terrorism

THE QUIET AMERICAN BY GRAHAM GREENE

Earlier this year I was in Prague visiting a friend of mine. My personal circumstances haven’t been the best for the last twelve months and I had slipped into a state of deep depression without realising it. The purpose of this trip was to get away from everything, to drink a lot and lose myself in that beautiful city. One afternoon my friend and I were in a bar, six drinks deep and thrillingly relaxed. That is, until a group of Americans arrived. They took the table behind us, and began to fight for each other’s attention like a bunch of rambunctious puppies. ‘I hate them,’ my friend said quietly, and at first I thought he meant only this particular group, until he followed up with ‘fucking Americans, I can’t stand them.’ It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone dismiss an entire nation, but I was still surprised by this passionate outburst. Of course, I was aware of the stereotype of the brash and grossly impolite and uncultured American, but I had never really given it much thought, and, with ‘yanks’ being in short supply in Sheffield, I certainly hadn’t before heard such vitriol directed at them. ‘They’ve probably come over here to start a war,’ my friend seethed.

Since returning from Prague, and now particularly sensitive to it, I have come to realise that this negative stereotype is fairly common amongst the English, and this was at least partly the reason why I have been so interested in reading Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. It is worth noting in this regard that the title itself could be interpreted as a sly form of mockery, in that it speaks with an element of surprise, as though a quiet American is a rare thing. The American in question is Alden Pyle, a young man with an ‘unused face’, who arrives in war-stricken Vietnam, seemingly as some kind of charity or aid worker, and quickly befriends an Englishman, Thomas Fowler, and his native girlfriend, Phuong. This triangle comes to dominate the novel, and has both political and personal repercussions.

dbp

The Quiet American is narrated by Fowler, and he describes Pyle numerous times as naïve and innocent. Moreover, the young man himself admits that he lacks experience, especially with women. In his early interactions with Phuong he is excessively polite. He pulls out her chair for her in a bar and, as they sit around a table, he objects to what he considers to be indiscreet conversation, the kind not suitable for a woman’s ears. It is clear that for Pyle women, or Vietnamese women at least, ought to be protected, that he sees them as delicate creatures  or even almost as children. Indeed, he is disproportionately affected when one of his fellow countrymen visits a brothel. This man, Granger, is the archetypal loud American, a straight-talking, bullish and arrogant Philadelphian, with whom Fowler occasionally locks horns.

While it seems as though Pyle is a sweet, harmless, candid, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy, with his whole life ahead of him, Fowler is an ageing journalist with a developing paunch and a wife back in England. In contrast to his starry-eyed young friend, Fowler’s predominant attitude is a kind of disgruntled world-weariness. Indeed, he claims to only want 18 year old Phuong in order to fight off the loneliness of old-age. To this end, the arrival of Pyle is the worst thing that could have happened to him, because his new friend falls in love with her and becomes intent on marrying her. Predictably, Pyle’s love for Phuong is idealistic, as is his approach to his rival. He claims that he wants to do the right and honourable thing, for example, he undergoes extreme danger in order to go to Fowler and reveal to him his feelings for the man’s girlfriend. Significantly, both in terms of understanding Pyle and the  novel as a whole, Fowler asks him why he doesn’t just leave without telling Phuong about his love, why he doesn’t want to avoid causing trouble, and Pyle responds by saying that this wouldn’t be fair.

“I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.”

For Alden Pyle the consequences of his actions are less important than his intention. His intention is to do the right thing, and so if people get hurt that is simply an unfortunate, regrettable, but unavoidable form of collateral damage. What is paramount is that he acted in accordance with his principles. Fowler, on the other hand, understands that things are never that clear cut, that a good man trying to do good can, as a result, do bad things, can cause harm, which in this instance would be to hurt Fowler and possibly Phuong also. I found all this fascinating. One never doubts that Pyle is in earnest, that he is on the level, that he is a nice guy, he is simply “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” His chief character flaw is refusing to accept, or to see, the world as it is.

I wrote earlier about personal and political repercussions, and it is interesting, and satisfying, how Greene uses this love triangle to mirror the political situation in the country. Both Pyle and Fowler are outsiders, or invaders if you like, fighting over a Vietnamese, and while the American may be frequently described as innocent, the only real innocent in the situation is Phuong, who comes to represent the ordinary civilian during the war. Moreover, it is not surprising that Pyle brings the same attitude towards his job, which, we come to realise, is not as an aid worker, but a kind of terrorist working for the American government. Again, Pyle’s dangerous idealism, his naivety, means that he harms while trying to do good or he justifies harm in the name of what is good. The line between terrorist and liberator is, for him, not a thin one, it is clear and pronounced. Greene’s point appears to be that this is the American mind-set, that America wades into conflicts with the best intentions in the world, without comprehending the extent of the damage they are causing or likely to cause.

“Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

However, while I can see why he thought this, and I agree to an extent, I, ironically, think he was being too naive himself [unless of course I have misunderstood him]. In terms of individual soldiers, then, yes, I’ve met quite a few and they have all been absolutely convinced that what they are doing  – in Iraq, Afghanistan etc – is entirely positive, that they are helping these poor downtrodden countries, that they are bringing democracy to them, and that this is a wonderful thing, even if they have to kill thousands of innocent people in order to do it. What I don’t accept is that the real people in power in America, the people who sanction these conflicts, who send these individuals into these countries, are like Pyle, I don’t buy that they are the Goofy, ‘aw shucks’ variety. I believe that the people who sanction war know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Power, greed, money, these are the things that drive foreign policy. Oh sure, we’ll get told that, for example, communism is a threat to world security, but the real threat it poses is to certain people’s bank balances; likewise, human rights violations are never the reason we engage. The American [and British] government don’t give a single, shiny fuck about human rights violations.

tumblr_ltkiuxnT7E1qfet8co1_500

One further potential flaw with The Quiet American is that the friendship between the two men comes across as forced, certainly on Pyle’s side. He speaks about Fowler being his best friend, even though they have known each other for only a very short time. He compliments the man frequently and claims to understand him, to such an extent that it just does not ring true. However, this isn’t necessarily a failure of Greene’s, it could be justified in line with the book’s themes. Isn’t Pyle’s insistence that Fowler is a good man, that the men have bonded and are great friends, a sign of his immaturity? One could even argue that it is the arrogance of the American, one that believes that he can make friends so easily and can understand other people better than they understand themselves. In terms of Fowler, his affection makes sense. He appreciates Pyle’s wide-eyed approach to life, which is so different from his own; but he never considers them to be bosom buddies like Pyle does.

I’ve written a lot about Pyle in this review, and I do think that he is a wonderful creation, but, for me, it is through Fowler that Greene raises the most engaging and important question. As previously noted, he is in Vietnam to report on the war between the French and the Viet Mihn communist-nationalist revolutionaries. Fowler, according to himself, steadfastly refuses to take sides, going so far as to say that he has no opinions on what is happening in the country. As The Quiet American pushes on towards its moving conclusion, Greene asks ‘is it possible to not become involved? Can you watch people being killed and not have an opinion?’ This is something that I ask of people all the time, most recently with the refugee crisis. Can you remain neutral in the face of overwhelming suffering? I know I can’t. And neither, ultimately, can Fowler, who is forced to throw off his moral cowardice and act. I won’t reveal what he does, or the consequences of what he does, but it is worth noting that the decision to act is justified in almost exactly the same way that Pyle justifies his own actions, in that it involves the sacrifice of life for, the argument states, the greater good. Perhaps then the only thing one can say with any certainty where war is concerned is that there are no absolutes, no easy answers, it is, and will remain, a messy, horrible, horrifying state of affairs. Much like love, I guess.

Advertisements

PETERSBURG BY ANDREI BELY

It is a cliché that all drunk people think that they are wonderful company, that, in the moment, they see in their rambling, slurred, and often nonsensical conversation the brilliant holding forth of a world class orator. Unfortunately for me I have never suffered from this delusion. Whenever I get drunk I am fully aware of myself, fully conscious of the torrents of bullshit pouring from my mouth, I just don’t seem to be able to stop the flow. Something happens when I drink, some kind of mechanism in my brain gives way; and so the writhing mass of thoughts that harangue me when sober, the near unbearable, seemingly limitless, and constantly overlapping, multitude of thoughts, that I liken to a big tub of live eels, are given expression. I share…in the most baffling manner possible. Can you imagine what it is like to be on the receiving end of that? Well, you don’t have to. You can read Andrei Bely’s Petersburg instead.

“Petersburg does not exist. It merely seems to exist.”

It is often noted that Bely’s novel has not achieved the status that it deserves, that it is, to use a vulgar popular phrase, criminally underrated. There are, of course, numerous reasons for that. First of all, it is said that until very recently the book suffered, in English, from less than stellar translations, although that doesn’t appear to have done Dostoevsky’s reputation any harm. It is also the case, and I think this is far more pertinent, that it lacks a kind of universality; it is, at least in part, a paean to the city of Petersburg itself, and if you have never been, or have no real interest in the place, then a good part of the book’s charm will be lost on you. Likewise, there are references to historical events that are particular to Russia, and references and allusions are made, sometimes without any explanation, to famous Russian writers [Pushkin, for example] and works of literature. However, more than any of these things, the most alienating aspect of the work is the authorial voice.

Much like me when I’ve had too many cocktails, the narrator appears to be trying to talk about six subjects all at once; he is mentally unsettled, starting sentences and not finishing them, randomly throwing out jokes and puns [which are never very funny], repeating himself, and lapsing into poetic quotations and often complex but largely unintelligible philosophy and spiritualism. While many make comparisons to Gogol’s epically silly characters, I would say that if the authorial voice has a literary forebear it would be Rogozhin from The Idiot, a man suffering from a nervous ailment; indeed, it is as though he has seized control of Crime & Punishment and tried to rewrite it as a comedy. Of course, this voice, and by extension Petersburg itself, is occasionally tiresome. Sometimes the story just will not proceed; and I don’t, I must admit, exhibit a lot of tolerance where puns and wordplay are concerned. Yet, these minor quibbles aside, it’s a strangely beautiful and engrossing book, and certainly rewarding for a patient reader.

I don’t want to give the impression that Petersburg is a mess, not even a beautiful and engrossing mess, because there was obviously a precise method to Bely’s apparent madness [indeed, after the book’s first publication in 1913, he continued to revise it – so it is clear that he took it very seriously]. Take the repetition: it is not the recourse of an inarticulate writer, but, rather, it is frequently used for poetic effect. Bely was, I believe, a poet, and his circular prose, and the emphasis placed upon certain phrases, reminded me very much of Homer.

“O Russian people, Russian people! Do not let the the crowds of slippery shadows come over from the islands!” [p.30]

“O Russian people, Russian people!
Do not let the crowds of fitful shadows come over from the island.” [p.36]

Sometimes these phrases have a comic purpose, like when it is repeatedly said of Sergei Likhutin that “he was in charge of provisions somewhere out there.” Here Bely emphasises Sergei’s unimportance to his wife with the vague somewhere, as though it is Sofia, rather than the author, who doesn’t know, nor care, where he goes; at other times these phrases stress certain personal characteristics or states of mind. I mentioned Homer previously, but I was also strongly reminded, despite Bely writing much earlier than both, of Thomas Bernhard and Imre Kertesz, who I had previously thought of as being primarily influenced by Dostoevsky and Kafka and various philosophers, including Wittgenstein. Bernhard and Kertesz were/are quite open about their favourite writers and books, and I don’t recall either ever mentioning Bely, but the similarities are clear, especially in relation to Kertesz’s Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Bernhard’s Correction. In all of these novels there is a process of refining, or correcting of thought and idea taking place, whereby an idea, or phrase, is altered slightly with each subsequent appearance in the text [as the O Russian people quote above shows], and an obsessive attention to seemingly banal detail.

Furthermore, the chaotic, unstable authorial voice is, I’m sure, meant to reflect, to mirror, both the mind-set of his characters, and the nature of the times. The plot of the novel, at the most basic level, is that a young philosophy student, Nikolai Abluekhov, has been given a ticking bomb, and is tasked with assassinating a senior government official, who turns out to be his father. So there is, on a local level so to speak, obviously much emotional turmoil. Moreover, the novel is set in the year 1905, a time following the defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, and just before the Russian revolution. It was, historians tell me, a time of social and political unrest; for example, on the 9th of January 1905 a peaceful workers demonstration was fired upon by Cossack units and the police. The spooked and unhinged narrator is, then, in perfect harmony with his subject, the times and his characters; in fact, he acts almost as another character himself. Make no mistake, Petersburg is an almost unfathomably layered, complex piece of work – seemingly a mess, but actually perfectly ordered.

peters5b

[Petersburg in the early 1900’s]

Most reviewers of Bely’s novel tend to refer to its reputation as a symbolist masterpiece, often throwing out this term symbolist and quickly moving on. Ah, I know your game, people! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sneering at anyone; I get you, I feel your pain. Symbolism is hard enough to decipher at the best of times, but when one is concerned with a Russian novel written 100 years ago, the task will be particularly difficult. As great as I undoubtedly am, even I cannot possibly pick up on, or explain, everything. There are, however, certain symbols that are more prominent than others and some that suggest more obvious interpretations. For example, I’ve already written about how chaos and order are important themes, and the text is strewn with references to zigzags and spheres; to my mind, the zigzags are disorder, and the spheres, it doesn’t seem a stretch to suppose, are order [amongst other things, I might add]. There are also repeated mentions of certain colours, particularly yellow, red, and grey. I’m not too sure about yellow and grey [although they may represent illness, perhaps] but red seems fairly clear, it being a colour that is popularly associated with Russia itself [the Russian word for red, красный, means beautiful, by the way], and is, of course, also the colour of blood.

It ought to be clear by now that there isn’t a great deal to get your teeth into on a human level. Certainly the characters aren’t alive in the way that Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s are; I just cannot envisage anyone coming away from the book feeling as though they have made some kind of personal connection with, say, Nikolai or his father Apollon. It would, quite frankly, be absurd. However, there is some human interest. The father-son dynamic, the intellectual and emotional clashes between different generations, is one that the great Russians appeared to be particularly fond of, it having been explored, for example, in more than one of Dostoevsky’s novels and Turgenev’s Father & Sons. I don’t think Bely brings much to the table in this regard, certainly nothing that hadn’t been dealt with more successfully elsewhere, but it’s nice to have it, and, in any case, one gets the feeling that he was deliberately winking at those other novels, anyway; it was, I think, all part of his extraordinary game.

RUNAWAY HORSES [THE SEA OF FERTILITY VOL.2] BY YUKIO MISHIMA

In the decadent West people often get together and have all kinds of pointless, speculative conversations. The current political climate being what it is, one subject that frequently comes up, at least amongst my friends, is whether you would be prepared to die for a cause, or an ideal. During these debates my position is unequivocal; my answer is a firm no. No. Never. Not under any circumstances. My vehemence can, in part, be explained by my cowardice. I am, I freely admit, a rum coward. I’m not dying before my time for anything, or anyone. Yet I do also have philosophical objections. The problem for me with any ideal – truth, honour, justice, whatever – is that they don’t concretely exist, or they don’t exist, as some kind of Platonic form, outside of man. Someone who dies for an ideal is, to me, just a dead idiot, because their ideal, which is necessarily subjective in character, dies with them. So, when a suicide bomber blows himself or herself up, or if a monk sets himself on fire, I’m not concerned with which side of the political fence that person sits, I’m more struck by their illogical, flawed thinking.

Ordinarily my stance does not cause me any problems. I speculate, I argue, then I go home and, I dunno, have a wank and watch TV [this is a joke, I don’t have a TV]. However, as I came to read Runaway Horses, the second volume of Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, I realised that my rationalist frame of mind prevented me from being able to fully engage with large parts of the book. Of course, it is not necessary to be able to identity with Iaso Iinuma, the young would-be militant-terrorist at the centre of the novel, and, in any case, even I am able to understand, even to some extent appreciate, the quixotic nature of living a life of purity and heroism, but a lot of Runaway Horses philosophically and spiritually left me cold. For example, the pamphlet The League of the Divine Wind, which deals with a samurai rebellion/insurrection, and which appears in its entirety [60 pages, ffs], was unfathomably dry [I didn’t think it possible to make reading about the samurai so boring, but Mishima managed it – perhaps this was intentional?], and alien in its glorification of violence and ritual suicide. This kind of thing isn’t limited to the pamphlet either; there’s a lot of stuff in the book, voiced mainly by Iaso and his followers of course, about the beauty of death, or ‘sublime death,’ which at times took on almost an erotic flavour. I just cannot, no matter how hard I try, get my head around all that, nor do I really want to, because if there’s one thing I don’t think is attractive, that I will never be able to accept, it is that.

samurai-sword-fight1

It is Honda’s presence that was crucial in terms of me being able to navigate the novel; without him I think I may not have persevered beyond the opening stages. If you have read Spring Snow you will know Honda as the studious and serious friend of Kiyoaki Matsugae. In that book I felt as though his role was somewhat confused; he was a rationalist, and yet unquestioningly helped his friend in his irrational endeavours. Yet even if you wanted to see him as the voice of reason – which is, I think, how Mishima saw him – he was too much of a peripheral figure. What I mean by this is that one could have cut his character entirely, and the book would have had largely the same impact. In Runaway Horses, he is a thirty eight year old judge. He is then more mature and confident, of course, and much is made, by the author, of his reserved and logical approach; therefore he is the perfect foil for Isao. Importantly, although he is largely absent from the middle section of the book, this time around he is much more central to the plot and actually raises objections when confronted with the boy’s fanaticism. For example, when Iaso loans Honda a copy of The League of the Divine Wind pamphlet the judge returns it with a letter explaining his concerns about the impact such a text could have on a young man.

“Every excitement that could send one pitching headlong is dangerous.” “The League of the Divine Wind is a drama of tragic perfection. This was a political event that was so remarkable throughout that it almost seems to be a work of art. it was a crucible in which a purity of resolve was put to the test in a manner rarely encountered in history. But one should by no means confuse this tale of dreamlike beauty of another time with the circumstances of present-day reality.”

Moreover, not only does Honda give voice to some of your own queries and bemusement [or my bemusement anyway], but he allows one to read the book as an investigation into extremism, rather than simply as propaganda. This is hugely important. I’ve written before about how I am not at all interested in judging the private lives of authors; and that holds true here too. However, that does not mean that if the author’s private life, or dubious politics, filtered through into the work that one cannot comment or criticise; it simply means that I would not reject a work solely on the basis of any controversy surrounding the author’s behaviour. Mishima, it is always worth reiterating, was a fanatic Nationalist himself, at least towards the end of his life; and these things as subjects are dealt with in Runaway Horses. So far, so what. It becomes an issue only because there are parts of this book where violent extremism is written about in glowing terms, where Iaso and his followers are glorified:

“Izutsu showed his lovely recklessness. He spoke out gallantly, his face flushed and glowing.”

Lovely recklessness? Really? At times the language in the novel made me shift uncomfortably in my seat, although, if you were being as fair as possible, you could say it is, as with Spring Snow, merely a case of the style being in tune with the subject. Yet I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. So, Honda is vital, or was vital for me, because he shows that Mishima was prepared to question – at least in his work – Iaso’s beliefs. Without that questioning, even though Honda isn’t entirely out of sympathy with the extremists, one could have put Runaway Horses in the same category as The Birth of a Nation.

As you can tell, the book caused me quite some consternation, and my thoughts about it, as the structure of this review will no doubt attest, are far from clear. Would I recommend it? No, or certainly not to the casual reader, because it isn’t actually a very good novel. In certain circumstances, however, one might consider it worth reading. First of all, Mishima once said in an interview that Japanese culture or mentality is defined by both elegance and brutality; while I am not in a position to say whether that is entirely true I would say that certainly Mishima’s own personality was centred around that dichotomy; and so the rugged Runaway Horses, especially when paired with the graceful Spring Snow, is useful if one wants to know more about the man himself, and about how he saw the world.

Secondly, there are probably very few books that are as relevant, almost terrifyingly so, as this one is right now. Alien, baffling, and glorifying it might be, but this is a genuine glimpse into the workings of extremist/terrorist groups, and the mindset of the individuals involved, from someone who knew what he was talking about; this is not irony, it is not satire, it is the real deal. So, we see the young boy who is seduced by quixotic right-wing literature, a boy whose family-home life is a source of unhappiness or embarrassment [in what was the only time Mishima attempted to look for an excuse or explanation of Iaso’s frame of mind he mentions that he would have been aware and shamed by his mother’s less than chaste past – his interest in manly endeavours could, in this regard, be thrown into a new light]. We also see how levelling fanaticism can be; Iaso and his followers all lack personality, they are full of rhetoric and psychobabble but very few individual characteristics. If you have come across any true accounts of young men becoming enamoured with fanaticism this will be a familiar tale.

Finally, while Runaway Horses is at times fascinating, if you view the book dispassionately and adjust your expectations accordingly, it is only really enjoyable – in the conventional sense – in relation to the previous volume, Spring Snow. When one reads a multi-volume work half of the fun is in the development of certain characters as they age and have children, get married and so on. In Runaway Horses, Honda appears again, as previously mentioned, as does Iinuma, Prince Toin, and Marquis Matsugae, the father of the central character from Spring Snow, Kiyoaki. However, Iaso Iinuma is not only the son of Kiyoaki’s former tutor, he is, as far as Honda is concerned, the reincarnation of Kiyoaki himself. For a western reader, this seems like a bold, potentially ridiculous, move, and yet Mishima manages to pull it off. In fact, that Iaso was once Kiyoaki gives his character a depth he would otherwise lack, for one is able to see his passion in terms of Kiyoaki’s passion – one is for an ideal and the other was for a girl, but both are irrational, immature and destructive. Furthermore, the nature of reincarnation is that one is reborn because of mistakes, or sins, in a past life; Kiyoaki was effete and ineffectual, Iaso is the opposite; so it is almost as though the soul or essence of Kiyoaki has gone from one extreme to another. The two characters are, on the surface, completely different yet ultimately very similar; and I thought that was very clever and satisfying.

THE SECRET AGENT BY JOSEPH CONRAD

In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.

THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN BY THOMAS MANN

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of holidaying from yourself; existentially speaking, I mean. It’s a phenomena that occurs when one finds oneself in a novel or unusual situation or environment, either by will or accident. A holiday is, itself, one example; but there are so many: starting a new job, being caught outside in harsh or extreme weather, moving house, etc. I love train journeys for this reason. One always finds that people behave strangely on trains, in ways, I presume, that they wouldn’t act normally. For example, I have had more than one girl aggressively come on to me on a train. And the weird thing is I felt the inevitability of it as soon as they sat down next to me, as though they were looking for an opportunity to behave in that manner, as though they considered the duration of the journey to be a period of time that was happening not to them, but to someone else, another self, a more liberated self.

On the most basic level, this phenomena is what The Magic Mountain is about. The hero of the story, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen at the sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss mountains. The Hans that we meet at the beginning of the novel, the Hans that is of the flatlands still, is a mediocre bourgeois. Throughout his life he has been unexceptional in everything; he passed his exams, yes, but ‘without a drum roll.’ Even the name Hans is, in Germany, unremarkable. Like another of Mann’s characters, Thomas Buddenbrook, Castorp is, we are led to believe, thoroughly conventional. He blushes when he hears, in the room next door to his own, a Russian couple making love, and is particularly shocked by it taking place ‘in the daytime.’ However, the Berghof is a new and alien environment, an environment that is – in numerous, often strange ways – distinct from the life he left down below, and this comes to have a profound effect upon him.

In the Berghof sanatorium Hans Castorp is freer than he is used to being, both intellectually and morally. He acknowledges this himself when he notes that he feels impelled to philosophise, which is something that he wouldn’t have done ‘down there.’ He also openly breaks or challenges sanatorium rules or conventions, such as when he visits critically ill patients or takes up skiing. His awakening, if you want to call it that, is also sexual; for example, his relationship with the slinky Russian, Clavdia Chauchat, is obviously unconventional. Not only does he not approach her in the way that he would a woman he is courting in a traditional manner [he uses her first name without permission], but she is, and again he acknowledges this himself, not the kind of woman he would have pursued at all in the flatlands. The sanatorium for Hans is a new reality, a new world; he is, in a sense, remaking, or perhaps finding, himself before your eyes.

With the setting of the novel being a sanatorium, and with nearly all of the characters being patients who are suffering from a variety of serious [and often terminal] ailments and diseases, it ought to be clear that The Magic Mountain deals with those weightiest of issues: life and death. Tellingly, when Hans arrives at the Berghof he believes that he is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Yet as far as the doctors are concerned no one is in perfect health. If you look hard enough you will find something, some defect, some fault, some illness. Which is exactly what happens; and Hans ends up staying well beyond the three weeks that he originally intended.

‘I was articulating my doubts that the words ‘human being’ and ‘perfect health’ could ever be made to rhyme.’

The relationship between illness and both life and death is a unique one. Illness is, in fact, a strange kind of intermediary stage and this accounts, in part, for the very odd, almost surreal atmosphere at the sanatorium, which, at times, resembles a kind of haunted house. Indeed, one of the characters, the pedagogue Settembrini, calls the patients ‘shades.’ They are, in a sense, in purgatory, they are phantoms hovering between two states of being; some, like the half-lung club, are like ghouls or other monstrous creatures. Death itself, however, is something that is not mentioned; when Hans tries to broach the subject his fellow patients are upset with him. Death, then, for the people in the sanatorium, as it is for us too, is something that one ignores or pretends does not happen. The management and staff behave in much the same way, or at least behave in a way that allows the patients to pretend that death does not happen. For example, corpses are removed on the quiet, and those who are close to death are separated from the rest.

12497442159838001690.jpg

[Patients at the Hoehwald sanitorium, Davos, Switzerland, 1948]

In addition to life and death and illness, or in relation to all of those themes, Mann also continuously makes reference to the concept of time. When ill one has an obscure relationship with time. Days, weeks, minutes, hours all become confused or meaningless. When feverish, when not in one’s right mind, time flows by at an decreased speed. For instance, when laying in bed wracked with shivers, drifting in and out of sleep, what may seem like hours could be, in fact, only thirty minutes. Being ill is a little bit like being lost. When lost one imagines that time is moving much quicker than it actually is. Most of us have had this kind of experience. As we have the converse experience, i.e. a period of time that appears to be short but is in fact rather long. However, this experience is more often had by the active and healthy, by someone who has a busy day at work whereby he might sit down after what feels like an hour or two and note that actually five hours have flown by. The only way to stand outside of time, to not be subjected to its oppressive force, is through death. We speak of the dead as though time still applies to them – for example, we speak about how long it has been since they passed away – but it, of course, does not.

I mentioned Settembrini in a previous paragraph and it is perhaps worth focussing on him in a bit more detail. Many of the characters in the novel are symbolic, they are meant to represent certain ideas or approaches to being. Settembrini is enlightenment. He literally turns on the light when he comes to visit a Hans that has now been diagnosed and ordered to bed. Settembrini is in favour of action, of not succumbing to torpor or indolence; these things are contrary to enlightenment. Illness is a kind of torpor, or a fixation on one’s body; it’s bad faith, an excuse not to be active. This is why he criticises the establishment; because he sees it as advocating a kind of indolence, or decadence even, that is at odds with his world view. It is in relation to characters such as Settembrini that Mann makes it clear that illness is not merely a physical state, it is an intellectual or moral state also. This is why he, Settembrini, tries to teach Hans how to live. He sees Castorp as someone who is in danger, moral danger, rather than physical danger. Consider Settembrini’s nemesis, Naphta; he is, morally or intellectually, the most ill. Naphta is more than once described as being a terrorist. This doesn’t, of course, mean that he plants bombs and so on, but, rather, that he advocates terror or suffering. Naphta’s world view is, in this way, medieval.

“And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?”

In line with Thomas Mann’s advice I have read The Magic Mountain twice. That it is recommended that one ought to read a book more than once in order to get a handle on it indicates that it is a tricksy thing, and The Magic Mountain’s reputation amongst the general public certainly bears that out. To some extent, however, I feel that its reputation is undeserved. The book is long, yes, and one could not, with a clear conscience, claim that it is easy to digest, but it is not nearly as difficult, nor tedious, as some would have you believe. For me, the book can be divided into two parts. The first half is not, despite its oddness, particularly taxing, but the second half is certainly more of a challenge, particularly in relation to Naphta, who engages in a sizeable amount of dry philosophy. I must admit that I have found, during both reads, Naphta’s appearances in the text almost unbearable, but I do also think that this was intentional on Mann’s part. Naphta is meant to be ugly, not just in terms of his looks, but also his attitudes. His passages do drag, but one at least understands their inclusion, and, in any case, they are not frequent enough to ruin one’s experience of the book as a whole.

It is tempting when describing The Magic Mountain to reach for terms such as intelligent, fascinating, profound, moving, and so on. And it is all of those things. However, it is at times also very funny, which may be something of a surprise. Or certainly I found it very funny. So much so that I did wonder whether I was losing my mind. Mann has an ironic and detached authorial voice, and so it is easy to miss the jokes, but they are there. One example is when Hans’ relative, James Tienappel, has a conversation with Director Behrens about what happens to bodies after death, and, absolutely in no frame of mind for having his eyes opened, hotfoots it back down to the flatlands early one morning without even telling Hans he is leaving. Another is when Hans first arrives and hears one of the patients coughing in such a strange way that it freaks him out:

‘Compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life.’

Is it just me who can’t help laughing at that? And what about Mynheer Peeperkorn? He had me in hysterics.

Anyway, I’m almost at my self-imposed 2000 word limit, so I’d better wrap this up. I’ll do so with a nice little anecdote. When The Magic Mountain appeared in 1924, Thomas Mann gave his son, Klaus, a copy, in which he had written:

‘To my respected colleague – his promising father.’  

Ah, Thomas, you old wag.

OPERATION SHYLOCK BY PHILIP ROTH

When I was twenty-one I left home, I left the north, and moved in with a Scottish woman, a friend of the mother of my then-girlfriend. I’d got a job in Leamington Spa and needed a place to stay. The morning after moving in I woke up and still in my underwear went to the bathroom to brush my teeth etc. As I made to leave, however, the door handle came off in my hand. I was stuck. The house was empty. I was in there two hours, contemplating jumping, until I managed to convince [with difficulty] a passing child to fetch his mother. While I was at University, during my first week in fact, I drank a pint of tequila and nearly died. I woke up midday the following day, covered in bruises and laying on a vomit covered bed in a room I did not recognise.

Once, after breaking up with a girlfriend I agreed to travel to London to see her. She turned up but had a funny turn on the tube and ran off. I tried to follow her but I couldn’t keep up. I never saw her again. I called a friend of mine and we agreed to go for a drink. I got so drunk, however, that I passed out on the train home, which happened to be the last train that day, missing my stop and ending up in the arsehole of nowhere. Pissed and lost, I had to hitchhike home. Another time, I managed to convince a girl that I was in a very famous band, my act being so convincing that when I next bumped into her, weeks later, she told me she had actually bought tickets to see the band expecting me to be on stage. I wasn’t, of course. These short anecdotes are merely the tip of the iceberg, the tip of the tip.

Life is messier than fiction. If I wanted to write a story would I consider any of the things that have actually happened to me? No, I would dismiss them as unbelievable, stupid, too full of silly coincidences and unrealistic choices or unsound psychology. Life is messier than fiction, unless, of course, you’re talking about Operation Shylock by Philip Roth. This is a novel that purports to be a true story, actually does feature genuine, verifiable, events, and yet all of it feels categorically, almost gallingly, unreal. Take the basic plot, which is that Philip Roth, the writer, finds out that there is another Philip Roth, an impostor, in Jerusalem espousing controversial views on his [the real Roth’s] behalf.

Roth travels to Jerusalem and becomes embroiled in a madcap game of cat and mouse and espionage, which involves crippled agents, a million dollar cheque, arab freedom fighters, a dying man with a prosthetic penis, and so on. Like, huh? Then there is the trial of John Demjanjuk, which features prominently in the text. John Demjanjuk was arrested on suspicion of being Ivan the Terrible, a brutal Nazi guard responsible for almost mind-boggling cruelty at the Treblinka concentration camp. He is, believe it or not, being defended by a Jew, whose own mother was a holocaust survivor! This lawyer, by the way, was actually attacked by a holocaust survivor [not his own mother], who threw acid in his face. Sounds like bullshit, don’t it? Who is going to buy this crap? An acid-throwing holocaust survivor? Yet it’s all true. Go look it up.

I guess the most pertinent question is how does Roth manage to manipulate this material, how does he mould it into a coherent novel? The answer is that he doesn’t. Operation Shylock is something of a clusterfuck [much like this review so far], but it’s a pretty fucking engrossing one. Part of Roth’s focus is the tension between truth and fiction, the tenuous grasp that we have on reality, on who we are and what is happening to us, and around us. For example, who is the real Ivan the Terrible? This is a genuine question, because there were, and still are, doubts, differences of opinion. Some say Demjanjuk, some say that the evidence against him was falsified, that Ivan the Terrible was another man, Ivan Marchenko. Yet the novel asks another question, one given even greater prominence, which is who is the real Philip Roth? Indeed, one cannot take anyone or anything in the book on face value. What’s real is unbelievable, what is fiction is, well, unbelievable also.

papers466getty.jpg

[Demjanjuk’s Nazi ID card, which some claim is a forgery]

On Roth and his double: one could argue that Pipik, which is what Roth calls his impostor, does not exist. At the beginning of the novel Roth describes a mental breakdown that he suffered as a result of taking a drug called Halcion. This drug leaves him feeling suicidal and categorically not himself. It is not difficult, then, to see Piipik as a consequence of this breakdown, of this feeling of not being oneself. Indeed, at one point Roth looks in the mirror and does not recognise himself. Is this Pipik staring back at him? Is Pipik the crazy Roth, the broken down Roth? The irrational Roth? The whole novel is suffused with doubles: the Arab that he knew thirty years previously as a mild, moderate man turns up in Jerusalem as an extremist, the cripple Smilesburger is encountered initially as a holocaust survivor only to turn out to be an agent, Demjanjuk is both an old man from Ohio and, possibly, a sadistic war criminal etc. Perhaps the biggest indication that Pipik is not real is when towards the end of the novel Roth admits to mentally composing, to imagining, a letter from Pipik’s girlfriend describing his death. An imaginary death for an imaginary character, perhaps.

“…they’ll say, ‘He never recovered from that breakdown and this was the result. It had to be the breakdown–not even he was that dreadful a novelist.”

Throughout Operation Shylock there is a very weird tension between high seriousness and farce, which is something that I have only previously encountered in the work of the renowned modernist Witold Gombrowicz. Roth deals, in detail, with some very important issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Diasporism, Palestinian displacement, Jewish culpability, the Holocaust and whether it is  used as a propaganda tool, terrorism, extremism, anti-semitism, etc. Simultaneously, there runs throughout the novel the double-double agent caper I have previously mentioned, which is obviously ridiculous. In this way, Operation Shylock is like two books in one. Yet there must be a reason for this duality. What was Roth trying to achieve? I think on one hand he wanted to treat these issues with the gravity they deserve, while also making the point that a lot of the beliefs and behaviour and arguments around them are insane. So, we have the crazy Arab friend who wants to enlist Roth [a Jew] to fight for his cause, we have the imposter Roth who wants the Jews to leave Israel and return to Europe en masse, etc. Indeed, all wars, all conflicts, all ideologies contain some element of insanity, otherwise people would not be willing to die for them.

Maybe all of this sounds like trash to you. I dunno. I enjoyed it. I think there is a lot of Roth’s best writing in the book, although it is very centred on Jewish issues and Jewish history [which some may find alienating]. The biggest issue for me was the Roth-as-character stuff. I have always maintained that authors absolutely should not, under any circumstances, appear in their own work. Had Roth not been Roth, so to speak, but, say, Nathan Zuckerman, who is himself a thinly disguised Roth [this is getting so meta it’s hard to keep it all straight], I would not have questioned the book. So, why do I dislike authors-as-characters? I find it egotistical, unnecessarily self-obsessive; yes, Zuckerman might be Roth, or a kind of Roth, but Roth as Roth? This is just taking it too far. There are points in the novel when characters speak to Roth about his work, praising it and praising him as the author. Even when someone in the book criticises Roth they do so with back-handed compliments, for example, they will say something like oh, you, the important writer, who everyone knows, with all those fans, who wrote those wonderful books, why are you such a dick! Like, jeez. Was Roth getting off on all that?

At times I contemplated giving up, but then there were other times when I thought that Roth was being ironic, that it was a joke. Maybe he made it so that everyone he meets in the book is convinced of his importance and status because in reality that kind of thing never happened to him. I don’t know. Is this aspect of the novel a satire on authors and their fans or authors and the people who want to use them? Again, I don’t know. I do, however, believe that some of the stuff in the book, some of the jokes, can only be enjoyed or appreciated by Roth himself, and that isn’t good writing.  Having said that, I did not give up on the book, despite these misgivings, so it must have a certain kind of power. Operation Shylock is a strange, hysterical, almost nightmarish novel, which may not be Roth’s best but is certainly one of his most entertaining and thought-provoking.