ‘lust’, p.91])

Not only a fairly large cast but more intricately intertwined than in The Trial. Admittedly when K. discovers that the young woman he has so abruptly had sex with, Frieda, is in fact Klamm’s mistress, this very much echoes the situation in The Trial where the young woman, Leni, who throws herself at Joseph K. (to be precise, who falls backwards onto the carpet and pulls Joseph on top of her, thus making her intentions plain) is also the mistress of the Advocate Huld. Same with the Law Court Attendants wife who first with Joseph, but snogs another young man, Barthold, and turns out to ‘belong’ to the Examining magistrate.

Structurally, if we put aside the actual sexual content of these encounters for a moment, they can be seen to be yet another variant on the basic structure from which his texts are built, namely that things turn out to be something other than the protagonist thought. He thinks a woman is flirting with him alone, but she turns out to have multiple other lovers is cognate with the structure of Joseph being recommended to meet the Advocate who turns out to be ineffective and maybe even damaging to his cause.

But when we learn that Frieda is the daughter of the landlady of the Bridge Inn; and that Frieda’s mother was herself, in her time, a mistress of Klamm’s, then the latter book begins to feel more incestuous, more claustrophobic.

Attics and inns

One of the things I noticed in The Trial is the way so many of the ‘offices’ or rooms of supposedly important officials, and of the painter Titorelli, seem to be located right at the top of rickety staircases in dusty airless attics. The same initially happens here.

The house was so small that nothing was available for K. but a little attic room, and even that had caused some difficulty, for two maids who had hitherto slept in it had had to be quartered elsewhere. Nothing indeed had been done but to clear the maids out, the room was otherwise quite unprepared, no sheets on the single bed, only some pillows and a horse-blanket still in the same rumpled state as in the morning.

But in the event K. doesn’t get to meet as varied a selection of bureaucratic officials as Joseph K. and spends more of his time in the two village inns and at the schoolhouse.

Less intense, more surreal

The Trial is the better book. It gives you the pure Kafka experience, the sense of a hyper-sensitive man drowning in a sea of bureaucratic mysteries which he can never solve.

It has its bizarre moments but is mostly a kind of sustained meditation on the nature of the Court which has accused Joseph K and, by extension, of the nature of his guilt which is, in fact, tied to his entire existence. His mere existence implicates Joseph K. and it’s in this sense that Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod makes the case for it being at bottom a religious book, an examination of the fundamental nature of human existence.

Moreover, the metaphor of ‘the trial’ is extremely large and flexible, it extends out into all kinds of meditations and metaphors to do with an extended range of related subjects such as ‘the Law’ and ‘Guilt’ and ‘Innocence’. Characters can say things which both apply to Joseph K’s plight in a literal sense, but also have quite weighty double-meanings to do with the nature of Divine Law and human existence etc.

And because the legal systems of any country are so complicated and bureaucratic, the central metaphor of a ‘trial’ allows Kafka to generate a potentially endless sequence of characters who are either officials of the Court or experts or advisers about the law or the Court or the bureaucracy and so on. You can see the truth of Max Brod’s comment that the Trial could have been extended almost indefinitely.

By contrast, the fundamental concept of ‘the Castle’ is a lot more vague and limited. The Castle is up on the hill and (supposedly) contains ‘the Count’ and his officials, but it doesn’t really provide a lot of metaphorical or conceptual framework, certainly not as much as the idea of a trial and of the Law.

This may partly explain why The Castle seems less unified and inevitable and quite a bit more random that The Trial. Whereas most of the encounters in The Trial were aligned with the fundamental metaphor of the Court, many of the incidents in The Castle seem simply bizarre and surreal.

Take the case of the assistants. When K. arrives at the Bridge Inn he says his assistants are following him not far behind. Then, impatient, he sets off to explore the village for himself but gets lost in the heavy snowdrifts, is rescued by some villagers who dry him and warm him and who, as they escort him back to their front door, hail a couple of young locals who are walking by. When K. gets back to ‘his’ inn, the one he’s checked into, he discovers the very same pair of men have arrived there and are telling everyone they are K’s assistants. Then – and this is the bizarre thing – K. himself accepts that they are indeed his assistants and treats him for the rest of the book as if they are, even though they haven’t brought the surveying equipment he said they had, and have different names, and behave like irresponsible children most of the time (‘ludicrously childish, irresponsible, and undisciplined’, p.123).

This doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the Court or the purpose of the book, it just becomes a permanent, bizarre addition to the narrative. Their exaggerated childishness and bickering soon reminded me of Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, which made me see the entire book in a different light; less 20th century ‘surreal’ than in the tradition of Victorian ‘nonsense’ verse and prose.

Similarly, K. is told that the important Court official Klamm is at another inn in the village, the Count’s Inn, and so treks off through the deep snowdrifts to try to meet him. Characteristically, this attempt fails, for Klamm is locked in his private room. But K. he does get chatting (at length – all Kafka dialogue is immensely long-winded) to the barmaid, Frieda, one thing leads to another and suddenly they are in an embrace, rolling among the beer slops on the floor behind the bar. This goes on for hours and, in his characteristically obscure and long-winded way, it appears as if they have sex, then fall asleep there, for most of the night.

As if this wasn’t fantastical enough, when they finally disengage K. and Frieda discover that the two assistants… have been perching on the edge of the bar all night long, and have presumably observed everything which went on.

Now this isn’t a necessary or logical consequence of K.s quest to meet the authorities, it is more a bizarre incident, made more bizarre by the presence of the two assistants perching like buzzards on the bar.

It’s easy to apply the word ‘surreal’ to these moments of Kafka, and he was certainly writing at exactly the moment that the idea of surrealism and the term surrealism were coined (by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in a play performed in 1917, and taken up and popularised by André Breton, who published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924). Breton defined surrealism as:

thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation

The early Surrealists were obsessed with ‘automatic writing’ where the writer went into a dream or fugue state and wrote or dictated whatever came into his mind unhindered by any rational censorship or conscious intentions.

Well, on one level, Kafka’s two main novels do indeed have a horrible, irrational dreamlike or nightmare quality, the kind of nightmare where you’re running fast but not moving, or trying to keep above the waves but feel yourself being relentlessly pulled down. Thus the scene where K. is chatting to the barmaid one minute and the next, somehow, having sex with her behind the counter, is a sort of letting loose of usually suppressed sexual fantasies, a delirious improbability carried out in the dream-novel in a way it never could be in real life. And then the detail of the whole thing happening under the gaze of the two bird-like assistants definitely has the uncanny quality of Surrealism.

And yet a lot of other elements in the works are far more conscious and crafted and consistent than that.

For example, the messenger from the castle tells him that, while they try to sort out whether he has actually been hired to do any land surveying for the Count, K. is being offered the post of janitor at the little local school.

Because K. is now in a relationship with Frieda – in fact K. himself offers to marry her and everyone accepts that they are now engaged – he feels obligated to take the job although it is an obvious come-down from the figure he presented on his first arrival at the village, that of a confident, urbane professional man.

Not only is this a very Kafkaesque degradation or lowering of K.’s status, but he is then informed that the school building only contains two classrooms, with no other rooms whatsoever, and that therefore he and Frieda (and the two giggling assistants who follow him everywhere) will have to set up a camp bed every evening in the schoolroom once school is over, but be sure to be up and packed away before the schoolmaster then the children arrive the next day.

In practice this is a profoundly humiliating arrangement and again has a nightmareish quality because, inevitably, the very first morning of the new arrangement Frieda and K. oversleep and find their ‘bedroom’ overrun by schoolchildren laughing and pointing at them as they get out of the rough ‘bed’, made of a straw palliasse on the floor, and pad around in their underwear – at which point the smartly dressed schoolteacher and schoolma’am arrive and are outraged.

I think I’ve had dreams like this, being discovered in a public place half-dressed and with an oppressive sense of being publicly humiliated.

But the point I’m driving at is that true surrealism is bizarre in all directions, is unexpected and unpredictable, tigers turn into steam train, eyes are cut open, it can be fantastical and horrifying and weird. Early surreal works were often scrappy and unfinished precisely because their exponents were trying to achieve spontaneity, to throw off professionalism and reason and control in order to let the unconscious break through.

Whereas, although Kafka may achieve some ‘surreal’ effects with some of his nightmareish scenes and some of the fantasy-like details in them — his dreams invariably head in the same direction – in the direction of humiliating, degrading and wearing down the protagonist.

In this sense, Kafka’s works are highly conscious and contrived and artificial products: they are not at all open-ended and unexpected: the complete opposite: the degradation of Joseph K and K. and Gregor Samsa are highly predictable and move in one direction only – relentlessly down.

Long-winded

A major part of the protagonists’ problems in these two core Kafka novels is that everyone they talk to gives contradictory advice, or starts off urging one course of action but then hedges it with caveats and ends up advising the direct opposite. Joseph K and K. never know who to believe.

Partly this is to do with the convoluted content of each one of these long dialogues, and an analysis of them would take up many volumes. Easier to summarise is their immense length. God, everyone talks to immense and hyper-verbose excess! Here’s the landlady in conversation with K, telling him how naive his hope to meet the Castle official Klamm is.

‘Upon my word,’ said the landlady, with her nose in the air, ‘you put me in mind of my own husband, you’re just as childish and obstinate as he is. You’ve been only a few days in the village and already you think you know everything better than people who have spent their lives here, better than an old woman like me, and better than Frieda who has seen and heard so much in the Herrenhof. I don’t deny that it’s possible once in a while to achieve something in the teeth of every rule and tradition. I’ve never experienced anything of that kind myself, but I believe there are precedents for it. That may well be, but it certainly doesn’t happen in the way you’re trying to do it, simply by saying “No, no”, and sticking to your own opinions and flouting the most well-meant advice. Do you think it’s you I’m anxious about? Did I bother about you in the least so long as you were by yourself? Even though it would have been a good thing and saved a lot of trouble? The only thing I ever said to my husband about you was: “Keep your distance where he’s concerned.” And I should have done that myself to this very day if Frieda hadn’t got mixed up with your affairs. It’s her you have to thank – whether you like it or not – for my interest in you, even for my noticing your existence at all. And you can’t simply shake me off, for I’m the only person who looks after little Frieda, and you’re strictly answerable to me. Maybe Frieda is right, and all that has happened is Klamm’s will, but I have nothing to do with Klamm here and now. I shall never speak to him, he’s quite beyond my reach. But you’re sitting here, keeping my Frieda, and being kept yourself – I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you – by me. Yes, by me, young man, for let me see you find a lodging anywhere in this village if I throw you out, even it were only a dog-kennel.’

Poor K. thinks he’s understood the gist of this long monologue:

‘Thank you,’ said K., ‘That’s frank and I believe you absolutely. So my position is as uncertain as that, is it, and Frieda’s position, too?’

But, of course, and as usual for Kafka’s protagonists, it immediately turns out that he hasn’t:

‘No!’ interrupted the landlady furiously. ‘Frieda’s position in this respect has nothing at all to do with yours. Frieda belongs to my house, and nobody is entitled to call her position here uncertain.’
‘All right, all right,’ said K., ‘I’ll grant you that, too, especially since Frieda for some reason I’m not able to fathom seems to be too afraid of you to interrupt. Stick to me then for the present. My position is quite uncertain, you don’t deny that, indeed you rather go out of your way to emphasize it. Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true…’

‘Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true.’ That could stand as a motto for both novels.

There is often very little ‘information’ or factual content in these countless dialogues. Instead their sole purpose often consists solely in being so long-winded and tortuous as to perplex and punish the protagonist.

Take this characteristic block of dialogue from the Mayor, who spends Chapter Four explaining to K. the processes at work in the organisation that runs the Castle, how different departments might issue contradictory instructions, how discrepancies might not be cleared up for years, or might suddenly and abruptly be cleared up and yet nobody be told about them, causing yet more confusion. Who, by the end, has thoroughly demoralised poor K. and utterly exhausted the reader.

‘And now I come to a peculiar characteristic of our administrative apparatus. Along with its precision it’s extremely sensitive as well. When an affair has been weighed for a very long time, it may happen, even before the matter has been fully considered, that suddenly in a flash the decision comes in some unforeseen place, that, moreover, can’t be found any longer later on, a decision that settles the matter, if in most cases justly, yet all the same arbitrarily. It’s as if the administrative apparatus were unable any longer to bear the tension, the year-long irritation caused by the same affair – probably trivial in itself-and had hit upon the decision by itself, without the assistance of the officials. Of course a miracle didn’t happen and certainly it was some clerk who hit upon the solution or the unwritten decision, but in any case it couldn’t be discovered by us, at least by us here, or even by the Head Bureau, which clerk had decided in this case and on what grounds. The Control Officials only discovered that much later, but we will never learn it. Besides by this time it would scarcely interest anybody. Now, as I said, it’s just these decisions that are generally excellent. The only annoying thing about them – it’s usually the case with such things – is that one learns too late about them and so in the meantime keeps on still passionately canvassing things that were decided long ago. I don’t know whether in your case a decision of this kind happened – some people say yes, others no – but if it had happened then the summons would have been sent to you and you would have made the long journey to this place, much time would have passed, and in the meanwhile Sordini would have been working away here all the time on the same case until he was exhausted. Brunswick would have been intriguing, and I would have been plagued by both of them. I only indicate this possibility, but I know the following for a fact: a Control Official discovered meanwhile that a query had gone out from the Department A to the Town Council many years before regarding a Land Surveyor, without having received a reply up till then. A new inquiry was sent to me, and now the whole business was really cleared up. Department A was satisfied with my answer that a Land Surveyor was not needed, and Sordini was forced to recognize that he had not been equal to this case and, innocently it is true, had got through so much nerve-racking work for nothing. If new work hadn’t come rushing in as ever from every side, and if your case hadn’t been a very unimportant case – one might almost say the least important among the unimportant we might all of us have breathed freely again, I fancy even Sordini himself. Brunswick was the only one that grumbled, but that was only ridiculous. And now imagine to yourself, Land Surveyor, my dismay when after the fortunate end of the whole business – and since then, too, a great deal of time had passed by suddenly you appear and it begins to look as if the whole thing must begin all over again. You’ll understand of course that I’m firmly resolved, so far as I’m concerned, not to let that happen in any case?’

If you find that paragraph hard going, you are not alone. I found much of The Castle very hard to read because it consists of page after page of solid blocks of tortuous dialogue just like this.

I’m tempted to say that it’s not really the situations Kafka’s protagonists find themselves in which are the problem – a) being told you’ve been charged with something but never being able to find out what and b) arriving at a castle to do some work and discovering nobody will acknowledge you or clarify what work you’re meant to be doing, if any.

No, it’s not the situations they’re in which are Kafkaesque, so much as the massive, inordinate, unending stream of interpretations and advice and tips and insider knowledge etc which their situations are subjected to by every single person they come into contact with – that is the core of the Kafkaesque.

At the heart of the Kafkaesque is people’s unending need to talk talk talk. The Kafkaesque would cease to exist if people just shut up. Or spat it out in a sentence. Twitter would sort out K.’s problems in a few moments. But instead, he is forced to listen to monstrously long monologues by the Mayor or the Landlady, which leave him bitterly concluding:

‘This is a great surprise for me. It throws all my calculations out. I can only hope that there’s some misunderstanding.’

But there hasn’t been a misunderstanding. Or, to be more precise, everything is a misunderstanding, everyone is in a permanent state of misunderstanding everyone else.

Meanings

‘It’s so hard to know what’s what,’ said Frieda. (p.142)

Kafka knows what he’s doing as he creates fables with enough layers, and enough symbolism, to be susceptible to multiple levels of interpretation. The three principal ones which first spring to mind are religious and social-cultural and political.

1. Religious I mean the way in which Max Brod mostly interpreted the stories, as allegories or fables of Man looking for the Meaning of Life, for The Answer, trying to find the God or representative of God (priest etc) who will provide peace and fulfilment and knowledge about the True Path – but the permanent sense of frustration and perplexity which the Good Pilgrim is subjected to.

2. By social-cultural one I mean a reading which focuses on the oppressive and entirely secular bureaucracies which seem endless and impenetrable, which sweep us up in their processes and do with us as they please, without us ever finding out who to appeal to or how to get our case heard. Kafka is often taken as being ‘prophetic’ of the way large bureaucracies – whether belonging to the state or the private sector – especially after the Second World War, came to be seen as reducing individuals to the status of ciphers.

It is a characteristic of modern (i.e. since about the First World War) bureaucracies that they rarely admit their errors but prefer to hide behind jargon and contradictory statements.

‘Frankly it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?’

3. The Political is a more intense of the bureaucratic interpretation and argues from what we know happened after Kafka’s death i.e. the domination of Europe by terrible, deadly bureaucracies which consigned vast numbers to starvation, forced labour and death, in the name of ‘quotas and collectivisation (in Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s) or in the name or purifying Europe of its race enemies (under Hitler’s Nazis).

4. There is a fourth type of interpretation, which is hermeneutical where ‘hermeneutics’ means:

the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts (Wikipedia)

This occurred to me as I read the scene in Chapter Four where K. produces the letter he’s received from Kramm with a flourish and gives it to the Mayor as evidence that he has been taken on as a land surveyor. The Mayor then proceeds to read the letter closely and undermine all its claims to authority and even coherent meaning. When he’s finished, K. says there’s nothing left except the signature.

So you could say that Kafka’s novels revolve around, not so much the big Religious Questions which Max Brod read into them – but more technical philosophical debate about meaning. What does the letter mean? What did the phone call to the Castle mean? What does the landlady’s lengthy advice mean?

K. has lots of encounters, conversations, promises, threats, advice and so on. But almost always he then meets someone who immediately contradicts and undermines them. No meaning remains stable or fixed for long.

Worse, some of the characters suggest that, just possibly, K.’s entire system of meaning is alien to the villagers. According to Frieda her mother, the landlady

‘didn’t hold that you were lying, on the contrary she said that you were childishly open, but your character was so different from ours, she said, that, even when you spoke frankly, it was bound to be difficult for us to believe you.’ (p.138)

Subjected to this continual attrition erosion of meaning, can anything be said to be meaningful? In this respect, then, the books can also be interpreted as very 20th century meditations on the meaning of meaning, and of the difficulty, nay, the impossibility of ever really communicating anything to another human being.

‘He’s always like that, Mr Secretary, he’s always like that. Falsifies the information one gives him, and
then maintains that he received false information.’ (The landlady, p.102)

‘To anyone who knows how to read official communications, and consequently knows still better how to read unofficial letters, all this is only too clear. That you, a stranger, don’t know it doesn’t surprise me.’ (The Mayor, having demolished the content of Klamm’s letter)

Samuel Beckett

As soon as I read the name Klamm, and began to learn that he is a major character who, however, never actually appears, but about whom all the other characters speculate, I thought of the plays of Samuel Beckett – plays with titles such as Krapp’s Last Tape – and of course, of his masterpiece, Waiting For Godot. And the entire book radiates the wordy futility of Beckett’s novels.

Last word

‘Doesn’t the story bore you?’
‘No,’ said K., ‘It amuses me.’
Thereupon the Superintendent said: ‘I’m not telling it to amuse you.’
‘It only amuses me,’ said K., ‘because it gives me an insight into the ludicrous bungling which in certain circumstances may decide the life of a human being.’


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

 

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy page 56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

Hard to read

It’s a very difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and quick to put it down to do almost anything else.

The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the lead figure, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. ‘No heating!!’ he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. ‘Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?’

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Repetition

‘Saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’. Now arguably this was to be Beckett’s central contribution to 20th century literature, Repetition, the depiction of characters absolutely paralysed in their physical activities or thought processes.

In this respect Beckett is obviously undertaking quite radical experiments with the form of the novel, largely throwing out traditional notions of ‘plot’ or ‘character’ or ‘character development’ in order to focus on ‘saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’ to such an extent as to create a new sort of poetic.

And so even the most trivial aspects of the lead character’s life are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t bother much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate.

Comic?

Now, from some angles this obsession with the most trivial details could be made to seem comic – that a grown man puts so very much thought into how to arrange his six biscuits sounds, in principle, like it could be handled comically. The trouble is that, in practice, I found it grindingly boring, but more than that, brain-inflamingly frustrating.

For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6 in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.

The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (much like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He’s met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking back and forth, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of fluent sentences and feel for language, but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chucks him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. Everything happens with a teeth-pulling slowness.

He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mental Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding, and is obviously one of the many aspects of the book which are intended to be funny, like most of the characters’ names.

Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park, where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them.

After the immense thoroughness of Murphy’s calculations about the biscuit, the dog eats them while he’s not looking! The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers her spread-eagled, face-down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so that we never, in fact, find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke.

Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’ which obviously references the severing of the old man’s artery.

Whether you enjoy this book, and a lot of Beckett in general, will come down to whether you found pleasure in that sentence, whether you were able to decode its literary references, and whether you think it was worth the effort.

I can see what he’s trying to do, I can see how he is making his hero into a kind of linguistic car crash and that he is highlighting the absurdity of all communication, and the absurdity of language as a whole, and the ridiculousness of texts themselves.

I think I understand the intention, and appreciate a lot of his strategies of repetition and numbingly detailed analysis of language and thought. And if you read short passages, it has a gladsome liberating effect. But if you try to read it as a novel i.e. to read extended sections at one go, it becomes very wearing.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (chuckle).

Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, because this is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her, Celia is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary.

Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly in the park. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia, but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’ – obviously humorous names. It is obviously intended at some level as a comedy.

Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven! He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all the normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It applies Beckett’s overlocution and vocabularical exuberance to every single statement… for twenty pages!

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

If you recall, Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron, Professor Neary.

But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable, deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader.

I think the characters all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem or some kind of romantic climax is disappointed, for all the inmates are all locked safely back up – though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire chess game in Murphy. After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who made it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting it is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham.

From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty and, in some passages actually quite funny – but taken as a whole a very heavy and demanding read.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking back and forth, as usual described in autistic detail. I use this word because several friends have autistic sons and this kind of rocking back and forth, sometimes accompanied by moaning, is a big feature of their behaviour as I have personally witnessed it.

Then the gas heater Murphy’s rigged up explodes and kills him. Oh. That was unexpected.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat  Dr Angus Killiecrankie, to learn that Murphy is dead.

They are taken to see his scorched corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, I see the play on words, indeed the play on ideas. Maybe someone with a different sense of humour from mine would find this very witty.

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she has sex with someone for money. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair, and pushes him home.

The End.


Superelaborate style

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up. But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of exorbitant super-pedantry and arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

I suppose this might be funny if you have the right sense of humour. Sometimes I do. I found some of it funny, the insistence on a madly pedantic precisionism, the more trivial the desture or thought the more extreme description is devoted to it. Thus the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction.

(This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements would become central to Beckett’s plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle – an absurdly mock heroic comparison.

This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And once you’ve grasped this fact you realise that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, an elaborate joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more overtly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting it with the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world.

This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence – all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Bathos refers to rhetorical anticlimax – an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one (Wikipedia)

I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the opportunity of a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny? Yes, to the correct audience.

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour? These are some of the questions Murphy raised in my mind.

The modern introduction to the edition I read is by a Beckett scholar who talks breezily about Murphy being a great comic novel but, perhaps wisely, doesn’t give any actual examples of its comedy.

Is there comedy in the sustained mock-heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin’ language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing. But is it funny? Is it meant to be?

Neary arrived the following morning, Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is the central question in reading early Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’

Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated, impoverished, unpublished, would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. In all, Beckett made £20 out of this book – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it?

It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage of this over-erudite novel is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he had abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he would arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language.

As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

‘Serious gags’. Maybe that phrase encapsulates the difficulty I’m having coming to terms with this book.

Astride the grave

Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones.

Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – everything except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead, this paragraph’s flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter his artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going in what seemed a never-ending slog, I read chapter 9 – the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) – out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of the text seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney and comic inappropriateness, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy to be locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien.

(It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t – as I have witnessed it in my own family – much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.)

Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the mocking sacrilegious tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘The Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by occasionally ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

Murphy meets the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny who had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make total sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be, himself.

The fully at home feel of the asylum scenes tend to show up the earlier scenes of being pointless in London for the rather shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended.

The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness. Which also points forward to the bleak post-war plays, much shorter, much more focused, than his earlier palaverously periphrastic prose.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’.

Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in The Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it i.e. the text finds its proper subject matter.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities.

Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative, unless you accept that the needless becluttering of the text with bootless incunabula is the point of the text. The divagations are the purpose.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss in the faraway 1930s, the decade when Joyce’s Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned.

For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch.

Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing.

In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that she exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

‘On for anything’ another example of bathos, of ending a mock heroic description with a crude, pub locution.

Maybe these deliberately close to the knuckle references are what Fiedler meant by ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that phrases periodically pop out which certainly do anticipate the monocular and above all repetitive vision of the post-war plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)

So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)
%d bloggers like this: