Alan Mason continues his personal appreciation of twentieth century writing.
This decade is inenvitably dominated by the Second World War, but in this essay on some of the books of the period I have only included one which deals with the war, rather obliquely (The Small Back Room). The totalitarian state was an even more pernicious influence as many novelists have testified (The Power and the Glory, Darkness at Noon, La Peste). Some writers took a backward glance at the totalitarianism and power politics of the past (Grey Eminence).
The might of the cinema was harnessed by the dictators as well as the democracies.
Natasha Zakolkova Gelman (1) was the wife of wealthy film producer, and her own film star looks in a sheathing white dress, echo the beauty of the white canna lilies. The Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, produced the portrait in 1943.
Once the war was over, there was some nostalgia for a pre-war idyll, (Brideshead Revisited) but the social realities of the new peacetime world proved more durable (The Hucksters, The Loved One)
However, war casts a long shadow and other books concerned with this period were published much later and occur in later decades of my review.
1 The Small Back Room …………………………Nigel Balchin …………………1943
2 Darkness at Noon ……………………………….Arthur Koestler ……………..1940
3 The Power and the Glory ……………………..Graham Greene ……………..1940
4 Grey Eminence …………………………………..Aldous Huxley ……………….1941
5 La Peste …………………………………………….Albert Camus ………………..1947
6 Brideshead Revisited ……………………………Evelyn Waugh ……………….1945
7 The Hucksters …………………………………….Frederic Wakeman …………1947
8 The Loved One …………………………………….Evelyn Waugh ……………….1948
1 The Small Back Room …………………………Nigel Balchin …………………1943
The hero of this novel, Sammy Rice, was unusual for the forties, but who would be seen nowadays as quite politically correct. He is physically handicapped, has a serious drink problem, and lives with a woman who is not his wife. However, he is also an amusing observer, sympathetic to other people, and, as we discover, a very brave man. The human situations that he encounters are deeply moving. The title comes from the forties phrase, “back-room boys” meaning research scientists and technicians of all sorts. This is a gripping tale of an electronics scientist working on explosive devices and bomb disposal methods (2). This takes place alongside careerist manoeuverings in the civil service with a fascinating cast of characters.
The novel opens, “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time. It would be all right for a bit, but any one of about fifty things would start it off and it would give me hell.”
Rice as a civilian scientist has recently come from a firing range, with Colonel Holland, where they saw the new “Reeves gun” being tested. Holland drives Rice back to London, and tackles him about the tests.
“Holland said, ‘Well, go on, you saw the thing. What’s wrong with it?’
I just shook my head and said something about seeing the figures first.
‘God make me patient. Have you ever seen a tank?’
‘Well, they move don’t they? They zigzag. They don’t like being shot at and they try to get out of the way. They don’t just drive in a straight line posing for their photographs while you shoot at them with your bloody contraptions.’
I said, ‘You don’t think the Reeves is easy to aim?’
I think the type of chap we’ve got to use wouldn’t hit a moving tank in a week.’
‘The Reeves chap was hitting them.’
‘Of course he was, but he is a trained engineer, who’s been practising for months; even now he has a hell of a job with it. You people seem to think that if you can train a research chap to do something in a laboratory after six months, we can train an ex-farm hand to do it in
the field in ten minutes.’
This was just what had struck me. The Reeves gun was pretty, but also darned complicated, and the armed services had to use it and trust their lives to it whereas we didn’t.” (3)
Having returned to his research base, Rice meets up with Waring, a careerist colleague with a scientific background, who has shifted over into administration and has made himself deputy Director.
Waring settled back in his chair. ‘Now tell me about the Reeves gun. Good show?’
‘Moderately,’ I said.
‘What did you think of it?’ said Waring eagerly.
‘I’m not sure yet. I haven’t seen any of the figures. It’s an ingenious affair.’
‘It’s a bloody marvellous weapon,’ said Waring.
‘Maybe,’ I said a bit doubtfully. ‘Plenty of snags
‘Oh, it isn’t perfect,’ said Waring, waving a hand. ‘It needs cleaning up, but that’s easy.’
‘I’m afraid old Holland took against it,’ I said.
‘He would!’ said Waring.
He smiled at the end of his cigarette. ‘Luckily it doesn’t matter what Holland thinks. The thing has been sold above his level.’
‘Yes. I made the Old Man take me round to see the Minister, and I put it across to him. He’s all excited about it.’
I was a bit shaken.
I said, ‘What did you sell it to him on? What the Stars Foretell for this week? Or just intuition?’
Waring shrugged. ‘The idea’s right,’ he said shortly. ‘Anyhow, we shall soon have the facts. When are you getting the figures out?’
‘Over the next week. We should have a report in ten days.
The story moves on from the wheeler-dealing of the Civil Service to the realities of war-time Britain. A new type of German bomb has been dropped. It did not explode on landing, but was activated later and lay waiting for the next person to touch it. It was a “booby-trap”, now we would call it “an anti-personnel device”.
Sammy Rice has been told to look into it urgently. He and Stuart, a young army bomb disposal officer, (4) work together to gather what evidence is available. A little girl, Sheila Davis, has been killed by one of these devices. Sammy and Stuart go to see the mother, and the little girl’s three-year-old brother, Bobby, the only witness. They want to know if the child picked it up or not, so they ask Bobby.
“Bobby whispered, ‘Sheila didn’t pick it up, she put it down and called.’
‘She just left it there?’ asked Stuart.
‘Yes and called, What I’ve found.’
His mother sat down in front of him and said, ‘Bobby, tell mummy. Did She-She pick the nasty thing up?’
Bobby went very red and a strained frown came over his face. You could see he was trying with all his might. His face puckered and I thought he was going to cry.
‘He says he wants to go and play with Blackie, his kitten.’ said Mrs Davis with a little smile.
‘So he shall,’ said Stuart, smiling. ‘Thank you very much, Bobby. You’ve been a real help.’
Mrs Davis said, `I’m afraid he can’t tell you much, sir. He’s too young, see.’
‘He told us a lot more than I thought we should get.’ said Stuart. I was glad he said that. She looked pleased.”
More of these booby-trap bombs are found, and Stuart is killed in trying to defuse one. The story ends with Sammy Rice as the only remaining expert, tackling another one, this time successfully.
The author, Nigel Balchin, (5) was born in rural Wiltshire, in 1908, and studied psychological science at Cambridge University. After graduating he worked in advertising, while doing some journalism. His first novel was published in 1934, and he continued writing novels during the thirties and forties.
During WW2 he was a Civil Servant, and scientific adviser at the Ministry of Food. After the war he wrote screenplays and is credited with seventeen films. They were all successful commercially but the titles have been forgotten by modern film-goers. Probably the most well-known ones were about war-time themes, (The Malta Story, 1953, and the Man Who Never Was, 1955). He lived in Hollywood between 1956 and 1962, but returned to Britain.
He struggled with alcoholism and this may have contributed to his early death at 62 in 1970. This weakness is graphically described by his character, Sammy Rice, in “The Small Back Room”. He was married twice and had three daughters by his first wife, Elisabeth, and a son and daughter by his second wife, Yovanka. Fuller details are given in a short wikipedia article.
(Reading over this novel again, I find considerable empathy with little Bobby, principally, I suppose, because I was also a small child during WW2. Often, little children vividly remember experiences which they do not understand at the time. Two particular memories stand out, because I have not encountered them since that period. The first is the frightening sound, during the night, of a hundred or so, piston-engine aircraft flying in formation overhead (6). Of course, my parents tried to reassure me, without going into explanations.
This was the Luftwaffe, flying on a bombing mission to cripple the northern industrial cities. We lived in the country and the nearest obvious target would be the steel industry of Sheffield, some 15 miles away. The second recollection is of going out to play in the surrounding fields, after a night of thundering aircraft noise. The grass was carpeted with narrow ribbons of a silvery foil. I was later to discover this material was called “window” and it was dropped by German aircraft in an attempt to disrupt the reception of British radar signals.)
2 Darkness at Noon ………………………..Arthur Koestler ……………..1940
Koestler was a Hungarian journalist and war correspondent who had been captured and imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War, and who later served in the French Foreign Legion and the British Army during the Second World War (7).
The novel is about the imprisonment and interrogation of a former Party official, now under arrest by the authorities in Soviet Russia during the 1930s. At this time, intellectuals in Britain were often apologists for the Stalinist regime because they knew so little about it. The few reports filtering back about repression, famine and show trials were discounted as exaggeration, or excused as necessary to drag the nation forward into prosperity. This novel was part of a long process of re-education for the British intelligentsia.
The junior interrogator, Gletkin, is a calm implacable man who presents the justification for totalitarian methods with great skill. His superior, Ivanov, explains that at the start of the Revolution violent coercive measures were not used and it was hoped that anti-social elements could be re-educated in sanatoria, “with flower gardens.”
Gletkin replies, “In a hundred years we will have all that. But first we have to get through. The quicker the better. The only illusion was, to believe the time had already come. We wanted to start at once with the flower gardens. That was a mistake. In a hundred years we will be able to appeal to a criminal’s reason. Today we have to work on his physical constitution, and crush him physically and mentally if necessary.”
There is a conflict between the “flower gardens” philosophy and Gletkin’s direct brutal approach to obtain the co-operation of Rubashov, the former Party official who has indicated a “willingness to confess.” To Rubashov’s alarm, instead of the gentlemanly, patient approach of Ivanov, the senior interrogator, he is now faced by a glaring white light (8) and Gletkin.
“Something had obviously gone wrong with the senior interrogator. Suddenly sent on leave, or dismissed, or arrested…perhaps because he was mentally superior or too witty.” “Rubashov had no time for pity; he had to think quickly, and the light hindered him. If he now remained silent he would be lost; there was no going back now.
‘I am ready to make a statement,‘ he said, and tried to control the irritation in his voice. ‘But on the condition that you cease your tricks. Put out that dazzle-light and keep these methods for crooks and counter-revolutionaries.’
‘You are not in a position to make conditions,’ said Gletkin in his calm voice. ‘I cannot change the lighting in my room for you.
You do not seem fully to realise your position, especially the fact that you are yourself accused of counterrevolutionary activities, and that in the course of these last years you have twice admitted to them in public declarations. You are mistaken if you believe you will get off as cheaply this time.’
Rubashov heard only the buzzing of the lamp, which gave off cascades of white light, and radiated a steady heat which forced Rubashov to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He strained to keep his smarting eyes open, but the intervals at which he opened them became longer and longer; he felt a growing sleepiness.
‘I repeat,’ Gletkin’s voice said. ‘Your former declarations of repentance had the object of deceiving the Party and of saving your neck. And your public disavowal of your secretary Arlova, had that the same object?’
Rubashov nodded dumbly. The pressure in his eye-sockets radiated over all the nerves in the right side of his face. He noticed that his tooth had started to throb again.
`You know that Citizen Arlova had constantly called on you as the chief witness for her defence?’
`You also know that the declaration you made, which you called a lie, was decisive for the death sentence on Arlova?’
‘I was informed of it.’
Gletkin’s voice bored into his ear:
`So it is possible that Citizen Arlova was innocent?’
‘It is possible,’ said Rubashov, with a last remainder of
irony, which lay on his tongue like a taste of blood and gall. ‘And was executed as a consequence of the lying declaration you made, with the object of saving your head?’
‘That is about it,’ said Rubashov.
The interrogation and confession of “counter-revolutionary tendencies” continues towards its inevitable end.
Koestler’s novel shows the way the Revolution eats its own children (9).
Although the author, Arthur Koestler, (curst ler)
was born in Budapest in 1905, most of his education was in Austria. Working as a journalist, he joined the German Communist Party in 1931, but resigned from it in 1938 because of Russian Stalinism and also the feeling that international Communists were simply agents of Russian foreign policy. This disenchantment is explained in “Darkness at Noon” which he wrote soon after, in 1940.
Koestler (10) was of Jewish descent and spent a year in Palestine (1926-27) on the strength of which he got a job as Middle East correspondent for a top German newspaper. He travelled widely, during the 30s, in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. As a war correspondent, for a British newspaper, he went to Spain in 1937 to cover the Civil War. Arrested and sentenced to death, he was released by the Nationalists in a prisoner exchange.
From Spain he went to France, but the outbreak of war in September 1939, saw him interned by the French as an undesirable alien. Fortunately he was released just before the German invasion of France in May 1940 (11). Volunteering for the French Foreign Legion he escaped mainland France, but deserted when he reached North Africa.
From neutral Portugal, he took ship to Britain. Entering illegally he was interned by the British authorities. He volunteered for the British Army and spent a year in the Pioneer Corps, who were mostly employed in unskilled manual labouring.
In 1942 he was transferred to the Ministry of Information, where he worked on scripts for radio broadcasts and film productions. He earned a living by journalism and writing novels, during and after the war. In 1949 he was granted British nationality. He decided to make his permanent home in Britain in 1953, with houses in London and rural Suffolk. In 1976 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and in 1983, he and his third wife committed suicide together by a drugs overdose. Koestler was married three times, but biographies record no children. The reader is directed to a long wikipedia article which describes his considerable literary output and the many aspects of a long, interesting and varied life.
3 The Power and the Glory ……………………..Graham Greene ……………..1940
This novel continues the theme of totalitarianism, this time in Latin America. Like “Darkness at Noon” it is not a documentary, but it does closely reflect the reality of life in a dictatorship. The setting is one of the southern states of Mexico, following a revolution which brought an anti-religious clique into power, during the 1930s. Among other decrees, alcohol has been banned, Catholic priest have been forced to marry, and they are forbidden to celebrate Mass, or baptise children. For a country where Catholicism is the main religion of the people, these changes were deeply unpopular and unsettling.
The author, Graham Greene, (12) had been commissioned by the Catholic Church to visit Mexico in 1938 and comment on the situation. The result was a more documentary account of his experiences in, “The Lawless Roads”, which was followed by a fictional account of a hunted priest, in “The Power and the Glory”.
Greene was an adult convert to Catholicism, which can often mean a more intense desire to defend the faith than someone reared a Catholic since babyhood. This is not the case with Greene, whose book was so far from being a pious defence of the Church, that it was roundly condemned in 1953 by the British Cardinal Griffin of Westminster. Perhaps the final word should lie with Pope Paul VI, who said, in 1965, when meeting the author, “Mr Greene, some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”
Mexico, like much of Latin America, was conquered by the Spaniards and subject to several centuries of colonialism, where the indigenous or native peoples were the lowest and poorest social group. Even after gaining political independence from Spain, the Spanish-speaking colonists of the new nations were still in control of most of the land and wealth. It was these inequalities, and the oppression of the poor, (13) which led to the continual revolutions which have continued to bedevil Latin American countries since then.
The role of the Catholic Church has been an equivocal one in all this turmoil. The old religions of the indigenous peoples were often highly oppressive and some involved widespread human sacrifice. Christianity was adopted by the poor, with some relief, as a better alternative. The ordinary parish priests lived close to their people, learned native languages, and shared the poverty and hardships of their flock.
However, the upper reaches of the clergy were too close to the political and social elites, and did little to promote the well-being of the poor through social and political changes. This is why “anti-clericalism” or anti-Church attitudes were so common among the radical and revolutionary forces at work in Latin America. The Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, (Plates, 1, 13 and 14) was a Marxist and rarely featured priests or the Church in a favourable light. His painting, “The Maize Festival” (14) shows the indigenous people celebrating their staple crop. This festival is very ancient, going back to pre-conquest days, but it has been Christianised, so that a Christian cross occupies the apex of the design. Rivera shows no priests or religious orders in what he sees as a purely secular ceremony.
Anti-clericalism is a perfectly valid political stance in a democratic country, like Ireland, for example. It simply tries to limit the power of the Catholic Church by democratic means. However, the anti-clericalism in Mexico was of a wholly different order. It was allied with Marxist totalitarianism, oppression of all dissent, and persecution of Christians of all denominations. (Readers wishing to learn more of this period in Mexican history are referred to a wikipedia article entitled “Persecution of Christians in Mexico” and the story of Fr. Miguel Pro. 15)
The principal character in the novel, an old un-named priest, is a distinctly unheroic figure. He is an alcoholic, contemptuously described as a “whisky-priest”, who has fathered an illegitimate child in his younger days. Now he is on the run, and will be executed if he is caught by the police. The author skilfully shows him to be patient and forgiving to people when he is on the run, or in jail, but when he reaches safety, old habits re-assert themselves. He becomes selfish, and demanding, expecting the deference to which he was accustomed in former years.
The novel is set in a small seaport in the southern Mexico state of Tabasco. It begins by describing the sheer tedium of the place.
“Mr Tench, a dentist, went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr Tench’s heart, and he took a stone and tossed it feebly towards them. One rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the two gaseosa stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side.
Mr Tench went sweating past the Treasury which had once been a church, towards the quay. Gaseosa was all there was to drink in this prohibition state — except beer, but that was a government monopoly and too expensive except on special occasions. The boat was in. He had heard its exultant piping while he lay on his bed after lunch. He came out between a warehouse and the customs on to the river bank. The river went heavily towards the sea between the banana plantations. The boat, General Obregon was tied up to the bank, and beer was being unloaded.”
The police have decided to take a hostage from each of the local villages. The hunted priest is travelling by mule, and for safety, he is following the police sweep. They will never find him unless he accidentally catches up with them. If the police discover later that the hunted man has passed through a village, they will shoot the hostage, and take another one. In this way, the villagers would inevitably report the priest to the police, for their own survival. He is finally betrayed to the police by a “Red Shirt”, (Communist youth), for being in possession of a brandy bottle and is arrested.
In the police station, two photographs are displayed, one of the priest and another of an American fugitive. “There he sat among the white-starched dresses of the first communicants, with a ring round his face to pick it out. The other picture was of the gringo from San Antonio, Texas, wanted for murder and bank robbery.” (“Gringo” is a rather scornful Latin American word to describe an English-speaking North American)
“The sergeant unlocked a small grated door and let out with his boot at something straddled across the entrance. He said, ‘They are all good fellows, here,’ kicking his way in.
A heavy smell lay on the air and somebody in the absolute darkness wept.
The priest lingered on the threshold trying to see. Laying a large considerate hand upon the priest’s back, the sergeant pushed him in, and then slammed the door. The priest trod on a hand, an arm, and pressing his face against the grill, protested,
‘There’s no room. I can’t see. Who are these people?’
Outside, the sergeant began to laugh. ‘Hombre,’ he said, ‘hombre, have you never been in jail before?’
The author, Graham Greene, was one of the most successful writers of the twentieth century. Not only were most of his novels extremely popular, but many of them were made into equally successful films. He had a curious facility for choosing to visit places, and, not exactly placing them on the map for the rest of the world, but getting there before events finally exploded on to the world stage.
Some of these novels include, “The Third Man” on corruption in post-war Vienna, made into a highly successful film, “The Quiet American” (1955) set in Vietnam before the war began, “Our Man in Havana”, (1958) before the Cuban revolution, “The Comedians” about the tyranny of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and his “Ton-ton macoutes” thugs in Haiti, (1966).
He was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 1904, the son of a senior master at the public school in the town. Leaving Oxford University with a History degree he briefly tried teaching and then went into journalism. He converted to Catholicism in 1926, when courting his wife Vivien who was a Catholic convert. They married in 1927, and his first novel, “The Man Within” was published in 1929. They had a son and a daughter, and separated amicably in 1948, but Greene never divorced his wife or re-married, although he had relationships with other women, notably Yvonne Cloetta. The last years of his life were spent at Vevey, on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, where Charlie Chaplin was a neighbour and close friend. He died of leukemia in 1991 at the age of 86.
4 Grey Eminence …………………………………..Aldous Huxley ……………….1941
We are all familiar with film and TV versions of the novel by Alexandre Dumas, “The Three Musketeers”, set in early seventeenth century France, detailing the adventures of a young recruit, D’ Artagnon, (19, second from right) as a member of the King’s Guards. The elaborate uniforms and large, ostrich-plumed hats lend themselves to costume drama.
The novel, “Grey Eminence”, is set within this period, and although the flamboyant soldiery make an appearance, it is more concerned with high politics. The work of Aldous Huxley appeared earlier, in the fourth decade, the 1930s. While “Brave New World” looked prophetically forward into the future, this novel, on the life of a French monk, Père Joseph, looked back into the past, seeking the causes of those two twentieth century horrors, the world wars, of 1914-1918, and 1939-1945.
Huxley makes a startling claim in his book. He asserts that the events of Père Joseph’s small world led to August 1914 and September 1939. “In the long chain of crime and madness which binds the present world to its past, one of the most fatally important links was the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648). None worked harder than Père Joseph to forge this link”. This is a surprising criticism to make about a man, who was not only a practising Christian, but also a professional religious, a monk. By the end of the novel, we find that Huxley had proved his argument.
In France, during the early seventeenth century, Cardinal Richelieu (20) was more than the most senior churchman in the land; he was also the most powerful politician after the Head of State, King Louis XIII. He began a policy of centralising power in the hands of the King, creating what historians call, “an absolute monarchy”. The Cardinal destroyed the political power of the French Protestants, and severely curtailed the independence of the nobility. The final outcome of Richelieu’s policy of absolutism was the French Revolution, around 150 years later, when the King and Queen were executed and the monarchy was swept away.
Abroad, Richelieu wanted to make France the dominant political power in Europe, by weakening the Austrian Habsburg Emperors. This is why he involved France in the Thirty Years War. This was a complex struggle between various German states and the Emperor. It also pitted Protestant forces against Catholic ones. Cardinal Richelieu saw no problem in backing Protestant armies attacking the Catholic troops of the Emperor. Anything, anything, as long as the Emperor was damaged and French troops were triumphant. This is the murky world of power politics into which Père Joseph (21) entered as Cardinal Richelieu’s close confidante and Secretary. The Cardinal was a dangerous and unpopular man, and needed his own corps of soldiers to protect him. The conflicts between the King’s Guards and the Cardinal’s men form the basis of Dumas’ novel.
The subject of this novel, Francois du Tremblay, known in religion as Père Joseph, a Capuchin friar, has passed into history from the literary phrase, “eminence grise”. Now, few know of the man behind the words. Cardinal Richelieu’s formal title was “Eminence”, and the nickname “eminence grise” or “grey eminence” refers to the Capuchin friars’ covering, or habit of grey worsted. It conveys some idea of the power of the man; a “grey cardinal”. We use the phrase nowadays to mean a secret power behind the obvious power of rulers.
Huxley’s abiding interest was in mystical experience, and he wrote a classic short account of the subject in his book, “The Perennial Philosophy.” Near the end of his life he wrote a short novel “Island” trying to show how mystical insights could be used to create a more hopeful society. (21)
It needs to be stressed that mysticism has nothing to do with magic, or the occult, or new age practices. Essentially, mysticism is a private and personal experience, giving some understanding of the ultimate nature of reality, beyond our immediate senses of the physical world. It is not easily described in words, but has been called, “the timeless moment”, an experience outside of space and time. (23)
Huxley’s interest in Père Joseph lay in the fact that although he had become a mystic of considerable insight, he tried to combine this life with the practice of power politics under Richelieu’s malign influence. If he was no more than an adept at power politics there would be no reason to single him out for disapproval, but Père Joseph “knew something of the other world, the world of eternity.”
Although this book is in the form of a novel, it deals with real historical characters and real events. It is only the thoughts and conversations which are imagined. Huxley’s book raises issues of such profound importance that they are still a subject of hot debate today.
The principal issue is on the morality of action. Most of us would accept that actions like lying, kidnap and torture were morally wrong when done by private individuals. But suppose these things are done for the State? The terms, “extra-ordinary rendition” and “water-boarding” are simply polysyllabic euphemisms for kidnap and torture. This is a hot topic of political, legal and private debate in the USA and the UK at the present moment. On a lower level, most would agree that vandalising property, and terrorising small children were morally wrong. Yet a minority of animal rights activists have carried out such acts against research workers involved in experiments with animals.
In both these cases, the proponents, governments and animal activists, argue that a higher, more important, or more noble cause, allows the individual to perpetrate acts that are totally immoral in a private situation. The law in the USA and the UK rejects this view. This is what separates the liberal democracies from the totalitarian states described earlier by Arthur Koestler and Graham Greene.
The novel begins with a description of Père Joseph’s journeys across Europe, carrying secret letters from the French king and Cardinal Richelieu to the Pope and other important leaders. Although horse travel was faster over short distances, a man on foot was more reliable for long journeys. A friar was unlikely to be robbed because he was known to be destitute and relying on charity. “The Capucin was still hurrying, at the rate of fifteen leagues, (45 miles, or 72 Km) a day across the face of Europe. The sun came out, the Capucin looked up and calculated from its position in the sky that it must be a little after two o; clock, and Rome was still three leagues away. (9 miles, 15 Km) He had time to practise his annihilation in the Essential Will as he walked.” (This is an advanced form of mental prayer.)
As he marched along and prayed, other thoughts kept breaking in, “The Pope’s nephew had been offended by the Spanish Ambassador. These Spaniards were forever undoing themselves by their stupid arrogance. Well, so much the better for France. He resolved to banish these distracting thoughts. At the Milvian Bridge a group of soldiers had been posted to check on incoming travellers from the north. The Capucin’s foreign accent aroused their suspicions, and he was taken to the guardroom (24) to give an account of himself.
The officer in charge (25) touched his hat as the friar entered, but did not rise or remove his booted feet from the table on which he had propped them. The traveller explained that he had been sent to attend a meeting of the Chapter General of his order. The officer listened, picking his teeth, as he did so, with a silver-gilt toothpick. When the Capuchin had finished, he touched his hat again, belched and asked for the Reverend Father’s papers.
Opening his habit, he reached into an inner pocket. The packet which he brought out was wrapped in blue damask and tied with a white silk ribbon. Suddenly the smile on the Officer’s fat face was replaced by a look of astonishment that gave place to one positively of alarm. There was a letter sealed with the royal arms of France and addressed to His Holiness Pope Urban VIII. He glanced apprehensively at the friar, then back again at that formidable superscription, that portentous seal; then with a great jingling and clatter he took his feet off the table, sprang out of his chair and, removing his hat, made a deep bow.
`Forgive me, Reverend Father,’ he said. ‘If I had only known…. If only you had made it clear from the outset.’
Breaking off, he rushed to the door and began shouting furiously at his men.
When the Capuchin left the guard room, he found his way across the bridge lined on either side by a company of papal musketeers. He halted for a moment, raised a hand in blessing, and then, without looking to right or left, hurried forward noiselessly on his bare feet between the double row of pikes.” (26)
This book gives some idea of Huxley’s skill as a biographical novel writer and his insights into the mystical life. He was a free thinker and espoused no particular religious faith, but his book shows considerable knowledge of Catholic faith and practice in the France of the early seventeenth century. He explains that essence of a mystic’s life is simplicity; solitude, quiet, a simple diet, physical work, and prayer. There should be few distractions. By contrast, the life of high politics, as Richelieu’s Secretary requires constant attention to news and “intelligence” or incoming reports from spies, and diplomats from all over Europe. The two lives are irreconcilable as this fascinating book shows, ending with the terrifying description of Pere Joseph’s last day of life.
Like C S Lewis, poor Huxley was unwise enough to die on the day in 1963 that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, so that his passing barely merited two lines on the foot of page 98 of all the national daily papers.
5 La Peste ………………………………………….Albert Camus …………………………………………………………..1947
This book is often seen as an allegory, that is, one which is to be understood on more than one level. The first level is a purely factual narrative, but the second level deals with symbolic themes. It is about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the French colonial city of Oran in the 1940s. However, there was no such plague epidemic in Oran at that time. The author draws on historical accounts of plague which occurred in other places and in the Oran of earlier times.
Oran (27) is in North Africa, in what is now the independent country of Algeria, but in the 1940s it was a French colony. The Second World War began in the summer of 1939 when Nazi Germany attacked Poland. As allies of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, but little military activity followed, (“The Phony War”). Real fighting began in 1940, when the Germans invaded France and compelled the French forces to capitulate. The Germans occupied the whole of northern France, and set up a puppet government based in the town of Vichy (vee shee) to run the southern half. The colony of Algeria was under the control of the Vichy Government and subject to the political influence of Nazi Germany.
The French title of the novel “La Peste” translates into English as “the plague”, meaning specifically, the classic bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. The whole theme of the novel is a metaphor for the German occupation of France and its colonies. Bubonic plague is a disease of rats, and several other wild rodents, caused by a bacterium, (28) Yersinia pestis (formerly Pasteurella pestis), originally named after the great French biologist, Louis Pasteur, (1823-1895). The bacterium is transmitted from rat to rat by the bite of the rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis. The gut of the flea is blocked by blood cells and it becomes hungry, so it bites far more frequently. When its rat host dies it will bite any mammal it meets. This is why it bites humans. Plague is not transmitted directly from human to human, and in that sense is not an infectious disease.
None of this complex life history was known to people in medieval times. It was a quite terrifying disease which struck people down so suddenly that someone who appeared healthy in the morning could be dead by evening. The name “bubonic” comes from buboes or swellings in the lymph nodes under the armpits or groins. The victim suffered haemorrhaging under the skin causing a dark red or black coloration, hence the alternative name “Black Death” for this disease. It arrived in Europe, from Asia, during the 1350s and spread rapidly. It remained endemic in the population of Europe until the 19 C.
All of this knowledge would have been available during the 1940s outbreak. It was a relief for doctors and nurses to know that they could not catch the disease directly from their patients, and the matter was principally one of public health. Collect up the dead rats, and prevent people being bitten by fleas.
The narrator of the story is revealed, at the end, as a French doctor, Bernard Rieux (bear nar ree oo) treating patients during the plague outbreak. It is no horror story but a gripping mystery, and an illustration of how people often rise to the challenges which life presents to them.
The author Albert Camus, (al bear cam oo), explores the different ways in which people respond to the plague. Some use the difficulties to make money at the expense of their fellow-citizens (Cottard). Others, (Fr Panelou) see the plague as divine punishment and urge a religious response. Many see a job of work which needs doing with as much compassion as possible, (Dr Rieux). A few try to escape from the city which has been sealed off to prevent the plague from spreading to the rest of the colony.
As suggested, the plague is a metaphor to describe the German occupation of France and its colony, and the response of the people. Some collaborated with the Germans, others joined the Resistance, some escaped abroad, while most, like Dr Rieux just carried on and did the best they could. When the epidemic was over, the people were once more free to visit the beautiful beaches of Oran (30).
The author explains, early on in the novel “that Oran is grafted on to a unique landscape, in the centre of a bare plateau, ringed with luminous hills and above a perfectly shaped bay. All we may regret is the town’s being so disposed that it turns its back on the bay, with the result that it’s impossible to see the sea, you always have to go to look for it.”
The end of the book contains a moving description of the way that for many people, all through their lives, they remain unable or unwilling to communicate their deepest feelings. After the departure of Dr Rieux’s young wife, Marie-Claire, for a tuberculosis sanatorium in the hills outside Oran, his mother comes to keep house for him, while he ministers to the sick and dying in the beleaguered city. She speaks to her son,
‘Not too tired’
At that moment he knew what his mother was thinking, and that she loved him. But he knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little; or, rather, that love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it. Thus he and his mother would always love each other silently. And one day she — or he — would die, without ever, all their lives long, having gone farther than this by way of making their affection known.
Dr Rieux retained his composure “on receiving next morning, the news of his wife’s death. He was in the surgery. His mother came in, almost running, and handed him a telegram; then went back to the hall to give the telegraph-boy a tip. When she returned, her son was holding the telegram open in his hand. She looked at him, but his eyes were resolutely fixed on the window; it was flooded with the effulgence of the morning sun rising above the harbour.
‘Bernard’ she said gently.
The doctor turned and looked at her almost as if she were a stranger.
‘Yes’, he said. ‘That’s it…. A week ago.’
Mme Rieux turned her face towards the window. Rieux kept silent for a while. Then he told his mother not to cry. He’d been expecting it, but it was hard all the same. And he knew, in saying this, that this suffering was nothing new. For many months, and for the last two days, it was the self-same suffering going on and on.”
At some time in the nineties, the BBC broadcast an excellent adaptation of the book as a play in two one-hour episodes. The adaptation kept to the plot and it was one of the things the BBC once did so well. There was no attempt to graft modern attitudes on to what is something of a period piece. The atmosphere was heightened by the restrained use of popular music; particularly Jean Sablon’s recording of, “J’attendrai”, (zhat on dray) (“”I’ll Wait for You”), the wistful popular war-time song, (31) both for servicemen abroad, and for wives and sweethearts at home. The post-plague firework celebrations were accompanied by, “Le Marche Lorraine” a popular march tune from before the First World War.
The author, Albert Camus, was born in Algeria in 1913 of Breton French and Spanish parentage. He grew up in North Africa, but eventually went to mainland France and took up journalism. He was 27 when the German armies invaded France in 1940. Following this, he became active in the Resistance, which was an underground paramilitary organisation opposed to the German occupation. It collected intelligence on German military activity, and co-operated with the British secret agents parachuted into occupied France. Camus edited the secret underground publication called, “Combat”.
In the later stages of the European war the Resistance carried out acts of sabotage to hamper the German forces. This was a risky business because the Germans were quick to take reprisals against innocent civilian populations, whereby most of the inhabitants of a village were murdered, especially if German SS troops were involved. The names of the small French villages of St Mere Eglise and Oradour sur Glane have subsequently passed into history for this reason.
After the war Camus began to concentrate on writing. He had already published a play, “Caligula”, (1939), and two wartime books, “L’ Etranger”, (The Outsider), “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” (The Sisyphus Myth). His novel, “La Peste” won the French Critics’ Prize in 1947 and is probably his best known work. Philosophically, he was part of the French existentialist movement, centred round Jean-Paul Sartre, although he rejected the idea that “La Peste” was an existentialist novel. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him in 1957. Tragically, he died at the age of 46, as a result of a car crash in January, 1960.
6 Brideshead Revisited …………………………………..Evelyn Waugh …………………………………………….1945
It is rarely recognised by commentators that “Brideshead” is essentially a religious novel. Evelyn Waugh wrote this book as an illustration of the working of the Christian concept of grace. The word “grace” in this context means an undeserved blessing or favour granted to an individual by God. The hero, Charles Ryder, is eventually brought to the Catholic faith as a result of his experiences.
This religious aspect is frequently ignored by reviewers, so that rather superficially, the book is often seen as harking back to an idyllic world of the ancient Oxford colleges, grand country houses and gilded youth in the 1920s and 1930s. The TV adaptations tend to concentrate on romantic storylines and elegant period locations, such as Castle Howard (33) in Yorkshire, “standing in” for the country house “Brideshead”.
The book is often very funny and full of Waugh’s acid comments on the social mores of the times. Much of this was lost in the TV adaptations. This novel touches briefly on WW2 as it opens with the hero, Charles Ryder, a disconsolate army captain, preparing to leave one awful army camp in Britain for another one.
“When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, I paused and looked back at the camp, just below me through the grey mist of early morning. We were leaving that day. When we marched in, the place was under snow; now the first leaves of spring were unfolding. Whatever scenes of desolation lay ahead of us, I never feared one more brutal than this, and I reflected now that: it had no single happy memory for me.
Here love had died between me and the Army.” I felt like a husband who, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company. So, on this morning of our move, I was entirely indifferent as to our destination. I would go on with my job, but I could bring to it nothing more than acquiescence.” The bitterness of Waugh’s comments may well reflect his own disenchantment with war service in the army (34).
Ryder’s army unit had transferred to their new camp during the night, so that next morning he asked the second-in-command where they were. “He told me and, on the instant, it was as though a radio had been switched off, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, for days had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed. It became full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: He had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight. (The name, was of course, “Brideshead”)
A cart-track, overgrown now, followed the contour of the hillside and dipped out of sight below a knoll. Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite man-made landscape. It was a sequestered place, enclosed and embraced in a single, winding valley and in it flowed a stream — it was named the Bride and rose not two miles away at a farm called Bridesprings; it became a considerable river lower down before it joined the Avon. It had been dammed here to form three lakes, one no more than a wet slate among the reeds, but the others more spacious, reflecting the clouds and the mighty beeches at their margin. They made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces — Did the fallow deer graze here still? — and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple (35) stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest weir.”
Ryder then tells us how he came to Brideshead in the first instance. As a student at Oxford, he meets Sebastian Flyte, a younger son of the family who own and live in Brideshead. Sebastian takes Charles for a mystery car drive and after a couple of hours, reaches their destination.
“Wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, open park-land, and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us. We were at the head of a valley and below us, half a mile distant, grey and gold amid a screen of boskage, (shrubbery) shone the dome and columns of an old house.
`Well?’ said Sebastian, stopping the car, beyond the dome lay receding steps of water and round it, guarding and hiding it, stood the soft hills.
`What a place to live in!’ I said.
`You must see the garden front and the fountain. It’s where my family live’; and even then, rapt in the vision, I felt, momentarily, an ominous chill at the words he used — not, ‘that is my home’, but ‘it’s where my family live’.
The author, Evelyn Waugh was pre-occupied with the Catholic gentry in England and their life in the stately homes of the thirties. His “Sword of Honour” trilogy shows the same obsessions as those in “Brideshead Revisited”. The first TV adaptation set “Brideshead” in Castle Howard in Yorkshire, an enormous baroque pile, much too grand for the purpose. We now know that Waugh had been influenced by Madresfield Court near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, where he was a regular house guest of the Catholic Lygon family in the thirties. However, the Brideshead of Waugh’s novel is an eighteenth century classical building with “domes and columns”, while Madresfield Court (36) is an Elizabethan manor house, (16 C) surrounded by a moat, and with rather awful Victorian additions.
Clearly, Waugh’s beautiful Brideshead and its landscape is a creation of the mind, and not to be sought by enthusiasts in any real great house, just as the Shropshire of A E Housman’s poems, “A Shropshire Lad,” is a work of imagination, rather than a description of the real county.
The first TV adaptation in 1981 was credited to John Mortimer, a barrister and writer. He was an atheist and something of a libertine, with unacknowledged illegitimate children, so it came as a surprise that his adaptation had kept close to the letter and spirit of this essentially religious book. Now we know the truth that Mortimer produced a script of such abysmal quality that it was never used. The producer Derek Granger had to write most of the script himself with help from other members of his production team. It was Derek Granger who kept close to Evelyn Waugh’s themes so that Mortimer’s corrupt reputation remains intact.
Needless to say, the recent, 2012 BBC TV adaptation was abysmal by contrast with the 1981 version. It tried to “update” the novel to reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the modern London adaptors and their audience, rather than letting the original values of the book speak for themselves.
I shall close with one of my favourite passages in the novel. It records a meal in a Paris restaurant, arranged by Charles Ryder as an impoverished art student (38), but paid for by Rex Mottram, the brash and superficial Canadian businessman in pursuit of Julia Flyte, the nubile daughter of the family at “Brideshead”. Rex has been given charge of Sebastian, now a hopeless alcoholic, but he has given Rex the slip.
“I was there twenty minutes before Rex. If I had to spend an evening with him, it should, at any rate, be in my own way. I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille, (sorrel, a slightly bitter common weed, 39) a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton a la presse, (pressed duckling)
a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Béze of 1904.
Living was easy in France then; (in the 1920s) with the exchange as it was, my allowance went a long way and I did not live frugally. It was very seldom, however, that I had a dinner like this, and I felt well disposed to Rex, when he arrived and gave up his coat with the air of not expecting to see them again. He saw four senators with napkins tucked under their beards eating in absolute silence. I imagined him telling his commercial friends later: `… interesting fellow I know; an art student in Paris. Took me to a funny little restaurant where there was some of the best food I ever ate. The half a dozen senators there shows you it was the right place. Wasn’t at all cheap either.’
‘Any sign of Sebastian?’ he asked.
‘There won’t be,’ I said, ‘until he needs money.’
He plainly wished to talk of his own affairs; but they could wait, I thought, for the hour of tolerance and repletion, for the cognac; they could wait until the attention was blunted and one could listen with half the mind only; now in the keen moment when the maitre d’hôtel was turning the blinis over in the pan, and, in the background, two humbler men were preparing the press, we would talk of myself.
‘The cream and hot butter mingled and overflowed, separating each glaucous bead of caviar from its fellows, capping it in white and gold.
‘I like a bit of chopped onion with mine,’ said Rex. ‘Chap-who-knew told me it brought out the flavour.’
‘Try it without first,’ I said.
The oseille soup was delicious after the rich blinis – hot, thin, bitter, frothy.
The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it. We ate to the music of the press – the crunch of the bones, the drip of blood and marrow, the tap of the spoon basting the thin slices of breast (40). There was a pause here of a quarter of an hour, while I drank the first glass of the Clos de Béze and Rex smoked his first cigarette. He leaned back, blew a cloud of smoke across the table, and remarked, ‘You know, the food here isn’t half bad; someone ought to take this place up and make something of it.’
Presently he began talking again about the Flyte family of Brideshead, having told Charles that the Marchioness, mother of Sebastian and Julia, was terminally ill, with perhaps two years to live.
‘I’ll tell you another thing, too – they’ll get a jolt financially soon if they don’t look out.‘
‘I thought they were enormously rich.’‘
They’re overdrawn, jolly near a hundred thousand in London. It’s the kind of thing I hear.’
Those were the kind of things Rex heard, mortal illness and debt, I thought.
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew.
‘I’d like to get the little matter of a marriage settlement through, before they lose all their money.’
We had by no means reached the cognac, but here we were on the subject of Rex himself. In twenty minutes I should have been ready for all he had to tell. I closed my mind to him as best I could and gave myself to the food before me, but he broke in on my happiness, recalling me to the harsh, acquisitive world which Rex inhabited. He wanted a woman; he wanted the best on the market, and he wanted her at his own price; that was what it amounted to.
After the duck came a salad of watercress and chicory in a faint mist of chives. I tried to think only of the salad. I succeeded for a time in thinking only of the souffle. Then came the cognac and the proper hour for these confidences from Rex.’
The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers (41). It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.
‘Brandy’s one of the things I do know a bit about,‘ said Rex. ‘This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.‘
They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home.
So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.
‘That’s the stuff,‘ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. ‘They‘ve always got some tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.’
`I’m quite happy with this.’
`Well, it’s a crime to drink it, if you don’t really appreciate it.‘
He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We both were happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog’s barking miles away on a still night.”
7 The Hucksters …………………………………….Frederic Wakeman ……………………………………………….1947
This novel is set at the close of the Second World War, when the hero, Victor Norman, is returning to the USA from OWI, the American Office of War Information, full of journalists and ad-men in uniform. “It is all over; the rest is just street cleaning.” He is looking for work in Madison Avenue, New York, (42) hub of the advertising world. “He really needed this job. But I can’t afford to show it, he thought. He’d hired enough men to know that the minute an applicant showed job-hunger his chances went way down”
The essence of commerce is that manufacturers concentrate on making good desirable products and leave the advertising of these products to the professionals, the advertising agencies. These have ready access to commercial artists, radio scriptwriters, actors, singers, and musicians. This novel is set in the golden age of commercial radio in the States, in the 1940s before TV became widely available. The advertising agencies call their customers, “Accounts”, and the person in overall charge of every aspect of the advertising is the “Account Executive”.
The novel opens with the hero preparing for a vital interview at the advertising agency, Kimberley and Maag. He claims that his father told him, “Hard work never got anybody any place. The important thing is to be sincere.” He is dressing with elaborate care, “Both suits had cost one hundred and fifty dollars, and he debated which one better looked the price. He decided on the sharkskin. A white unHollywood-looking shirt, of course. He wanted to look sincere and business-like. Most of his ties were far too loud for a really sincere person. So he put on a plain black knitted one, and finally the shoes he’d bought in London. Those shoes were the god-damnedest sincerest-looking shoes in all of New York.
He left his Louis XVI suite, plunged downwards into the convention-loving lobby of the Waldorf Hotel, (43) and strolled out into the bright March morning, walking westward across Park Avenue (44) towards Radio City, to the offices of Kimberly and Maag. Plenty of time, and cabs were hard to get.
This morning there was a tense but good feeling of being home again, and he savoured those luxurious signs of high-rent, expensive, snobbish, hustling, gossiping, drinking, conniving, show-offy east side.
The doormen still looked deferential and tip-hungry; the women still wore nylons, walked little dogs, went to extraordinary lengths to emphasize their usually undersized breasts. He liked the rich smell of them as they passed by; thought them the most beautiful, desirable women in all the world.”
Victor Norman is offered a post as an Account Executive for the “Beautee Soap” account. He knows it is a poisoned chalice, but he needs the work and it is very well paid. The story of how a succession of harassed, unhappy Beautee Soap account executives lost their jobs is well-known on Madison Avenue. The problem is that the account is a big one and the soap manufacturer, Evan Llewelyn Evans, (45) is continually interfering and controlling the account executives through creating deep fear. The fear is of losing the account to another ad agency. The still below, shows Sydney Greenstreet as Old Man Evans in the 1947 MGM film version of “The Hucksters”. The film and novel were released in the same year.
At Victor Norman’s first meeting with Evans, “All eyes were fixed on the old man at the head of the table. He sat, looking down at the table, and there was great silence for two or three minutes.
It gave Vic a chance to look his new client over. So this was the man, advertising and radio genius, scourge of account executives. The man who had paid one million dollars for a comedy show, then cancelled it after one programme because the gag-writers had put in one off-colour joke. The man who had built and broken more stars than anyone else in radio. The man who had fired a world-famous Metropolitan Opera soprano because she wouldn’t sing “Some of These Days”.
In the expressive silence Mr Evans raised his straw-covered head once more, hawked and spat on the mahogany board table. No one spoke. Very deliberately, he took the handkerchief out of his sleeve, wiped the spit off the table, and threw the handkerchief into a waste-basket.
`Mr Norman,’ he said, shouting in a deep bass. ‘You have just seen me do a disgusting thing. Ugly word, spit. But you know, you’ll always remember what I just did.’ Taut silence. Then Mr Evans leaned forward and whispered hoarsely, `Mr Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, then you ain’t gonna sell any soap.’
Vic manages to please Evans with his inventiveness and originality, and he cultivates a don’t-give-a-damn attitude which enables him to avoid the fear which has overcome the previous Beautee Soap account executives. He also stands up to Evans who demands that an ad agency teletypist be fired for a minor clerical error. She is not on Evans staff and he has no right to interfere. When Evans tries to go over Vic’s head to Kimberley, the agency boss, Vic refuses to reveal the name of the teletypist. (The teletype was a method of sending written messages long distance by wire. A Kimberley and Maag typist typed a script in their New York office, and instantaneously a machine in their Los Angeles office began to print it out on paper.)
Kimberley remains in New York to placate Mr Evans, their biggest client, while his partner Maag works in California, principally because he hates Evans. Eventually, Vic needs to make a trip to California to sort out a problem over comedian, Buddy Hare, and contracts for the soap account. Before the end of WW2 flying was limited to important military personnel, and most businessmen had to use the railways instead. Victor Norman’s trip from New York to California was made in two stages, first on the Twentieth Century Limited, a fast, luxury express train to Chicago, drawn, of course, by a coal-fired steam locomotive (46). The second stage was on the “Super Chief” from Chicago to Los Angeles. This was another luxury sleeping-car express train, drawn this time by a diesel-powered locomotive. It was the flagship (47) of the Aitcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company.
The whole outward trip took about three days to complete. This time was often used by businessmen to catch up on gossip, tout for business, open negotiations, and complete deals.
Vic’s problem is that Mr Evans is enthusiastic about the comedian, Buddy Hare, whom he thinks can be the highly successful star of a new radio series. “The Old Man said it was now Vic’s entire responsibility from here out. Vic did not want that rap pinned on him.” Evans claimed that although he had discovered Hare, the ad agency’s enthusiasm shifted the entire responsibility on to them. Vic thought, ‘The crafty old son of a bitch’. Back at the agency, Kim said, ‘I hope you’re more bullish about Buddy Hare.’
Vic said he could only hope that Buddy Hare would drop dead and get them out of the jam. Kim’s optimism flashed briefly. ‘Do you suppose he might?’ he said. ‘No, I’d never be that lucky. But maybe you can make a good show out of it anyway.’ Vic told him there wasn’t a chance. ‘It’ll sound all right. Good jokes, laughs, I’ll pack the script with boffolas. But hell, the guy’s no radio comedian – period. He’s fair on burlesque routines that he’s been practising for years. But not on material you have to change once a week.’
As our hero travels from Chicago out to the West coast, on the “Super Chief”, in search of talent for his advertising account, he finds love and loses it, with Kay Dorrance, another passenger, played in the film by Deborah Kerr. (48)
Vic Norman is something of a philosopher, and we get regular nuggets of laconic wisdom. The first one we have already met,
“My father used to say hard work never got anybody any place. The important thing is to be sincere.”
“If a job’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well”
“I’m just a simple country boy, but…”
“We can only afford three crises a day. Any more than that gives you ulcers.”
“It’s only money.”
“Good ideas are a dime a dozen.”
While in California, Vic manages to get a print of an old Buddy Hare movie containing some obscene material. Knowing that the Old Man is very puritanical he sends the print to Kimberley by air mail, asking him to show it to Evans. In the California radio recording studio “Norma ran into the control room with a teletype in her hand. Vic took it.
`Your hunch was right, Mr. Norman,’ she said. ‘This is awful.’
He smiled at her. Hunch was hardly the word.
MR NORMAN FROM MR KIMBERLY
MR EVANS AND I JUST SAW BUDDY HARE MOVIE U AIRMAILED. RESULTS DRASTIC. HERES THE NET NET. MR EVANS SAYS QUOTE THIS BUFFOON HARE IS A LOW VULGAR COMEDIAN AND DIRTY TO BOOT. BEAUTEE SOAP IS A CLEAN PRODUCT AND WE CANNOT EVER/UNDERSCORE EVER CONSIDER ASSOCIATING A MAN OF HARES VULGARITY WITH OUR PRODUCT. THE BEAUTEE SOAP COMPANY IS NO LONGER INTERESTED IN ANY RADIO PROGRAMME CONNECTED IN ANY WAY WHATSOEVER WITH THIS BUFFOON HARE UNQUOTE.
VIC, IT IS VERY SERIOUS. HE CASTIGATED ME AND AGAIN USED THE WORD CAVALIER TO DESCRIBE U. HE SAID WE TRIED TO CRAM BUDDY HARE DOWN HIS THROAT AND IT WAS A FLAGRANT EXAMPLE OF BAD AGENCY THINKING. MR EVANS DEMANDS A MEETING WITH U NEXT FRIDAY. THIS IS A CRISIS, VIC. WE HAVE NEVER BEEN CLOSER TO LOSING THE ACCOUNT. WHEN WILL U BE LEAVING FOR NY/Q AM WAITING FOR ANSWER. GA.
KIM FROM VIC
LEAVING ON CHIEF TOMORROW. ARRIVING NY FRIDAY ON CENTURY. THINK UR DECISION TO DROP BUDDY HARE SHOW A GOOD ONE. GOD IS LOVE END.
Vic attends the New York meeting, (49) where he supposed “they’d gone through the Death of an Account Executive so often it was a routine.” Curiously, there were no recriminations from Evans, and when Vic produces a gramophone record he has had made in California, the Old Man is so impressed with the girl singer he stamps his feet and shakes his shoulders. “Hot stuff,” he says. He wants to sign her for his current radio show. The singer, Jean Ogilvie, is an old flame of Vic’s and he has coached her in the recording studio. Vic has saved himself from the fire.
MGM made their film in 1947, with Clark Gable mis-cast as Victor Norman, Sydney Greenstreet as Evan Llewelyn Evans, and Adolphe Menjou as Kimberly. They made changes in the plot of the novel by greatly enlarging the part of the singer, Jean Ogilvie, and casting Ava Gardner in the role. MGM also expanded and altered the part of Kay Dorrance, whom Vic meets on the train to California. She has her two small children with her, and is married to a man serving overseas with the American armed forces. She and Vic fall in love but they both know it is a doomed affair. As Vic remarks, approximately, in a quote I cannot now find, ‘Hello Colonel, I’m Victor Norman, the man who stole your wife and children while you were fighting for your country overseas.’
On a personal note, I found that the novel provides such a good tutorial in advertising that an Account Executive I once met, was convinced, that I had pursued a career in this area. I told no lies, but my use of the jargon persuaded him that I knew the business.
The author, Frederic Wakeman, (50) was born in Scranton, Kansas, in 1909. After leaving school he spent some time working for railroad companies in the south-west, before entering university in Missouri and graduating in 1933. He did some journalism and freelance radio work before starting a career in advertising. In 1937 he moved to New York, and as an account executive he worked on accounts for Ford Motor, Westinghouse, and American Can. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1942, soon after the entry of the USA into the Second World War. His first novel, “Shore Leave” was based on his naval experiences in the Pacific theatre of war, and published at this time. “The Hucksters” (1947) was his second novel. In later years he lived abroad with his family in Bermuda, Cuba, and France.
Wakeman was a clean-cut handsome man, (50) and appears far more suitable for the film role of Victor Norman than the rather crumpled, raffish Clark Gable. There is a long wikipedia article on Frederic Wakeman Jnr., an academic and son of the author, but nothing on the writer himself. These details are from the short biography in the Penguin edition of the novel.
8 The Loved One ………………………………………Evelyn Waugh ……………………………………………………1948
This final novel, of my review of the decade, is set firmly in peacetime with no hint of the war just finished. It deals with the great taboo subject in the second half of the twentieth century (51). Even now, sixty years after this novel was published, when women can talk freely about their hysterectomies in mixed company, and men compare notes on their prostate surgery, death is still couched in euphemism and evasion. People are said to have “passed on”, “passed over”, “fallen asleep” or be “lost”, anything but “died”. This witty and humorous novel is a comment on the funeral business in the United States, seen from a British perspective.
During the early twentieth century American funeral practice began to undergo profound changes, driven by a sharp entrepreneurial capitalism. It was realised that a funeral has always involved a significant outlay of money, but at a time of psychological stress, due to grief, remorse or a desire to make a good final show. Also, there was more money available due to the maturation of insurance policies on death. Unlike the purchase of a car, where caution, scepticism and a calm evaluation of advantages and drawbacks can be made unhurriedly, a funeral requires quick decisions as the event will take place in a week or two at most.
The important changes were accompanied by a new terminology, and “undertakers” became “morticians” a far more technical-sounding job. “Coffins” were out because they suggested death, but “caskets” hold a precious item, the occupant possibly only sleeping. Caskets became more elaborate, larger and heavier. Inevitably, caskets were more expensive than coffins so there was much more profit to be made. There was a move towards “open caskets” (52) where the corpse of the deceased could be “viewed” by the mourners. Funerary practice varies from culture to culture and at different times in history, but I thought the “open coffin” was an Irish custom associated with the “wake”, a lively celebration with food and drink, music and dancing.
One of the logical consequences of the open coffin was the need to make the corpse as presentable as possible. The bereaved relatives were told that embalming the body was a necessity, “for health reasons”, which is quite untrue. The cold rooms in mortuaries and undertakers maintain a body so close to freezing that it can keep for several weeks. The process of embalming, involved the injection of chemicals into the blood vessels, and was followed by extensive cosmetic makeup, which often made the deceased look healthier than they did in life (53). Special “casket clothes” were recommended, instead of a cheap “shroud”, which again suggested death. All this added considerably to the funeral costs, and the mortician’s profits.
There were also after-death profits to be made by the sale of plots in burial grounds owned by the mortician’s company. These were carefully landscaped and included much statuary and architectural features, all with carefully-chosen optimistic and uplifting names (54).
The author, Evelyn Waugh was in Hollywood for two months in 1947, negotiating with MGM about a film version of his novel, “Brideshead Revisited”. He was convinced that “not six Americans will understand it”, and probably never intended the negotiations to succeed. The studios saw it as a love story, whereas Waugh intended it to be a religious novel on “the working of grace”. Waugh used these two months, being paid and housed at MGM’s expense, to explore the contemporary scene. He writes, “I found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn (54) and the work of the morticians, and intend to get to work immediately on a novelette staged there.” Despite the great courtesy of Dr Hubert Eaton, founder of Forest Lawn, and his staff in showing Waugh around the cemetery and its facilities, “The Loved One” is intended to take the rise out of America in general and the funeral business, in particular.
The novel begins, “All day the heat had been barely supportable but at evening a breeze arose in the west, blowing from the heat of the setting sun and from the ocean, which lay unseen, unheard behind the scrubby foothills. It shook the rusty fingers of palm-leaf and swelled the dry sounds of summer, the frog-voices, the grating cicadas, and the ever present pulse of music from the neighbouring native huts. The two Englishmen were sitting, each in his rocking-chair, each with his whisky and soda and his outdated magazine, the counterparts of numberless fellow-countrymen exiled in the barbarous regions of the world.
‘Ambrose Abercrombie will be here shortly, I don’t know why.’ said the elder of the two, Sir Francis Hinsley.
He went on, ‘I’ve never regretted coming out here. The climate suits me. They are a very decent generous lot of people and they don’t expect you to listen. Nothing they say is designed to be heard.’ ‘
‘Here comes Ambrose Abercrombie,’ said the younger man.
`Evening, Frank. Evening, Barlow,’ said Sir Ambrose Abercrombie coming up the steps.
‘Been meaning to look you up for a long time. We limeys have to stick together. You shouldn’t hide yourself away, Frank, you old hermit.’
`I remember a time when you lived not so far away.’
‘Pon my soul I believe you’re right. That takes one back a bit. It was before we went to Beverly Hills. Now, as of course you know, we’re in Bel Air (55). But to tell you the truth I’m getting a bit restless there. I’ve got a bit of land out on Pacific Palisades. Just waiting for building costs to drop. ‘
So having set up a scenario in which we believe the Englishmen to be in one of Britain’s many hot dusty colonies, talking disparagingly about the natives, we suddenly discover they are in the Los Angeles suburbs.
“Just across the street, twenty years ago, when this neglected district was the centre of fashion; Sir Francis, in prime middle-age, was then the only knight in Hollywood, the doyen of English society, chief script-writer in Megalopolitan Pictures and President of the Cricket Club. Then the young, or youngish Ambrose Abercrombie used to bounce about the lots in his famous series of fatiguing roles, acrobatic heroic historic, and come almost nightly to Sir Francis for refreshment. English titles abounded now in Hollywood, several of them authentic, and Sir Ambrose had been known to speak slightingly of Sir Francis as a `Lloyd George creation’.
We discover that the reason for this visit from the English cinema knight, is because the hero, Dennis Barlow has “been letting the side down.” Barlow is an English poet, hired as a scriptwriter, but then sacked. To make ends meet he takes a job working for the Happier Hunting Ground pet crematorium and cemetery. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie feels this is a demeaning role for Barlow who should keep up the reputation of the British ex-pat community in Hollywood. Ironically, Barlow’s older companion, Sir Francis Hinsley has also let things go by still living in a “neglected district”.
Once Ambrose Abercrombie was his neighbour, but he has eclipsed his old friend, moving up-market to Beverly Hills, (56) and finally to the millionaires’ quarter in Bel Air (55).
When Sir Francis Hinsley discovers that he too has been sacked as a scriptwriter he hangs himself. Dennis has to arrange the funeral, and thus begins his acquaintance with the “Whispering Glades” cemetery and funeral parlour, based heavily on Forest Lawn. He falls in love with Aimee Thanatogenos, (57) a beautiful young woman employed as a cosmetician at “Whispering Glades”. Waugh’s expensive classical education is revealed by her name. The common French girl’s name, “Aimèe” means, “the loved one” and the Greek surname, θαναtoγηνoσ, means “born of death. Aimee is torn between marrying, Dennis, and the Senior Cosmetician, Mr Joyboy, (played in the film, in a brilliant piece of casting, by Liberace.)
Despite this appearing to be a macabre subject, the novel is very funny. Dennis, in his new, professional capacity receives a telephone call about a dead Sealyham terrier. He took the plain black van which was used for official business. Half an hour later he was at the house of mourning. A corpulent man came down the garden path to greet him. ‘Am I pleased to see you!’ he said.
‘I am the Happier Hunting Ground,’ said Dennis.
Yes, come along in.’
Dennis opened the back of the wagon and took out an aluminium container.
‘Will this be large enough?’
`This has been a terrible experience for Mrs Heinkel.’
‘The Happier Hunting Ground assumes all responsibility,’ said Dennis.
‘This way,’ said Mr Heinkel. ‘In the pantry.’
The Sealyham lay on the draining-board beside the sink. Dennis lifted it into the container.
Perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking a hand?’
Together he and Mr Heinkel carried their load to the wagon.
`Shall we discuss arrangements now, or would you prefer to call in the morning?
`I’m a pretty busy man mornings,’ said Mr Heinkel.
`Come into the study.’
There was a tray on the desk. They helped themselves to whisky.
`I have our brochure here setting out our service.
Were you thinking of interment or incineration?’
`Buried or burned?’
`Burned, I guess.
`I have some photographs here of various styles of urn.’
`The best will be good enough.’
`Would you require a niche in our columbarium or do you prefer to keep the remains at home?’
`What you said first.’
`Our Grade A service includes several unique features. At the moment of committal, a white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.’ (58)
`Yes,’ said Mr Heinkel, ‘I reckon Mrs Heinkel would appreciate the dove.’
`And every anniversary a card of remembrance is mailed without further charge. It reads: Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven today and wagging his tail.’
`That’s a very beautiful thought, Mr Barlow.’ `Then if you will just sign the order. . . ‘
Mrs Heinkel bowed gravely to him as he passed through the hall. Mr Heinkel accompanied him to the door of his car. ‘It has been a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Barlow. You have certainly relieved me of a great responsibility.’
`That is what the Happier Hunting Ground aims to do,’ said Dennis, and drove away.
He carried the dog to the refrigerator. It was a capacious chamber,
already occupied by two or three other small cadavers. Next to a Siamese cat stood a tin of
fruit juice and a plate of sandwiches, Dennis took his supper into the reception room, arid) as he ate it, resumed his interrupted reading.”
Let me conclude the review of this novel by quoting the bitter world-view of Mr Schultz, the unhappy owner of the Happier Hunting Ground.
“Dennis sought and obtained leave of absence for the funeral and its preliminaries. Mr Schultz did not give it readily. He could ill spare Dennis; more motor cars were coming off the assembly-lines, more drivers appearing on the roads and more pets in the mortuary.
‘Do we get people to pay 5,000 dollars for a pet’s funeral? How many pay 500?
Not two in a month. What do most of our clients say? “Burn him up cheap, Mr Schultz, just so the city don’t have him and make me a shame.” Folks pretend to love their pets, talk to them like they was children, along comes a citizen with a new auto, floods of tears, and then its “Is a headstone really socially essential, Mr Schultz ?” ‘
`Mr Schultz, you’re jealous of Whispering Glades.’
`And why wouldn’t I be, seeing all that dough going on relations they’ve hated all their lives, while the pets who’ve loved them and stood by them, never asked no questions, never complained, rich or poor, sickness or health, get buried anyhow like they was just animals ?’
ILLUSTRATIONS AND REFERENCES
1. “Portrait of Natasha Zakolkova Gelman” a painting by Diego Rivera (“Diego Rivera” by Andrea Kettenmann, Tashen, 1997)
2. Book cover of Cassell edition (google image)
3. Nigel Balchin astride a wartime gun mounting (google image)
4. Army Bomb Disposal Unit removing a de-fused bomb (google image)
5. Nigel Balchin, writer, 1908-1970 (google image)
6. “Defiants en route to Dunkirk, May, 1940” from an oil painting by Frank Wootton (“British Adventure” edited by W J Turner, 1946)
7. Arthur Koestler with his inevitable cigarette (google image)
8. Interrogation (google image)
9. The Fate of the Fathers of the Russian Revolution (google image)
10. Arthur Koestler, writer, 1905-1983 (google image)
11. German troops, May 1940, crossing the River Meuse into France (“To Lose a Battle” by Alistair Horne, Macmillan, 1969)
12. The young Graham Greene, (google image)
13. “Sugar Plantation”, from a mural by the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, 1886-1957 (Kettenmann, op. cit)
14. “The Maize Festival” from a mural by Diego Rivera, (Kettenmann, op. cit)
15. The execution of Fr Miguel Pro, aged 21, in 1927, Mexico City (google image)
16. Turkey vultures on cactus, Baja California, Mexico (google image)
17. Mexican poverty today, in the shanty town of Nogales (google image)
18. Graham Greene, writer, 1904-1991, (google image)
19. A film version of Alexandre Dumas’, “Three Musketeers” (google image)
20. Cardinal Richelieu 1585-1642 (google image)
21. François du Tremblay, Père Joseph, 1577-1638 (google image)
22. Aldous Huxley wrote about mystical experience in a number of books (google image)
23. “Madelaine.au Bois d’Amour”. (“Symbolism” by Michael Gibson, Taschen, 1999)
24. “Guardroom” a painting by David Teniers the Younger, in 1642. He was a Flemish artist, born in what is now Belgium. (“David Teniers the Younger”, Aurora Art, Leningrad, 1989)
25. Officer in Charge, a detail from “The Nightwatch”, 1642, by Rembrandt van Rijn (“Rembrandt” by Rosalind Ormiston, Anness Publishing, 2012)
26. The Swiss Guard on Parade in Vatican City, Rome (google image)
27. The City of Oran on the Mediterranean Coast (google image)
28. Two plague bacilli in division, Yersinia pestis (formerly Pasteurella pestis), an image by Matt Cowper and Katie Pazur (google image)
29. A rat flea with its stomach filled with blood (google image)
30. The beaches near Oran (google image)
31. Jean Sablon, “the French crooner” (google image)
32. Albert Camus, 1913-1960 (google image)
33. Castle Howard (google image)
34. Evelyn Waugh in uniform as an officer of Marines (google image)
35. The Doric Temple beside the lake at Stourhead, Wilts (google image)
36. Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, home of the Lygon family (google image)
37. The 1981 TV version L to R Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) and Julia Flyte (Diana Quick) (google image)
38. The student quarter of Paris near Place St Germains des Prés, a water colour by David Gentleman (“David Gentleman’s Paris”, Hodder, 1991)
39. Common Sorrell and Sheep’s Sorrell (The Concise British Flora in Colour” by W Keble Martin, Ebury Press, 1965)
40. Caneton Rouennais (google image)
41. “Clés des Ducs” Armagnac Brandy (google images)
42. Madison Avenue, New York City (google image)
43. A suite at the Waldorf Hotel, New York City (google image)
44. Park Avenue, New York City (google image)
45. “Evan Llewelyn Evans” (google image)
46. The “Twentieth Century Limited” leaving for Chicago
47. “The Super Chief” heading for the West Coast (google image)
48. Kay Dorrance as played by Deborah Kerr (google image)
49. “Death of an Account Executive” from the 1947 film (google image)
50. The playwright and author, Frederic Wakeman, b. 1909 (Penguin Books, 1954)
51. Marble funerary monument from the nineteenth century, Kedlestone Church, Derbyshire, UK (Author)
52. An open casket, showing the upholstered interior, and suitable for viewing the deceased before closure and interment (google image)
53. Heavy makeup for an open casket viewing (google image)
54. The Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood (google image)
55. An aerial view of mansions in Bel Air (google image)
56. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills (google image)
57. The 1965 film version of “The Loved One”, with Robert Morse (Dennis) and Annjanette Comer as Aimee Thanatogenos (google image)
58. A Pets’ Cemetery (google image)
59. Gone to the Happier Hunting Ground (google image)