On The Frontier by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1938)

This is the third and final theatrical collaboration between the poet W.H. Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Their previous two plays had been written for and performed by the highly political and experimental Group Theatre. They had been encouraged to use a mixture of prose and poetry and to write about ‘political’ subjects.

The Ascent of F6

Their previous work, The Ascent of F6, had been about the rivalry between two colonial powers, Britain and the fictional ‘Ostnia’ for control of a fictional African country called Sudonia. The natives believed whoever got to the top of the big mountain on the border between the two colonies – named F6 by geographers – would rule both. We are introduced to stereotypes of British Establishment types, including a blustering general, a scheming newspaper proprietor, and the Foreign Secretary and then the play follows the team of British mountaineers who set out to climb F6.

Three points: when it comes down to it the play is less about politics and more about the struggle in the mind of the lead character, the charismatic mountaineer Michael Ransom, who worries that if he succeeds he will be turned into a celebrity and even be tempted to use his power over the British public, possibly not for good i.e. be tempted to become the Strong Leader which a craven public is crying out for.

2. We meet two representatives of this craven public in the shape of Mr and Mrs A, who are given verse choruses throughout the action, who read the papers, listen to the radio, grumble about the trains and the weather and their crappy little suburban lives. They pop up in the boxes nearest the stage, are revealed and then disappear using clever lighting and are, generally, the most enjoyable part of the play.

3. The end is awful. Auden & Isherwood eventually tried out three different endings but none of them worked because they didn’t really know what they wanted to say. There’s lots of talk about the mountain being haunted by a ‘Demon’, but in the first version, when Ransom finally reaches the top, the Demon is revealed as being his own smothering, dominating Mother. Whatever this weird ending was trying to say, it was too obscure and psychological in origin to work on the stage.

On The Frontier

Despite these problems, F6 was a surprise success and was even broadcast, live, on a very early version of the new BBC television service on 31 May 1937.

This motivated Auden and Isherwood to try something more commercial, with an eye to getting a proper West End success. They attempted a more serious story and this time the verse – which had been such a highlight of F6 – was rigorously cut back.

On The Frontier reuses the fictional nations of Ostnia and Westland, who share a common border and hate each other. The play has three sets of characters. By far the most enjoyable is Valerian, Captain of Industry, owner of a vast combine which owns and runs most of the town beneath his looming plate glass offices. He is camp and droll, an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward figure, loftily ironical about the ‘people’s’ pathetic dreams of freedom, but just as dismissive of the ridiculous new ‘leader’ whose risen to the top of the pile in Westland after a recent revolution. He is served by an impeccable butler named Manners, who reminds me of Nestor, butler to Captain Haddock in Tintin.

The main set of characters are two families, the Thorvalds of Westland and the Vrodnys of Ostnia, and the main theatrical innovation or feature of the play is that although these two families lives in houses hundreds of miles apart, in their respective countries, on the stage, in this play, they appear in the same space at the same time. The stage is simply divided in two and we watch the Thorvald family bicker and squabble on their side, and the Vrodnys argue and make up on theirs – at the same time. This allows for all kinds of counterpointing, for example when each family listens on the radio to the announcement of war from their respective leaders, the Leader of Westland and the King of Ostnia.

The main counterpoint is that the young man in the Thorvald household, Eric, is in love with the young woman in the Vrodny household, Anna. Yes, it is Romeo and Juliet. But cheesy though it sounds, I bet this made for quite dramatic stagecraft, for on several occasions the lights go down on their bickering families and the two lovers step into a spotlight to declare their love, and ask why the world is so violent and divided etc etc. Trite sentiments, but even reading it cold on the page you can see that it must have been quite visually dramatic.

And of course you realise this is that the title refers to: the frontier between the two countries runs right down the middle of the stage and between Eric and Anna.

There’s a third group, a chorus of 5 men and 3 women who play different roles to punctuate the main action, for example playing workers hanging round outside a factory at the beginning; or five Englishmen reading out loud from five British different newspapers which each report the mounting international tension in their stylised and biased ways; to soldiers firing from two opposing trenches, once the war gets going.

Because for all the fine talk, and all the stylish one-liners of the urbane Valerian, and despite the Leader (actually a gruff and tired and confused former peasant i.e. not at all a homicidal Hitler or Mussolini) pledging to withdraw his troops and declare a non-aggression pact – despite Eric and Anna pledging their troth in the spotlight – despite everyone’s good intentions, in incident on the border – a bomb explosion in which civilians from both sides are killed – triggers both countries’ latent hatred and contempt of the other, and they go to war.

Inevitably the war drags on and we see the homes of the two families become steadily more shabby and denuded. Not only that, but beloved members of the families are killed off as the conflict drags on.

And, just to rub it in, a plague breaks out which starts devastating both countries. The Thorvald family has included Martha, Dr Thorvald’s unmarried sister, a frustrated spinster who takes out her frustration by hero worshiping The Leader with a zeal which embarrasses the rest of the family. Well, rather inevitably, she‘s the one who develops symptoms of the plague and, once she realises it, breaks out in hysterics –  a classic example of Auden’s psychological theories that frustrated desires breed actual physical disease.

And Valerian, the amusingly cynical industrialist? As the war escalates first his loyal lieutenant, Schwartz, rushes in to tell him he’s leaving the country, emigrating to South America, the army’s collapsed, the war has turned into a civil war. Then he has a page-long prose speech yelling out the window at the rabble beneath, explaining that their ‘revolution’ will be defeated, how he and his ilk own the papers, the radio, and will spread lies and disinformation about their atrocities (this can be read as an upper-class denunciation of all revolutions but some aspects of it seem to refer to the way the Republican side was defeated in the Spanish Civil War).

Then the Storm-trooper Grimm bursts in (a character we’ve met earlier in the play, being strong and silent). Now he has rebelled. Shockingly, he tells Valerian he’s just shot dead the Leader, in his office elsewhere in the same building.

Now we discover he is a man with a grudge. At one stage in its growth Valerian’s conglomerate deliberately undercut all the small high street shops which, as a result, went bankrupt. Grimm’s father kept one. The family was reduced to poverty. His father shot himself. Young boy Grimm made a vow to meet the man who destroyed his family. It’s taken him years to enter the Storm Troopers and rise this far. And now he’s face to face with the man who did it (Valerian) holding a gun. Valerian begs for his life and offers Grimm gold, jewels, cash. It’s an extended scene in which the initiative passes between them because as Valerian talks on Grimm slowly loses his murderous impetus, while Valerian becomes more confident. Eventually Valerian oversteps the mark, passing from speculation about Grimm’s love life, or lack of, to his mother and that’s a bad mistake. Suddenly incensed, Grimm shoots him dead. Oh well.

Anyway, both Eric and Anna die. That’s it. Shame. The pity of war. The futility of conflict. Romeo and Juliet.

The play ends with Eric and Anna rising from their respective deathbeds, drifting back into the central spotlight where we’ve seen them several times before, and delivering the authors’ message, such as it is – classic Auden which invokes very generalised ideas of The City and Justice and Love and Dignity:

Now as we come to our end,
As the tiny separate lives
Fall, fall to their graves
We begin to understand.
A moment, and time will forget
Our failure and our name
But not the common thought
That linked us in a dream.
Open the closing eyes,
Summon the failing breath,
With our last look we bless
The turning maternal earth.
Europe lies in the dark
City and flood and tree;
Thousands have worked and work
To master necessity.
To build the city where
The will of love is done
And brought to its full flower
The dignity of man.
Pardon them their mistakes,
The impatient and wavering will.
They suffer for our sakes,
Honour, honour them all.
Dry their imperfect dust,
The wind blows it back and forth.
They die to make man just
And worthy of the earth.

Thoughts

Difficult to tell whether this would have worked in a theatrical setting. With good lighting, in the presence of an expectant audience, and with good actors speaking the words, maybe. But on the page it remains quite cold, reading like standard Auden fustian. By the time of its first performances (six nights in Cambridge from Monday 14 November 1938, and one night only in London on Sunday 12 February 1939), everyone in England had been traumatised by the Munich Crisis of the previous September and everyone on the Left was upset by the slow grinding failure of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (which was declared over on 1 April 1939).

Against this deeply grim political backdrop the two happy-go-lucky public schoolboys’ stab at covering contemporary anxieties just doesn’t feel deep or worked-out enough – the characters are ciphers, the plot is ludicrous. Maybe the characters dropping like flies are doing so, as the concluding chorus puts it, in order ‘to make man just and worthy of the earth’ – but these seem like pretentious lines which the preceding ‘drama’ hasn’t really justified.

Instead the most obvious thing you get from reading this closing passage cold, is its Christian feel. It is, in effect, a prayer asking God to forgive ‘them’ i.e. us.

In a later memoir Isherwood revealed that throughout their collaborations he had the devil of a struggle preventing Auden slipping into Christian attitudes; whenever Isherwood’s back was turned, Auden had the characters flopping down onto their knees and praying about something or other, and the climax of this play seems to be a classic example of this tendency.

It feels like an ambitious school play.

Lastly, the whole cartoon concept of these two stereotypical nations, ‘Westland’ versus ‘Ostnia’, kept reminding me of the warring nations Freedonia and Sylvania in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, an anti-war satire which has aged far better.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

Poetry of the Thirties edited by Robin Skelton (1964)

Even before they were quite over, the Thirties took on the appearance of myth… It is rare for a decade to be so self-conscious… (Robin Skelton in his introduction)

Robin Skelton (October 1925 – August 1997) was a British-born academic, writer, poet, and anthologist. In 1963 he emigrated to Canada and taught at universities there. He appears to have written an astonishing 62 books of verse (some of them, admittedly, explanations of theory & metre), five novels, 15 non-fiction books and some 23 anthologies.

This Penguin paperback edition of poetry from the 1930s is similarly profuse. It contains some 169 poems by no fewer than 43 poets, a very wide-ranging selection.

Some of the poets are super-famous – W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman.

Some more niche, like the Surrealist poets David Gascoyne, Hugh Sykes Davies and Philip O’Connor.

Some wrote little but have cult followings, like the fierce young communist John Cornford or the eccentric academic William Empson.

Many are worthy but dull, like the famous but boring Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.

Some are famous for other things e.g. Laurie Lee, who went on in the 1950s to write the phenomenally successful memoirs Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning but is represented here by three minimalist lyrics written in Spain.

And half a dozen or so of Skelton’s choices are of pretty obscure figures – Clere Parsons, Ronald Bottral, F.T. Price, Roger Roughton. Who? Did Skelton make some of these up? It would be funny if he had.

What the breadth of this selection is obviously designed to do is to make us look far beyond the usual suspects, particularly the over-hyped Auden Group poets, and consider a much wider range of Thirties poet – and in this it works.

Introduction

Skelton arranges the poems by theme, not by poet, juxtaposing poems on the same topics by widely different authors in order to compare & contrast approaches and styles, making the anthology what he describes as a kind of ‘critical essay’.

Period Anything published in a periodical between 1 January 1930 and 31 December 1939, extended to the end of 1940 in the case of poems which first appeared in books, which have a slower turnaround.

The Thirties generation Skelton only includes poets born between 1904 and 1916. Anyone born after 1904 had no conscious experience of the idyllic pre-war Edwardian civilisation. They came to adolescence during the Great War or the turbulent years afterwards leading up to the 1926 General Strike and had barely learned how to party before the 1929 Wall Street Crash inaugurated the Great Depression.

At the other end of the period, some poets born in 1916 were still recognisably of the generation but much after that and they came to maturity just as the second war started and so belong to a different generation.

Schoolboy view of war Almost all the poets of the Thirties went to public schools which had officer training corps, maps on the walls showing the progress of the Great War and jingoistic masters. Their parents, teachers, newspapers and books gave them a vivid impression of the heroic camaraderie of war. (Remember the anti-war poems of Siegfried Sassoon were known only to a tiny literary circle and the anti-war sentiments which we take for granted didn’t really become widespread until the 1960s.)

It is no surprise that the poetry of a generation which grew up during the Great War for Civilisation is stuffed with images of war: armies, soldiers, the Enemy, the Leader are routinely referred to, and there are maps, lots of maps, and ‘frontier’ is a particularly resonant buzzword (Auden’s play On the Frontier, Edward Upward’s first novel, Journey to the Border).

Now over the map that took ten million years
Of rain and sun to crust like boiler-slag,
The lines of fighting men progress like caterpillars,
Impersonally looping between the leaf and twig.

(from It was easier by Ruthven Todd, 1939)

You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation-
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(poem XVI from In Time of War by W.H. Auden, 1939)

Movements They wanted to be part of a larger community, the era was characterised by movements, gangs and cliques. There were lots of manifestos and anthologies with prefaces earnestly explaining why the poetry of their generation was different. Not only that but the poets felt that they had to embody the new values they promoted. The literary culture was high-minded and unforgiving, epitomised by the high standards of the magazine New Verse (1933-39) which flayed any poet who ‘sold out’ to the establishment. When C. Day-Lewis agreed to me a judge for some book club he was mercilessly attacked for selling out.

Chums The accusations that the movement was based round a small clique of pals who boosted each other’s works was reinforced by the way the Auden Gang did collaborate, for example that Auden and his best friend Christopher Isherwood collaborated on no fewer than three plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as a joint account of their visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, Journey to a War (1939). Auden and MacNeice co-wrote an account of their visit to Iceland, Letters From Iceland (1937), and the leading composer of the new generation, Benjamin Britten, was also a collaborator, writing music for F6 and Frontier, as well as setting poems from On This Island and music for the documentary film Night Mail for which Auden wrote the verse commentary.

New ‘New’ was a buzzword, new verse, new times, new politics, new men. Art Deco was an entirely post-war style they grew up with, new suburbs were being built, in new styles, flats and maisonettes suggested new types of urban living, memorably expressed (if with the obscurity typical of his earliest poems) by Auden:

… Publish each healer that in city lives
Or country houses at the end of drives;
Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.

(from Poem XXX by W.H. Auden, 1929)

Two key early anthologies of the era which helped introduce the young generation to a wider audience were New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933), both edited by Michael Roberts, and the most influential magazine was New Verse edited from 1933 to 1939 by the combative poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. New Writing was a popular literary periodical in book format founded in 1936 by John Lehmann and committed to anti-fascism, which featured works by the new young writers.

Even Oswald Mosley’s first independent political party was initially named simply the New Party (founded February 1931) before it morphed into the British Union of Fascists (October 1932). Everything had to be new.

Politics The Great Depression began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when the poets were in their early 20s and lasted until 1933, during which huge swathes of the industrial economy collapsed throwing millions out of work. The international nature of the crisis (which began in the USA and affected America worst) convinced many intellectuals that capitalism was entering its last great crisis. The entire political and economic system from the king through the Houses of Parliament seemed incapable of dealing with the social impact of the crash.

These confident young men castigated it as ‘the old order’, ‘the dying order’, ‘the old gang’ and routinely castigated pompous, top-hatted ministers presiding over a country where the poor were living in squalor.

In England the handsome Minister with the second
and a half chin and his heart-shaped mind
hanging on his thin watch-chain, the Minister
with gout who shaves low on his holly-stem neck…

(from The Non-Interveners by Geoffrey Grigson, 1937)

The economic crisis had only just begun to recede when Hitler came to power in Germany (in January 1933). For anyone on the Left (which was almost all of the poets) the accession to power of an overt anti-semitic fascist in Europe’s largest country was a disaster, and from then on virtually each new month brought shocking news as Hitler banned trade unions, all other political parties, murdered his opponents, passed discriminatory laws against Jews and so on.

All this took place with the tacit acquiescence of the liberal democracies Britain and France, which increased the contempt and vehemence of the young poets for their cowardly elders. By the mid-30s Hitler was trebling the size of Germany’s army, navy and air force amid the sense of an accelerating stampede towards war which affected all of Europe and produced a tone of political anxiety in most writers.

Whatever their precise position, the poets reflected the general sense that ordinary life was overshadowed and dominated by menacing political issues, and a widespread feeling that poetry must address the huge issues of the day.

This underlies one of the verbal tics of thirties poetry which is use of the word ‘now’ used to mean, right here, right now‘, now this second, to convey a sense of burning urgency, that this – the Spanish war, the threat of communist revolution, is happening now, wake up!

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers…

(from Look, stranger by W.H. Auden, 1935)

The nowness of the poet’s present moment is contrasted with the Glorious Future which is just around the corner, come the revolution.

Communism The biggest group or ‘gang’ was World Communism which owned All of History and the Future of The Human Race. Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, Edward Upward, Hugh Sykes Davies, John Cornford and David Gascoyne are just some of the notable writers who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain during the 1930s, some of them writing earnest books arguing that communism represented the Future of Humanity and of Art (C. Day-Lewis Revolution in Writing, 1935, Stephen Spender Forward from Liberalism, 1937). The 19 February 1937 edition of the Daily Worker featured an article by Spender – I Join The Communist Party – and an editorial giving you a flavour of the oleaginous tone of communist propaganda:

The Communist Party warmly welcomes comrade Spender to its ranks as a leading representative of the growing army of all thinking people, writers, artists and intellectuals who are taking their stand with the working class in the issues of our epoch…’ (quoted in Cunningham, page43)

Louis MacNeice was one among many who tried to express their revolutionary feelings in verse, but being MacNeice, he characteristically humanises his views with everyday observation and imagery:

But some refusing harness and more who are refused it
Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come,
Which now is sketched in the air or travestied in slogans
Written in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster-board
But in time may find its body in men’s bodies,
Its law and order in their heart’s accord,
Where skill will no longer languish nor energy be trammelled
To competition and graft,
Exploited in subservience but not allegiance
To an utterly lost and daft
System that gives a few at fancy prices
Their fancy lives
While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet
Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Others had visionary hopes for the new world and new way of living the revolution would usher in:

After the revolution, all that we have seen
Flitting as shadows on the flatness of the screen
Will stand out solid, will walk for all to touch
For doubters to thrust hands in and cry, yes, it is such…

(from Instructions by Charles Madge, 1933)

In less skilful hands, communist urgency could degenerate into not much more than abuse:

No more shall men take pride in paper and gold
in furs in cars in servants in spoons in knives.
But they shall love instead their friends and their wives,
owning their bodies at last, things they have sold.
Come away then,
you fat man!
You don’t want your watch-chain.
But don’t interfere with us, we know you too well.
If you do that you will lose your top hat
and be knocked on the head until you are dead…

(from Hymn by Rex Warner, 1933)

By contrast with the above, John Cornford, who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and died fighting, aged just 21, really means it. From his personal hesitancies emerges a revolutionary anthem. He only wrote a handful of poems before his early death. In Full Moon at Tierz he expresses doubts and worries, but out of them comes the burning conviction of a revolutionary anthem.

Freedom is an easily spoken word
But facts are stubborn things. Here, too, in Spain
Our fight’s not won till the workers of the all the world
Stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain
Swear that our dead fought not in vain,
Raise the red flag triumphantly
For Communism and for liberty.

(from Full Moon at Tierz: Before The Storming of Huesca, 1936)

The Spanish Civil War When General Franco staged his coup against a democratically elected socialist Spanish government in July 1936 he expected to seize power within days. Instead his putsch turned into a gruelling and barbaric three-year-long civil war. Once again, as in their boyhoods, the poets read daily accounts of battles and statistics about dead and wounded in their daily newspapers.

The Spanish Civil War brought together many of the issues these writers were obsessed with – war, working class solidarity, communism, the struggle against fascism. Many of the poets travelled to Spain, it became was a mark of revolutionary virtue and commitment, most as journalists and commentators, a handful to actually fight. Several young English poets and critics actually died on the Republican side – Christopher Caudwell, Julian Bell, John Cornford, Ralph Fox.

Madrid, like a live eye in the Iberian mask,
Asks help from heaven and receives a bomb:
Doom makes the night her eyelid, but at dawn
Drawn is the screen from the bull’s-eye capital.
She gazes at Junker angels in the sky
Passionately and pitifully. Die
The death of a dog. O Capital City, still
Sirius shall spring up from the kill.

(from Elegy in Spain by George Barker, 1939)

By the end many had become bitterly disillusioned by the lies and betrayals they discovered on their own side, the anti-fascist side. George Orwell was only one of hundreds who realised that war, any war, isn’t as simple and pure as their schoolboy heroics had imagined. Skelton makes the point that for many of that generation, the Second World War came as an anti-climax after the immense emotional investment they’d made in Spain and the immense disappointment and disillusion they felt when all of Spain was finally conquered by Franco’s fascists in early 1939, and the war declared over.

Bourgeoisie Virtually all the poets came from the professional classes and attended exclusive private schools, and were acutely embarrassed by it. They keenly identified with the workers, with the unemployed, with the poor, they wanted to take up their cause. They wanted to joint their gang but they didn’t know how. Edward Upward’s novel In The Thirties amounts to a long description of the mortal self-consciousness and embarrassment a typical public school product feels when he becomes a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and finds himself having to talk to the Great Unwashed.

This makes most of their poems loudly proclaiming solidarity with the working class risible. All too often the threats against ‘the rich’ and ‘the idle’ and ‘the upper classes’ and ‘the poshocracy’ amounted to little more than masochistic self-hatred, the result of liberal guilt about their own privileged upbringings, and a lot of the people they threatened were, on closer inspection, their mummies and daddies and uncles and aunts.

You dowagers with Roman noses
Sailing along between banks of roses
well dressed,
You lords who sit at committee tables
And crack with grooms in riding stables
your father’s jest…

(opening of The Witnesses by Auden)

Orwell’s hatred of this middle-class play-acting knew no bounds. In a letter he dismissed Auden and Spender in particular as ‘parlour Bolsheviks’.

The common people That said, there was a new cultural and academic interest in the sociology of ordinary people, the common people, evidenced by, for example the Mass-Observation social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson (Harrow, Cambridge), poet Charles Madge (Winchester, Cambridge) and film-maker Humphrey Jennings (the Perse school, Cambridge), or the amateur ethnography of George Orwell (himself educated at Eton), namely Down and Out In Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

In this spirit, many of the poets and many of their 30s poems tried to capture the lives of the common people without being (too) patronising.

Now the till and the typewriter call the fingers
The workman gathers his tools
For the eight-hour-day but after that the solace
Of films or football pools
Or of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory
Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,
The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking
In the empty glass of stout.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

August for the people and their favourite islands.
Daily the steamers sidle up to meet
The effusive welcome of the pier, and soon
The luxuriant life of the steep stone valleys,
The sallow oval faces of the city
Begot in passion or good-natured habit,
Are caught by waiting coaches, or laid bare
Beside the undiscriminating sea.

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Traditional forms The super-serious Modernism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (and their continental equivalents) which crystallised just before the First World War, promoted free verse i.e. each line is free-standing and not constrained by having to fit into a preconceived stanza or rhyming scheme. In fact rhyme was generally dropped from Modernist poems as childish and Victorian.

But the thirties poets rejected this rejection, and brought traditional forms and rhymes and rhyme schemes back into fashion. Partly they were reacting against their earnest forebears, partly it was in a bid to make poetry more popular and accessible, partly because it’s just lots of fun to write ballads or sestinas or terza rima or sonnets or couplets and so on.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky…

(from As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden, 1939)

All the old forms were revived but given a modern spin, filled with thirties urban imagery or modern psychology. Louise MacNeice used rhyme schemes in his best poems but with subtle innovations to match the dreamy subtlety of the moods he captures.

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):
Time was away and somewhere else…

(from Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Later on Auden tended to divide his poetry into Poems and Songs and it is no accident that his younger contemporary at Gresham’s public school, Benjamin Britten, throughout his career set many of Auden’s lyrics to music.

Exhortation But if there’s one thing an expensive education at private school and then Oxford or Cambridge gives you it is the confidence to tell other people what to do. The classic thirties poem is packed with accusations and exhortations and instructions and orders. It addresses people, directly, like a speech or sermon or talk or assembly address by the head master. One characteristic device was to address as ‘you’ a range of professions and jobs. It made it sound like you, the poet, a) grasped the multifarious nature of modern society, and b) had a huge audience across all professions and types. But always the tone is warning, minatory, threatening, urgently telling these simple folks that the Disaster is coming, the Great Social Upheaval is just round the corner, they’d better bloody wake up before it’s too late!

Fireman and farmer, father and flapper,
I’m speaking to you, sir, please drop that paper;
Don’t you know it’s poison, have you given up all hope?
Aren’t you ashamed, ma’am, to be taking dope?
There’s a nasty habit that starts in the head
And creeps through the veins till you go all dead:
Insured against against accident? But that won’t prove
Much use when one morning you find you can’t move…

(Opening of The Magnetic Mountain poem 20)

The drums tap out sensational bulletins;
Frantic the efforts of the violins
To drown the song behind the guarded hill:
The dancers do not listen; but they will.

(To Benjamin Britten by W.H. Auden)

Headmaster All this telling people what to do meant that, without realising it, many of the 1930s ‘rebels’ ended up sounding as high-minded and didactic and evangelical as the school chaplains and headmasters and gammon-faced imperialists they loved to mock. This verbal tic, the direct address of the hypothetical reader, you you you, at first gives the poems a sense of vigour and confidence but after a while feels like someone is poking you in the chest with their forefinger.

You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully…

You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen…

You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not…

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

This frequent use of the accusatory ‘you’ is accompanied by recurring use of the imperative mood, telling readers they must do, act, look, see, listen, consider, think about the important Truths the poet is telling them.

Think now about all the things that made up that place… (Geoffrey Grigson)

Enter the dreamhouse, brothers and sisters… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider these, for we have condemned them… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman… (W.H. Auden)

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep… (W.H. Auden)

For many of the 30s poets were not only the products of top public schools (‘five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery’, as Orwell described the experience), but then went back to become teachers in them, too, swearing to do it all differently, to be more enlightened, tolerant but ending up sounding dismayingly like their own teachers. And a schoolmasterly, hectoring tone is regularly found across all their poems. Think now could be the visionary poet telling his readers to wake up to the international situation: or it could be the Head of Latin telling his dopey pupils to make sure their adjectives agree in number and in gender.

At the time they felt they were making vital distinctions between the previous generation and their own. Looking back, they all sound like part of the same big squabbling family.

Schoolboys It is no accident that so much of this sounds like squabbling children. At the time and subsequently many of the writers realised their privileged private schooling had kept them away from the harsh realities of life as it was lived by 99% of the population and placed a steel wall between them and ‘the working classes’.

Much of the poetry prolonged into adulthood a silly, giggling, schoolboy mentality, a jokey cliquiness that those outside it (i.e. almost everyone) loathed about the chummy insiderness of the Auden Gang. Allen Tate thought they were ‘juvenile’. Orwell wrote a long essay about how much damage his prep school did him (Such Such were the joys, 1948), as did Cyril Connolly in the autobiographical section of Enemies of Promise (1938).

Auden himself (of course) nailed it in his birthday poem to his friend Isherwood, remembering how, as young men just out of Oxford:

Our hopes were set still on the spies’ career,
Prizing the glasses and the old felt hat,
And all the secrets we discovered
Were extraordinary and false…

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Ways of escape Part of the reason for joining a gang, group or movement is because you don’t have to face the world by yourself. Thus Stephen Spender looking back at his motivation for going to Spain says he was driven on:

‘by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.’

Many of the writers were plagued by personal anxieties and neuroses, not least the king of them all, Auden himself, but many others were aware of this conflict between their own private anxieties and their wish to present a brave, heroic, communist front to the world. This double-mindedness, this self-consciousness, watching themselves think and feel, was a characteristic of the age.

And now I relapse to sleep, to dreams perhaps and reaction
Where I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,
Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,
Unzip the women and insult the meek.
Which fantasies no doubt are due to my private history,
Matter for the analyst…

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Freud Auden’s father was a doctor, in fact a professor of public health among other things. He owned a complete edition of Freud’s works and young Wystan read them along with everything else he could get his hands on. Thus by the time he arrived at Oxford he was able confidently to psychoanalyse all his friends (before or after sleeping with them).

Most of all Auden had an ascendency over his friends which was due to his being versed in psychoanalysis and therefore in a position to diagnose their complexes… Auden… seemed a lone psychoanalyst at the centre of a group of inhibited, neurotic patients – us.’ (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, pp.19-20)

Freud was one of the numerous modern thinkers whose ideas Auden played with in his poems like toys and Freud’s psychosexual theories influenced all the writers. Indeed Freud is the subject of an extended and highly impressive obituary poem Auden wrote right at the end of the decade, in his magisterial, end-of-the-thirties manner.

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
so many plausible young futures
with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
of problems like relatives gathered
puzzled and jealous about our dying.

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
to go back to the earth in London,
an important Jew who died in exile…

(from In Memory of Sigmund Freud by W.H. Auden, 1940)

Freud seemed, to traditional liberals, to have freed the new generation from its Victorian repressions. But he had other uses than the strictly scientific or psychological.

Surrealism The French group who invented surrealism and automatic writing, who fetishised coincidences and the unconscious, took Freud as their inspiration and ideology. Obviously people had read about them for a decade or more but the Surrealists made a big splash as a result of a famous exhibition held in Mayfair in 1936 which brought together the best of European Surrealist painting and was visited by record crowds and covered even in the popular press.

Elements of devil-may-care surrealist absurdity and irrelevance can be found in many of the poets and was a feature of Auden’s skipping from image to image, and invocation of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. But a handful of writers devoted themselves more seriously to exploring the surrealist mode, figures such as Hugh Sykes Davies (private school, Cambridge, communist party, surrealism) and above all David Gascoyne (private school, Regents Street Poly, communist party, surrealism).

today is the day when the streets are full of hearses
and when women cover their ring fingers with pieces of silk
when the doors fall off their hinges in ruined cathedrals
when hosts of white birds fly across the ocean from america
and make their nests in the trees of public gardens
the pavements of cities are covered with needles
the reservoirs are full of human hair
fumes of sulphur envelop the houses of ill-fame
out of which bloodred lilies appear.

across the square where crowds are dying in thousands
a man is walking a tightrope covered with moths

(from And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis by David Gascoyne, 1933)

Obscurity Having made the point that many of the poets revived popular forms and rhyme schemes and so on, partly out of a wish to be better understood, there’s no denying that a lot of their poetry is, in fact, quite obscure.

More beautiful than any gift you gave
You were, a child so beautiful as to seem
To promise ruin what no child can have
or woman give…

From The Token by F.T. Prince

Not many poets had the blunt factual subject matter to hand of John Cornford in his Spanish Civil War poems, or were as crudely political and declamatory as Cecil Day-Lewis.

Many tried to express their feelings and emotions as poets always have done, but using the new styles and imagery of the age. The tortured syntax and stylistic quirks unleashed by Auden in his first collection, published in 1930 – omission of the words ‘the’ or ‘a’; use of ‘O’ as at the beginning of a prayer –

O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches..

(from O for doors to be open by W.H. Auden, 1936)

And the vague wartime imagery of maps and leaders and ambushes – all these went on to infect a generation who, as a result, often found themselves caught in a mesh of sub-Audenesque mannerisms.

Lord O never let lose this habit
of expected strangeness, a kind
of alertness ambushed in the eye,
at once to strike on, to select
the deep the dangerous uniqueness down in things…

(from Request For The Day by Randall Swingler, 1933)

As a rule, the advice for coping with obscurity or anything you don’t immediately understand in a poem, is to go with the flow, read on past it, don’t let it put you off, and come back later and try to work it out, like a crossword puzzle.

Sometimes things become clearer on reflection, sometimes they’re deliberately obscure and only annotations or explanations by a scholar can help. Other times you can just let the obscurity settle in your mind – after all poetry is not a PowerPoint presentation with clear bullet points, it’s meant to work its way into the mind through other channels.

Take Dylan Thomas, none of his poems make much logical sense, but that doesn’t stop them being magnificent.

But hang on…

So that is a thumbnail portrait of the classic style of Thirties poetry, as exemplified by the gang of Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day-Lewis and their followers – highly political, highly confrontational, highly engaged. But the range and breadth of Skelton’s anthology is meant to show us that there were lots of other 1930s, too.

Probably the most striking alternative to all of the above is the gentle, Anglican satire of John Betjeman, destined for a long career and the Poet Laureateship (1972). It is surprising to think of him as a ‘thirties’ poet, but he was.

In a completely different zone was the semi-surreal, religious trumpeting of Dylan Thomas, who didn’t go to a spiffing public school (Swansea Grammar School) and who stood outside literary London and its backbiting (though forced to work there during and after the war).

In a room of his own was the eccentric literary critic William Empson. I’ve always liked his poetry because it is larky.

And it’s hard not to be impressed by the diamond hardness of dedicated communist John Cornford, who died aged just 21 fighting in Spain.


Some poems from the thirties

Lullaby by W.H. Auden (1937)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

In Westminster Abbey by John Betjeman (1940)

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.

Although dear Lord I am a sinner,
I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.

I will labour for Thy Kingdom,
Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women’s Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

Two Armies by Stephen Spender (1939)

As you know I don’t much like Stephen Spender’s verse. I think it’s a good impersonation of poetry but it’s not the real thing. Here he is trying to write a poem about the Spanish Civil War because it’s expected of him.

Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.

All have become so nervous and so cold
That each man hates the cause and distant words
Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
Once a boy hummed a popular marching song,
Once a novice hand flapped the salute;
The voice was choked, the lifted hand fell,
Shot through the wrist by those of his own side…

Now here is a poem included in a letter from the front by John Cornford, who fought in Spain, serving with the POUM militia on the Aragon front, where he wrote this poem which was included in a letter home.

A Letter from Aragon by John Cornford (1936)

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

Spender is very earnest but he’s posing, he’s playing the part of young lyric poet, he knows he is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of the Movement. But Cornford isn’t playing.

Missing Dates by William Empson (1940)

Empson earned his living as an English professor and critic. He wrote a small number of odd poems. This is the most famous. Read each line slowly.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice (1938)

An example of MacNeice’s deceptively simple lyricism and lulling, cradle rhythms.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas (1936)

The great clanging cathedral bell of Thomas’s stern verse.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


The poets

  • Kenneth Allot b.1912
  • W.H. Auden b.1907
  • George Barker b.1913
  • Julian Bell b.1908
  • John Betjeman b.1906
  • Ronald Bottral b.1906
  • Norman Cameron b.1905
  • Christopher Caudwell b.1907
  • John Cornford bb.1915
  • Hugh Sykes Davies b.1909
  • Clifford Dyment b.1914
  • William Empson b.1906
  • Gavin Ewart b.1915
  • Edgar Foxall b.1906
  • Roy Fuller b.1912
  • David Gascoyne b.1916
  • Geoffrey Grigson b.1905
  • Bernard Gutteridge b.1916
  • Robert Hamer b.1916
  • Rayner Heppenstall b.1911
  • Peter Hewitt b.1914
  • Kaurie Lee b.1914
  • John Lehmann b.1907
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904
  • Louis Macneice b.1907
  • Charles Madge b.1912
  • H.B. Mallalieu b.1914
  • Philip O’Connor b.1916
  • Clere Parsons b.1908
  • Geoffrey Parsons b.1910
  • F.T. Price b.1912
  • John Pudney b.1909
  • Henry Reed b.1914
  • Anne Ridler b.1912
  • Michael Roberts b.1902
  • Roger Roughton b.1916
  • Francis Scarfe b.1911
  • John Short b.1911
  • Bernard Spencer b.1909
  • Stephen Spender b.1909
  • Randall Swingler b.1909
  • Julian Symons b.1912
  • Dylan Thomas b.1914
  • Ruthven Todd b.1914
  • Rex Warner b.1905
  • Vernon Watkins b.1906

Related links

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)

A wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness. (Steppenwolf, page 22)

Brief summary

Part one Steppenwolf was Hesse’s tenth novel. It starts in a fairly low-key, realistic style and for the first hundred or so pages is an extended exercise in self-pity, as the self-described ‘Steppenwolf’ dwells at length on his unhappiness, his broken marriage, his abandonment, loneliness and social isolation.

Part two However, about half way through the book he meets a woman, Hermine, a fun-loving dancer and courtesan at a popular local bar, and she completely turns his life around. Hermine introduces him to dancing and jazz music, providing him with a wonderfully sensuous lover (Maria) who reveals the hitherto unsuspected glories of sexual pleasure, and introducing him to a super-relaxed jazz player (Pablo), who smiles wisely, says little, and offers a variety of recreational drugs, including cocaine.

Part three And then, in the final forty pages or so, the book turns into a really delirious sequence of fantasy scenes, played out in THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”), where each doorway opens into a new, extravagant, hallucinatory scenario.

The Magic Theatre almost certainly doesn’t exist because the sequence introducing it begins with Pablo, Hermine and the narrator sitting round in a room, after a long night dancing the night away at the town’s annual ball, drinking some of Pablo’s drug-spiked liquor and smoking drug-spiked cigarettes.

After an extraordinary series of fantasies (which include taking part in ‘the war against the machines’; reliving all the love affairs of his entire life but which, this time, are all positive, life-enhancing experiences; and meeting Mozart, who delivers a lecture about eternity and time) the novel ends without the narrative returning us to the ‘normal’ world.

One of the fantasy scenes involved our hero meeting a man sitting on the floor behind an immense chess board with many more squares than usual. This player prompts the Steppenwolf to take out of his pockets not just the two sides of his personality, but the hundreds and hundreds of aspects which Goethe and Mozart and Hermine and all the other wisdom figures in the novel have told him about. The player then arranges these avatars onto his board and plays a complex game with them. Moral: Life is just a game, it’s up to you how you play it.

And that is how the novel ends – not with the character returning sober and hungover to the ordinary, mundane reality it started in; it ends with the Steppenwolf taking up all these multiple aspects of his life, and determined ‘to begin the game afresh’, to live life in the light of everything he’s learned.

And it is this final, mad whirligig of fantasy stories – deeply mixed up with themes and ideas from the rest of the novel about suicide, death pacts, love, sex, the meaning of life, the multiple aspects of the human mind and so on – which, I think, leave a powerful, indeed bewildering impression on the reader’s mind, and whose garish extremity completely eclipses the mundane, realistic opening half of the novel.

You put it down feeling genuinely inspired, thinking, Wow, all these other lives are possible – sex and love and drugs and jazz and dancing and multiple ways of seeing not only the world, but your own life and experience – it’s all there waiting for you ‘to begin the game afresh’.

On the word ‘Steppenwolf’

The use of the single word ‘Steppenwolf’ in the English title makes it sound like a name (with distant echoes, for those of us of a certain age, of the English rock band which called itself Steppenwolf, and whose big hit was, appropriately enough, ‘Born To be Wild’).

But the title in German is The Steppenwolf, which makes it clear that the title doesn’t refer to one person’s proper name, but to a type of animal. In fact, Der Steppenwolf is German for ‘the Steppe Wolf’, also known as the Caspian Wolf, a distinct species of wolf which inhabits the steppes of southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Moreover, although the central character refers to himself as ‘the Steppenwolf’, the treatise about Steppenwolves embedded in the first part of the novel states quite clearly that there are thousands of Steppenwolves i.e. men who consider themselves part-sociable man, part-lonely, haunted wolf.

Part one – Steppenwolf’s self-pity

1. The nephew’s account

The thirty-page introduction is written in a muted, sober, naturalistic style by an unnamed youngish man. The nephew’s aunt rents out furnished rooms and one day, a few years earlier, a scruffy, nervous, 50-year-old man with short cropped hair (p.7) presents himself as a lodger. Against her nephew’s advice, the aunt lets out a bedroom and a living room to this stranger.

Over the first thirty or so pages, this nephew shares with us his impressions of the new lodger, whose name is Harry Haller. Haller refers to himself in conversation so often as ‘the Steppenwolf, that the narrator ends up using that name as well.

The nephew describes various encounters with the Steppenwolf, within his aunt’s house and sometimes in the local town, as he slowly forms an opinion about him. This is that Haller is a rebel. He doesn’t have a job but appears to have independent income. He drinks heavily and keeps anti-social hours (goes to bed late, gets up late). His bedroom is full of bottles of booze, but also of books by fashionably earnest and intense writers such as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as well as photos from magazines and watercolour paintings which he himself paints.

The nephew comes to think of the Steppenwolf as a man torn between two extremes – sometimes a savage, angry, ironic loner; but at other times a perfectly sociable and civilised man, who the nephew bumps into attending a classical concert. He is defined by this tearing dichotomy in his soul.

One day the Steppenwolf packs his bags and goes. The nephew and aunt never hear from him again. But he leaves behind a manuscript diary, a sort of journal, and it is this manuscript which makes up the rest of the book, about 220 pages in my Penguin edition.

2. Harry Haller’s manuscript

The bulk of the book consists of this manuscript written by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, which he leaves to the nephew when he leaves the house, and which the nephew finds himself arranging for publication and writing a short introduction to.

Broadly speaking, as described above, this manuscript is in two parts:

  1. Part one – Haller wanders the town feeling inconsolably sorry for himself
  2. Part two – Haller meets life-affirming Hermine who takes him on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery

In the first half, what comes over at great length is that the Steppenwolf is a loner, an outsider, a man who thinks his mind was made for great heights, for great achievements, who looks down on ‘ordinary’ people and the complacent comforts of the bourgeois middle classes, a man whose penetrating gaze has pierced to the heart of the human condition, no less:

The Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said: “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick!

This is from the nephew’s account and shows the nephew falling under the Steppenwolf’s sway, and tending to see the world through the eyes of this super-clever but super-sad loner.

Yet the Steppenwolf is a conflicted man, a man of two halves, for the outcast loner also desperately yearns for all the little bourgeois comforts. He loves the tidy potted plants on the landings of the trim little boarding house, and the clean hallways, and venerates Mozart.

The Steppenwolf’s curse is that whichever mood he’s in – over-educated angst-ridden loner or polite, music-loving bourgeois – the other half of his personality consistently sabotages it. He can never be at rest.

This basic duality, and the Steppenwolf’s inability to settle his curse of being permanently at war with himself, recurs again and again, both in the nephew’s introduction and in the main text:

I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

You can see why this kind of book would be a Bible to troubled teenagers and students. It perfectly captures that sense of being special, exceptional, blessed with superior wisdom and insight, of living a:

lonely, loveless, hunted, and thoroughly disorderly existence

And despising your comfortably bourgeois parents, poor drones who’ve never read Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche. Whereas you, the special soul who responds to Hesse’s book, have read the entire ‘How to be a tortured existentialist’ reading list, and so are blessed to wake up every morning feeling like a wild wanderer over the wide world, scorned of men and rejected by society.

And yet, and yet… deep down… at the same time… you don’t really want to leave home, where your mum can be relied on to do your washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, and where there’s a nice hot meal every evening at teatime.

As Harry himself puts it:

‘But though I am a shabby old Steppenwolf, still I’m the son of a mother, and my mother too was a middle-class man’s wife and raised plants and took care to have her house and home as clean and neat and tidy as ever she could make it. All that is brought back to me by this breath of turpentine and by the araucaria, and so I sit down here every now and again; and I look into this quiet little garden of order and rejoice that such things still are.’ (p.20)

The two eras theory and ‘the sickness of our times’

The text is packed with sweeping generalisations about human nature and society, which read well but are of questionable practical use. Typical is a passage where Haller tells the nephew his theory about overlapping ages.

It interested me not because I think it’s true, but because something very like this idea of people tragically caught between two changing eras and marooned between two changing value systems underlies Hermann Broch’s immense trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers.

‘A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilisation. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.’

I think this is questionable as a theory of history or historical change or historical eras. But where it is a little useful is as indirect evidence of just how widespread the feeling was in Weimar Germany that society’s values had collapsed:

a whole generation is caught…between two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security

This isn’t the only time the text confidently expands Haller’s feelings of confusion and unhappiness and projects them onto the whole world:

I see [Haller’s manuscript] as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.

These records, however much or however little of real life may lie at the back of them, are not an attempt to disguise or to palliate this widespread sickness of our times. They are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full. (p.27)

Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!

This kind of rhetoric sounds good, sounds wonderful if you’re of this kind of mindset, but means almost nothing.

Which generation has not been afflicted by a sense of collapse and confusion? We know this way of thinking was widespread among ancient Greek and Roman writers (‘O tempora, o mores’, meaning ‘Oh what times! Oh what customs!’  lamented the Roman orator Cicero in 70 BC). Anyone familiar with Anglo-Saxon or Norse literature knows that its characteristic genre is the elegy, a sense of irremediable loss of once glorious standards and values. The Middle Ages repeated these laments for a golden age, and any generation afflicted with plague (throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the early modern period) thought itself especially damned, especially punished for its sinfulness and moral laxity.

If you pick up any of the Victorian novelists or thinkers you will find them packed with laments for the collapse of civilised values (Thomas Carlyle was a leading offender, his 1829 essay Signs of The Times lamented ‘an artificial Morality, an artificial Wisdom, an artificial Society’), and most of the other Victorians lamented living in the sick world of frenetic activity which they find themselves plunged into.

In other words, this mood of lament for ‘the sickness of our times’ is one of the most consistent tropes in all Western literature, right up to and including the present day, with social media awash with laments that Donald Trump is the worst leader anywhere, ever, and the world is experiencing unprecedented horrors.

1. Actual corruption On one level the accusation is, of course, true. The grown-up, adult world is, once you’ve seen something of it, chaotic, confused and corrupt. It’s just that it’s always has been so, and young bookish men, raised on the beautifully clear and lucid works of the philosophers and poets, always end up disgusted to discover just how far short of those wonderful, inspiring works the actual world of marketing and business deals falls. The times are sick and corrupt. Thing is, they always have been.

2. Freudian interpretation Freud makes it simpler. He says everyone who thinks and writes like that is grieving for the lost certitudes of childhood, the warmth and simplicity of the nursery, when mummy and daddy protected you, and maintained a world of infant certainties, all gone, while you mope and moan about the sickness of the times.

3. A psychological interpretation And there is a third way of looking at this time-honoured trope, which is that it really boils down to saying that your times are special and that, as a result, you, the writer, and you, the reader who is aware enough to realise just how sick the times are, well, you also are special – blessed with a superior mind and perceptions but cursed, oh alackaday, to live through such a sick and chaotic era.

The hidden ‘appeal to specialness’ explains why these kinds of passages start off being about this generation or society as a whole, but have a tendency then to focus in on specially sensitive and wise individuals who are set against ‘the sickness of the times’, wise and sensitive souls who are doomed to suffer, precisely because they are so spiritual and superior and wise and noble.

You can see this tendency in the first passage I quoted which starts out lamenting whole epochs in history, and the collapse of values in our time, before moving on to worship an exception – a hero who stands out against it – in this case, Nietzsche, portrayed as an especially sensitive and prophetic soul.

And praise of Nietzsche leads, by an easy transition, into the idea that everyone who reads Nietzsche – reads and really understands Nietzsche – people like you and me dear reader, the elect, the elite, the special ones, that we are especially sensitive, what spiritual souls we are, that we, too are also condemned to suffer, suffer awfully, because of our special and superior sensitivity.

I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him. (p.39)

We – you and me and Nietzsche and the Steppenwolf – are not like ‘normal’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, ‘little’ people, those uninformed, ignorant, narrow-minded philistines who are happy with our fallen age, content in these sick times, quite at home in our degraded society and its paltry pleasures, those little people who, sadly, do not share our superior insights and sensitivity, and whose silly superficial pleasures we cannot lower ourselves to understand. The Steppenwolf is not slow to skewer the little people:

Among the common run of men there are many of little personality and stamped with no deep impress of fate…

I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafés with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys…

At every other step were placards and posters with their various attractions, Ladies’ Orchestra, Variété, Cinema, Ball. But none of these was for me. They were for ‘everybody’, for those normal persons whom I saw crowding every entrance…

It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death…

There is much more in this vein, written in a very persuasive melodramatic style. All in all, the first half of the novel is a kind of handbook for troubled teenagers.

But to the older reader, there is also something broadly comic about this self-dramatising, self-pitying, late-Romantic pose. And it is indeed very, very Romantic – Hesse’s phraseology is often drenched in unashamed romanticism which wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1830s or the fin-de-siecle 1890s:

How I used to love the dark, sad evenings of late autumn and winter, how eagerly I imbibed their moods of loneliness and melancholy when wrapped in my cloak I strode for half the night through rain and storm, through the leafless winter landscape, lonely enough then too, but full of deep joy, and full of poetry which later I wrote down by candlelight sitting on the edge of my bed! All that was past now. The cup was emptied and would never be filled again. (p.37)

It is as helpless and self-pitying as Shelley.

Treatise on the Steppenwolf (p.51-80)

Only twenty or so pages into what purports to be Harry Haller’s manuscript, he describes following a mysterious street-seller in the midnight streets of the unnamed town where all this takes place, a man who turns and hurriedly stuffs into Harry’s hands a little book, then is gone.

When Haller looks, he sees it is A Treatise on the Steppenwolf – Not For Everyone. (Note the ‘Not For Everyone’ – here as throughout the first half of the book, the implication is that only the special ones, the sensitive ones, the élite, those who know care allowed to share these sensitivie feelings and insights.)

This turns out to be another description of Harry Haller, but presented as if written by some kind of omniscient authority, almost a naturalist. it is, in effect, the third text about him (after the nephew’s description and Harry’s own memoir) and one of the interests of the book is this multi-textuality or multi-dimensionality i.e. the differing perspectives given by a) the nephew’s account b) Haller’s manuscript c) the Treatise, and then d) the mad fantasia at the end.

The Treatise repeats the ideas of the previous sections, that the Steppenwolf is half-beast, half-man, but of a specially superior lofty type. He is explicitly compared with the greatest artists of the ages. He looks down on ordinary, ‘normal’ people.

The Steppenwolf stood entirely outside the world of convention, since he had neither family life nor social ambitions. He felt himself to be single and alone, whether as a queer fellow and a hermit in poor health, or as a person removed from the common run of men by the prerogative of talents that had something of genius in them. Deliberately, he looked down upon the ordinary man and was proud that he was not one. (p.62)

Again and again his individuality and his independence are emphasised, and we know from all his writings that these are the core values which Hesse valued:

With this was bound up his need for loneliness and independence. There was never a man with a deeper and more passionate craving for independence than he…

He was ever more independent. He took orders from no man and ordered his ways to suit no man. Independently and alone, he decided what to do and to leave undone. For every strong man attains to that which a genuine impulse bids him seek…

Overuse of the word ‘hell’

All the characters are too free and easy in describing their self-centred depression as ‘hell’. Having nursed a parent with dementia, and then cared for children with mental health issues, I now know that even when I’m feeling depressed or guilty myself, it is very very very far from ‘hell’, and nothing compared to what they were going through.

Thus I couldn’t help despising the nephew and then the Steppenwolf for throwing around this serious word so glibly, for cheapening it:

  • These records… mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other [no they don’t]
  • Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap…
  • Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.
  • He who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today
  • Despising the bourgeoisie, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. The lives of these infinitely numerous persons [the Steppenwolves] make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit
  • And supposing the Steppenwolf were to succeed, and he has gifts and resources in plenty, in decocting this magic draught in the sultry mazes of his hell, his rescue would be assured.
  • And every occasion when a mask was torn off, an ideal broken, was preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness, this deathly constriction and loneliness and unrelatedness, this waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair, such as I had now to pass through once more.
  • How had this paralysis crept over me so slowly and furtively, this hatred against myself and everybody, this deep-seated anger and obstruction of all feelings, this filthy hell of emptiness and despair.
  • And since it appeared that I could not bear my loneliness any longer either, since my own company had become so unspeakably hateful and nauseous, since I struggled for breath in a vacuum and suffocated in hell, what way out was left me? There was none.
  • Then the world would be a desert once more, one day as dreary and worthless as the last, and the deathly stillness and wretchedness would surround me once more on all sides with no way out from this hell of silence except the razor.

Silly man.

The rebel

In this constant sense of being an outsider, Steppenwolf has a lot in common with the writings of Albert Camus, who wrote his classic novel, The Outsider fifteen years later (and mention of Camus makes you realise he is situated smack in the middle of the tradition of literary ‘outsiders’ which flourished, more on the Continent than in England, which would include Kierkegaard and Nitzsche, just for starters.)

According to the Treatise, the numerous ‘outsiders’ of which the Steppenwolf is merely one, play a vital role in maintaining the boring bourgeois world of law and order, as explained in this typically convoluted paragraph:

The vital force of the bourgeoisie resides by no means in the qualities of its normal members, but in those of its extremely numerous “outsiders” who by virtue of the extensiveness and elasticity of its ideals it can embrace. There is always a large number of strong and wild natures who share the life of the fold. Our Steppenwolf, Harry, is a characteristic example. He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it. And so all through the mass of the real bourgeoisie are interposed numerous layers of humanity, many thousands of lives and minds, every one of whom, it is true, would have outgrown it and have obeyed the call to unconditioned life, were they not fastened to it by sentiments of their childhood and infected for the most part with its less intense life; and so they are kept lingering, obedient and bound by obligation and service. (p.65)

It’s eloquent, isn’t it? Eloquent and articulate and very readable and plausible and yet, in my opinion, not particularly useful.

I thought of Camus because as well as this hymn to The Outsider, the Treatise also contains an extended section about Suicide and suicides and the suicide mentality (pp.58-59).

According to the Treatise, ‘suicides’ are not defined by the act itself, but by a sensibility for whom suicide is always a realistic option. They have to fight against it as the kleptomanic fights against his urge to steal everything. the thought of suicide is a constant companion and way out which pops up every time the ‘suicide-minded are blocked, frustrated, embarrassed or humiliated.

Compare and contrast Camus’ lengthy essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). It’s not the specific of the ideas, it’s the fact that both writers thought it worthwhile devoting extensive though to the subject which is revealing.

The final section of the Treatise berates Harry for being so simple-minded as to think man is made up of just two souls, in his case wolf and man. Man is made up of thousands of parts and pieces, man is a kaleidoscope of confused and clashing wishes, dreams, desires, intentions, plans, moods and memories and emotions.

The author of the Treatise closes by dwelling at some length on Eastern philosophy and Buddhism for indicating the complex nature of the human soul, and how hard it is to fully own and possess it in order to transcend it and encompass the All.

Back to sad Harry

Then the Treatise ends and it’s back to sad Harry.

Granting that I had in the course of all my painful transmutations made some invisible and unaccountable gain, I had had to pay dearly for it; and at every turn my life was harsher, more difficult, lonely and perilous.

Things happen:

  • Harry wanders round town feeling sorry for himself
  • he bumps into an old acquaintance, a professor of Eastern philosophy, who invites him for dinner that evening at 8.30pm, throwing him into paroxysms and anxiety and self-loathing and, sure enough, he makes a horlicks of it by getting into an argument about a portrait of Goethe the professor and his wife have which our hero thinks is too sentimental
  • Harry storms out of their house and wanders the streets, as usual giving into thoughts of shame and guilt and suicide, eventually plunging into a noisy smoky inn
  • here he sits next to a fancy women (a prostitute?) who quickly gets his measure, within a few minutes she realises that Harry is a helpless baby who needs to be looked after, who needs mothering, who has memorised his Nietzsche and is an expert on despair and hell and inauthenticity, but doesn’t know how to talk to a girl or dance, who knows, in fact, nothing about actual life
  • Harry falls asleep at the pub table and dreams a dream of Goethe, who starts off lofty and admirable but slowly becomes more fanciful and jokey, the medal on his chest turning into flowers as he explains that one must escape time, time is an illusion, in heaven eternity is a brief moment just long enough to tell a joke (reminding the reader of the reflections about time in Siddhartha)

After a week of anxiety worthy of a 16-year-old on his first date, having washed and dressed in new finery (new shoelaces!) he returns to the Black Eagle pub and meets the pretty flirtatious slender young girl there.

For a moment she reminds him of his boyhood friend Herman and he hazards a guess that her name is Hermine, the female equivalent. She nods delightedly but who knows, she is an experienced prostitute, maybe she’s lying.

[Rereading The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015), I was struck by the way all the essays in it at least mention, if not make their central theme the issue of gender-bending, gender alterity and gender fluidity in Weimar Germany. the book includes numerous photos and paintings of women, especially, dressed in men’s clothing, or with slender boyish figures and bob haircuts, all of which I was reminded of in the short moment when Hermine reminds Harry of a boy. He even asks if she’s a boy, and she jokes that, yes, she might be a boy in woman’s clothing (p.127). And a lot later, towards the climax of the book, at the big town ball, Hermine arrives dressed as a man, in a gentleman’s smart suit and fools even Harry into thinking she’s a male.]

Part two – Hermine

It isn’t formally divided into a new part but in practice, from the moment he meets Hermine, the book takes on a steadily different tone. In a nutshell, Hermine teaches Harry in a hundred and one ways to stop being so self-pitying and self-centred, to come out of himself, to engage with the world, to lighten up, to live a little (the variety of phrases which spring to mind indicate how widespread this injunction has become in the English-speaking world).

Almost immediately Hermine realises that despite all his fancy learning Harry is basically a child. He needs to be mothered. I thought I’d been reasonably clever in spotting this within a page or so but she then goes on to make it super-explicit quite a few times, telling him he’s a baby and needs a mother and she’s going to mother him. She makes him swear he will obey her in all things, so there’s an echo of the mistress-slave relationship in the world of S&M, or BDSM as it’s called nowadays.

Hermine teaches Harry to dance and like jazz. Characteristically, Harry initially hates both and nurses a long-standing dislike of jazz, and is ready at the drop of a hat to pontificate about the greatness of Bach and Handel and Mozart.

[Jazz] was repugnant to me… It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair; but so was all our art, all our thought, all our makeshift culture in comparison with real culture…

(In an interesting footnote, Hesse makes his character dislike Beethoven and really dislike both Brahms and Wagner: by their time music had, in his opinion, become too clotted and heavy; he prefers the infinite lightness and grace of Mozart).

Anyway, this is where the saxophonist Pablo comes in. ‘A dark and good-looking youth of Spanish or South American origin’, Pablo is effortlessly cool, rarely speaks but, when the band has finished playing a set comes and sits with Hermine and Harry and listens in silence while Harry rants on about Bach and tonal colour and harmonies.

Finally Pablo breaks his silence and reveals that he knows all about Bach and counterpoint but that is not his job. He is paid to play music which makes people tap their toes, and then their legs, and get to their feet, and start dancing, and lose their inhibitions and be happy.

The text tells us that ‘A new dance, a fox trot, with the title “Yearning,” had swept the world that winter’. Here it is. This is what these wild characters are jitterbugging to, getting drunk, taking cocaine, clasping each other tightly and dancing the night away to:

Hermine may become Harry’s mistress, but she doesn’t have sex with him. That, she says, is reserved for a special day, when he has finally completely fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, Hermine fits Harry up with a gorgeous dancer at the club, Maria, sleek and sexy in her velvet dress. With her Harry rediscovers not just sex – he had sex with his wife – but a magnificent new world of sex, of all kinds of subtle sensualities, of looks and poses and aspects and ways of touching and kissing which are completely new to him.

In other words, his body is brought to life just as much as his soul. The Steppenwolf rediscovers the radical innocence of sex (p.183-4).

The book continues to be packed with ideas and issues except that now he is not mulling them over in isolation and stewing in self-pity. He gets to discuss them with Hermine, with Pablo and with Maria, all of whom shed interesting and unexpected lights on the Steppenwolf’s obsessions. Thus there is:

War An extended discussion about war – we learn that the Steppenwolf was a writer and wrote an article during the Great War calling for moderation and less hatred, and was roundly condemned by conservatives and militarists and subjected to a campaign of hate and vilification. We know from his biography that exactly the same thing happened to Hesse himself, in fact this is straight autobiography. Harry is full of foreboding that all part of sciety – politicians, journalists, business – are greedily galloping towards the next war, which will be far worse than the last. Very prophetic. In fact Hesse left Germany to live in Switzerland precisely because he was a pacifist and wanted to dissociate himself from his countrymen’s crude militarism and lust for revenge. (pp.228ff)

German intellectuals There is a damning page where Harry harshly criticises the entire German intellectual class for their ineffectiveness. (p.159)

Weimar sexuality At their very first meeting, Hermine strikes him for a moment for her boyishness, and this theme recurs for the rest of the book. At the Town Ball Hermine arrives dressed as a man. But at one of the druggy sessions with Pablo and Hermine, Harry feels someone kiss his closed eyelids and knows it’s Pablo and doesn’t mind. In fact Pablo stonedly suggests a threesome, explaining how wonderful it would be, but Harry can’t quite bring himself to go that far. On one of the occasions when Harry discusses Maria with Hermine, Hermine makes it quite clear that she knows Maria is exceptional in bed because… she’s slept with her too. You can almost feel Harry’s mind being expanded. This is an aspect of Hesse I whole-heartedly approve, his completely relaxed, candid and honest attitude to sexuality. It seems extraordinarily ahead of his time, the 1920s. Then again, it was the Weimar Republic, where anything went. (Hesse on Weimar women p.162, and bisexuality p.194, 196.)

Time and eternity For me the best thing about Siddhartha was the profound discussion of time, what it means to be trapped in time, as we all are, and what it might mean to be able to escape time. What life, or existence, would feel like if there was no time. This theme is picked up here again, and is, for me at any rate, a particularly thought-provoking aspect of Hesse’s philosophy.

Part three – The Magic Theatre

As described in my brief summary, the book processes through these successive awakening of Harry’s narcissistic and self-pitying soul – jazz, sex, dancing, flirting, sensuality, relaxing, stopping being aloof but plunging into life – before heading towards the giddy climax of the Magic Theatre.

Harry attends the annual Town Ball in the town hall which has been converted into a catacomb of entertainments, with different bands playing in different rooms. This epic night of dancing and debauchery is vividly describe, it sounds almost like a rave, he makes it sound like London nightclubs I used to go to, where you dance all night long and eventually lose yourself completely in the throng, in the great mass of pulsing bodies, leave your poor pitiful ego behind and join a larger rhythm and music.

Anyway, as dawn comes up and the last of the dancers finally stop shimmying and the band packs away its instruments, Pablo takes Harry and Hermine to a small drab room where he feeds them spiked booze and a jazz cigarette and then… takes them through a doorway and parts a plush curtain to present THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”). It is like the curved corridor which runs behind the private boxes at a grand theatre, except that each door has a motto on it, indicating what you will experience inside, a little like Alice in Wonderland. These include:

ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS
ONE QUARTER IN THE SLOT

JOLLY HUNTING
GREAT HUNT IN AUTOMOBILES

MUTABOR
TRANSFORMATION INTO ANY ANIMAL OR PLANT YOU PLEASE

KAMASUTRAM
INSTRUCTION IN THE INDIAN ARTS OF LOVE
COURSE FOR BEGINNERS
FORTY-TWO DIFFERENT METHODS AND PRACTICES

DELIGHTFUL SUICIDE
YOU LAUGH YOURSELF TO BITS

DO YOU WANT TO BE ALL SPIRIT?
THE WISDOM OF THE EAST

DOWNFALL OF THE WEST
MODERATE PRICES. NEVER SURPASSED

COMPENDIUM OF ART
TRANSFORMATION FROM TIME INTO SPACE BY MEANS OF MUSIC

LAUGHING TEARS
CABINET OF HUMOUR

SOLITUDE MADE EASY
COMPLETE SUBSTITUTE FOR ALL FORMS OF SOCIABILITY.

GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY
SUCCESS GUARANTEED

And so Harry indulges in some of them – namely the car hunting one which is set in a future war between machines (cars) and men – All Girls Are Yours in which he relives every feeling and encounter he’s had with a girl or woman except that they all turn into beautiful love affairs instead of occasions for frustration and anger. Then he goes through the door marked:

MARVELLOUS TAMING OF THE STEPPENWOLF

Which isn’t such a good idea because he sees both man and wolf being pitifully tamed and humiliated.

He meets the chessplayer with a super-sized board who explains to Harry that he has not two but two thousand aspects to his soul and proceeds to play vast super-complex chess games with them, demonstrating to Harry that Life is a Game. Make of it what you will.

Finally he is back in the corridor and the next door he sees bears a sign:

HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE

This needs explaining. At several moments during their conversations, Hermine had explained to Harry that he must obey her in all things, up to and including the final one – she will command him to kill her. I wasn’t happy with this idea, since it seemed to me to take us back into the melodramatic, late-Romantic world of the Steppe Wolf, but here it is.

In fact before anything happens, Harry sees himself in a vast floor-to-ceiling mirror and sees a wolf. He reaches into his pocket and finds a knife. Ah. Mack the Knife, weapon of choice for the Weimar murderer. In a weird (it’s all beyond weird) twist, Harry ends meeting Mozart and has a lengthy conversation with him about art and music and time and eternity.

But Mozart laughs the cold, icy laughter of eternity, of those who have transcended time and Harry finds himself entering a room to find the naked bodies of Pablo and Hermine sleeping side by side as if after sex.

Beautiful, beautiful figures, lovely pictures, wonderful bodies. Beneath Hermine’s left breast was a fresh round mark, darkly bruised – a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful, gleaming teeth. There, where the mark was, I plunged in my knife to the hilt. The blood welled out over her white and delicate skin. I would have kissed away the blood if everything had happened a little differently. As it was, I did not. I only watched how the blood flowed and watched her eyes open for a little moment in pain and deep wonder. What makes her wonder? I thought. Then it occurred to me. that I had to shut her eyes. But they shut again of themselves. So all was done. She only turned a little to one side, and from her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember. Then she lay still.

Pablo stir and is not greatly upset by what has happened. Maybe because it hasn’t happened. Mozart reappears and laughs at Harry’s stricken guilt. he says Harry must learn to laugh, too. All humour is gallows humour because we are all on the brink of the grave. Harry must learn the laughter of the gods of the immortals, a cold glacial laugh of eternity.

HARRY’S EXECUTION

The final scene is Harry’s trial, where he is convicted of the murder of Hermine but, in an unexpected twist, the court sentences him to live and laugh him out of the court.

At which point Mozart and the court disappear and Harry is talking to Pablo. Pablo, in his wise understated way, is a little disappointed with Harry for bringing the mud of reality and passion into his Magic Theatre but forgives him. None of it is real. The figure of Hermine appears as a toy, a little model. Could things be more trippy?

He took Hermine who at once shrank in his fingers to the dimensions of a toy figure and put her in the very same waistcoat pocket from which he had taken the cigarette. Its sweet and heavy smoke diffused a pleasant aroma. I felt hollow, exhausted, and ready to sleep for a whole year.

I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.

Those are the book’s final words, the final words of the manuscript the Steppenwolf left with the nephew and which he promised to publish way back at the start of what is, physically, quite a short book, but one which feels like it’s taken us on a trip right around the universe of human possibilities.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of energy ridiculing the morbid self-pity of the lead character in the first half of the book, only to realise by the end that this was a narrative strategy, that Hesse took the maudlin self-pity he himself was prone too, especially after his second marriage collapsed in the 1920s, and blew it up out of all proportion… in order to make the character’s transformation all the more vivid and memorable.

So the real interest of the book is in the way the Steppenwolf is humanised, literally brought to Life and instructed in how to Live it and Enjoy it, by the beneficent guidance of Hermine, the hermaphrodite healer. The journey is packed with weird and wonderful scenes involving Goethe and Mozart, discussions of suicide and time and eternity and human nature and music and sex, it is a gallimaufrey of intensely felt ideas and insights.

And then the final forty pages take it to a different level altogether, a mad science fiction / horror / drug trip fantasy which in its combination of weirdness and philosophy does something hardly any other book I’ve ever read manages.

What an incredible book!

Credit

Der Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse was published in 1927. This translation by Basil Creighton was published in 1929. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

Käthe Kollwitz: Portrait of the Artist edited by Frances Grady and Max Egremont (2019)

This is the catalogue to accompany the recent Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at the British Museum.

The two or three essays in the book include:

Käthe Kollwitz’s biography

Born Käthe Schmidt in 1867, left-wing upbringing, married a left-wing doctor (Karl Kollwitz) who practiced in the slums of Berlin, specialised in prints, devoted herself to left-wing subjects i.e. lives of the working poor, plus historic subjects e.g. a weavers’ rebellion, sent son off to the Great War and he was killed within weeks, decades of mourning and grief and obsession with death.

Detailed looks at Kollwitz’s major print series

  • A Weavers Revolt (1898)
  • The Peasants War (1902-8)
  • War (1922-3)
  • Death (1932-7)

A lifelong obsession with death

What comes over from the essays is Kollwitz’s obsession with death – possibly, as one essay suggests, as a result of the death of some of her siblings in infancy – definitely compounded by the poverty, sickness and death she saw all around her in the slums of Berlin.

She was unnaturally, morbidly attracted to the subject in the 1890s and 1900s, well before she made the fateful decision to help her beloved son Peter enlist into the army in the first weeks of the Great War, despite him being under age, only for him to be killed a matter of weeks later. The guilt must have been staggering.

From that point onwards, Death and the grief of mothers was to become her enduring subject.

The prints

The factual content of the book, then, is solid but not revelatory, and all the images are hedged around with an extreme of scholarly punctiliousness and accuracy. After all, this is a reference book for other scholars as much as an introduction to us lay people.

No, the reason for owning the book is not for the biography, detailed though it is – but for the quality of the reproductions, including close-ups of many of the key prints. These let you really savour the details, and make them even more powerful and moving.

Some of her images can be a bit clunky, some of the faces in the weaker pictures are less than persuasive, even though her figure drawing and composition are almost always powerful and commanding. But at her best, there’s a solid body of work of breath-taking power and depth which surely make Kollwitz one of the great artists of the twentieth century.

Self portrait 1912

Kollwitz did at least 50 self-portraits and no portraits of anyone else, hence the focus of the BM exhibition and of this book. They are no frills, no pretense records of a journey through a hard life and a gruelling era of history.

Black and white charcoal drawing of an old lady's face

Self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz (1912) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Woman with dead child (1903)

The most finished or prominent feature is the woman’s left knee and then, perhaps, her big left foot. This isn’t a dainty Rococo woman or an air-brushed sex object. This is a cave woman, Cro-Magnon Woman. No frills or make-up, no sexuality, just blunt primeval human feeling with extraordinary power.

Black and white drawing of a primitive, almost ape-like woman clasping the body of her teenage son

Woman with Dead Child by Käthe Kollwitz (1903) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unemployment (1909)

A large reproduction lets you see the fullness with which the baby and the children’s faces have been gently etched, and brings out the contrast between their soft child faces and the rest of the spare, scratchy, shadowy scene, the gaunt shadowed face of the exhausted mother.

Black and white drawing of an ill-looking woman tucked up in bed, holding a small baby, with several other small children asleep on the bedding, while the dark image of her husband sits and broods beside the bed

Unemployment by Käthe Kollwitz (1909) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Arming in a vault (1906)

From 1789 to 1989, the great theme of European history – terror of uncontrolled, violent revolution from below.

Very dark image of a hoard of people armed with axes and spears and halberds thronging catacombs and, on the right of the image, surging up a very steep staircase, presumably into the light of day

Arming in a Vault by Käthe Kollwitz (1906) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Call of Death (1937)

Here I come, ready or not.

Stark, primitive black and white charcoal drawing of a bald woman with an ape-like head, hear arms across her chest so you're not sure of her gender, and from the top right a veined and bony hand reaching down to touch her - the touch of Death

Call of Death by Käthe Kollwitz (1937) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the eighth and final image in Kollwitz’s final series of prints which was titled, simply, Death. 

In fact it’s also a self-portrait as a glance at the 1912 self-portrait confirms – but now without hair, without any attributes which identify her gender. Just raw, elemental human.

In the Death series, completed before the Blitzkrieg and Stalingrad and Warsaw, before the Holocaust and the camps, it is as if Kollwitz has plumbed the depths of human experience, not in the relatively superficial terms of despair or emotion, but reaching far deeper down than that, to a grunting, primeval, prehistoric stratum of human experience.

Tell me what you think





Related links

War Fever by J.G. Ballard (1990)

This is Ballard’s last collection of short stories, some very short indeed.

  1. War Fever
  2. The Secret History of World War 3
  3. Dream Cargoes
  4. The Object of the Attack
  5. Love in a Colder Climate
  6. The Largest Theme Park in the World
  7. Answers to a Questionnaire
  8. The Air Disaster
  9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station
  10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  11. The Enormous Space
  12. Memories of the Space Age
  13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  14. The Index

************

1. War Fever (1989)

Through the eyes of young Ryan we learn about the endless war in Beirut between small numbers of warriors divided into four factions, the Nationalists, Christians, Fundamentalists and Royalists. Ryan lives with his Aunt Vera and sister in a tiny apartment in a ruined tower block overlooking the wartorn city.

He is helped out by the kindly Dr Edwards, a United Nations medical observer (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor). The story describes Ryan’s slow, faltering steps to bring about an end to the unending conflict, by asking everyone to adopt the blue hats of the UN peacekeepers, who man the main checkpoints but are forbidden from stepping in to stop the fighting for fear that outside powers will intervene.

Ryan’s scheme works surprisingly well and soon peace has broken out among a number of the factions. Ryan is just nervously approaching the formidable woman fighter Lieutenant Valentina when a series of colossal explosion occur across the ruined city. Ryan hares back to his apartment and discovers that Aunt Vera and his sister have been kidnapped!

Dr Edwards watches his face closely as he asks Ryan whether he’s going to rush back to his militia and resume the fighting. However, Ryan decides he is going to renew his determination to being about a truce. At which point Dr Edwards ties Ryan’s wrists together, pushes him into a jeep and drives him through umpteen checkpoints and right out of the ruined, smoke-filled city altogether.

Here, in a well-organised, clean depot and admin area packed with new guns and munitions, Dr Edwards explains to Ryan that Beirut is a huge scientific experiment. The whole of the rest of the world lives in complete peace: but they pay to support endless fighting in Beirut, supplying gun and ammo and orphans resulting from tragic accidents. Thus new generations of fighters are continually refreshing the depleted ranks of the four factions.

Why? In the same way that a handful of labs around the world keep supplies of smallpox which is otherwise eradicated: to study the war virus, to study what makes people fight, why they are motivated, how they organise and how far they will go.

It’s a version of The Truman Show with rocket grenades. Except that the exploding and the fighting gets perilously close. Dr Edwards rallies with the other UN behind the scenes staff and head back into the war zone. They drive to the wrecked sports stadium where Aunt Vera and his sister had been taken and should have been looked after. But Royalists managed to fight through the UN defences and kill everyone, the UN defenders, Aunt Vera and Ryan’s sister.

And it is then from the deep well of bitterness and anger at how and all of them have been played, that Ryan conceives his next Big Plan. He will unite the warring factions of Beirut. They will fight and overcome the UN forces. And then they will unleash the dormant virus of war and violence on an unsuspecting world!

2. The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

A slight misnomer because this short squib is mostly a satire on American politics and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The narrator is a physician (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) based in Washington DC, and this short story depicts a fictional future in which Reagan is replaced as president in 1989, but his successor is so lamentable that the American Constitution is amended so Ronnie can stand for president a third time and is, indeed, elected, at the ripe old age of 82. He’s so old that the media take to publishing regular updates on his health, the TV news starts having a President’s Health segment, and one day an ECG-type readout appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s Ronnie’s heartbeat. Soon half the TV screen is full of a panoply of readouts recording all aspects of the President’s health, and Ballard satirises the breathless commentary of TV hosts – the stereotypical craggy old guy and the glamourpuss blonde – and the way everyone in the country, including the narrator’s own wife, become more and more addicted to the second-by-second commentary which covers every burp and fart and bowel motion.

It is in the middle of this satirical vision of a celebrity president-addicted population, that mounting tensions between the superpowers (which have, satirically, only gotten the briefest of mentions on the news in between the analysis of what the President had for lunch) erupts into a sudden exchange of nuclear weapons which takes place on 27 January 1997 between 6.47 and 6.51pm. The Russians launch a handful of nukes which explode in Alaska, the Yanks launch a handful of nukes which explode in Siberia, then both sides come to their senses, end the war, and de-escalate the various tensions around the globe.

So the story isn’t really about World War Three in any way you might expect: it is a satire on the mediatisation of American politics, and the hopeless addiction to screens and an endless diet of celebrity news, bulletins and updates among the American public.

Thoughts

This story was published in 1988. Modern commentators think there is something new and unprecedented about twitter and so on, and of course smart phones and social media are new, in one sense: and yet here’s Ballard satirising a zombie president and the American public’s addiction to screens over thirty years ago. That’s why Trump and twitter just don’t seem that new to some of us: or are just the latest iteration of a very long-running issue.

3. Dream Cargoes (1990)

Johnson is thirty years old but comes across in this story as very simple minded. He’s the dogsbody on a decrepit cargo steamer named the Prospero. In the Far East its alcoholic captain, Galloway, lets himself be bribed into taking on board an extremely hazardous cargo of toxic chemicals and the steamer then chugs round South America and up the coast towards the Caribbean. But here a series of port authorities and customs officials forbid the Prospero from docking with a cargo which has slowly started leaking and discharging toxic fumes all over the ship as well as corroding its cargo hold and then the hull.

As the ship starts to list to one side and becomes wreathed in toxic fumes, Captain Galloway and the handful of crew decide to abandon the ship but Johnson stays on, deluded by dreams of being a ‘captain’. A day or so later he spots a small island somewhere off Puerto Rico and beaches the ship there.

Over the ensuing days the toxic waste spills everywhere and has a drastic effect on the local vegetation, which starts growing at a breakneck speed, while Johnson himself descends into the kind of malnourished-sick-fever-dream which is so familiar in Ballard’s fiction.

As new types of tropical plant burgeon all around him, Johnson realises the island is visited by a biologist, Dr Chambers (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). She becomes involved in his dreams of becoming one with the island, of becoming one of the hyper-evolved giant birds and flying towards the sun (as in so many other Ballard stories) and (as in so many other Ballard stories) the way time is slowing down for him, as he goes into more and more trance or fugue states, so that his perceptions superimpose multiple images of the same object, creating a fragmented or crystal effect.

He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air…. He would teach Christine and the child to fly.

On the final page an American ship arrives and the US Navy lieutenant who comes ashore finds them both in quite a state – finds also that the giant flora seems to have overgrown itself and is now dying off. As he helps them leave the island Johnson reflects that he has gotten Dr Chambers pregnant and that their child might well be the first of a new species of human, and how they would fight to protect it from ‘those who feared it might replace them.’

4. The Object of the Attack (1984)

Cast in the format of diary entries by Dr Richard Greville (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), Chief Psychiatric Adviser to the Home Office.

His diary entries concern a young psychotic who built and flew a glider over Windsor Castle during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. But he got tangled up in some aerials, fell to earth and the police found he had loads of gelignite strapped to his body, wired to a detonator. Thinking he planned to assassinate the president and his entourage, the Boy, as everyone refers to him, is locked up in a series of mental institutes, where Dr Griffiths visits him.

Griffiths gives us a profile of this boy, Matthew Young, a devoted psychopath, who’s suffered from epilepsy all his life. He’s been through a whole raft of careers including trainee pilot and video game designer. What is common to them all is a pathological obsession with space flight, with the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle.

This becomes entangled with the concept of an Ames Room. An Ames room is a space in which furniture and other elements have been carefully arranged so that, from one chosen perspective, likely a peephole, it creates a completely convincing optical illusion. The concept was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.

Anyway, Young escapes from a mental institute in Daventry by insisting on going to the chapel and being left alone. being a psychotic genius, he creates an Ames Room optical illusion by arranging all the furniture in the room to look as if he’s kneeling at the altar praying, when in fact he had arranged the pews in a ladder up to the ceiling and was crouched forward undoing the screws of the ventilator.

So Young escapes and disappears, going underground. Here the content of this short story gets quite clotted. Because Griffiths has figured out, from meeting the Boy himself and reading his journals, that it was never Ronald Reagan he wanted to assassinate, it’s a figure called Colonel Stamford, one of the last Apollo astronauts, who went on to have a successful career in business, and has now turned into a major campaigner against the evils of Communism. That’s why he was accompanying Reagan on the state visit.

And now Colonel Stamford is due to return to the UK, to address big Billy Graham-style public meetings, hailed by Newsweek as ‘a space-age messiah’, the ‘founder of the first space-based religion’. So the story contains quite a lot of speculating about how the space programme has morphed into a popular religion!

Griffiths turns investigator and decides to revisit the locked-up garage in Highbury where Young had been living when he was arrested. There’s a policeman on guard who lets him through and Griffiths pokes through Young’s belongings, finding more evidence of the deranged young man’s obsession with space flight.

Then he remembers that behind the lockup is a disused Baptist chapel and goes through into this. Here he discovers a bizarre scene, for Young is not only here (just yards from the protecting policeman – how did he get past?) but has been hard at work creating another Ames room, using props and posters from Star Wars and Dr Who to create a bizarre illusionistic installation of an astronaut on the moon.

Except that it looks like the Boy had an epileptic fit while at the top of the ladder and has fallen to the ground, bruising his face, cracking some teeth. Around him are the disassembled parts of a stockless rifle which he had been oiling when the attack kicked in.

And here’s the thing: Griffiths leaves him be. He frees Young’s tongue and windpipe, then tiptoes out and strolls nonchalantly past the police guard. Cut to a few weeks later as Stamford arrives in the UK, addressing both Houses of Parliament calling for a crusade against the evil empire of the non-Christian world, for the creation of orbital nuclear bomb platforms, for the launching of laser weapons which can be targeted on Tehran, Moscow and Peking. the story ends with Griffiths quietly confident that Young will have recovered from his grand mal seizure, completed his preparations and will be attending that evening’s grand assembly at Earl’s Court where Colonel Stamford will be addressing a cheering audience and will, God willing, be shot down by his psychotic assassin.

Thoughts

As so often in a Ballard story, not just the subject but the construction, the shape of the narrative itself, seems slightly askew, off-kilter. What starts out as a fairly limited study of one epileptic psychopath morphs before our eyes into an increasingly garish fantasia about an ex-NASA astronaut who’s founded a New Age religion and is frothing at the mouth about destroying Communism and Islam. It’s quite an extreme trajectory in just ten or so pages and, as with so many Ballard stories, I couldn’t figure out whether it was brilliant or – as I was more inclined to think – ludicrous.

When he writes narratives about individuals – like the protagonists of Crash, Concrete Island or High Rise – Ballard well conveys a delirious sense of psychological dislocation or alienation, and attaches it very effectively indeed to the imagery of late-twentieth century life, mainly the brutalist architecture of concrete motorways, flyovers, multi-story car parks, airports and vertiginous high-rise blocks.

But as soon as he starts making generalisations about society at large, and going on about NATO and NASA and the Third World War and Ronald Reagan and the Queen… something ineluctably cartoonish enters the stories; they become silly and superficial.

5. Love in a Colder Climate (1988)

A sort of sci-fi spoof or satire.

It is 2010 and the spread of AIDS and related viruses has put everyone off sex or physical contact of any kind. Younger people have become celibate with the result that the population plummets. By the date of the story, 2010, the government introduces national service although, as Ballard would put it, of a very particular kind.

It is national procreation service. When they turn 21 young people are assigned partners by computer and have to report to the other person’s apartment – ideally dressed in one of the procreation-encouraging outfits – an Elvis Presley ‘Prince Valiant’ suit for men, a bunny girl, cheerleader or Miss America outfit for women – and are compelled to copulate. Satire. (Note how all these outfits are American. Born in 1930, America, American cars and movies and cigarettes and technology, represented The Future for Ballard from his boyhood on, as both volumes of his fictional autobiography – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – powerfully convey.)

Ballard lays on the satire with a trowel with the suggestion that each young person is monitored by a personal supervisor who is a priest – the religious thought to have the mentoring skills and moral subtlety required – while young women are mentored as to how to have sex, lots of sex, by nuns. Satire. Anyone who refuses to have sex goes through stages of rehabilitation, which starts with being forced to watch porn videos and progresses to chemotherapy.

Anyway, the protagonist, David Bradley, is himself super-reluctant and when he is sent round to the flat of a young woman, Lucille McCabe, discovers she doesn’t want to either. They fall in love on the spot, and during the following months Bradley makes elaborate precautions to become her protector, swapping shifts, hacking computers to remove appointments with other men, even faking her pregnancy with the help of a friendly lab technician.

All to no avail. Their ruse is discovered when another lover is sent round by the computer and Bradley can’t stand watching Lucille being bundled towards the bedroom, they fight, Bradley is arrested and brought before a tribunal.

Here he is convicted of believing ‘the Romantic fallacy’ and of having ‘an exalted and idealised view of women’ and sentenced to three years additional national service. The only way out of it is to refuse and force the authorities to implement the ultimate sanction, and castrate him. This he happily submits to if it means he can be with the woman he loves.

Thoughts

As a child of the 60s, well a widower who lived through the 60s and took full advantage of the Sexual Revolution, Ballard is clearly satirising the rightward and puritanical shift caused by Mrs Thatcher and AIDS. Is it a good story, or heavy-handed satire? It’s certainly not weird hard-core Ballard and can be categorised along with his other relatively ‘straight’ satirical stories.

6. The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Another satire.

Set in the near future when Europe’s last remaining countries give in and join a United Federation of Europe. In that summer (of 1995) millions and millions of students, middle managers and workers go for their annual holidays on the 3,000-mile-long strip of beach which is the Mediterranean shore from the Costa Brava to Glyfada.

But this time they refuse to come back. They become full-time sun worshippers, they take to beach exercises and martial arts. They become trim and lean and fit. When the police of the Mediterranean nations come to turf them off the beach, there are pitched battles and the sun-worshippers win. The heady summer of 1996 rolls into the spring of 1997 and there is now an army of 30 million strong living on camps along this huge narrow territory, in effect a new nation.

So far, so like a vision of the social collapse envisioned in High Rise but applied to beach culture. Beaches have always fascinated Ballard. The Terminal Beach is one of his most famous stories, but the story in which the world’s population suddenly has some profound primal urge in our primitive minds activated by waves from outer space, and walks, as one man, into the sea, is the most haunting variation on the theme.

This story is much shallower story than that one and its satirical climax – which feels pretty forced – is that the armies of the beaches eventually arms up and marches back north into the so-called United Europe, determined to restore a Europe of nations, each jealous of its borders and customs and traditions.

So it turns into an oddly wonky satire on the EU.

7. Answers to a Questionnaire (1985)

A short and interesting format, this text consists of 100 answers to a questionnaire – in fact more like some kind of police interview – where we don’t see the questions, just the answers in a numbered list.

It’s surprising how much you can pack into a brief format like this. Without any of the questions, and just via the clipped answers, quite a complicated narrative emerges – in fragments and cryptic references – in which the narrator appears to have befriended a Middle-Eastern-looking down-and-out with severe injuries to his hands, who is obsessed with DNA and ice-skating, who is a whizz at hacking into cash machines and extracting large sums, which they seem to have spent on organising group sex sessions.

They spend some of the money setting up radio antennae on top of the Post Office Tower pointing towards the constellation Orion and the narrator appears to have heard the figure’s voice as transmitted from the star Betelgeuse some 2,000 years ago, and appears to know the secret of Eternal Life.

This leads to the figure becoming super-famous, selling out Wembley Stadium and attracting visits from all sorts of luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his claim to know the secret of Eternal Life by injecting new DNA into the human germplasm, extending life up to a million years!

The pound rises on exchange markets, a serum is created and millions of people queue up to be injected, in fact the injections became compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. The side effects were impotence and loss of libido, but this hardly mattered if everyone was going to live forever.

But the very intensive bond between the Christ figure and the ‘accused’, the man answering the questions, seems to have turned sour. The accused seems to have bought a handgun and shot him, from seven feet, with three shots.

It ends with a boom-boom punchline. Literally reading between the lines of the fragmented answers, it seems as if the injections which promised eternal life have not worked, that the ‘accused’, because he was in prison during the time of the mass vaccinations wasn’t given one – and so he is the only man in the UK, possibly the world, who still has functioning sex organs and so ‘the restoration of the birthrate is now his sole responsibility.’

A smart story and a snazzy format. My favourite answer was to question 71, where the accused reveals that the mystery figure ‘wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile’. Very Ballard.

8. The Air Disaster (1974)

One of the new 1,000-passenger jet airliners is reported as having crashed somewhere just off the coast of Mexico near Acapulco. The narrator is a not very successful journalist who’s covering a fashionable film festival. His editor, like everyone else’s editors, sends him off to cover the disaster, but there’s a chance encounter in the petrol station where he fills up with gas. Two other journalists are talking to the pump attendant and through the language barrier he appears to be telling them the plane didn’t crash out at sea at all but up in the nearby mountains. The other two hacks don’t believe him and head off for the coast, but the narrator is suddenly seized by an intuition that he’s right. It would only have taken a fractional difference of height and speed for it to have hit the mountains.

So he fills up with gas and heads in the opposite direction up into the hills. He passes through a series of peasant villages, each one more impoverished that the last, until the final one where he enters Ballard-land and becomes genuinely scared for his safety as he watches the dirt-poor illiterate peasants eyeing him, his car, his cameras and everything else about him which they could steal. Trying to impress the narrator addresses several of these toothless old men, waving a wad of cash about and asking if there’s been a crash BOOM in the mountains, and are there bodies, corpses, cadavers?

The primitive old men nod and smile and point up to the last peak, so the narrator clambers up to the final small canyon between the snowy mountain peaks and discovers… the thirty-year-old wreckage of some military jet which crashed up here a generation earlier and is thoroughly derelict and rusted, ‘a tattered deity over this barren mountain’.

The wrecked airplane is, of course, a central symbol in Ballard’s weird imaginarium, recalling the Cessna Sheppard crash lands Myths of the Near Future, the excavated Second World War planes in My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, the abandoned Japanese fighters Jim sits in in Empire of the Sun, or the still-going but decaying planes in Memories of the Space Age…

Anyway, we can imagine his disappointment and chagrin at having gone on this long wild goose chase. But the kicker is in the last page. As he returns down the hillside he goes through the last village he passed, the one where he had brandished wads of money and asked for cadavers. Only to realise that the villagers have dug up their dead relatives and lined their earth-covered, half-rotted corpses along the wall by the road, in the hope that they will pay them. Gruesome. Macabre.

9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982)

A nice little brain teaser told in nine short snippets described as ‘surveys’.

A spaceship arrives at what its crew initially take to be a small space station, happy to find it as their ship needs repairs. They enter the station to find it contains concourses full of tables and chairs like a giant waiting space at an airport terminal. They walk along one of these concourses and slowly realise it goes on for some distance, giving out left and right onto further mezzanines and waiting spaces with tables and chairs. When they force open the doors of one of the lifts they can’t see a top or bottom to the shaft. They drop furniture down one of the lift shafts and hear no sound: there doesn’t appear to be a bottom.

Each of the reports updates us as they discover the larger and larger extent of the station. Then they notice the floor and ceiling has a slight curvature, lifting their hopes and making them think it might be circular and they might eventually circle round on themselves. But even this is an illusion. The station appears to curve very slowly, indefinitely, in all directions, as if it is expanding.

By the point of the final ‘survey’ the author has come to the conclusion that the space station is as big as the universe; in fact it might be bigger. The distance they travelled in their spaceship from the solar system might easily be incorporated within the confines of the space station. By the end of the text the author has gone reliably mad.

Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whose destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it. So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon (1985)

An eerie story. Part of what’s eerie is how totally Ballard thought the Space Age was over and done by the 1980s. There were six crewed U.S. Apollo landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and then that was it. I’m inclined to agree.

This story is set in Brazil. It’s a first person narrative. The narrator is a failed journalist, kicked off a succession of ever-smaller papers and forced into giving foreign language tuition. His wife and his mother, who lives with them, despise him, and virtually kick him out the house each morning to go and get a proper job.

Hanging round the cafes he get to learn about a sad, wasted figure, a certain Mr Scranton, who is introduced to tourists as ‘the astronaut’. He isn’t an astronaut and the waiters laugh at him, the American tourists have their photos taken by him in a jokey kind of way. Our narrator does some background research into him and discovers Scranton was a crop-dusting pilot in Miami during the moon landing era, but was never anywhere near NASA.

The story recounts the way our narrator is slowly slowly drawn into this impoverished, thin, wasted man’s weird delusory world. He jokily introduces himself and says he’s writing a piece about sci-fi movies and would like ‘the astronaut’s’ opinion. But slowly, over their next few encounters, he becomes haunted by Scranton’s faraway stare, his gaze through the people and buildings of this world, his other-planetary loneliness.

The narrator asks whether Scranton has proof of his experiences on the moon and Scranton nods slowly. He needs to be helped back to his squalid flat above a fleapit cinema, the Luxor. Here he shows the narrator his ‘photographs’, his ‘evidence’. It consists of pictures torn out of Life and Newsweek magazine (note, American magazines). He’s mad, delusional, and yet…

He has known the loneliness of utter separation from all other people. He has gazed at the empty perspectives of the planets. He sees through pedestrians and traffic as if they were fleeting tricks of the sun.

Sick and ill, Scranton, like so many Ballard figures, wastes away and dies. And hands on his mantle. The narrator takes his place at the seedy café. Without any effort he finds himself slowly erasing the memories of his family life, his wife and mother and failed carer in journalism slowly disappear, to be slowly replaced by an alternative past, one in which he trained hard as an astronaut, in which he remembers the coastline of Florida falling away beneath the giant rocket. A past in which he genuinely did walk on the moon.

11. The Enormous Space (1989)

The first-person narrator is a merchant banker named Geoffrey Ballantyne. His wife has divorced him and run off with her lover, he was recently in a car crash and is still recuperating. (This reminds us of another middle-class narrator who goes mental after recuperating from a car crash, Faulkner in The Overloaded Man).

The story begins as he takes the decision not to go out of his front door. Ever again. To use up all the resources within the house and then live on space and time. In the event, after reducing himself to the familiar Ballardian condition of hallucinating malnutrition, he takes to luring the neighbours’ dogs and cats into his garden, killing and cooking them. He becomes more and more detached from reality and the house appears to grow larger and larger, soon having as many rooms as the Palace of Versailles.

I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly prescribed within my head and partly within this house, which is a far more complex structure than I had realised.

His wife, Margaret, pops in a couple of times, each time noticing the progressive degradation of both the house and the narrator, but each time he manages to bundle her out. His description of the house becoming steadily larger, until he can’t make it up the stairs any more, until he can’t eventually make it out of the kitchen and remains slumped against the powerless fridge, watching the horizons expand to infinity. Until his former secretary, Brenda, pops round worried about him. By this time we have accompanied Ballantyne so far on his trip into psychosis that it’s her who seems the odd one out, and we are utterly convinced of his psychotic point of view as he describes her stepping over him slumped in his kitchen.

She is walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house. Catching her as she swerves past me, I protect her from the outward rush of time and space.

See, no exotic words or contrived sentences or purple prose. Fairly flat, functional prose which manages to convey a state of complete derangement.

Ballantyne kills her, chops up her body, eats some and puts her head in the freezer, reminding us of the genuinely horrific climax of High Rise. Christ, this is a terrifyingly delirious text.

12. Memories of the Space Age (1982)

To an extraordinary extent this is a rewrite of previous stories such as News From The Sun or an alternate version of the contemporaneous story Myths of the Near Future, from the premise of the story through to the narrative structure right down to the use of the name Anne for key figures in both stories.

Here again we meet a former NASA physician, Dr Edward Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has travelled to the abandoned zone of Cape Kennedy from Canada where he specialised in treated Downs Syndrome and autistic children. He has come with his wife, Anne. They are both afflicted with the ‘space sickness’ which has been slowly spreading out from the old NASA launching centre. The space sickness is a disease of time; the victim experiences fugues or largos when their time completely stops and they’re stuck stationary.

So for the usual obscure reasons, Mallory has come to live amid the abandoned hotels and shopping precincts of the beach resorts opposite the old launch site, squatting in a derelict room on the firth floor of an abandoned hotel, and foraging for food in the dusty abandoned supermarkets.

And of course, as usual, there is an Antagonist – Hinton, a former astronaut and in fact, the first astronaut to commit a murder in space, when he locked his co-pilot Alan Shepley into the docking module and evacuated its air, live, in front of a global viewing audience of one billion viewers.

On landing, Hinton was sent to prison, to Alcatraz to be precise. Some twenty years later, as the space sickness slowly spread across America, Hinton escaped from Alcatraz using a home-made glider. Now Mallory discovers he is restoring and flying the vintage planes from a nearby airplane museum, very much as Olds restores defunct cars in The Ultimate City.

The same obsession with man-powered gliders, in this case a pedal-powered microlight with a huge wingspan is being flown by a woman, Gale (short for Nightingale) Shepley, who swoops over him one day on one of his forays from the hotel room while his wife sleeps.

She lands and introduces herself, a young blonde who is the daughter of the murdered astronaut, Shepley. She has come to the ruined zone because she is expecting her father’s space capsule to finally re-enter orbit and crash down here – just like all those other Ballard women who wait for their dead husbands or fathers to re-enter the atmosphere and crash land beside the ruined gantries e.g. Judith waiting for her dead lover’s capsule to crash back to earth in The Dead Astronaut.

Mallory has even brought a collection of ‘terminal documents’ like so many of these characters cart around, in his case:

  • a tape machine on which to record his steady decline
  • nude Polaroid photos of a woman doctor he had an affair with in Vancouver
  • his student copy of Gray’s Anatomy
  • a selection of Muybridge’s stop-frame photos
  • a psychoanalytic study of Simon Magus

Ballard’s gives a fuller, more explicit explanation of what exactly the space sickness is. It is the result of a crime against evolution. Human evolution has created a psychological aptitude to see Time as a stream with a past, present and future, a defence or coping mechanism which situates us within a dynamic timeframe.

The manned space flights cracked this continuum and now time is leaking away. Our perception of time is returning to its primeval one, an experience of all time in one continuous present, when Time – in the conventional sense – stops.

Mallory has a couple of encounters with Hinton who explains that the birds know about Time, they have never lost the primeval, reptile sense of Time. Which is why he’s trying to teach himself to fly by learning to fly each of the planes in the aviation museum in reverse chronological order, acclimatising his body to flight until, eventually, he can fly without machinery, and without wings.

In this context, Hinton’s ‘murder’ of Shepley was Hinton’s way of ‘freeing’ him from the tyranny of Time (exactly as the lunatic Sheppard in Myths of the Near Future appears to ‘free’ the birds by crushing them to death).

His wife is entering the end stage. Her fugues last nearly all day. In her few waking moments she begs to be taken up to the roof. She wants to see Hinton. She feels close to him because he is close to the secret. Eventually Hinton successfully kidnaps his wife. Mallory sees smoke coming from the old Space Shuttle gantry and takes a motorbike to ride there. He wakes up lying athwart it with his leg burning against the red hot engine. He had a fugue.

Gale arrives in her micro-glider to rescue Mallory and they travel on to the Space Shuttle gantry. Hinton has set fire to all the airplanes gathered at the bottom, and, as Mallory watches, Hinton and Mallory’s wife step off the platform and into thin air over the flames.

Maybe all shamans and primitive rituals, maybe all religions have been an attempt to escape from the prisonhouse of Time. Maybe the space sickness sheds light on why the Christian image of an afterlife isn’t an action-packed adventure holiday, but an eternal moment, an eternity of worship, stuck in stasis.

Gale keeps a menagerie by the swimming pool of the motel she’s camped in. Cheetahs, exotic birds and a tiger. As Mallory’s time winds down he hallucinates the tiger as a wall of flame. Gale is looking after him but, as always, there is a vast distance between Ballard characters and she is growing bored of him. She is only interested in the pending arrival of her father’s corpse as his space capsule finally re-enters earth’s orbit and comes streaming over their heads towards the space centre. One day soon Mallory will open the tiger’s cage and enter his wall of flame.

13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1967)

This is a really interesting experiment which I think totally works. It is based on one sentence of eighteen words:

A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes towards a Mental Breakdown’, recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration

and then each one of these words has a numbered note next to it.

A1 discharged2 Broadmoor3 patient4 compiles‘Notes6 towards7 aMental9 Breakdown10, recalling11 his12 wife’s13 murder14, his15 trial16 and17 exoneration18

And each of the numbers refers to a numbered footnote. So the story is in eighteen short sections, each one of which unpacks, analyses, dissects the precise meaning of its word, in the context of psychiatric and criminal case.

Thus you get to discover the narrative, the plot, the series of events, but in a beguilingly chopped-up, fragmented manner. I found it extremely enjoyable. It concerns the psychopath Dr Robert Loughlin (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) who has murdered his wife.

Obsessed with man-powered flight, Loughlin drove round the Suffolk countryside with his lover Leonora Carrington (this name is a straight copy of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and the story references what appears to be one of Ballard’s favourite works of art, Garden Airplane Traps by Carrington’s lover Max Ernst; maybe at the time Ballard wrote the story she was so unknown he thought only a handful of cognoscenti would get the reference). Anyway he drives her round the Suffolk countryside from one abandoned USAF airbase to another, mesmerised by dreams of World War Three (exactly as Ballard describes his younger self doing in The Kindness of Women). As his psychosis intensifies, Loughlin rearranges furniture in his hotel rooms to create a notional flying machine and, only a few weeks before the muirder, makes a mad attempt to hire runway 2 at Heathrow.

His wife Judith was dying of pancreatic cancer and, tired of Loughlin’s erratic behaviour and alcoholism, absconded with her lover, Dr Douglas (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) to Gatwick airport. Loughlin tracked them down and somehow boarded a jet airliner which he ransacked for her, leading to a fight with a security guard who he shot. Then he made his way to Judith’s hotel room, broke into it, found the lovers out, ripped out the suitcase and proceeded to have a bath fully dressed and fuddled by alcohol and amphetamines.

When Judith returned she found the hotel room trashed and her psychotic husband passed out in the bath so she (presumably) decided to put him out of his misery and pushed his head under the water. But this revived him and psychotics are strong.

Louhglin murdered his wife, then dressed her in a flying suit with helmet and goggles, positioned her in front of him on the bed, as if they were in a plane and he was giving her flying lessons, and arranged all the furniture in the room to create the outline of a plane. Then he set the room on fire. (Just writing this out is making me feel like I’m losing touch with reality.)

14. The Index (1977)

This is a clever and, that rare thing for Ballard, very funny little text. It is what it says it is, the imaginary index to the imaginary biography of an imaginary figure, one Henry Rhodes Hamilton (presumably so named because his initials satirically spell HRH – His Royal Highness), supposedly a ‘physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion.

The first page – the only page of ordinary text – briefly explains who he was and, more teasingly, wonders aloud who compiled the index? Has the indexer included himself in the index? Did HRH ever in fact exist? Has the text of the biography, which the index is for, been suppressed because it revealed too many secrets? Or was it never written in the first place? Maybe the entire thing is the figment of some deranged lexicographer? Is the whole thing a hoax?

Reading this one page with its paragraph of teasing questions makes you realise that texts like this were purpose-written to go straight into academic English courses about metafiction and post-modernism and the Lacanian mirror phase and self-deconstructing texts, straight into the matrix of academic jargon without ever having to be read by non-academic readers.

Anyway the index itself is very funny, in  Zelig-type way HRH has known anyone who was anyone in the twentieth century and been present at pivotal moments. Karen Blixen proposes to him, Ernest Hemingway dedicates The Old Man and the Sea to him, T.S. Eliot dedicates Four Quartets to him, meets Gandhi, Freud et al, he is with Churchill at Yalta and suggests the famous Iron Curtain speech, he goes ashore on Juno Beach on D-Day (and wins a model), meets the Dalai Lama and Mao Tse-Tung…

And so it goes on, mingling HRH’s preposterous presence at key events and name-dropping key figures with the satirical narrative in which he founds a new religion and tries to set up an anti-papacy at Avignon. When Ballard addresses actual historical events and particularly when he starts making up religions etc, he quickly descends into childish cartoon mode (as described in the story about the American founder of a new religion in The Object of The Attack, but in this novel format it’s all very entertaining.

I laughed out loud when I read the index entry about Hitler:

Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgarten, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181.

Yes, as he rather did the entire German people. Hitler, Adolf, impresses German people 1939, disappoints German people 1945.

The last entry appears to refer to the indexer himself, and suggests his mysterious disappearance:

Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761

Thus, right at the end of the text, the indexer indexes himself out of existence. It was this which prompted the speculation in the one-page introduction that the whole thing might just be the products of ‘the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer’. Quite.

This may be the only really funny story in Ballard’s entire oeuvre, and it was a brainwave to close this final selection with it, helping to cleanse the reader’s mind, or at least control, many of the deeply disturbed, psychotic images which preceded it.

Thoughts

A little exhausted by Ballard-land and Ballardism, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to read this, his final collection of short stories, but I’m really glad I did. It contains good examples of several key types:

  • satire on contemporary society – The Secret History of World War 3, Love in a Colder Climate, The Largest Theme Park in the World
  • classic psychodrama about astronauts – The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  • portraits of psychotics – The Object of the Attack, Memories of the Space Age
  • descriptions of complete mental collapse – The Enormous Space
  • tales of the macabre – The Air Disaster
  • mind-bending science fiction – Report on an Unidentified Space Station

As stories go, the ones in this collection seemed to me as powerfully imagined as almost anything in his earlier career.

But what has obviously gone, long gone, is the extraordinary verbal lushness and purple prose of the earlier works. Somehow the almost Oscar Wilde, fin-de-siecle level of prose pyrotechnics which characterises the early novels and stories got thoroughly washed out of the system by the ‘urban disaster’ novels of the early and mid-70s and from that point onwards his prose becomes a lot more straightforward and serviceable. Instead of lush and exotic sentences, he comes increasingly to rely on the repetition of a handful of key words – overlit, to the sun, calm, over-excited, deranged, time and space.

In later Ballard, repetition takes the place of elaboration.

And arguably the distinctive thing about the collection is the three short stories with experimental formats – Answers to a Questionnaire, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and The Index, each one a clever, one-off idea which I think Ballard executes really well. They’re very short but very effective and, in some ways, the most successful pieces in the collection.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (1984)

Empire of the Sun is by far J.G. Ballard’s best known and most accessible book and was, of course, made into a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg. Cultural success doesn’t come much bigger than that. And, as a result, there are thousands of scholarly essays, as well as Brodie’s Notes and Wikipedia articles about Empire of the Sun, giving you the book’s plot and a standard account of its ‘themes’.

To avoid duplication, the aim of this review is to read the book as it sheds light on the nearly thirty years of Ballard’s science fiction novels and short stories which preceded it.


Empire of the Sun gave the game away. If you’d been reading Ballard’s novels and short stories during the 1960s and 70s you would have been bewildered by the intensity and weirdness of his imaginary world and the obsessive repetitiveness of his basic plot, in which a handful of people experience a catastrophic social collapse – either in a dystopian future or in an alienated present – becoming steadily more isolated from each other, pursuing their own psychotic fantasies in a derelict landscape of abandoned cities and empty hotels and drifting sand dunes, where maniacs try to turn themselves into birds or paint mandalas on the bottom of drained swimming pools in order to channel the voices of the universe, or try to fly microlight planes into the sun.

For nearly thirty years, from his first short story published in 1956 until Empire of The Sun was published in 1984, readers and critics had wondered where it came from, this unique, twisted and fiercely compelling psychic landscape which is the subject of most of Ballard’s best stories.

Then Empire of the Sun gave the game away. It describes how 11-year-old Jim, along with his mum and dad, a successful English businessman, experienced just such a social collapse and psychological extremes.

Jim and his family were living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in December 1941 when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbour, simultaneously attacking all the allied shipping in Shanghai harbour and moving swiftly to arrest all foreign nationals.

In the book, Jim escapes the initial roundup and lives for four months on the run in abandoned houses, eking a living from stagnant water and whatever dry food he can find in the empty larders of the once-rich International Settlement. He has weird encounters with a range of characters whose roles and identities have been turned upside down by the sudden collapse of Western values. Jim is finally caught by the Japanese authorities and spends the next three years in the living hell of Lunghua internment camp, just a few miles south-west of Shanghai, but a million miles from the pampered expatriate life he had grown up in.

So this is where it came from, the deep enduring and viscerally intense mood of world turned upside down and people starving in ruined hotels and abandoning themselves to psychotic fantasies, this is the origin of Ballard’s dazzling and distinctive subject and style!

Part one

Background The Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the Japanese army quickly overran the Chinese Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek whose government retreated far into western China. Meanwhile, China’s coastal regions and ports were taken over and administered by the Japanese who treated the defeated Chinese with great brutality but allowed European and American merchants and officials to carry on their businesses, but with a growing sense of unease.

The narrative starts as 11-year-old Jim watches his parents and their European friends in the International Settlement trying to keep their spirits up with fancy dress parties, tennis tournaments and bridge at the club, and gives us just enough of a description for us to realise the grotesque contrast between the anyone-for-tennis cocktail parties of the pampered westerners and the filthy, teeming, squalid world of the Shanghai slums.

Until one day the disaster they all knew was coming arrives and the bottom falls out of their world. Timed to coincide with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (8am on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941) the Japanese ships in Shanghai harbour open devastating fire on the British ships moored nearby, sinking them and shooting the sailors who try to flee (to be precise, the Japanese cruiser Izumo, the gunboat Toba and Japanese shore batteries in the French Concession opened fire at point-blank range on HMS Peterel which returned fire until it capsized and drifted from its mooring while the crew abandoned ship.)

At the same time Japanese soldiers are sent to the luxury houses of the International Settlement, and rounded up all nationals of the countries Japan was now at war with, starting with the British and Americans. Germans and White Russians were left alone for the time being, though traumatised by watching their friends and neighbours be hustled out of their nice big houses and loaded up into army trucks and driven off to God knows where.

Jim and his dad happen to be on the quayside when the Japanese ships start shelling the British ones, and Jim watches his dad jump into the water, along with some other Brits, to try to help the survivors from the sunk British battleship stagger ashore onto the harbour’s stinking mud. Jim jumps in to help. The survivors are taken to Shanghai hospital, with Jim being put in a children’s ward by himself. A few days later, when Japanese lorries arrive and the walking wounded are hustled into them and driven off, Jim escapes from the hospital and makes his way through the teeming streets, dodging a Chinese teenager who tries to mug him, walking all the way back to the International Settlement.

And what does he find? A world in ruins. A dystopian landscape of empty houses, all power and lights disconnected, defrosting fridges, draining swimming pools and gardens rapidly becoming overgrown. In a key scene, Jim approaches one of the many mute and submissive Chinese servants who had worked in his parents’ house and is now looting a sofa from it, and the man simply punches Jim in the face.

Too stunned to speak or think, Jim retreats and hides, finding refuge in these abandoned, dark and dangerous places, formerly the scene of so much jollity. The narrative shows Jim hiding out for weeks, initially enjoying himself riding his bicycle indoors, up and down the empty hall and into all the empty rooms, until the weeks become leaden, eventually turning – we are told – into four months, scraping a living on cocktail olives and cheese biscuits, drinking increasingly rancid water from brackish water tanks, growing thinner and more feverish.

Aha! So this is where it comes from. Ballard’s lifelong obsession with the ruins of the contemporary world, with abandoned hotels and empty cities and derelict shopping centres and the obsessive, recurring image of The Drained Swimming Pool.

In a flash all his many fans and critics realised that – although many of his novels and stories are set in the future and feature futuristic plot paraphernalia – environmental catastrophe or strange new ‘space sicknesses’ – in fact Ballard’s fiction was always about the past, that like any victim of severe trauma, he was obsessively revisiting the shock, ordeal and suffering of those crucial, decisive boyhood years.

Towards the end of the 160 pages of part one, Jim falls in with a couple of American chancers, Basie, a confident rat-faced man, formerly a steward on passenger liners, who’s made a base in a ruined tanker in Shanghai harbour and sends bigger, tougher Frank out on chores. Jim gets co-opted into their eerie and often pointless survivor lifestyle. Basie makes Frank collect and polish ship’s porthole brasses, though they never manage to sell one. In one scene they go to busy Hongkew market where, Jim realises, they are trying to sell him to the Chinese, but he is by this stage so obviously malnourished, skinny and covered in running sores, that no-one is buying.

Part one ends when they take Jim out for a drive in their truck and he realises they’re simply want to find somewhere to dump him. Jim persuades them to drive to the abandoned houses of the International Settlement, luring them with the fact that one of Jim’s neighbours was a dentist who kept lots of equipment in his house. Maybe there’ll be some gold teeth somewhere in it. But they are caught by Japanese soldiers who are camping out in the abandoned houses and quickly surround the truck, pulling Jim out onto the road, while they surround and batter Frank, and beat Basie with their bamboo staves.

Part two

Part two opens three and a half years later. Jim, who was 11 in part one, is now 14 (p.165). To be more precise, the events of part one were kicked off by Pearl Harbour (December 1941), whereas when part two opens, not only has Victory in Europe day happened (May 1945, p.174) but the Japanese have surrendered at Okinawa (late June 1945) and this section ends with the detonation of the second atom bomb at Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. So it covers a few weeks in July and August 1945.

Anyway, part two (pp.163-260) finds a Jim who has survived three and a half long years in the Lunghua internment camp and been utterly changed by it. It describes in excruciating detail the permanent malnutrition and thirst, the obsession with food, and the countless petty humiliations the internees are prey to. Everyone is thin and emaciated, most can barely be bothered to walk or talk, Jim helps Dr Ransome (another in a long line of doctors in Ballard’s fiction) who not only tends the sick (with no medicine and barely even any water), who also uses the contents of the septic tank to try and grow a few sparse vegetables.

If part one – Jim’s experience of camping out and searching for half-rotten food in the abandoned houses of the rich – lies behind all those Ballard protagonists who camp out and scrape an existence in the derelict buildings of abandoned civilisations, then part two – where Jim watches all the rich and powerful and impressive English ex-pats he’d known from the Settlement slowly decline into malnutrition, fever and mania – lies behind the countless protagonists of his novels and short stories who deteriorate into mumbling psychotics.

Jim lives in a quarter of a bedroom in an abandoned training college which e shares with Mr and Mrs Vincent and their permanently ill six-year-old son. For three years there has been psychological warfare as Mrs Vincent tries to force him out or, at the very least, pushes the sheet they’ve hung as a partition between their three-quarters and his quarter of the space nearer to him.

Beyond the wire perimeter fence is the Lunghua airport and Jim venerates the beautiful fighter planes he watches taking off and landing, and admires the spirit of the steady stream of suicide fighter pilots who carry out their brief ritual of dedication to the Emperor before flying off to fly their planes with their huge bombs directly into the American navy ships in the South China Sea.

In the latter part of this long gruelling section, the Japanese soldiers round up all the internees and organise them for a march. It is quite clear that many of the camp’s 2,000 or so inhabitants are in no fit state to move, but the Japes move them out anyway, a crowd of pitifully thin scarecrows clutching on to their hurriedly packed belongings. Jim is surprised how many seem to have clung on to their tennis racquets and balls all through the three long years of privation.

The march takes a long time and after each rest, there are large numbers who can’t get up. Jim is in a close but strangely dissociated state with Mr Maxted, one of his parents friends, who is in the final stages of emaciation. Eventually, after a long march of intense suffering, the survivors are hustled into the old stadium at Nantao, built on the order of Madame Chiang in the hope that China would host the 1940 Olympics (p.257). Now it is packed with goods the Japanese have looted from the houses of the Westerners, starting with long rows of shiny American cars lined up by the running track, but going on to include all manner of household furniture piled up in the stands and, the presidential box,

where Madame Chiang and the Generalissimo might once have saluted the world’s athletes, was now crammed with roulette wheels, cocktail bars and a jumble of gilded plaster nymphs holding gaudy lamps above their heads. Rolls of Persian and Turkish carpets, hastily wrapped in tarpaulins, lay on the concrete steps, water dripping through them as if from a pile of rotting pipes.

Worn beyond endurance Mr Maxted lies down on the ground and starts to die. Jim dips his fingers in nearby puddles then puts them in Maxted’s mouth which postpones the inevitable for a little. Other British prisoners, right on the edge of death, feebly call for his help. Eventually, Jim, too, squats on the ground patting the earth and dumbly repeating his name over and over. Irritated by this a passing Japanese soldier makes ready to kick Jim, with the casual brutality he has witnessed so many times when all of a sudden… there is a flash of unusually intense white light from the north-east. They all pause, waiting for the sound of the bomb but none comes. Although he doesn’t realise it, Jim has witnessed the blast of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Part three

Part three follows directly from the end of part two and describes what happens after the Japanese surrender. Jim comes to consciousness to discover it is hailing. He tries to capture and drink the water, then stirs himself and totters over to the stands. Slowly he realises the Japanese soldiers aren’t there any more. No-one is guarding them.

A Eurasian soldier enters the stadium, circulating among the dead prisoners and it’s he who tells Jim the Japanese have surrendered. But Jim soon discovers that freedom is far more violent and unpredictable than imprisonment. Life in Lunghua was full of reassuring rhythms and timetables. It was for the most part peaceful. Now they are all entering into a period of unpredictable anarchy. The Japanese simply stop administering anything, many of them taking to wandering the countryside at random or retreating into buildings waiting reprisals. Later Jim is to find a Japanese guard at Lunghua who the released British have tied to a camp bed and bludgeoned to death. Later still, a Japanese fighter pilot savagely bayoneted to death.

Quickly the Chinese Nationalist armies approach to liberate Shanghai, but there also large numbers of Chinese communist bands, as well as forces loyal to various warlords and then and fourth element, small groups of freelance survivors of all nationalities. Violent anarchy.

In the rice paddies surrounding the sports stadium Jim is in the last stages of malnutrition when, in a scene which beggars belief, huge American B29 aircraft fly overhead and drop… not bombs but food packages, hundreds of them, gently falling from the air on their blood-red parachutes. They burst open on landing and spill a treasure of tins of spam, powdered milk, chocolate and copies of Reader’s Digest magazine, all freezing cold having flown for hours miles up in the frozen air, hence the title of this chapter – The Refrigerator in the Sky.

His body sustained by this totally unexpected bounty, Jim staggers back towards Lunghua camp which isn’t in the end, all that far away, but discovers changes: it has been taken over and barricaded by psychotically violent and angry British prisoners, firstly to keep out the growing number of starving Chinese who sit patiently outside the main gate, but also because they know about the increasing numbers of marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Jim argues with a man he knew named Tulloch, the chief mechanic at the Packard agency, and Lieutenant Price, a British soldier who’s been driven mad by years of imprisonment and torture – his body is covered with cigarette burns – on the edge angry all the time ready to kill anyone. Eventually Tulloch lets Jim into the camp when Price isn’t looking and Jim goes and holes up in his old quarters, staying out the way, eating spam and chocolate, carefully arranging the magazines included in all the B29 airdrops in chronological order.

Part of Jim’s uneasy existence with psychotic Price & Tulloch is telling them about the treasure at Nantao stadium and, eventually, a week or so later, the pair and their crew set off towards Shanghai in a truck loaded with food, drinking heavily from the jars of rice wine they’ve bartered with some of the locals for tinned food. On an impulse at the last minute Price veers off the main Shanghai road towards the stadium, where they ask Jim again about the supposed treasures contained inside, park the lorry, get out and walk towards it when…

Suddenly a bunch of men with guns come charging out of the stadium entrance, and next thing they know are firing – Tulloch is shot dead, Price is beaten to death, just like that, just like so many of the random shifts of mood and inexplicable deaths Jim has been exposed to for three and a half years. Some of the armed group are Eurasians, some Chinese, some whites… a Chinese finds Jim in the back of the lorry and is just about to kick him to death when Jim recognises Basie in the oddly dressed, pomaded and talced American sauntering nearby. Basie’s presence just about saves Jim’s life and he lives on in a precarious relationship with them, till they too take off towards Shanghai, leaving Jim once again to travel across country to Lunghua, having further hallucinatory encounters, not least with a dead Japanese soldier who has been severely bayoneted and fallen off an embankment into a reed-filled canal, where Jim blunders into him.

Back at Lunhua Jim discovers the base has been taken over by Americans, who are refitting the runway, landing Mustangs and other planes, and he discovers Dr Ransom didn’t die on the death march after all, but has been fed and restored and is working as a doctor. The cemetery has been razed to the ground as if it never existed.

Part four

It is two months later and everything is disconcertingly back to normal – Jim has returned to the family home in Amherst Avenue to discover his mother and father are still both alive, though, of course, much changed after three and a half years in the Suchoo internment camp – Yang the chauffeur has returned with a limousine. Now Jim is being packed off with his mother to England, the small damp country he’s read so much about but never seen. Traveling to the docks he gets a panoramic view of Shanghai which has returned to its pre-war days, packed with gangsters, criminals, prostitutes and corrupt officials. Above them all are huge screens onto which the Allies insist a never-ending loops of Pathé newsreels tell the story of the entire war, its heroes and villains, in fast-moving black and white images set to rousing music. As Jim boards the steamer which will take him to England he looks down and sees in the water one of the many many coffins which the Chinese consign to the Shanghai river slowly floating around the ship in its corona of soaked flowers.


A boy’s eye view

It is crucial to the book’s success that we see this grim panorama of atrocities through the eyes of a boy. The book brilliantly conveys the way that, although Jim is intelligent for his age, he simply doesn’t understand half of what is happening or why. He reports everything he sees with a kind of wide-eyed candour. He doesn’t filter, he isn’t hindered by good manners or good taste. He tells you what he sees, and half the ‘tragedy’ or emotional aspect of the book comes from the way the reader so forcefully sees how Jim’s values and view of the world have been deeply corrupted. He simply takes it for granted that Chinese peasants are publicly beheaded, Chinese criminals publicly strangled in the street.

Usually Jim would have paused to observe the crowd. On the way home from school Yang would often drive by the Old City. The public stranglings were held in a miniature stadium with a scrubbed wooden floor and rows of circular benches around the teak execution posts, and always attracted a thoughtful audience. The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death, Jim had decided, as a way of reminding themselves of how precariously they were alive. They liked to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world was anything else.

He develops a highly tuned understanding of the strange Japanese mentality, how to pause, stop, bow and show respect, in order to avoid beating, although even then the standard Japanese response to almost everything is anger and beating or kicking anyone more vulnerable than themselves.

This starkness and clarity of vision, a kind of bright-eyed candour, underpins the attitude of most of the characters in Ballard’s fiction to whom often quite drastic things happen before they have any kind of emotional response. Maybe the therapists would say that almost all normal emotional response was burned out of Jim long long ago.

But there’s something else Jim’s character embodies which echoes and re-echoes throughout his stories and novels, which is the way the protagonists are often simply puzzled. They don’t understand other people. They can’t grasp other people’s motives. His stories are littered with the notion of ambiguous and uncertain motives, in fact the characteristic attitude of any of the protagonists towards other people is simply no understanding them.

You wonder whether, at some level, the shock Ballard received as a boy prevented him ever developing a properly socialised understanding of other people, and whether this explains the air of puzzlement all his characters display when they try – and generally fail – to interact with other people. Other people aren’t, pace Sartre, hell – they are just unknowable.

A clear-eyed style for deranged events

The very powerful upside of all this, or strongly connected to it somehow, is the striking clarity and limpidity of Ballard’s prose style.

Ballard’s style in this book is beautifully, beautifully clear and expressive and to the point. The lush exoticism which I pointed out in his earliest novels has been burned away, the psychotic extravagance of the urban disaster novels has been left behind and instead Ballard’s style is clear, grammatically correct and tremendously focused. Sentence after sentence conveys just the right amount of information to make you see the scene and understand Jim’s boyish thoughts. And his style doesn’t need to be florid, because the reality of what he’s describing is so innately colourful and bizarre.

A field of paper flowers floated on the morning tide, clustered around the oil-stained piers of the jetty and dressed them in vivid coloured ruffs. A few minutes before dawn Jim sat at a window of his bedroom at the Palace Hotel. He wore his school uniform and was keen to start an hour’s revision before breakfast. As always, however, he found it difficult to keep his eyes from the Shanghai waterfront. Already the odour of fish heads and bean curd sizzling in peanut oil rose from the pans of the vendors outside the hotel. Tung-stained junks with eyes painted on their bows sailed past the opium hulks beached on the Pootung shore. Thousands of sampans and ferry-boats were moored along the Bund, a city of floating hovels still hidden by the darkness.

The surrealism of the everyday

In every paragraph Jim observes the colourful scenes, the smells, the noise and hustle of this third world city which are already full of hundreds of dazzlingly surreal images – or what, for us, living in our boring western cities – are things amazing to contemplate.

The most notable of these are the streetside executions, the stranglings and beheadings. Small crowds gather to watch some Chinese wretch be forced to kneel by several Japanese soldiers, while an officer wielded his ceremonial sword and cut off the offender’s head. The tram lines run red with blood. The streets packed with endless queues of rickshaws and carts and peasants are also lined with corpses.

In many of Ballard’s sci-fi stories the plots, such as they are, seem contrived and forced, or are strangely implausible. But in Empire of the Sun the weirdness arises naturally from the subject matter because the world Jim inhabits is weird, it’s all weird beyond belief, almost every moment brings a tumbling of strange and uncanny images and impressions.

All this Jim reports in his clear lucid way. It’s the world he grew up in. He takes it as normal. And it’s the simple, blank acceptance of the weirdness all around him which really grips the modern reader – the combination of Jim’s matter-of-fact style and Ballard’s clear prose and the astonishments surrounding him. Remember the first hundred or so pages describe everyday life for an expatriate in Shanghai and much of it is exotic and strange enough.

The mania of war

All that’s before the war even starts and Jim enters a world of permanent malnutrition, infection and fever. From this point onwards the reader is given permission to accept the strangeness of what Jim reports or sees, and Ballard is able to get away with some extraordinary sequences and an increasing scattering of his trademark visionary sentences, because it is understood that he is feverish, delirious, and sometimes hallucinating.

He fell asleep on his friend’s bed, under the endlessly circling aircraft that swam below the ceiling like fish seeking a way out of the sky.

There are lots of sentences like that in the book, visionary sentences made up of the simplest components, simple vocabulary, simple grammar, and the power to transport the reader to another plane of experience. Some are simple similes which make the entire situation spring into horrible life.

The hospital patients lay across each other like rolls of carpet.

At one point there is yet another rest break on the long death march to the Nantao stadium, where an exhausted and malnourished Mr Maxted rests on the running board of an abandoned wagon, and:

Mr Maxted reached out and held Jim’s wrist. Gutted by malaria and malnutrition, his body was about to merge with the derelict vehicle behind him.

It is all clear and factual until that final phrase which shifts into an entirely new realm, of hallucination, of drugs, a perception beyond normal human cognition, telling us something important about the infinite malleability of reality.

Recurring themes

Calm Repeatedly other characters are made to say ‘calm down Jim’, or slap him in the face to snap him out of his hysteria, or give him a hug, or tell him to remember he’s British i.e. to keep a grip on himself.

‘Jim…Jim…’ Tulloch placed his hand on Jim’s head, trying to steady the over-excited boy. ‘It’s time you found your father, lad. The war’s over, Jim.’

These repeated injunctions serve to warn us that Jim spends almost the entire book in a state of nervous over-excitement.

Before the war a small English boy would have been killed for his shoes within minutes. Now he was safe, guarded by the Japanese soldiers – he laughed over this so much that the Dutch woman reached out a hand to calm him.

Dr Ransome reached out and gently pressed Jim’s hands to the table, trying to calm him.

In my reviews of Ballard’s stories of the 1970s I had begun to notice how many of his protagonists need calming, are feverish and delusional or become over-excited. Was it Ballard’s own feverishness spilling over into his texts or is it something about his entire attitude to fiction: that it is, by definition, about over-excited people.

Intoxicated by the fermenting potato, Jim giggled at the thought of the deity trapped in the bowels of the earth below Shanghai, perhaps in the basement of the Sincere Company department store. Mrs Philips held his hand, trying to comfort him.

Distilling water In Lunghua Camp, the narrator explains how, in the early days of the internment, a group of British men were tasked with boiling the water taken from ponds in the camp in order to sterilise it, but eventually let the habit fall into desuetude, preferring to get dysentery than expend so much energy. The ceaseless effort involved in boiling water to make it drinkable resurfaces in part two of The Drought where entire communities have to boil seawater to produce fresh water, for me the most haunting story Ballard ever wrote.

Cramped living space In the camp Jim shares a room in the unheated hall of residence of a former training college, with a young British couple and their six-year-old son. They, especially the mother, really resent his presence and rig up a partition carefully defining his quarter of the space. This stifling claustrophobia resurfaces in Ballard’s classic short story Billennium, set in a grossly overpopulated world of the future.

Old American magazines Jim likes to pore over old copies of Life magazine which the American, Basie, gives him, just as Wayne, the central protagonist of the novel Hello America, pores over old Time and Life magazines in the ship carrying the European scientific team to the dead New World.

AMERICA Young Jim adulates everything to do with America, addicted to their magazines, in love with their huge stylish cars, Packards and Chryslers and limousines. When he sees the B29 bomber planes fly overhead it is immediately obvious that nothing the Japanese have can compete with it.

The adulation of America and American culture, at the same time as satirising it, is something you see in British artists from the late 1950s through the 1960s, a notable example being Richard Hamilton and then, in the next generation, David Hockney. (Hockney became famous, at one point, for his vivid depictions of the lush, lazy swimming pools of Los Angeles; insofar as he obsessively depicts abandoned, derelict, drained swimming pools, Ballard is a kind of anti-Hockney.)

America was so obviously the winner of the Second World War, and the explosion of consumer goods it developed after the war was so much the envy of the world, especially in wartorn, exhausted Europe, that maybe it was impossible to resist. Certainly an obsession with Americana drives The Atrocity Exhibition which, on Ballard’s own admission, was presided over by the assassination of President Kennedy, and features a floating population of American consumer goods and Hollywood movie stars, just as the plot of Crash drives towards the mad protagonist’s attempt to stage a fatal car crash with Elizabeth Taylor.

The beauty of planes and shiny machines Even before the war Jim is mad about airplanes, we learn about the model planes he has made and the even better ones made by his boyhood friend, both of them hanging them from strings in their bedrooms. Suddenly the car fetishism of Crash seems less perverse, when you read a description of Jim running his hands over the hard, cold, smooth, beautifully engineered surface of a Zero fighter plane. Even in decay, it is a thing of unspeakable, dizzying beauty.

Jim stopped under the tailplane of a Zero fighter. Wild sugar-cane grew through its wings. Cannon fire had burned the metal skin from the fuselage spars, but the rusting shell still retained all the magic of those machines which he had watched from the balcony of the assembly hall, taking off from the runway he had helped to build. Jim touched the feathered vanes of the radial engine and ran his hand along the warped flank of the propeller.

Terminal documents In the camp Jim has a box full of a random selection of precious objects:

  • a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura
  • three steel-bossed fighting caps
  • a chess set
  • a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer
  • his Cathedral School blazer
  • the pair of clogs he’s been wearing for three years

The idea of a psychologically significant collection of half a dozen random objects like this occurs in the ‘terminal documents’ collected by Kaldren in the 1962 short story The Voices of Time and similar collections of half a dozen or so random items are collected by all the male protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition stories, beginning with Talbot who owns:

  • a spectrohelion of the sun
  • the front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  • a transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  • ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  • a photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  • a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  • the fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

The idea recurs in 1982’s Myths of the Near Future in which the protagonist Robert Sheppard takes just such a psychic ‘survival kit’, i.e. suitcase of random junk, with him to the Florida jungle.

Random to us. But charged with intense psychological significance for the characters, rescue kits, survival kits, escape kits – talismans to aid mental escape from intolerable situations, such as the one Jim experienced in the camp, and his characters experience in their tortured inner lives.

Magazine pictures are reality Jim cuts out pictures from magazines and pins them to the wall of his little partition. Eventually he confusedly identifies a photo of a couple outside Buckingham Palace with his long-lost parents.

Beside the Packard was a small section that Jim had cut from a larger photograph of a crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1940. The blurred images of a man and a woman standing arm-in-arm reminded Jim of his parents. This unknown English couple, perhaps dead in an air raid, had almost become his mother and father. Jim knew that they were complete strangers, but he kept the pretence alive, so that in turn he could keep alive the lost memory of his parents.

This echoes the mentally ill protagonist of The Terminal Beach who cuts out a photo of a little girl and pins it to the wall of the abandoned bunker he’s living in, using it to channel hallucinatory visions of his dead wife and son.

The sky When all human existence on earth seems to be wretched, diseased and violent, where else is there to turn but the sky. Hence Jim’s fairly rational fantasy of one day learning to fly a plane like the young Japanese pilots he sees climbing into their suicide fighters. Hence the altogether more hallucinatory visions he has at numerous moments of himself or other characters or buildings or the world disappearing up into the sky. On the long death march to the Nantao stadium, Jim looks back.

He looked back at the ammunition truck. He was startled to see that hundreds of suitcases lay on the empty road. Exhausted by the effort of carrying their possessions, the prisoners had abandoned them without a spoken word. The suitcases and wicker baskets, the tennis racquets, cricket bats and pierrot costumes lay in the sunlight, like the luggage of a party of holidaymakers who had vanished into the sky.

The sentences are all reasonable and factual, clear and precise right up until that final phrase where the mania takes over. Similarly calm and simple is this statement, made when Jim, tottering with fever and malnutrition decides to climb up the stands of the Olympic stadium.

Jim left Mr Maxted and walked along the running track, intending to follow them, but then cautiously decided to climb one of the stands. The concrete steps seemed to reach beyond the sky.

The sun And at the centre of the sky, is the great ball of energy which drives all life on earth, the sun. The importance of the sun cannot be over-emphasised – overseeing all things – the blistering force and light and heat – with the result that it’s natural that when he thinks of escape it isn’t to anywhere else on earth – the whole world is a battlefield covered in beggars and starved people beating each other to death – the only path of escape is off the earth altogether, upwards, away from the earth, upwards towards the source of all heat and light and, ultimately, meaning. The sun, father of all things, symbol, of course, of the Japanese Empire, until a greater sun comes to eclipse it, the unwatchable sun o the atomic bomb.

A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn up above them on the Bund were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun.

In the hour before dusk they entered an area of abandoned battlefields nine miles to the south of Shanghai. The afternoon light rose into the air, as if returning to the sun a small part of the strength it had cast to the indifferent fields.

The ubiquity of the sun as a central symbol mirrors its use in scores of the short stories, where umpteen characters dream of being reunited with the sun, flying into the sun, listening to the music of the sun. Ballard is obsessed with the sun and sunlight and sunshine and sunwarmth which makes it that much more ominous when, in a typically limpid phrase he manages to convey the unsettling effect of the Nagasaki atom blast, whose white light for a moment illuminates the Olympic stadium and its field full of dying Europeans.

Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds.

The Mustang crash One of the most intense moments in the book is when Jim witnesses a flight of Mustangs flying low over Lunghua airfield as part of an attack on the Japanese planes, only for one of them to be damaged, and:

Jim had never before seen an air attack of such scale. A second wave of Mustangs crossed the paddy fields between Lunghua Camp and the river, followed by a squadron of two-engined fighter-bombers. Three hundred yards to the west of the camp one of the Mustangs dipped its starboard wing towards the ground. Out of control, it slid across the air, and its wing-tip sheared the embankment of a disused canal. The plane cartwheeled across the paddy fields and fell apart in the air. It exploded in a curtain wall of flaming gasoline through which Jim could see the burning figure of the American pilot still strapped to his seat. Riding the incandescent debris of his aircraft, he tore through the trees beyond the perimeter of the camp, a fragment of the sun whose light continued to flare across the surrounding fields.

‘A fragment of the sun’.

World War III Towards the end of the book Jim ceases endlessly pestering the adults about when the war will end – they keep telling him it has ended and since, if anything, the world has immediately become more violent and unpredictable, Jim starts suspecting that the next war – World War III – has already started.

When Basie and the men had gone, vanishing among the ruined warehouses on the quay, Jim studied the magazines on the seat beside him. He was sure now that the Second World War had ended, but had World War III begun? Looking at the photographs of the D-Day landings, the crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Berlin, he felt that they were part of a smaller war, a rehearsal for the real conflict that had begun here in the Far East with the dropping of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs.

And anyone with a feel for history knows that the next world war did, in fact, start immediately upon the end of the second one. For most of us in the West it was a low-key, almost invisible cold war, although for the next 45 years we all knew that deep down, all it would have taken was a few buttons to be pressed and – bang!

But where Jim is, in the book, it wasn’t at all a cold war: in China it was hotter than anywhere else in the world. In Europe the fighting stopped, even as the Russians and the Western powers regarded each other with suspicion. But in the East the fighting didn’t stop. Across the huge territory of China the civil war resumed between the communists and the nationalists which wasn’t to end until the communists finally secured control of most of China in 1950. And only a few months later North Korea invaded South Korea triggering the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

In his over-excited, confused but prescient way, even right at the end of the novel after he’s been restored to his parents, Jim has the powerful sense that ‘peace’ is not real or normal.

While Yang drove uneasily back to Amherst Avenue… Jim thought of the last weeks of the war. Towards the end everything had become a little muddled. He had been starving and perhaps had gone slightly mad. Yet he knew that he had seen the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki even across the four hundred miles of the China Sea. More important, he had seen the start of World War III, and realized that it was taking place around him. The crowds watching the newsreels on the Bund had failed to grasp that these were the trailers for a war that had already started.

It’s very Ballard to mix the Third World War up with film and newsreels, and brings us much more into the world of his fiction of the 60s and 70s, concerned with the deranging effects of the mass media, movies and advertising on the human psyche.

And it feeds into our understanding of the way the protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition is obsessed with World War III, but not in any way a historian or soldier would conceive it, but as a purely personal struggle, a psychological battle against the self.

What we are concerned with now are the implications—in particular, the complex of ideas and events represented by World War III. Not the political and military possibility, but the inner identity of such a notion. For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display, but for your husband it has become an expression of the failure of his psyche to  accept the fact of its own consciousness, and of his revolt against the present continuum of time and space. Dr Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.’

Like Jim, Ballard’s protagonists know that the next war will take place in their heads.

Novel or autobiography

So how true is Empire of the Sun, how accurate is it? How much is truth and how much carefully orchestrated, re-arranged, reconfigured in order to make it into a readable work of fiction? The book has a preface in which Ballard wrote:

Empire of the Sun draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Lunghua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942-45. For the most part this novel is based on events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua.

This sounds candid and open enough. But as you read through the book all kinds of suspicions arise. The overall structure is shaped just so, and designed to foreground highly charged or symbolic incidents – the scene where he watches an American fighter plane crash in a sheet of flames on Lunghua runway; the scene where he confronts the single Japanese pilot walking in despair around the airfield after the army has left; the scene with the Japanese corpse, the scene where he enters the prison hospital to find it an abattoir of rotted flesh infested with swarms of black flies.

And it’s pretty handy that Jim happened to be a) outdoors and b) conscious enough, to witness the white light of the atom bomb. Convenient for an author intent on his symbolism.

Above all there is the suspicious way that the same small number of characters – specifically the American chancer Basie and the good English doctor, Ransome, manage to survive and crop up in successive setups.

The question

After reviewing just the dozen or so more obvious ways in which Empire of the Sun touches on themes and images which recur throughout Ballard’s entire oeuvre, the question is:

Does Empire of the Sun touch on so many of the themes and images which dominate Ballard’s other books because the wartime, boyhood experiences it describes laid the basis for Ballard’s entire imaginarium? Are all the other stories and books attempts to work through, in disguised fictional form, the true-life experiences which are for the first time described in Empire of the Sun with unflinching documentary accuracy? Or –

Does Empire of the Sun contain so many of the themes, images and hallucinatory turns of the phrase that occur in all Ballard’s other fiction, not because it is the source of them – but the exact reverse: because he had to spend all those years developing the obsessive imagery and coolly visionary turn of phrase as ‘objective correlatives’, developing the haunting images and crisp prose style in which he could express the things he saw and lived through?

When Ballard writes that Lieutenant Price, emaciated, with bloodied fists, permanently enraged after years of torture:

calmed himself. He touched the cigarette burns on his chest, tapping out a secret code of pain and memory.

Did he? Did he touch the cigarette burns as if tapping out ‘a secret code’? Or is that the kind of thing Ballard thinks that kind of character ought to do? Is it a true memory, or is it an example of the stylised way Ballard has, over the previous thirty years, come to conceive and write about human beings and which he now systematically projects back onto his experiences, embroidering them, expanding them, elaborating them, posing and positioning them in order to fit the highly artful aesthetic he had developed over all those years?

Was there ever a Lieutenant Price at all, cigarette burns or not – or is he a creation of Ballard’s later, more highly wrought, imagination?

Is Empire of the Sun the truth, which all his other works are based on? Or an extremely artful fiction, which all his other books were a careful preparation for?


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Reviews of other prison camp books

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

J.G. Ballard: poet or prophet?

I’ll give the game away right at the start by stating that I think Ballard is much more obviously and convincingly a prose poet than he is a social ‘prophet’.

The argument

Ballard is routinely and predictably described as a ‘prophet’, by reviewers, critics, fans and academics. The Atrocity Exhibition is described on the back as:

One of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s most concentrated book – a prophetic masterpiece. (Introduction by V. Vale & Andrea Juno)

But was he, though? There are several reasons for thinking not:

1. A prophet of what, exactly?

Ballard’s work divides pretty neatly into two types: there’s the science fiction which includes his early disaster novels and most of his short stories, many of which are wildly speculative and set in catastrophic futures – and then the later novels, from around 1970 onwards, which are increasingly rooted in the reality of the present day with its motorways, high rise buildings, advertising billboards and gated communities in the South of France., although weird futures continue to crop up in his short stories…

When people say ‘prophetic’ they’re generally talking about the latter works. And what do they mean? They mean that Ballard described in searing, super-vivid prose the feeling of being overloaded by media stimuli, the alienating experience of inhabiting bleak modern concrete urban environments, the terror which sometimes comes over you when you find yourself trapped in an eight-lane highway packed with sleek metal boxes hurtling past at inhuman speeds.

He captured and conveyed that sense of nervous breakdown in a series of mind-blowing semi-experimental novels from 1970 to 75, being The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. Each of these deals very intensely with nervous breakdown, physical and moral collapse which derives directly from the inhumane modern built environment.

And yet… forty years later, society hasn’t broken down, has it? People now accept modern architecture and the great sweep of motorway flyovers carving through their cities. It can still be painted as a dehumanising environment by artists and film-makers. But most people, most of the time, are not having nervous breakdowns and reverting to the primeval savagery depicted in High Rise.

And many of the specific aspects of his urban fiction feel very dated now.

Take the images of Vietnam which thread through The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Vietnam was the first TV war and in all probability the last, as every Western government saw what giving unfettered access to reporters and TV journalists did i.e. eroded domestic support. In my reviews of the career of Don McCullin I note that he several times says how disappointed he was not to be allowed to accompany the Falkland Islands task force: the government had learned its lesson; only tame journalists whose access could be controlled and monitored were allowed along.

The British have been involved in a number of conflicts since – Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq twice, Afghanistan –  but they have been completely controlled and packaged by governments and willing broadcasters. The really bad craziness which spilled into the living rooms of the average suburbanite, and was an important component in the hysterical mood of those novels, is long, long gone.

TV itself has also been utterly internalised and neutralised. In his experimental books, television is new enough to prompt paragraphs of media studies-style shock and astonishment at the bizarreness of the medium itself interrupting footage of burning villages to bring us commercials about bath cleaner.

But both ends of this spectrum have been blunted. We rarely if ever see the kind of war scenes Ballard is invoking; and everybody has learned to tune out the ads. The advent of the internet means that you can binge watch entire series of dramas or soaps without ever seeing an ad. there are a lot of aspects to this, but one is that the average punter is much more in control, instead of being bombarded with shocking images like the subjects of some extreme social experiment, which is how people appear in those novels.

Similarly, huge roadside billboards were relatively new in the 1960s but, again, old hat by now. Even the TV-style moving ads on the Tube are easy to blank out and ignore.

In other words, a lot of the elements Ballard described with such fantastically super-charged prose poetry from 1966 to 1973 are now almost over-familiar and bereft of threat. Ask my kids if they feel the saturated mediascape is giving them a nervous breakdown and (if you can get them to lift their eyes from the latest Netflix binge-watch) they’ll laugh in your face.

But his fans – and others who plough the same kind of furrow, either as media studies-type academics or contemporary writers – persist in focusing on these aspects of his work.

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, the novelist Hari Kunzru doggedly repeats this idea, that Ballard’s books are mind-expanding, shock revelations which still ‘disturb’ and ‘interrogate’ and ‘undermine’ reality or modern society and all the other tired, familiar art house, would-be ‘radical’, art-curator terminology.

Kunzru slots Ballard into the same, tired old lineage, the same dusty avant-garde genealogy which reaches back to the French bourgeoisie-shockers, via Dada and the Surrealists, to the Beats in the 1950s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and so tiredly on.

But how can something be avant-garde if it’s 50 years behind the times?

I keep reading political commentators saying Labour lost the 2019 election because they were still talking the language of the 1960s, or even of the Victorian era – trapped in the delusion that there is one, homogeneous, cloth-capped, Northern working class which will always give them their vote, come what may. Wrong. The world has changed.

I can’t help feeling the same about the so-called avant-garde tradition. Nowadays talk of Dada and the Situationists feels like the treasured possession of old and out-of-date intellectuals, solemnly showing you a box of faded newspaper cuttings from the mid-1960s as if they bear any relation to the situation and experiences of the present day.

‘Look at the taboo-busting way his characters arrange prostitutes in the posture of car crash victims’, the ageing college lecturer tells us, everso proud of his yoof credentials.

The reality is that the future hasn’t shocked, disturbed, unsettled or traumatised the human spirit anywhere near as much as the solemn talk of transgressive avant-gardes would have us believe. The Archers is still running, as is Coronation Street. They still wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms. Top of the bill at this year’s Glastonbury? Paul McCartney and Diana Ross.

The future is now and people are loving it, streaming their favourite shows, chatting away to Alexa, listening to any music from anywhere at the click of a button, ordering up tasty Deliveroo meals, ordering an Uber to go home after a great night out, and generally living it up.

Compared to the wholesale way the vast majority of the population owns and revels in our technological present, Kunzru proudly telling us how excited Michael Moorcock was in 1966 when he found that the front room of Ballard’s flat was covered in a collage of pages cut out from Chemistry News seems ridiculous. Yes, granddad. We’ve seen your collection of 1960s literary magazines before, granddad. Yes, they’re very interesting, granddad. But now it’s time for your medication and your nap.

2. Two specific ways Ballard was not prophetic

Prophetic means: ‘accurately predicting what will happen in the future’. I’m now looking at the other strand in Ballard’s work, the overtly science fiction strand. Rereading these stories, mostly about dystopian futures, kept making me thing two obvious points.

1. Population boom In all of Ballard’s futures, the population has vanished. In the Ultimate City the population of the world has collapsed, in Low-Flying Aircraft humanity is dying out, in Cage of Sand whole areas of the world have been abandoned, in Chronopolis the big cities have been abandoned. Abandoned cities and terminal beaches, those are the familar zones of Ballard’s imaginarium.

But it’s simple. The world hasn’t emptied. the human population hasn’t plummeted. the exact opposite has happened. In 1970 when the Atrocity Exhibition was published the global population was 3.7 billion. Fifty years later it has doubled to 7.5 billion and counting.

Insofar as Ballard’s imaginary futures depict a world emptied of humans it is not only not prophetic, it is diametrically wrong. A truly avant-garde prose would be trying to grapple, not with what it is to live in abandoned cities occupied by a handful of dazed inhabitants – but what it’s like to live in mega-cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai. Something more like William Gibson’s well-named ‘Sprawl’ trilogy.

2. Posh characters To the end of his writing carer Ballard described posh, middle or upper-middle-class characters, typified by the large number of educated, open-minded doctors who litter his stories. In a way the typical thing about High Rise is not that the characters end up descending to the depths of bestial depravity, but that they are all such pukka, posh English chaps and chapesses.

This is indicated throughout by his rather haphazard way with names so that lots of the characters have very run-of-the-mill and very English names (Talbot, Vaughan, Clifton and Ransom spring to mind).

I’m not criticising him for describing an almost 100% white middle class milieu, not at all. I’m just pointing out that it is the other, large element of his writing which was diametrically wrong. Society hasn’t carried on consisting of pukka white chaps and chapesses. The exact opposite has happened. Britain has been inundated with immigrants (and I don’t mean just ones with different colour skins, but nearly a million Poles, for example). Our society, and most Western societies have become chaotically multicultural and multilingual and show every sign of continuing in this direction.

I am not criticising Ballard for writing about the social class and kind of people he knew best, not at all. I’m just saying that those of his private and academic fans who try to hold him up as a prophet, a predictor of the future, have to take account of the fact that two of the central imaginative pillars of his fiction didn’t only not come true, but the diametric opposite took place.

3. An argument against deifying writers

Anyway, in my opinion the deifying or worshipping of writers is to be resisted. It is a primitive psychological tendency, it is a way of abdicating our own responsibility to think for ourselves.

Writers should be credited as writers, but not necessarily as thinkers. As thinkers, writers are often very charismatic, but almost always wrong. Morally wrong, yes, though that’s open to endless debate. But more often plain, factually wrong.

Dickens thought that universal free education would eradicate poverty. Wrong. Morris thought a Marxist revolution would liberate the working classes. Wrong. Dostoyevsky though Russia must turn its back on the decadent West to assert its Slavic identity. Wrong. Tolstoy thought we should relinquish all our belongings and live like peasants. Wrong. Gorky thought Lenin was the saviour of the poor. Wrong. Pound thought Mussolini would be a patron of the arts like a Renaissance prince. Kipling thought the British Empire was vital to raise the lesser breeds in our countless colonies. Wrong. Eliot thought Britain would be better off as a religious and ethnically homogeneous kingdom, preferably with few if any Jews. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my opinion:

  1. Beware of taking any writer as a moral or political inspiration
  2. Judge writers by the quality of their writing, not by their beliefs or pontificating – their beliefs will soon become out of date or controversial or come to seem ludicrous: but their writing, if it genuinely contributes to the life of the language, will live

As Oscar Wilde said, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral writing, there is only good or bad writing.

Ballard the prose poet

So for me, the thing to do is leave these political and ‘moral’ squabbles behind and focus on what Ballard undoubtedly is, which is a creator of some of the most astonishing prose poetry ever written.

What links every element of his career – the disaster novels, the sci-fi stories and the urban nightmare series – is his extraordinary ability to make the English language sit up and beg, dance to his tune, perform extreme sports, coasteer and freebase.

Somewhere Ezra Pound says you ultimately judge a poet by the integrity of his lines, and there are hundreds of breath-taking lines in Ballard, lines no-one else could have written and which take you into wonderful, liberating new realms of language and imagination.

All day he had been building his bizarre antenna on the roof of the apartment block, staring into the sky as if trying to force a corridor to the sun.

Meanwhile the quasars burned dimly from the dark peaks of the universe, sections of his brain reborn in the island galaxies.

Bonfires of Jackie’s face burn among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. With luck he finds a job on one of the municipal disposal teams, warms his hands at a brazier of enigmatic eyes. At night he sleeps beneath an unlit bonfire of breasts.

An airliner rose from the runway four hundred yards to our left, wired by its nervous engines to the dark air.

Catherine peered into my face, as if squinting through the window of a diving helmet.

The nodes of glass scattered on the ground glinted like pieces of discredited coinage.

Laing remembered the stale air in his apartment, tepid with the smell of his own body. By comparison, the brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of the hundreds of cars filled the air with knives.

The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.

He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.

On page after page Ballard is capable of writing sentences which zing with linguistic verve but also push, exercise and stretch your imagination. Maybe he was a ‘prophet’, you can make a case for or against. but without doubt he was one of the most poetic writers of English prose who ever lived, so plain and factual in appearance, and yet so glitteringly brilliant.


Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Genghis Khan by James Chambers (1999)

The greatest fortune a man can have is to conquer his enemy, steal his riches, ride his horses, and enjoy his women. (Genghis Khan)

Genghis Khan was born sometime in the 1160s into a small clan of Steppe Mongols. From obscure origins he rose, through the power of his charisma, courage and canny alliances, to unite the disparate Mongol tribes into one huge, well-organised, ferocious and world-beating army.

By the time of his death in 1227 Genghis had subjugated more lands and more people in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four hundred. His successors built on his conquests until the empire he bequeathed stretched from Hungary in the west to the Pacific in the East, forming the largest continuous land empire the world has ever known.

James Chambers’s biography is a small, zippy book, part of the Sutton Pocket Biography series, designed, in their words, to be ‘highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary culture.’

At 100 small pages it’s a quick read – it only took me two hours to wing through it. But what makes this book different from most of the other biographies of Genghis is its distinctive approach: it starts out in the fairy tale tones of Mongol myth and legend, and never really quite transitions to the dry, factual approach most of us associate with normal ‘history’. Which makes it rather marvellous.

Thus Chambers starts his text without any introduction or explanation but by going straight into a retelling of the creation myth of the steppe Mongols. He tells us how the god of Eternal Heaven, Mongke Tengri, made all things, but humans didn’t appear until the grey wolf, the grey hunter, wandered down from his mountain and mated with a deer.

Detail of a Totem from Northern Mongolia showing a grey wolf and a white doe (Hun tomb, 3rd-1st century BC). Born according to the will of the Sky, Borte Chino (Blue Wolf) is the ancestor of the Mongolians and his partner/wife is Gua Maral (Red Deer)

The story then skips forward ten generations to when the Mongols have bred and multiplied, and a direct descendant of the grey wolf’s firstborn, Dobun the Sagacious, marries a woman named Alan the Fair, who came from a tribe of hunters in the forest.

We learn how Alan had five sons and taught them to stick together but, after her death, the four eldest divided her herd between them and left the youngest, Bodunchar the Simple, to ride off alone on an ugly pony. When they repented of their meanness and went to find him, they discovered Bodunchar living in a hut on the banks of the river Onon and surviving by hunting duck with a trained hawk and begging mare’s milk from a clan camped nearby.

Once they’d taken Bodunchar back into the family, he tells them more about the nearby clan who’d helped him out, namely that they lack central organisation or a strong leader. And so the five sons of Alan the Fair proceed to attack the clan, stealing all their cattle and their women.

By the standard of the steppes there was nothing wrong in what Bodunchar and his brothers had done. In truth, as well as in legend, it was the way in which Turko-Mongol nomads had always lived, and the way in which they were to continue to live for several more generations. These nomads measured each other’s wealth by the numbers of their sheep and horses, and when the size of a clan’s herds increased, it was usually as a result of audacious raiding rather than patient husbandry. Ruthless opportunists like Bodunchar were regarded as heroes, and their success bred success. Warriors often moved from clan to clan, swearing new allegiances to the men most likely to protect their families and make them rich. Although the tribes and clans into which they were divided must have begun as extended families, their blood lines were soon diluted, not only because those with the best leaders attracted warriors from elsewhere, but also because it was the custom to marry outside the clan. Since bride prices were high, women were often acquired like horses on raiding parties. In such a society life was simple, selfish and precarious. (p.5)

Why are we being told all these stories about Alan the Fair and Bodunchar the Simple? Because shamans, the Mongol holy men, had prophesied that a descendant of Bonduchar would unite all the Mongol tribes and lead them to world conquest.

And so it is that, several generations later, a boy is born of Bonduchar’s line, a boy named Temüjin, one of the five children of Yesügei. In preparation, Chambers has described the confused and war-torn world Temüjin grew up in:

  • how the great city of Zhongdu (early Beijing) had been captured by Khitan horsemen from the steppes
  • how the Chinese Song empire had been weakened when the Tangut inhabitants of north-west China seceded to establish their own kingdom of Xi Xia
  • how the north had been wrested from the Khitan by a new wave of conquerors, the Jurchen who came from Manchuria and established a new dynasty they called the Jin
  • how the Jin feared invasion by other Mongol tribes and so allied with Tatar tribes who they paid to attack and break up the remaining Mongol forces
  • how one of the Mongol commanders who survived these attacks was Yesügei, of the Kiyat clan, who claimed descent from Bonduchar
  • and how Yesügei,  after kidnapping himself a wife – Ho’elun of the Onggirats – from a prince of the Merkits, had five children by her, one of whom was Temüjin – Mongol for ‘man of iron’
  • and how, aged just nine, Temüjin, lost his father Yesügei, poisoned by the tribe whose woman he stole to make his wife and Temüjin’s mother

And it was this Temüjin who would grow up to become Genghis Khan, one of the greatest, most successful but also most bloodthirsty conquerors of all time.

(NB Genghis Khan is an honorary name Temüjin was given after he had united the Mongol tribes, at the ripe age of 39. He was awarded it at a great assembly of all the Mongol tribes and clans, the Great Khuriltai held beneath the sacred mountain at the source of the river Onon in 1206 – Khan being the generic name for king or leader, and Genghis (probably) stemming from tengiz meaning ocean and so suggesting ‘King of Everything within the great ocean’ or ‘Oceanic King’, p.50).

The actual story of his rise to power is long and complex, mainly revolving around a sequence of alliances, at first with individuals who help or rescue young Temüjin from perilous situations (like Sorkun who helped Temüjin escape after he’d been captured and tied to a wooden yoke by the vengeful relatives of the first husband of Ho’elun, his mother, the woman kidnapped by his father Yesugei), then with more powerful clan leaders, slowly cultivating powerful men and drawing freelance warriors to his side.

Map of the Mongol Empire during Genghis’s lifetime, showing the complexity of the Mongol tribes and kingdoms he set out to unify, and the peoples living outside it e.g. the Chinese Jin Dynasty in the south-east (Source: Wikipedia)

And then the thing which set him apart from all his rival leaders and rival powers – his phenomenal gift for organisation, for imposing new laws on the Mongol tribes, for introducing a census and mass conscription, for organising his army into light and heavy cavalry with, later on, divisions devoted to siege equipment, provisioned with scaling ladders and sacks that could be turned into sandbags (p.72).

His army was systematically organised and rigorously disciplined. A division was known as a tumen and contained 10,000 men. Each tumen was divided into ten regiments of a thousand called a minghan. Each minghan contained ten squadrons of a hundred called a jagun and each jagunwas divided into ten troops called arbans. A large Mongol camp was called an ordu which is the origin of the English word ‘horde’.

Chambers goes on to describe the thorough training regime Genghis established for the army, along with the ‘staff college’ of his personal guard, which supplied the generals and senior commanders to each division. He explains the Mongols’ battle tactics and the transmission of information by a cohort of trained messengers using the fastest horses. Genghis set up staging posts every 25 miles in the territory he conquered, which were permanently manned with provisions and fresh horses, so that messengers could ride in relay in any direction across his empire bringing vital information. The messengers were wrapped up warm and wore a belt of small bells to alert the managers of the post that a rider was arriving, so the new horse could be saddled and ready.

The essence of Genghis Khan’s genius lay in his ability to recognise and develop a good idea, and above all in his instinctive capacity for meticulous planning and detailed organisation, a capacity which was all the more extraordinary in a man who had received no education. (p.65)

Map showing the campaigns of the Mongols from their heartland out across Asia. Note that China was divided under three rulers, the Jurchen Jin in the North, the Song dynasty in the south, and the Western Xia in the space between Tibet and Mongolia (source: Wikipedia)

Now a glance at Amazon shows you that there are quite a few books about Genghis Khan, some running to four or five hundred pages, and there is, of course, a lengthy Wikipedia article about him.

But most of these are westernised, factual accounts, which start in the way you’d expect, with factual accounts of the steppe, its peoples, their history, before moving on to give factual accounts based on a judicial analysis of the sources and the (scant) archaeological evidence.

In some of these more academic respects Chambers’ account is a bit lacking; I certainly found his description of the campaigns of the mature Genghis rather quick and difficult to follow.

But it matters not. I bet this is the only account which starts and then continues within the Mongol mindset. It takes the reader inside the world of mare’s milk and hawking, surviving off berries and raw fish, a world where an extended family possesses just nine horses and a tent set amid the vast limitless blankness of the steppe. A world where the wolf god mates with human women, and shamans correctly predict the future.

Admittedly, as Chambers’ account proceeds and actually gets onto the campaigning and battles, it becomes more and more factual, more like Wikipedia, and my interest waned a bit. It also describes the military massacres which occurred on a growing scale and made Genghis’s name a terror to future generations.

Notable among these were the rape of Zhongdu, an early name for what is now Beijing. It was already an enormous city, with a population of maybe a million, protected by a huge wall. After a prolonged siege, the Mongols finally breached the wall in 1215. Genghis ordered total annihilation and for one month the conquerors burned, murdered and raped. A year later visiting ambassadors described the streets as slippery with human fat. And they were shown a white hill outside the ruined city walls which was made out of human skulls. (This forced the Jin ruler, Emperor Xuanzong, to move his capital south to Kaifeng and abandon the northern half of his empire to the Mongols. Further Mongol campaigns were to lead to the collapse of the Jin dynasty in 1234.) It was the same year that the Magna Carta was signed in England.

Even worse was the prolonged campaign against Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, Shah of the Khwarezmian Empire from 1200 to 1220. Muhammad made the very unwise move of arresting and executing the envoys that Genghis had sent to him. This prompted the Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia, which resulted in its utter destruction. The Mongols razed every city they came to and massacred every single inhabitant: the lowest contemporary estimates were 700,000 dead for each of the cities of Merv and Balkh, and a million and a half each for Herat and Nishapur, where the heads of men, women and children were gathered into separate piles. These are widely considered the bloodiest massacres the world had seen until the 20th century.

‘I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’ (Genghis Khan)

All this may well be true, but it’s another reason for finding the later part of the book less enjoyable.

Because my imagination had been so fired up by the opening, mythical chapters, and the way they wonderfully transport the reader into a genuinely remote and different other-world. These passages engrossed me like a children’s book does. It made me feel it was me fighting alongside Jebe the Arrow and Toghril the mighty, in a heroic alliance with the Naimans and the Tayichi’uts against enemy tribes like the Keraits and the Tatars, taking part in legendary conflicts like the wonderfully named Battle of the Seventy Felt Cloaks.

Reviews suggest that this short books leaves out a lot of the facts about Genghis, as known by modern historians. No doubt it does. But what it leaves in is the romance and fairy-tale feel of the wonderfully evocative names, the distant lifestyles, and the legendary stories about strange peoples and faraway places which for a happy couple of hours really caught my imagination.

The statue of Genghis Khan outside the parliament building in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.


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The Eastern Front 1914-18: The Suicide of Empires by Alan Clark (1971)

The title is typically melodramatic and grabby, for Clark was a very headline-grabbing historian, junior politician, drinker, adulterer and diarist of genius.

Alan Clark

Alan Clark (1928-99) was the son of Sir Kenneth Clark, the immensely influential art historian and administrator. Alan went to prep school, Eton and served in a training regiment of the Household Cavalry. He went to Oxford and studied history, then studied for the bar, but decided not to practice and try to earn a living as a historian. His career took off with the publication in 1961 of The Donkeys: A History of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, a scathing indictment of the incompetence of the British generals, which was popular and influential. Many professional historians have subsequently criticised the book for its inaccuracy and sensationalism but it remains a powerful work.

In the 1970s Alan became a Conservative MP, and in the 1980s served as a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s governments. He left Parliament in 1992 after Mrs Thatcher’s fall from power. The following year he published the first of three volumes of diaries and these turned out to be his most popular works, covering, between them, the years 1972 to 1999 and shedding much light on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the politics of the period.

Suicide of the empires

The Eastern Front 1914-18 is part of the ‘Great Battles’ series published by Windrush Press. These all follow a similar format – very short, very focused, lots and lots of contemporary photos or paintings or posters, brisk chronology at the end.

The illustrations take up a lot of space, so that I counted only about 56 pages of actual text in the entire book. Most of the other volumes in the series concentrate on just one battle e.g. Hastings, Agincourt, Edgehill, so it seems a bit bonkers to devote such a tiny space to an entire war, let alone one of the largest wars in world history.

What’s more, although it has half a dozen maps of specific campaigns, and although the key events are all lined up in the right order, Clark’s account is distinctly, and disarmingly, gossipy much, one imagines, like his diaries.

When he contrasts the two men at the top of the Russian army – Grand Duke Nicholas, tall, handsome, blue-eyed commander-in-chief of the army and uncle of the Tsar, and plump, feline, insinuating General Sukhomlikov – it is in terms of their character and ability to schmooze at the Imperial court.

The entire German campaign is presented as a clash of personalities, first between the Chief of the German General Staff Moltke and the commander of VIII Army, General von Prittwitz, who Clark takes pleasure in telling us was nicknamed der Dicke or ‘fatso’ — subsequently between the two Generals brought out of semi-retirement, General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, and the man who replaced Moltke as chief of General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn was, Clark tells us, tall, suave and cynical: he thought Germany could not win the war, and he was right.

General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff

We get a similar profile of Feldmarschall Franz Xaver Josef Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff of the military of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Navy from 1906 to 1917, whose timidity, Clark claims, caused catastrophic losses in the early months of the war.

Or, as Wikipedia puts it:

For decades he was celebrated as a great strategist, albeit one who was defeated in all his major campaigns. Historians now rate him as a failure whose grandiose plans were unrealistic. During his tenure, repeated military catastrophe brought the Austrian army to its near destruction.

Clark is amusing satirical about the army leaders lower down the food chain, as well:

Gradually, like some prehistoric monster responding to pain in a remote part of its body, [General Ivanov, Russian commander of the South-West front] made his adjustments. (p.46)

Back in Russia, Clark treats us to several excerpts from the diary of the French Ambassador to the Imperial Court, Maurice Paléologue, including over a page in which he describes taking tea with the Tsar in December 1914, which I think is included to show how naively optimistic Nicholas was.

All this meant that I had a good impression of the key military leaders and their developing enmities and infighting but, paradoxically for a series titled ‘Great Battles’, found Clark’s accounts of the actual campaigns and the vast battles fought on the Eastern Front often confusing and difficult to understand.

Key facts

Germany had a 400-mile eastern border with Russia.

The southern part of the border was protected by her ally Austro-Hungary. If Austro-Hungary collapsed, at least part of its eastern section, the Slavic nationalities, would come under Russia’s influence, thus extending Germany’s exposure to Russia even more. Thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to be defended at any cost.

Russia’s population was 170 million. Of these some 160 million were peasants living close to the land in often abject poverty. Above them sat some 10 million middle-class and petit-bourgeois lawyers, doctors, traders and shopkeepers, who got by. Above them were some 30,000 great landowners, some of whom owned vast estates, and above them the aristocracy leading up to the Imperial Court.

THE key decision of the war was taken by Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, when faced with the initial fast-moving advance of the Russian army into East Prussia in August 1914, to transfer three corps and a cavalry division from the right flank of the advance into Belgium, all the way back across the north of Germany, to face the Russians. This decision arguably decided the outcome of the war, because it weakened the German advance through Belgium just enough for the French and British to hold them at the Battle of the Marne, for a stalemate to emerge, and the attack to fail, condemning Europe to four years of armed stalemate.

At the three-day-long Battle of Tannenberg the cream of the Russian army officer corps, her best NCOs, her newest equipment, were slaughtered, shattered and lost. More importantly, the industrial productivity of Russia was weakest of all the combatants, and her rail and distribution network the most primitive.

In August and September 1914 Conrad sent the Austro-Hungary army north-eastwards into Russia where it was split up and cut to ribbons, forcing a general retreat, and the Germans to send troops to stiffen their ‘ally’.

The summer of 1915 saw the Germans and Austrians attack along the whole front, pushing the Russians out of the bulge they’d created and back, back towards their own frontier. Ammunition of all sorts ran low, there were scandals about corruption in supply, and for the first time the Russian army and people felt they might lose. Maurice Paléologue reports astonishing amounts of defeatism at all levels of Russian society, and a contact tells him about the Marxist firebrand Lenin, who actively wants Russia to lose, so as to overthrow the entire existing social system.

The tragedy of the failure of the Brusilov offensive of 1916, where Brusilov’s Russian army attack in the south into Austria was not backed up by Evert’s army coming in from the North to prevent German reinforcement, led it to grind to a halt with some 750,000 casualties. It was the last throw of the dice. If Evert had come in, decoyed the Germans in the north and allowed Brusilov to penetrate deep into Austria-Hungary, chances are the Hapsburgs would have been forced to sue for peace, and the Hohenzollerns soon afterwards.

The thing to realise about the February Revolution of 1917 was that it was the consequence of the failure of the Brusilov offensive, exacerbated by food shortages in the cities, strikes, marches, and then the troops firing on the crowd. It was two army generals who persuaded the Tsar to abdicate. Kerensky came to power at the head of a ‘liberal’ post-imperial government but made the terrible mistake of, in May, launching a new offensive under a new General. The army had by now exhausted all its resources and materiel, as well as leadership at officer and NCO level and after initial gains, gave up and marched home. Widespread rioting and political breakdown in Petersburg led to the vacuum into which the Bolsheviks stepped in October 1917.

Clark is revisionist about the end of the war, too. The conventional view is the Germans last offensive overstretched their lines and then the tide turned and the Brits counter-attacked. Clark with impish subversion, claim the British offensive was itself running into trouble when the end came from a completely unexpected direction: a small Anglo-French force broke out of its encirclement in Salonika and out into Bulgaria forcing the Bulgarian government to sue for peace on 29 September – and this was the straw that broke Ludendorf’s confidence,

Overworked, exhausted and having suffered a minor stroke, he advised the new Chancellor that the army could fight no more. Within a week, on 4 October, the Germans sued for peace, the Chancellor abdicated and civil war broke out all across the Reich. It was over. Although another generation of uncertainty, repression, and then inconceivable terror, was only just beginning.


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