‘I see people cashing in.’ Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-99), Catch-22. Everyman’s Library, 1995 (19611)

 I finally decided it was time to read this famous novel after watching the first few episodes of the new TV dramatization, produced by George Clooney (who plays the gloriously named  Col. Scheisskopf – all the names are exorbitant in this novel – ludicrously obsessed with pointless, mechanistic parades). The filmed version does a pretty good job, but although it includes some of the darker elements of the novel, still unsurprisingly sanitises the narrative.

Captain Yossarian is the Everyman figure caught in the middle of the absurdity and horror in WWII of flying missions for a US Army airforce unit based at a fictitious island called Pianosa off the mainland of Italy. The Germans are in retreat so the war is in its final stages. And Yossarian has had – and seen – enough.

The novel opens with him feigning an unspecified disease in his liver. The doctors, like all the military personnel in this crazy army, are so incompetent they’re ‘puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.’

That’s typical of the demotic, looping style of the satiric, wittily sardonic narrative voice. It shares some of the characteristics in tone and style of the amphetamine rush and surreal, jazzy angst and hedonism of Beat writers: novelists like Kerouac (On the Road was published in 1955, two years after Heller started drafting this novel).

Heller Catch-22 coverIn structure too Catch-22 shows its allegiance to the nascent anarchic, counter-cultural post-war reactions of the younger generation to the institutionalised, corporate capitalism and cynical opportunism (political and commercial) that had started to thrive during the war – always a good theatre for entrepreneurs – and had prospered further during the cold war. Each of the 42 chapters focuses on a single character or set of related events. These stand alone almost like short stories, but are connected thematically, and the episodes often recur in later chapters (like the  terrible death of Yossarian’s colleague Snowden, slowly revealed across the 500 pages), repeating, rearranging and accreting details (déja vu is a leitmotif; arbitrarily redacting the enlisted men’s letters home another – it’s a network of redactions and rewritings), as the narrative does at the level of the sentence, shown in that quotation above.

In this respect the novel’s development is similar to the iterative narratives of a patient undergoing therapy, talking to the analyst who gradually encourages them to remove the defensive veils that shield them from the traumas their psyche is attempting to defend itself from, by revisiting and re-narrating the events that triggered the trauma (as Salinger shows with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, published soon after the war). Yossarian doesn’t explicitly undergo such therapy in the novel, but his frequent exchanges with anyone who’ll listen to his frenzied attempts to stop getting killed in action fulfil a similar function.

At first it’s Doc Daneeka, but he’s so disaffected at having been drafted into the military just as his civilian practice began to become financially successful (we later learn this was largely because of his dodgy dealings with drugs – he too is corrupt and amoral, like all the military in Heller’s satiric portrait) that his unsympathetic, selfish response to complaints and requests like Yossarian’s or any of his other terrified comrades is: ‘“He thinks he’s got troubles? What about me?”’ He doesn’t want to make sacrifices, he snarls; ‘”I want to make dough”’.

Later it’s the ineffective timid chaplain (who’s lost his faith), incapable of standing up to the intimidating senior officers he’d have to confront if he were to carry out Yossarian’s anguished appeal for his intercession – to have him grounded, sent home, taken out of the hellish bombing raids he has to fly.

Yossarian’s terror is exacerbated by the camp’s senior officer, Col. Cathcart, interested only in getting his name into the popular press, and thwarting officer rivals in their attempts to gain promotion ahead of him. His petty obsessions result in his regularly, callously increasing the number of missions his men have to fly. Each time Yossarian reaches or nears the magical limit – which means going home to safety – Cathcart bumps up the total, deepening Yossarian’s despair and frustration.

Yossarian readily admits he’s a coward. He’s seen too much death and mutilation suffered in a war directed by incompetent madmen like Cathcart. Nowadays we’d probably consider him to be suffering from PTSD. Yossarian’s rejection of traditional military and patriotic values, of heroism and sacrifice for one’s country and fellow servicemen, is the central feature of Heller’s satire. For all morality and human decency, values and virtues, have been inverted, perverted, replaced by inhumane, cynical self-serving amibition, and greed. Everyone in the military, he insists with sound logic, is crazy, but you’d have to be crazier to fly missions – hence the infamous ‘catch’ that thwarts him: he must be sane to know that.

Language has become as unstable as sanity; semantics are unclear. Linguistic play, puns, paradox and literary allusion and intertextuality abound: Dostoevsky is namechecked explicitly several times; Kafka’s voice is implicitly omnipresent – for example, when the chaplain is interrogated with ‘immoral logic’ by sinister agents who accuse him of crimes of which they are as yet unaware – as he is.

The absurd black humour serves to heighten the dark moral message. When Capt. Aardvark, the navigator on one mission, is asked by the pilot if the bombs had hit the target, he asks, ‘”What target?”’ Yossarian, the bombardier, asked in exasperation the same question, responds, ‘”What bombs?” His ‘only concern had been the flak.’

It’s one of the most searing indictments of the absurdity of war that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just the physical and emotional torture endured by the combatants and civilians affected, which tends to be at the heart of canonical anti-war literature from Remarque and Barbusse to Wilfred Owen, Hemingway and…well, Helen Zenna Smith. Heller’s most acrid satire takes what Smith started to do in Not So Quiet…and increases it to monstrous, Rabelaisian proportions.

Heller takes this anti-war anger and disillusionment to a different, ferocious level. The most shocking element in his carnival of dark grotesquerie is the cynical entrepreneurship of mess sergeant, Minderbinder. He has assembled a corrupt ‘syndicate’ that harnesses the graft, villainy and amorality of the Mafia with the corporate ruthlessness of big business. His dodgy import-export scams exploit the greed of officers like Cathcart, only too happy to profit from his use of military aircraft to move his wares around the world (with making money his only cynical concern; I’m reminded of the banking crisis in 2008, and what caused it). His lust for profit takes precedence over every decent consideration. When it seems he couldn’t become more fiendishly capitalistic, he starts dealing with the Germans, aiding their war effort against the Americans for cash, culminating in the horrific bombing and strafing of his own airbase – with huge loss of life of his comrades (a detail redacted in the TV version).

This vision of a hellishly corrupt and depraved corporate-military complex is mitigated in the dramatization. There’s less, too, of the dated sexism and misogyny that mars some of the novel; the scenes in the Rome brothel, although contributing to the theme of cynical commercialism and profiteering from war, display some disconcerting attitudes to women.

But the Rome scenes also produce one of the most chilling and disturbing sequences in the novel, near the end when Yossarian seeks out the sex worker who his friend Nately naively believed he would marry. He needs to tell her Nately has been killed in action. His descent through the noxious alleys of the city’s lower depths is like the harrowing of Hell, or Dante’s progress through those tormented circles of doom accompanied by Vergil. Raskolnikov gets one of his mentions in this section. He witnesses depraved acts of cruelty, sees the poverty, suffering and despair of the innocent while the ‘ingenious and unscrupulous handful’ of corrupt sinners thrive. The narrative takes on Yossarian’s voice:

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? [and so on for a dozen more lines]…Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged…[next page] The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

This catalogue of depravity reveals Heller’s purpose beneath the black comedy: Yossarian’s sense yet again here of déja vu – of ‘sinister coincidence’ – underlines the scorching message of social criticism in the novel. The act of rape and murder that follows, and the injustice with which it’s met, indicate its shift into a nightmare world of perversion and craziness that outKafkas Kafka.

As ever I’ve gone on for far too long, but it’s difficult to be brief in assessing this complex, extraordinary novel (despite its flaws). Near the end, as Yossarian’s disgust with military corruption and incompetence reaches its climax, and we hear the final version of the death of Snowden – a terrible unfolding that explains much of his desperate condition – he has an exchange with a sympathetic but deluded officer. He tries to explain why ‘ideals’ are no longer valid:

‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively. ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’

Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’

 

 

 

 

Penelope Fitzgerald, Gate of Angels

Penelope Fitzgerald, Gate of Angels. First published 1990. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition including The Bookshop and The Blue Flower, 2003

In my previous post about the first novel in this collection I suggested that Fitzgerald’s skill in evoking sense of place and time in her novels is extraordinary.

In Gate of Angels she presents the cloistered, all-male world of a Cambridge college in 1912. The action is therefore overshadowed by the reader’s knowledge that most of the young men who appear in these pages will be doomed to the slaughter of the trenches, so that the light romantic comedy that’s enacted in the narrative is clouded by this awareness.

Fitzgerald 3 novels coverTiny St Angelicus is a celibate, quasi-monastic college full of Fitzgerald’s usual collection of eccentrics. The plot is a slight affair of the romance that develops between Fred Fairly, a young Fellow, a rational scientist, and the street-wise, penniless orphaned London girl Daisy.

There are some witty glimpses of the exciting and momentous work being conducted by the likes of (future Nobel prizewinner) Rutherford on nuclear fission at the famous Cavendish lab (he became its professor in 1919). There are heady exchanges among the academics about nascent theories in atomic physics and psychology, and the competing attractions of theology and ontology. Fitzgerald has great fun satirising the antiquated beliefs of the more conservative academic scientists as ‘pernicious notions of mass’, ‘substance’, ‘the elementary particle’ and quantum physics develop around them. They refuse to believe in ‘unobservables’. ‘Scientists should not indulge themselves on quite this scale,’ declares Fred’s distressed Professor Flowerdew.

Fred is the son of a rural rector, and in one of the best scenes he returns home to try to break the difficult news to his father that he’s lost his Christian faith (as an uncle of Fitzgerald’s had done with his bishop father; he went on to be a code-breaker who worked on deciphering Enigma at Bletchley Park. Fitzgerald had a colourful family, and their unconventional talents infuse her fiction).

As always with Fitzgerald, things don’t turn out as one might expect. When Fred introduces his family to his Cockney sparrow girlfriend the clash of cultures and backgrounds unfolds with the wit and delicacy of touch characteristic of this clever and sensitive novelist. The scenes in which Daisy struggles with authority figures to become a nurse and raise herself out of grim poverty in London’s slums are vividly and sympathetically done. She’s one of Fitzgerald’s most spirited, unconventional heroines. Her refusal to conform and obey rules tends to get her into trouble – but she wouldn’t be a Fitzgerald heroine if she behaved otherwise.

There’s always a sense that the author is working at a level superior to the light comedy being played out on the pages. The plot is a vehicle for something more serious, elevated and elusive.

I’m not quite sure what it is. Apart from the science/art/philosophy debate noted above, it might be something to do with that Flanders slaughter, that puts into perspective the main characters’ struggles for fulfilment, and the petty squabbles and claret-soaked donnish banter of the college scenes. A seedy journalist gloomily predicts to Daisy that in ten years’ time he’ll be dead – a casualty of the inevitable war that will ensue from the ‘quarrel’ between the King and his ‘German cousin’. Daisy’s skills as a nurse would no doubt soon come in useful. The crazed consultant at her training hospital also runs a hospital near Cambridge for patients with mental illnesses; it’s possible to imagine the place becoming another Craiglockhart soon after the war started.

Several of the older women characters are engaged in another struggle: they’re suffragists. One of them – the intelligent wife of a crusty, unreconstructed don, who’d been a Cambridge student and prominent in the WSPU (like Matty in Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage), but is now a housewife – confronts the bleakness of a life of domestic tedium – all a woman of her class and education could aspire to at the time. Big changes were coming.

Fitzgerald writes novels that fulfil the requirements of the well-wrought plot, peopled by characters with semblances of flawed humanity. Some of the minor players are Waugh-like caricatures, but Gate of Angels is better than The Bookshop. It’s one of her lesser achievements – which means it’s superior to much supposedly popular fiction.

There’s a very good pastiche of an MR James ghost story, narrated by a crusty medievalist don who’s clearly modelled on him. That same uncle of Fitzgerald’s whose father was a bishop was a student at King’s College, Cambridge when James was provost there.

Some supernatural elements in the narrative remind me that Fitzgerald likes a bit of spookiness in her novels (like the antisocial poltergeist in The Bookshop).

Thankfully there’s no film version (as far as I know) of this engaging romantic comedy to spoil the immediacy of Fitzgerald’s narrative deftness.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), The Bookshop. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition (with Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower). First published 1978

I usually find that seeing the film version of a novel before reading the book is a mistake. This was definitely the case with Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Bookshop.

The novels I’ve read by her so far all have an astonishing immediacy in terms of period detail, setting and dialogue; from The Blue Flower (1995), read some time ago pre-blog, set at the time of Romantic poet Novalis (d. 1801) in a Germany that’s palpably realised, to pre-Revolution Moscow in The Beginning of Spring (1988).

In Offshore (winner of the 1979 Booker Prize) the hazardous life of an impoverished mother on a Thames houseboat in the early 1960s is evoked with the sharpness of a monochrome photograph. Human Voices just as vividly represents the people working on propaganda radio programmes during the London Blitz of 1940.

Fitzgerald 3 novels cover Florence Green, the slightly adrift middle-aged widow who’s the protagonist of The Bookshop, is another typical Fitzgerald heroine: a bit eccentric, idealistic to the point of naiveté, gifted at connecting with other people (but with a tendency to be too open and honest, which costs her dearly with unscrupulous or treacherous types – of whom there are several lushly drawn examples in this novel), tenacious but with a tendency to be wrong-headed.

It’s set in an East Anglian town called appropriately Hardborough. Florence opens a bookshop in a narrow-minded place that’s more philistine than present-day Southwold – where in real life the author worked in such a shop. The plot concerns Florence’s struggles to make a go of the business against the odds, and the oddball characters who populate this marginal town.

This is the only Fitzgerald novel I’ve read so far where I didn’t feel she conveyed a sense of the place very effectively. I know East Anglia quite well, and have been to coastal towns there like Southwold quite often, and I didn’t find the scenery described in this novel particularly convincing, or sufficiently present to contribute much to the texture of the narrative.

It’s a neatly plotted novel, with some crisply drawn characters and the gentle, perceptive humour, laced with a harder element, found in her other lighter novels. But it was spoilt for me by the vision that kept intruding of twinkly-eyed Emily Mortimer as the over-pretty, slightly vacuous,  and much younger heroine of the 2017 film version by Catalan director Isabel Coixet.

Mrs Gamart, the Cruella da Ville villain of the piece, was played well by Patricia Clarkson, cast presumably to please the American audience, but I couldn’t help associating her with other things I’d seen her in, from Sally Potter’s excellent chamber comedy The Party to the melodramatic Netflix drama House of Cards.

Perhaps the most intrusive actor, though, was Bill Nighy, turning in one of his usual turns as himself. He plays the reclusive but sympathetic old widower Edmund Brundish who in the novel champions Florence’s enterprise out of fellow feeling and antagonism towards mean-spirited provincial snobs like Mrs Gamart. To make the film more popcorn-friendly there’s an unlikely and rather silly suggestion of a romantic attraction between him and the widow.

The film’s ending is also made to conform more to the demands of a cinema audience, whereas Fitzgerald sensibly keeps things low key and unsentimental.

The best characters in the novel are the children – as they were in Offshore – especially the near-feral Christine, a ten-year-old with more street awareness than Florence could ever dream of.

I must stick to my rule of ensuring I’ve read the book before seeing the film. I’m afraid that it made this slightly twee but charming novel something rather more saccharine as a reading experience than it would have otherwise been – despite its having much darker elements than the film.

 

Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per

Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per. Everyman’s Library, 2019, translated from the Danish of a revised edition of 1918 by Naomi Lebowitz. First published 1898-1904

A bildungsroman normally traces the development and growth of a young person into maturity. They learn from the abrasive contacts they experience in the course of the narrative and find some kind of fulfilment and completeness. Lucky Per is sort of the opposite. I don’t know what you’d call it – a kind of anti-heroic renunciation of conventional worldly and emotional success – which Per initially craves in conventional ‘[fairytale] hero hoping to make good’ manner (he’s likened to Aladdin, among others) – in favour of acceptance of spiritual quietude and the ascetic resignation of a secular anchorite. An unlearning curve.

Peter Andreas Sidenius (nicknamed Per) is the son of a puritanical, undemonstrative pastor father in rural Jutland (like Pontoppidan). It’s a dour land, and the father’s upbringing is stern and critical. Nowadays I suppose we’d call him a religious fanatic, a fundamentalist. He’s lacking in the loving kindness and charity aspects of the religion he’s distorted into something terrible and austere. Spirited and rebellious, Per leaves as soon as he can, at the age of sixteen, to indulge his ambitious engineering schemes and find fame and fortune.

Interestingly his autodidact’s crackpot plans to harness nature’s wind and wave power through the use of turbines have become reality. In this richly symbolic novel they represent Per’s misguided, doomed attempt to harness his own powerful nature and direct it in ways that would force him to compromise himself with the bureaucratic, materialistic custodians of worldly power and finance who he despises as much as he does his father’s loveless religion or the artists he dismisses as ‘aesthetes’.

His burning desire for fame slowly turns to a realisation that his idea of success is really a revolt against his upbringing: he has to learn what it is he’s truly striving for. Fame, he discovers, is a delusion, and the famous luck he’s noted for favours the fool.

In Copengagen he pursues a wealthy and powerful Jewish financier to back his grandiose schemes, and becomes engaged to the man’s beautiful, troubled daughter whose resistance he systematically breaks down. This is another in a sequence of surrogate families. He longs for the mutual connection he never experienced as a child. He falls in love several times, pursuing his quarry relentlessly, then tiring of her.

He’s not cut out for romance or marriage, though he tries both, and finds them uncongenial, against his nature. His reverse arc towards solitude gradually becomes irresistible.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche dominate his thinking during his extended existential-philosophical crisis and ultimate rejection of Christianity (demonstrated in the Alps when he shoots his gun to destroy a crucifix: it’s ‘the courage to kill off idols’ that lesser mortals lack: ‘I shoot in the new century! he exults, with a disturbing hint of the brutal totalitarianism of that century).

He yearns to belong and to love/be loved, yet lacks the wherewithal to participate in such relations. There’s a void inside him, and he struggles to reconcile this with his worldly aspirations. As the novel progresses he confronts his true self: like the troll legends of his childhood, he longs for the life above ground with humans, but is incapable of surviving outside the dark cave. Exile is alluring. At a desperate moment he sees in a flash –

the foundation of existence: it was that cold and silent, ever indifferent, pervasive wilderness of ice he had seen on his first journey through the Alps.

It’s an audacious, philosophical novel that abides by many of the conventions of 19C fiction, but has its own unique plan: ‘lucky’, as the title in Danish suggests, means both fortunate and happy; Per comes to realise that there are different orders of fulfilment in a paradoxical world that’s full of reversals, and that finding out who he is involves painful abjurations of what he once thought he wanted. Like the character in the fairytale ‘Hans in Luck’ on which this plot is loosely based (as the translator points out in her Afterword), he grows into authentic selfhood by trading down, divesting himself of the trappings he once thought he craved and learning to value and live by his own kind of ‘natural theology’.

There are some unfortunate casual anti-Semitic elements in the narrative consistent with the bigoted views of the time. Per is more broadminded and tolerant than most of his acquaintance, but still harbours an innate dislike of this ‘foreign race’. But he also envies the Jewish Salomon family he nearly joins through marriage for their strong sense of selfhood and identity.

His fiancée Jakobe Salomon is a brilliantly realised, complex and passionate character, far more likeable than moody Per. She’s engaged in a parallel course of self-discovery to Per’s – though her destination is very different from his. One of the outstanding scenes in the novel is a flashback to a Berlin railway station, where she saw hundreds of ‘fantastic, ragged forms’, all ‘sallow and emaciated’, scarred and terrified: these are the Russian Jews she’d heard about, fleeing from the pogroms, on their way to haven in an America which would no doubt reconsider accepting them as refugees. She’s even more horrified by the callous, inhuman behaviour of the jeering onlookers. The ‘gutters were running with blood’ chillingly anticipates the rise of the Nazis that Pontoppidan lived to witness.

There are many other aspects of this rich, dense novel (it’s nearly 600 pages, packed with ideas, debates and philosophical-existential wranglings – so much more could be said about it). Tom at Wuthering Expectations has posted some thoughtful and stimulating pieces about all this here.

As a novel of ideas and a cocky young man’s struggle to make sense of existence in a godless world of self interest, ruthlessness and duplicity, it’s extraordinary. A ‘forgotten masterpiece’, as the Introduction by Garth Risk Hallberg calls it.

There’s a rather plodding but fairly faithful (apart from a softened ending) film version directed by Bille August in 2018 available on Netflix. It even riffs on the phrase ‘fear and trembling’. Unfortunately it calls Per ‘Pete’ throughout.

Update, 30.05.19. Thanks to Meredith at Dolce Belleza for reminding me that it was Dorian at the Eiger Mönch and Jungfrau blog who initiated the collective reading of this novel by the 1917 Nobel prizewinner for literature. Use #LuckyPer2019 on social media if you join in the conversation.

 

 

Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy: final post

Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy gets better in vols. 2 and 3. In my previous two posts I suggested that vol. 1 was over-populated with minor characters who clogged the narrative, contributing little except unmemorable names and attributes. The next two volumes introduce quite a few new characters, but the cast-list stabilises a little, and the players become more identifiable and their significance clearer.

Banffy cover

My two Everyman’s Library volumes of the Trilogy

I said last time I’d try to be more positive in this final post on the trilogy. The plot certainly gathers momentum, and I found myself racing through the last volume as the thwarted affair between Abady and Adrienne becomes ever more passionate but meets more and more obstacles. I don’t intend spoiling what happens, but would urge you to persevere to the end to find out – it’s a powerful dénouement for these lovers and for Transylvanian society.

I also said I’d say more about the secondary central male character in this rather too androcentric trilogy, Laszlo Gyeroffy. His erotic-romantic progress is more disastrous than Abady’s, largely as a consequence of the grudge he bears against the Hungarian aristocratic social world he was born into but from which he’s been ostracised. After the scandalous breakup of his parents’ marriage when his mother ran off with another man, his father reacted badly and killed himself and his mother disappeared. Society considers him tainted, and he’s treated like a pariah.

Vol. 1 ended with his descent into addiction: gambling and alcohol (there’s a titanic amount of drinking and drunkenness in the trilogy). This leads to his losing Klara, the love of his life. He’d spiralled deeper into a decline after this, and despite the attempts of the beautiful Fanny Beredy, one of the few resourceful and spirited independent women we meet in the story, to redeem him, he’s so full of loathing for life and himself and his largely self-induced exile from society that he spurns not just her but several subsequent (beautiful of course) young women who try to raise him from the gutter.

He’s sold his estate and most of the family heirlooms he’d managed to retain far too cheaply, having lost interest in everything. He also spurns the attempts of his family, including Abady’s, to rescue him from his descent into hell. His decline is sad to witness, and not entirely his fault; he’s a victim of that ‘dramatist Fate’ mentioned in vol. 1 as much as he is of his own self-destructive nature. This theme is raised more overtly with the decline of another young aristocrat, Gazsi, whose sad end causes Abady to ponder (without much philosophical profundity or originality) whether it’s human nature or lived experience that influences our fates.

The rather disturbingly sexist presentation of women I noted as present at times in vol. 1 is less apparent in the remaining volumes, but it’s still there. In the final volume, for example, a shopkeeper’s young daughter, just thirteen or so, secretly ministers to Laszlo’s obsessive need for alcohol in defiance of her father’s beatings, seeing in this shadow of a man the ‘fairy prince’ he seems to her when he tells her stories of his dazzling former life at the peak of Budapest social life. For a couple more years her love for him grows. There’s never any suggestion of a sexual relationship, for Laszlo is too far gone in self-pity to notice her; but this doesn’t alter the element of exploitation in his treatment of the besotted girl.

There’s more, too, of the over-sexualised presentation of women. Several scenes stand out in which Adrienne is involved. I pointed out the furtive gaze on her of Abady in vol. 1 when she’d abandoned herself to the physical thrill of ice skating; in these later volumes there are even more sexually explicit scenes in which her voluptuous sensuality is lingered over in a manner that can only be described as soft porn. One is when she arrives at a ‘bal des têtes’ dressed in a shimmering gold dress with ‘the lowest possible décolletage’; she looks ‘like some legendary goddess’. When she and Abady have sex later he’s seen literally bowing down in reverence to her beauty as if she were a Hindu goddess.

It’s not the sumptuous moment of erotically charged mutual worship that maybe I’ve made it sound like: the other men at the ball are shown drooling over her with ‘red-hot desire’, while Abady congratulates himself on his good luck. Far from showing an empowered Adrienne, this simply reinforces the secondary role women are forced to play in this society: her only ‘armour’, as the narrator describes Adrienne’s metallic gown in this scene, and her manner when she’s flirting at another time to disguise her true feelings for Abady, is her sexual attractiveness. She might as well have no intelligence or other qualities – and Bánffy only hints at their existence. His interest resides in Abady.

Meanwhile the political disaster of WWI looms ever nearer, while the Hungarian politicians in their ‘shifting political groups’, changing like a weather-vane in the wind, continue to look only inwards to the petty feuds and squabbles in their own country. Near the end, when the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and war seems ever more inevitable, there’s a moment when the narrator muses that with ‘skilful diplomacy’ it could still have been averted – but of course the reckless Hungarians indulge in quite the opposite, and carnage follows. Their lemming-like charge into it is referred to in the narrative as a ‘curse that had fallen on Hungary’.

The ‘cold cynicism’ of politicians like Slawata, who tries to lure Abady into his schemes, is reflected in the hopeless addiction of this doomed generation of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats for an antiquated and destructively perverse form of ‘code of honour’, which I touched on in the first of these posts. Its most extreme manifestation is in duels, several of which take place in the final two volumes, and all of them absurd, or ‘stupid, stupid’, as Abady puts it when he too is involved after a ludicrous exchange with a drunken, corrupt lawyer-politician. (I’m reminded of Conrad’s more acerbic view of this theme in ‘The Duel’ [in A Set of Six, 1908], in which the participants engage in decades of vicious duelling, of ‘homicidal austerity’, for reasons neither of them can remember.)

I had to skip many of the lengthy political scenes in this trilogy, which went into far too much detail, involving arcane aspects of Habsburg, Balkan and other european political chicanery, than I could endure. But the elegiac treatment of this fatally doomed world of aristocratic misfits, scoundrels and smouldering Byronic heroes is compellingly done, for the most part, and the constant, looming awareness of the slaughter that will change that world forever is handled with chilling aplomb by Bánffy.

 

 

 

 

 

Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy: post 2, in which I look at vol. 1, ‘They Were Counted’

 

FR Leavis says of Anna Karenina, quoting Matthew Arnold, that Tolstoy’s novel has ‘many characters…too many’ – but dismisses this as a misreading. He does the same with James’s contention that this novel lacks ‘composition’ and is ‘defiant of economy and architecture’. Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy has an elegantly composed structure (more on that later), but perhaps falls short of the kind of greatness Leavis argues is found in Anna Karenina. This is largely because of its defiance of economy and ‘composition’ – it is too long, has too many superfluous characters (I mentioned last time my need to keep a record of names to try to reduce the confusion caused by the huge cast; I counted 23 different names in just two pages of Pt 1 ch. 2), too many digressions and superfluous descriptive passages.

Banffy cover

My two Everyman’s Library volumes of the Trilogy

The Trilogy is, nevertheless, almost a great sequence of novels. It’s difficult in the space of this second post on it here to substantiate such a claim, and to give a sense of its overall quality, its (mostly) coherent and subtly controlled narrative – or the defects noted above.

In this post I shall concentrate on vol. 1 of the Trilogy. In the previous post I gave an outline and introduction.

Balint Abady is the protagonist, heir to a vast estate of forests and farmland in Transylvania, in 1904 when the Trilogy opens a region of Hungary (but since the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 part of Romania). The region had a long history of fierce ‘national consciousness’ (Hugh Thomas, quoting Banffy in his Introduction to vol. 1), showing hostility to the Habsburgs and Germany, and, in this Trilogy, towards the Hungarians (an animosity I witnessed in the 1970s when I visited Ceauşescu’s communist state; I even stayed in Cluj, which is the nearest city to the Abady castle of Denestornya at Kolozsvar).

This causes the dissent and arrogantly parochial factionalism that the scenes set in the Hungarian parliament so witheringly portray; the politicians wrangle and orate, oblivious while the empire around them implodes. Abady is Bánffy’s mouthpiece and alter ego, frequently shown despairing at their ‘narrow-minded, prejudiced, dogmatic talk’, which ‘got on his nerves’ (Pt 1 ch. 2), their politically myopic stupidity, their over-fondness for histrionic gestures and violence in the parliamentary chamber, and for their ‘usual rabble-rousing speeches full of slogans’ (Pt 3 ch. 1). He’s shown to be ‘disgusted by the insincerity and triviality of it all’ (Pt 4, ch. 3). A page later there’s this impassioned narrative comment on such divisive, xenophobic scenes:

Such was the general political naivety…that they at once assumed that they were the victims of a conspiracy. They saw enemies everywhere, not realizing that all nations were governed by their own interests and that the skill with which these were grasped and developed was the true basis of a nation’s peace and prosperity. From this distrust of anyone who did not agree with them sprang the divisions within their own ranks…

Coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1915: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The ethnic and regional factions in this parliament preclude any kind of rational debate or consensus politics of the kind Abady advocates, and the ‘kaiserliche und königliche’ dual monarchy is simply despised and dismissed, rather than understood and dealt with diplomatically – Bánffy the politician-diplomat, like Abady, tried and failed to hold these factions together while striving to save his doomed, beloved homeland.

Abady is an interestingly flawed character, however; he’s too innocent and politically naïve to succeed in such a quest. He can’t even manage a rapprochement between the Romanian ethnic peasants of his own estates and villages with their Hungarian overlords. Instead he’s distrusted or exploited by them, and even by the Romanian lawyer Timisan, with whom Abady forms a kind of friendship, but who proves as unreliable in aiding his quest for compromise and progress as the rest.

He’s also not immune from the corruption of this state. He’s elected then re-elected to his constituency of Lelbanya through the habitual use of bribes of the small electorate; he suspects the election was rigged, but acquiesces. He’s only too easily duped by the wily Azbej, the steward of his mother’s estates, and the others whose equally self-interested duplicity is more than a match for his callow rectitude.

His flaws are a feature of his tortured love life, too. He falls deeply in love with Adrienne, who’s married to a sadistic madman who enjoys toying with them. One of my main problems with this Trilogy is with Banffy’s portrayal of women and sex. Abady has had numerous mistresses and conquests in his younger days, most recently with a pretty married aristocrat on a neighbouring estate. The women desired by the men in the trilogy are always beautiful and more or less sensual; we get little sense of their characters or emotional complexity.

Adrienne is more fully rounded in her portrayal than the others, but we know little about her beyond her role in Abady’s relentless campaign to have sex with her. He’s vaguely aware that her reluctance is caused by her being raped by her brutal husband, which has understandably traumatised her, but this doesn’t prevent him from trying initially to use poetic language about the purity of ‘animal nature’ to win her over. She’s too smart to fall for this transparent approach, calling the mating instinct he’s invoked a ‘baited trap, a swindle.’ Instead of showing empathy for her vulnerable state (she’d married Uzdy to get away from a cloying home, only to find herself a different and worse kind of captive, despised by him and his cruel family) and understanding the causes of her sexual prurience, and helping her overcome them with tenderness and emotional maturity, he instead is shown concluding ‘he must feel his way carefully’. She’s his prey, like the animals and birds these male aristocrats love slaughtering in the name of sport.

For weeks and months Abady tries to exercise decency and constraint, despite the voices in him that laugh at his ‘scruples and self-searching’, and which accuse him of behaving ‘more like a timid schoolboy than a grown man of the world.’ So one day when he and Adrienne are lying on cushions on the floor, embracing and kissing, and she speaks of the right of women to have freedom to do with their bodies and thoughts what they liked, despite what society considered moral, he sees this as ‘the moment for which he had been waiting’, when he should ‘press for more.’

He starts his ‘attack’ and tries to force her into having sex, but she springs free, appalled and accusatory. His response is very like that of the abject schoolboy he’d admonished himself as being earlier, but his humility comes too late, his apology is disingenuous and his integrity, to my mind, shattered.

As vol. 1 progresses Adrienne finally overcomes her aversion to sex and they become lovers, but this nasty scene taints the otherwise conventional and romantic-erotic scenes between them that follow.

There’s something too lascivious in the male gaze of the two main romantic heroes, Abady and his cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy (as when Laszlo looks at the ‘voluptuous’ Fanny Beredy, the ‘curves of her body’ barely hidden by her clinging gown – Pt 2 ch. 3), among other sexually predatory men in the Trilogy. Descriptions of men are far more varied and less stereotypically sexual. There’s a scene in which Adrienne is shown ice-skating, and Abady watches her, unseen, transfixed. At first the description is lyrical and rather beautiful, but it becomes more troublesome. Adrienne is compared, in Abady’s focalisation, to ‘a young maenad caught in a magic wintery bacchanalia, a prey to every madness and abandon, drunk with unrestrained desire and ready for whatever the night might bring’. This says more about his lust than her true self. Yes, she’s abandoned to the sensual pleasure of the skating, but the desire is surely all his; she’s objectified. And doesn’t know he’s watching her; it’s voyeurism.

Other women characters are also too often commodified like this and likened to panthers or goddesses or their bodies rhapsodically described, especially when they wear revealing ball gowns. I don’t want to overstate this tendency in the novel; Bánffy is careful to show Abady coming to realise that his attempted assault on Adrienne is no better than her husband’s habitual treatment of her. The way in which the lovely Fanny Beredy – the women are always implausibly sexy and beautiful – uses her sexual allure to distract the heartbroken Laszlo into a passionate affair with her is done more convincingly and subtly than the heavy-handed and chauvinistic campaigns of Abady and most of the other menfolk in these pages. There are also some sympathetically drawn strong and spirited women in the novel, like the independent Sara Bogdan Lazar – but even she falls for the dubiously Byronic and doomed Laszlo.

At one point Laszlo witnesses a distrurbing scene where a butler is about to rape a terrified housemaid; her subsequent pregnancy and disgrace indicate Bánffy’s moral sense, but even so his treatment of these two central male characters and their sexual attitudes isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Already I’ve said too much for one post, and have barely touched the surface of this flawed novel. I’m also aware I’ve been largely critical. The final section of vol. 1 does much to mitigate the unsavoury features I’ve noted above. I’d like to consider the more positive virtues of the Trilogy when I turn to the final two volumes. And I haven’t said enough about some of the fine writing, especially the descriptions of landscapes, and nature in vol. 1; I hope to rectify all this next time.

 

 

The days of the Arpad kings: Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy post 1

Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950), The Transylvanian Trilogy. Vol. 1: They Were Counted (624 pp.) Vol. 2: They Were Found Wanting; They Were Divided (830 pp). Everyman’s Library, 2013. Translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen (the author’s daughter), winners of the Weidenfeld Translation Prize for vol. 3 in 2002. The trilogy first appeared in Hungarian in 1933 (vol. 1), 1937 (vol. 2) and 1940 (vol. 3). The English translations date from 1999-2002.

Banffy coverLast December I enjoyed a post by Emma at Book Around the Corner on vol. 1 of the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy. I commented that I’d had the Everyman two-volume English translation on my shelves for some time and must get round to reading it. Why not do a readalong? she challenged. Fellow blogger Meredith at Dolce Belleza was also tempted, but in the end we both had to duck out because of other commitments.

 

I did press ahead with reading the trilogy, however.

It fills some 1500 pages so it’s impossible to boil down all my thoughts about this great work in a short post. I’ll begin, then, with an introductory piece to provide some literary and historical-political context. For the action of the novels begins in 1904 with numerous tumultuous scenes in the Budapest parliament alternating with more frequent scenes at sumptuous balls, hunting parties and salons, and ends as the young men set off cheerfully for a war in Europe in 1914 which they believe with heartbreaking optimism and romantic naiveté will be over by Christmas.

The novels are set against the labyrinthine complexity of politics in the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire and the Balkans in their dying days leading up to the disaster of WWI, ‘when European civilization committed suicide’, as the eminent historian Hugh Thomas puts it in his informative introduction to my edition. As a consequence there’s a bitterly elegiac tone to the trilogy.

Bánffy came from one of the ancient Hungarian aristocratic families that had ruled Hungary for a thousand years. His wealth derived from the family’s vast forest estates in Transylvania (the trilogy’s protagonist, Bálint Abady, spends much of his time, when not engaged in romantic pursuits or parliamentary debates, trying to modernise his badly-run family forest estates).  That troubled province was handed over to the new state of Romania at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Like parts of lowland northern Europe, this was a region at the crossroads of clashing ethnic and other groups, which as a result was a site of fierce conflict for centuries.

Today we know Transylvania best, perhaps, through the sensational-melodramatic Gothic novel of 1897 by the Irish hack writer and theatre impresario Bram Stoker, who somehow created one of the most significant works of fiction and character archetypes of the modern European age, given that he was a second-rate writer. His half-digested library research into the folklore surrounding Transylvanian Count Vlad the Impaler was conflated with the high camp Gothic-horror stories about vampires that Byron’s physician Polidori had revived in 1816 when Mary Shelley produced the first draft of Frankenstein as her contribution to that famous ghost story competition with which they wiled away the long dark days and nights of the ‘year without a summer’ by Lake Geneva (see my posts on this recently). Stoker’s Dracula has coloured our view of Transylvania ever since as a dark, exotic land of wolf-haunted forests, sinister castles and long-nailed, hissing undead predatory Counts with harems of sexy bloodsucking brides.

Bánffy’s trilogy has no time for this entertainingly lurid stuff. His is the world of ballroom gossip, aristocratic adultery and political intrigue, factional plotting and treachery. As foreign minister for Hungary from 1921-22 he was involved in the attempts by his countrymen to mitigate the punitive land divisions that ensued from the post-war convention at Trianon to carve up the empire that had been lost after the catastrophic war and defeat of the Germans in 1918. He succeeded in leading Hungary into the League of Nations in 1922, but was denounced by Right-wing nationalist Hungarians who saw him as having sold them out to Yugoslavia. He then lived to see the rise of Fascism and invasion of his homeland by the Nazis, followed by the Russians who ousted and replaced them with an almost equally repressive Communist regime. When he died in 1950 he was living in exile from his ruined home near Cluj-Napoca.

Bonczhida Castle

Bonczhida Castle, ancestral home of the Bánffy family, devastated during WWII and now undergoing restoration. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

He’d been brought up to hope and believe that his beloved country would one day break free from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and resume its independence as a monarchy, restoring its status before the catastrophic defeat to the Turks at Mohács in 1526. Much of the tragedy of the political element of the trilogy results from that naive and romantic dream which blinded Hungarian politicians to the otherwise  obvious signs of the approaching disaster of 1914.

Most of the characters in the trilogy have very long race memories, and still wrangle bitterly about ancient battles and ensuing humiliations, while oblivious of nearing disaster. In Vol. 2, for example, Count Antal Szent-Gyorgyi will only invite guests to his famous shooting parties if they fulfil his decidedly choosy criteria. Not only did he rule out ‘bad shots’ and the ‘bad-mannered’; he also excluded anyone with ‘decided political opinions’ for he ‘loathed politics – and politicians’. With his ‘rich knowledge of history and genealogies’ he would also rule out anyone ‘if he thought their ancestry ignoble or unworthy’, considering princes and near-royalty as less estimable than ‘some simple country nobleman whose ancestors had been ‘nice people’ since time immemorial’:

For Count Antal, anyone who was able to trace his descent from the days of the Arpad kings…took precedence over all others.

People of Czech extraction were also excluded, possibly because his ancestors’ lands had been overrun by ‘the army of Giskra’, or else because of his hatred of the pan-Slav movement – which meant pro-Russian and therefore anti-Habsburg. His loyalties were even more eccentrically refined; he barred anyone who had any connection to ‘the Heir, the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand’, for his allegiance was to ‘the old Emperor, and the Heir’s supporters were clearly anxiously awaiting the Emperor’s demise, showing themselves ‘greedy, unacceptable opportunists’.

This brief background gives some indication of the strengths and weaknesses of the trilogy. It’s an immensely ambitious, highly addictive and readable attempt to set a tragic romantic drama against the even more tragic backdrop of the most momentous upheaval in world history since the days of Napoleon. This places it in the company of similarly wide-ranging and portentous epics like War and Peace, and, in a different way, Proust’s A la Recherche

But the very complexity of Balkan/Austro-Hungarian history and politics often slows down the narrative and causes the reader to long for an index of characters. I drew up my own in the end. And those Hungarian and Transylvanian names are so polysyllabic and tongue-twistingly multi-consonantal, they don’t reside memorably in this ageing reader’s memory. I had constantly to resort to my notebook summary of each chapter, as minor characters reappeared in a more important role some hundreds of pages since their last appearance. And every one of the huge aristocratic cast of characters seems to be related to everyone else.

Next time, maybe in more than one post, I’ll take a look at the plot and try to set it in the context I’ve started sketching here.

Vol. 1 has a detailed introduction (as mentioned above) by the historian Hugh Thomas, a genealogical family tree of the Bánffy dynasty, a chronology of historical and family events, and both volumes contain maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913 and of Transylvania.

 

Unhappy families: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring

In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her…

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverSo begins The Beginning of Spring, the third of the Penelope Fitzgerald novels I read in the Everyman trilogy. Set in Russia, significantly just before the twin catastrophes of WWI and the Revolution, it’s completely different from the other two, set in England in the recent past, and both wry comedies. This one is too, but it’s darkened and chilled by the harsh early spring of Moscow, and the Russian tendency towards tragedy and intrigue.

It’s only on a second reading that the little clues and hints as to why Nellie has left her printer/publisher husband become apparent. Here’s the first description of him, with Fitzgerald’s trademark economy with words, trusting her reader to ponder the layered significance:

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage.

Does this mean that Muscovites are a dramatic lot, and only histrionic behaviour will register? Or that Frank finds it difficult to engage with souls as ardent as Nellie’s (don’t be fooled by her music-hall name)? Maybe he’s just not very good at acting – in all senses of the word.

She’d left him a note to tell him she’d left him. He knows it’s a momentous message, as they rarely wrote to each other in this way:

It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

 

These are Frank’s thoughts, indirectly narrated. But has he intuited that she was unhappy with her marriage? Fitzgerald is too subtle an artist to tell us. The possibility is hanging in the air somewhere in Frank’s vicinity. We are party to his perplexity and slow-dawning realisation.

He wonders how much he’ll miss her and the children:

…he couldn’t tell at the moment. He put that aside, to judge the effect later.

Fitzgerald shows this entire marriage and its fissures, this perplexed husband, his wife and their natures, in the first three pages of the novel.

What follows is an intriguing examination of Frank’s response to this crisis. It reads at time like a domestic sketch by Turgenev or Chekhov, but has an unmistakably English take on marital disaster. There’s the semi-comic figure of Frank’s Tolstoy-worshipping accountant, Selwyn, who writes soulful poems in Russian ‘about birch trees and snow’. Like his spiritual master, Selwyn delights in ‘charitable enterprise’:

With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune.

Frank tends to patronise him, realising much too late that he’s underestimated him. Selwyn’s selfish philanthropy is presented with deceptive lightness; he’s more dangerous than he looks here; Fitzgerald’s prose is always poised to surprise.

The children, when they mysteriously reappear in Moscow, sent back ‘like parcels’ by their bolting mother, are preternaturally astute – far more so than Frank – as they were in Offshore. Jacqui Wine has written well about this (link at the end), so I’ll refrain from doing so here.

The formidable Mrs Graham, the English chaplain in the city, is one of several brilliantly depicted characters (Nellie’s brother, Charlie, who turns up to try to help Frank in his extremity turns out to be genial but delightfully useless, is another). Frank, we are told, was not afraid of her, ‘or at least not as afraid as some people were.’  Here she is when Frank goes to seek her advice about Nellie’s desertion of him:

‘Mr Reid?’ she called out in her odd, high, lightly drawling voice. ‘This is an expected pleasure.’

‘You knew I was going to come and ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

Restless as a bird of prey which has not caught anything for several days, she nodded him towards the seat next to her.

 

Such vivid, witty characterisation is only one of this novel’s rich rewards. As in the other two novels in the Everyman edition, there are some wonderfully pithy narrative comments. Here’s one chosen at random; Frank’s children are in the kitchen, gossiping about the young woman, Lisa Ivanovna, perilously pretty and apparently fragile, who he has recruited to care for them in Nellie’s absence:

Perhaps children were better off without a sense of pity.

As ever these seem to be Frank’s thoughts we’re privy to; for once he’s probably right: they cheerfully transfer their affections from their mother to Lisa with the insouciant rapidity of youth. And these thoughts are filtered through the sensibility of the poised, non-judgemental, omniscient but reticent narrator – who prefers to withhold as much as she discloses. For that’s how are lives unravel in reality: unmediated, mysterious.

As with Offshore and Human Voices, which I wrote about last, I’d recommend this short, wise novel. It has one of the finest, most startling last sentences of any novel.

Mansky_District,_Krasnoyarsk_Krai,_Russia_-_panoramio_(6)

Mansky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. By Александр Ромашенко, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60549878 (public domain via Wikimedia commons)

There’s one scene near the end which I found baffling, and I’d love to hear what other readers made of it if they’ve read it more successfully than I have. Lisa has unwillingly taken Dolly, Frank’s little daughter, deep into a birch forest in the country at night. In a clearing –

Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces towards Lisa…Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’

Then they go home.

What’s happening here? It seems like a witches’ sabbat, a mystical-spiritual meeting maybe. Or political? It seems a sort of epiphany, but for whom? Who is Lisa communing with?

As noted above, Jacqui has an excellent review of the novel at her blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Music and silence: Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices

 

Broadcasting House

Langham Place, damaged by a bomb in the Blitz; in the background, BBC Broadcasting House, looking like the Queen Mary. Attribution: By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20532090

 In my previous post I suggested that the three novels in this trilogy published by Everyman are all very different in subject matter and approach. The first two, however, have a London setting in what, for Penelope Fitzgerald, would have been the fairly recent past.

She worked for the BBC during the Second World War; Human Voices is set in Broadcasting House (referred to in HV as BH, built in Art Deco style to resemble an ocean liner) during the Blitz of 1940, and lived in a Thames-side barge in the early 60s, which is the setting for Offshore.

 Both novels concern small, unworldly communities, peopled by characters whose eccentricities are exposed with detached amusement; they aren’t judged. The riverside and the BBC are refuges for the lost, a place of solace for the lonely. The characters are shown in shifting patterns, interacting with those around them (there’s little conventional plot), and the reader is left to consider what their minor dramas signify. It’s that tone of humorous, often ironic sympathy, with an underlying menace and even violence that gives them both their distinctive effect. They both end with a distressing scene of catastrophe.

Tube shelter

Tube station air-raid shelter in the West End during the Blitz. By US Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s inevitable that Human Voices has a more sombre impact, given that the BBC was attempting to keep the public informed of the war’s disastrous progress; in 1940 France, like most of Europe, had fallen, and invasion of England seemed imminent. The BBC, a microcosm of the nation, was struggling to maintain its task: to broadcast continuously in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances. The lifts don’t function fully (to preserve energy), senior staff more or less live in BH (and their marriages implode as a result) and confusion is rife: ‘The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.’ The building is often shaken by bombs. Casualties are commonplace, even among BBC staff. A Blitz spirit prevails in the building as it does outside.

A central theme of the novel is the insistence by the BBC that they avoid what is now notoriously referred to as ‘fake news’:

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

The author isn’t frivolous. Despite her cast of amusing, bumbling and obsessively selfish or flawed characters, Fitzgerald has a serious message here. She did this in Offshore, too: the occasional step away from narrative detachment and levity to pronounce something of profound significance. Even with the ironic undertone in this example, her point is telling. All wars are reported mendaciously. People are always lied to by their leaders. This applied in 1940, in 1980 when this novel was published, and it still applies perhaps more than ever before today. Neither will the truth necessarily make you free.

Once the characters in the BBC have been introduced, it’s apparent that the institution has a crippling hierarchical structure. In this respect it resembles one of the stuffier English public schools or less prestigious military regiments (from where most of the senior staff were – probably still are – recruited). Referred to by the initials of their post, like DDP and RPD, they are comically self-important and often deluded about their own merits. Very like the characters in Offshore, in fact – where another hermetically detached community clings to its customs on the margins of ordinary life.

Once again I commend you to other blogs for plot summary. I’d like just to pick out a few salient features.

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz. By H.Mason – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1342305/The-Blitzs-iconic-image-On-70th-anniversary-The-Mail-tells-story-picture-St-Pauls.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19771597

Annie Asra is employed by the organisation when she is just 17, and she’s a breath of fresh air. She’s refreshingly blunt and outspoken without being cruel – qualities which her colleagues are unfamiliar with.

Broadcasting the truth is discussed by Waterlow, one of the more eccentric BBC producers, responsible for drama and the arts (as precarious in 1940 as they are now), with Annie, when she asks with characteristic forthrightness why he seems to have so little to do.

The BBC is doing gits bit [he thinks that imitating her Midlands accent is amusing]. We put out the truth, but only contingent truth, Annie! The oppostite could also be true!

Annie refuses to be so cynical, or to accept that ‘truth’ is relative. When she asks what the BBC could possibly find to broadcast ‘that’s got to be true’ in his terms:

He gestured towards the piano.

‘We couldn’t put out music all day!’

‘Music and silence.’

The most important broadcast described in the novel is the ten minutes of silence that followed when Jeff, one of the two central characters, a senior figure in the BBC, ‘pulled the plug’ on a French General who, it was assumed, would speak extempore in praise of the continuing struggle against the Germans by the surviving Free French forces, but instead had launched into a defeatist harangue.

It’s typical of Fitzgerald’s wry take on the world that she shows Jeff being reprimanded for his initiative.

The novel’s title seems to be taken from Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ‘then human voices wake us and we drown.’ Radio is mostly about voices (no TV in 1940). The voices in this novel also serve, as perhaps they do for emotionally paralysed Prufrock, to attempt to reconcile real life – the Blitz, war, death, cruelty, tragedy, comedy – and something more transcendent and mystical, like music and silence. When a central character dies at the end, it’s for his voice that he’ll be remembered, rather than his kindness to others.

Annie’s love for her boss, the serially predatory but deeply vulnerable Sam, isn’t entirely convincing in its resolution, but the novel is worth reading – like Offshore – for its quietly compassionate presentation of characters trying to get by in a dangerously confusing world, and for its well-crafted prose. Here’s just one closing example.

Annie is shown as a child helping her piano-tuner father:

When at last he took out his hammer and mutes, ready to tune, his daughter became quite still, like a small dog pointing… [He continues tuning:] It was a recurring excitement of her life, like opening a boiled egg, the charm being not its unexpectedness but its reliability.

Human flotsam: Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverThe handsome hardback Everyman in my picture contains three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Offshore, Human Voices and The Beginning of Spring. It seemed a shrewd choice to take on my extended foreign travels recently, compacting as it does three books into one. I wasn’t disappointed.

Most of the other 20C writers I’ve posted about in the recent past – Pym, Comyns, Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Wharton – have a distinctly identifiable voice, style and zone of interest. Penelope Fitzgerald never writes the same novel twice (though they all feature mischievous, often dark humour and surprisingly bereft characters who are outcasts, eccentric, struggling with life’s vicissitudes, constrained, thwarted, adrift – and violence is usually imminent).

The first, Offshore, notoriously won the 1979 Booker Prize against stiff opposition. I don’t intend summarising the plot – two of my favourite bloggers, Max and Jacqui, have done a great job giving an overview and critical response – links at the end of this post.

Max is particularly astute about the two astonishingly precocious (but endearingly innocent) children of the central character, Nenna: Tilda (6) and Martha (11) – so there goes one part of the post I intended to write!

Both of them embody the quiet, confused desperation of this novel’s fragile cast of impractical characters, adrift metaphorically and sometimes literally on their leaky Thames-side barges, buffeted by the winds of the world. Most of them are lost, lonely, waiting for something tangible in their lives – which resemble the inexorable tides of the river they float precariously upon. As in the Elizabeth Taylor novel I discussed earlier this month, the E.M. Forster notion of how characters ‘connect’ – or fail to – is central. That one of the members of this marginal community of drifters is a male prostitute called Maurice is pertinent.

Nenna, a former musician, whose artistic career was curtailed by her husband’s fecklessness and by motherhood, is more of an outsider than the rest of the houseboat community at Battersea Reach, being a Canadian expat whose bourgeoise sister constantly urges her to come ‘home’ and acknowledge her life in England is a failure. Yet she loves her boat and life ‘on the very shores of London’s historic river’, refusing to comply with the world’s promptings.

This is a novel interested in character and mood – its rewards lie in the language and the precision and compassion with which Fitzgerald places her characters in juxtaposition, struggling to make sense of themselves and their direction. It’s also suffused with warmth and humour, overshadowed by the tragic, shocking events towards the end.

Fitzgerald is also prepared to risk lengthy descriptions; she vividly evokes the mutable, muddy essence of bankside life in the early 60s to show both its romantic, intoxicating appeal and its grittily Dickensian reality. Here’s a typical early example, where in four beautifully modulated paragraphs she describes this fluvial world’s most significant rhythm: the tide turning. Tilda is ‘up aloft’ the Grace’s mast, ‘fifteen foot of blackened pine, fitted into a tabernacle’ (great word):

Her mizzen mast was gone, her sprit was gone [I initially misread that as ‘spirit’!], the mainmast was never intended for climbing…[Tilda] was alone, looking down at the slanting angle of the decks as the cables gave or tightened, the passive shoreline, the secret water.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Gold: old Battersea Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

This is photographic realism full of concrete details and salty, nautical terminology, conveyed with the precision of an imagist poet. But she also does what all good writers do: she makes us perceive the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as ugly, dirty, decrepit…familiar. There’s a long tradition behind such descriptions of the ‘sweet Thames’, one that passes from Spenser through to Turner, Whistler (who features in the narrative at one point) Conrad (one of the boats is called ‘Lord Jim’), more ironically and wistfully in Eliot and later visual and literary artists.

A tremor ran through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters, just on the move, chocked gently together. The great swing round began.

Not many novelists deploy language and imagery so well. In this scene the progress of driftwood, temporarily ‘at rest in the slack reaches’, takes on an almost mystical symbolic significance that’s beautifully transmitted through the rapt gaze of the little girl clinging to the top of the mast, feeling the turning tide’s surge and its relentless surge. She’s uninterested in that urban ‘ratless’ world which consumes the interest of most people: ‘the circulation which toiled on only a hundred yards away’; she has a mudlark’s eye for the river’s gifts, but is acutely aware too of its dangers.

Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver

Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – view from Battersea towards Chelsea, where ‘Offshore’ is set:[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When she thinks of the many who’ve drowned in that muddy river, she feels ‘distress, but not often’ – unlike her big sister and her bohemian mother:

But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience.

Here again she elides the concrete – drowned sailors’ boots, become flotsam – and the abstract: memory, sensibility. All this to create a memorable character: Tilda has the elemental indifference of a seabird, a piece of driftwood or the river itself – yet Fitzgerald shows how she’s still vibrantly alive.

Although at times the central metaphor of the novel, the river, becomes a bit too intrusive and obvious, and some of the characters are two-dimensional (but they aways have life) Fitzgerald assembles her cast of misfits, losers and dreamers with engaging sympathy: she never judges them.

What little plot there is largely involves Nenna’s struggle to confront the reality of being abandoned by her husband – he doesn’t want the liminal existence she’s embraced ‘offshore’; neither does he want her sexually or emotionally. Their marital argument at the heart of the novel is the most visceral and shocking I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction.

There’s a particularly fine, sagacious cat, as muddy and flawed as the humans in the novel; Stripey fights a complicated war with the wharfside rats, her survival as precarious, and her sex life as mysterious as those of the humans she disdains.

I’d urge you to read Penelope Fitzgerald.

Links to other discussions of this novel:

Jacqui Wine here

Max here (who provides links to other good reviews)

 

[I’ve managed to refrain from using the word ‘riparian’ in this post, even though it would have been particularly apposite.]