Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Undying Fire (1919)



After Joan and Peter's longueursThe Undying Fire (1919) was a pleasure to read: a brisk, modern-day version of the Book of Job full of arresting moments. It was serialised in The International Review, March-June 1919, and then published as a book by Cassell & Co. in the UK and Macmillan in the US. We start in the cosmic spaces outside earthly concerns, where God and Satan are playing chess:
The chess they play is not the little ingenious game that originated in India; it is on an altogether different scale. The Ruler of the Universe creates the board, the pieces, and the rules; he makes all the moves; he may make as many moves as he likes whenever he likes; his antagonist, however, is permitted to introduce a slight inexplicable inaccuracy into each move, which necessitates further moves in correction. The Creator determines and conceals the aim of the game, and it is never clear whether the purpose of the adversary is to defeat or assist him in his unfathomable project. Apparently the adversary cannot win, but also he cannot lose so long as he can keep the game going. But he is concerned, it would seem, in preventing the development of any reasoned scheme in the game. [Undying Fire, 1.1]
The two immortals have a second go at their celebrated wager, picking a representative human, and Satan hurries down to Earth to set-up the trial. One little detail from early on that I love: we discover Satan can travel faster than light (‘Satan smote down through the quivering universe and left the toiling light waves behind’ [1.4]). FTL, the FaTher of Lies. Warp drive in more than one sense.

Anyway: the protagonist of Wells's novel is Job Huss, a character based on one of Wells's friends, the educator Frederick William Sanderson, of whom, following his death in 1922, Wells would write a biography, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, claiming ‘I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy’. Sanderson's fictional avatar, Huss, is ‘the headmaster of the great modern public school at Woldingstanton in Norfolk’ [2.2]; but, through no delinquency of his, fire kills two pupils and an assistant master is killed ‘by an explosion in the chemical laboratory’ that sprays him with acid (Huss was the first to come to the teacher’s aid: ‘still alive and struggling, [he] was blinded, nearly faceless, and hopelessly mangled. The poor fellow died before he could be extricated’). Worse follows: Huss’s lawyer, having embezzled and lost all Huss’s money, commits suicide. Huss falls ill, and his wife insists they spend time at the seaside, in dingy and depressing lodgings at‘Sundering-on-Sea’. Huss's sickness is diagnosed as cancer, and he is given only a short time to live. Finally Huss learns that his beloved only son, a pilot in the RFC, has been shot down over enemy lines and killed. All very Jōby.

His comforters—in the Biblical original, as of course you know, these are Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite—are in Wells's version: Sir Eliphaz Burrows (‘the patentee and manufacturer of those Temanite building blocks which have revolutionized the construction of army hutments’), William Dad (‘one of the chief contractors for aeroplanes in England’) and Joseph Farr, the head of the technical section of Woldingstanton School, who wants to depose Huss and take over as headmaster. Huss knows how sneaky Farr is, but has been unable to replace him because of a shortage of technically skilled teachers. When his ‘comforters’ arrive he immediately understands their purpose: ‘I know perfectly well the task you have set yourselves. You have come to make an end of me as headmaster of Woldingstanton’ [3.4]—this, he insists, would be the final blow that will sink him. Nonetheless, they harangue him: he must step down.

Wells sticks, with varying degrees of ingenuity, to the structure of the Biblical fable. Huss's wife encourages him, though not in so many words, to curse God and die. His comforters needle him in ways paralleling the Tanakhan original. The role of Elihu is played by Huss's physician, Dr. Elihu Barrack, who urges Huss to undertake a potentially fatal operation to remove his cancerous lump, and who discusses Huss's existential concerns with him, agreeing and disagreeing by turns. The two of them talk about Evolution, though they consider the term tendentious and prefer to speak of the ‘Process’, and though Elihu describes himself, with some vehemence as Agnostic about God, the discussion tends towards Huss's view of the divine as both imminent and immanent in humankind, which potential is the ground for the high calling of the world's educators.
What is the task of the teacher in the world? It is the greatest of all human tasks. It is to ensure that Man, Man the Divine, grows in the souls of men. For what is a man without instruction? He is born as the beasts are born, a greedy egotism, a clutching desire, a thing of lusts and fears. He can regard nothing except in relation to himself. Even his love is a bargain; and his utmost effort is vanity because he has to die. And it is we teachers alone who can lift him out of that self-preoccupation. We teachers .... We can release him into a wider circle of ideas beyond himself in which he can at length forget himself and his meagre personal ends altogether. We can open his eyes to the past and to the future and to the undying life of Man. So through us and through us only, he escapes from death and futility. [Undying Fire, 3.4. Ellipses in original]
Huss, strikingly, makes his own ill-health the ground of his vision of a world that surpasses pain: ‘I see deeper because I am not blinded by health.’ [5.4]. But we're near the end of the book, and it's time for his operation. Under anaesthetic he has visions, first of a mocking Satan, and then of God himself who issues a divine promise that mankind shall conquer the stars ‘so long as your courage endures.’ [6.1] Then there is a rather striking visualisation, and indeed unconscious anticipation, of the cosmic Big Crunch:
it seemed to him that the whole universe began to move inward upon itself, faster and faster, until at last with an incredible haste it rushed together. He resisted this collapse in vain, and with a sense of overwhelmed effort. The white light of God and the whirling colours of the universe, the spaces between the stars—it was as if an unseen fist gripped them together. They rushed to one point as water in a clepsydra rushes to its hole. The whole universe became small, became a little thing, diminished to the size of a coin, of a spot, of a pinpoint, of one intense black mathematical point, and— vanished. He heard his own voice crying in the void like a little thing blown before the wind: ‘But will my courage endure?’ The question went unanswered. Not only the things of space but the things of time swept together into nothingness. [Undying Fire, 6.1]
He wakes. The operation is over. The novel's coda is what you'd expect: the removed cancer is revealed to be non-malignant; Huss's financial affairs are restored when a distant relative dies leaving him a fortune; the boys at Woldingstanton school form a committee to prevent him from being sacked and finally news comes that Huss's son is a prisoner of war, and not dead after all.



As a reading of Job, Wells's little fable leans heavily on the final term in the celebrated Biblical verse (quoted several times by Wells): ‘who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ [Job 38:2]. We need to know more, Wells says, and know better. He dedicates the book to ‘All Schoolmasters and Schoolmistresses and Every Teacher in the World’. Some of the to-and-fro of the dialogue bloviates, just a little, and there is no real sense of any argumentative progression or development (though that's true of the original Biblical book too, I think). But it's a surprisingly rich text: with many little inset anecdotes, observations and mini-arguments, any one of which could be developed and elaborated.

Lacking time and unwilling to expand into the space necessary to analyse all of these, I want to close this blogpost by looking at one such ‘episode’. I don't select it at random. David C. Smith [H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1986), 248] has high praise for one extended passage in particular, located towards the end of the fable, in which a pre-op Huss evokes the life of a German U-boat seaman. At the beginning, Huss says, this lad imagines himself to be a hero, ‘fighting for his half-divine Kaiser, for dear Germany’; and on going down into a submarine for the first time he is struck that ‘it is a little cold, but wonderful; a marvellous machine. How can such a nest of inventions, ingenuities, beautiful metal-work, wonderful craftsmanship, be anything but right?’ [5.4]. But soon enough he begins to doubt the rightness of what he is doing:
He stands by one of the guns of the submarine in an attack upon some wretched ocean tramp. He realizes that the war he wages is no heroic attack on pride or predominance, but a mere murdering of traffic. He sees the little ship shelled, the wretched men killed and wounded, no tyrants of the seas but sailormen like himself; he sees their boats smashed to pieces. Mostly such sinkings are done at dawn or sundown, under a level light which displays a world of black lines and black silhouettes asway with the slow heaving and falling of coldly shining water. [Undying Fire, 5.4]
This is nicely done, I think. The cold dawn swell, which is death: monumental and a little queasy, cold, an absolutely swallowing emptiness.

Life on board proves cramped for the imaginary submariner: he is always cold and continually damp (‘the apparatus and the furniture sweat continually; a clammy chill pervades the whole contrivance’). He lives under the continual strain of death's imminence: ‘our destroyers will follow up a U-boat sometimes for sixty or seventy hours, following her sounds as a hound follows the scent of its quarry’. Huss thinks death the ‘inevitable end of the U-boat sailor, unless he is lucky enough to get captured’, adding that ‘the average life of a U-boat is less than five voyages’ (in fact death wasn't quite so inevitable: 178 of the German navy's 351 U-Boats—50%—were sunk in combat, with another ten percent or so being lost in other ways. But it certainly wasn't fun). Finally Huss relates a recent sinking from which only a couple of men escaped:
I was given some particulars of the fate of one U-boat that were told by two prisoners who died at Harwich the other day. This particular boat was got by a mine which tore a hole in her aft. She was too disabled to come to the surface, and she began to sink tail down. Now the immediate effect of a hole in a U-boat is of course to bring the air pressure within her to the same level as the pressure of the water outside. For every ten yards of depth this means an addition of fourteen pounds to the square inch. The ears and blood vessels are suddenly subjected to this enormous pressure. There is at once a violent pain in the ears and a weight on the chest. Cotton wool has to be stuffed into ears and nostrils to save the ear drum. Then the boat is no longer on an even keel. The men stand and slip about on the sides of things. They clamber up the floor out of the way of the slowly rising water. For the water does not come rushing in to drown them speedily. It cannot do that because there is no escape for the air; the water creeps in steadily and stealthily as the U-boat goes deeper and deeper. It is a process of slow and crushing submergence that has the cruel deliberation of some story by Edgar Allan Poe; it may last for hours. A time comes when the lights go out and the rising waters stop the apparatus for keeping up the supply of oxygen and absorbing the carbonic acid. Suffocation begins. Think of what must happen in the minds of the doomed men crowded together amidst the machinery. In the particular case these prisoners described, several of the men drowned themselves deliberately in the rising waters inside the boat. And in another case where the boat was recovered full of dead men, they had all put their heads under the water inside the boat. People say the U-boat men carry poison against such mischances as this. They don't. It would be too tempting.

When it becomes evident that the U-boat can never recover the surface, there is usually an attempt to escape by the hatches. The hatches can be opened when at last the pressure inside is equal to that of the water without. The water of course rushes in and sinks the U-boat to the bottom like a stone, but the men who are nearest to the hatch have a chance of escaping with the rush of air to the surface. There is of course a violent struggle to get nearest to the hatch. This is what happened in the case of the particular U-boat from which these prisoners came. The forward hatch was opened. Our patrol boat cruising above saw the waters thrown up by the air-burst and then the heads of the men struggling on the surface. Most of these men were screaming with pain. All of them went under before they could be picked up except two. And these two died in a day or so. They died because coming suddenly up to the ordinary atmosphere out of the compressed air of the sinking submarine had burst the tissues of their lungs. They were choked with blood.
‘So it was,’ Huss concludes, ‘that our German youngster who dreamt dreams, who had ambitions, who wished to serve and do brave and honourable things, died.’ This is indeed, as Smith notes, a well-written episode, although it seems to me that Wells's attempt to generalise the experience (‘I tell you all the world is a submarine, and every one of us is something of a U-boat man’) is a little dilute. Surely there's more to the striking affect this episode generates?

Wells extrapolates this, I suppose, from God's rebuke to Job, ‘canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?’ [Job 41:1]. The U-boat is the modern oceanic leviathan, and though marvellous it is a vanity compared to the sublime vastness and indifference of the sea through which it moves.
He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.

He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. [Job 41:31-32]
It does make me wonder about Wells's imaginative attitude to the deeps as such. Wells was never a Freudian (though he corresponded with him, and worked hard, and successfully, through PEN, to get Freud out of Nazi Germany towards the end of the 1930s), but the temptation to put him on the couch can become sometimes be overwhelming. We could say, broadly, that Wells is unpersuaded by the subconscious, or at least that he is happy more-or-less to disregard it. The idea that consciousness, subjectivity and rational human thought is radically compromised by something irrational, libidinal and fathomable would dissolve his hopes for a humanitarian world state run on rational lines. He wasn't, we are likely to say, an individual particularly repressed about sex, but repression and its monstrous return is a slippery and unpredictable matter.

Two things in particular stand out in terms of the personal context of The Undying Fire. One is that he had sketched out the prospectus for his Outline of History in 1918 and had begun the monumental work of researching and collaborating towards its completion. And two: his extra-marital relationship with Rebecca West was in its latter stages. This had begun in 1913, and had resulted in a son (Anthony West) born in 1914. They broke up in 1923, though they remained in contact and managed to maintain a friendship until the end of Wells life. In some senses his affair with West was the most important in Wells's life. It was certainly complicated, and although an oversimplification it's close to the truth to say that the two of them were sexually infatuated with one another without actually liking one another very much. Two gifted writers tangling physically and emotionally: hardly a recipe for smooth living. And West, unlike Wells, was quite strongly influenced by her reading of Freud.

So what do we make of these dangerous, fatal, monstrous depths (as here) or of their remarkable absence (as in, almost, everything else Wells wrote)? Chatteris drowns at the end of The Sea Lady (1902), and it is a symbolic iteration of the choking, breathtaking potency of sexual desire. But apart from that, and one rather under-developed short story (‘In the Abyss’, Pearson's Magazine, August 1896) I don't think Wells had, by 1920, written anything else set undersea. It's conventional to link his name with Verne's, but there's simply no Wellsian equivalent to Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. Stories and novels about flying in the sky and through space are legion. Under the water, though, seems to have repelled him: ‘I must confess,’ he wrote in Anticipations (1900) ‘that my imagination, in spite even of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea.’

That foundering and suffocating valence is chillingly evoked in The Undying Fire, as a rebus for existential angst: but we're entitled to wonder if it's not actually a subconsciously-prompted metanightmare about the subconscious itself: Of the inner tidal irrationality that hems in the Wellsian starry-eyed future of rational world-statehood and human expansion across the stars. Conceivably I over-stretch my argument in suggesting an erotic component to this awestruck terror at descending into the depths. Like Ballard's car crashes, there is a counter-intuitive rightness in the way drowning carries an erotic charge: all those siren mermaids luring mariners to their deaths.

Alain Corbin's Le Territoire du vide: L’Occident et le désir du rivage, 1750-1840 (Paris, 1988), his influential cultural history of the sea, stresses the uncanny erotic charge marine emptiness has so often carried in human affairs (the book was translated into English in 1994, by Jocelyn Phelps, as The Lure of the Sea). Corbin's thesis is, broadly, that humanity, or at least the Christian West, has tended to regard the sea—the consequence, after all, of the Biblical Flood—as a rebuke to human sinfulness (there was, he points out, no sea in Eden, and would be no sea, according to Revelation, after Apocalypse). But this attitude shifted around over the period specified in Corbin's subtitle. Now the sea became, politically, the means of western imperial expansion and, personally, a repository of healthful bathing and therapeutic possibilities that were also strongly eroticised.

Some of this is common-sensical: partially-undressed young people frolicking in the water, and the like. Corbin notes that when the vogue for women bathing in the sea at Brighton began men lined the promenade watching them through binoculars. Some of Corbin's theorising is more fanciful: he likens ‘the mere contact of a bare foot on the sand’ to ‘a sensual invitation and a barely conscious substitute for masturbation,’ and thinks ‘the virile exaltation ... a man experienced just before jumping into the water was like that of an erection.’ But we don't need to follow him all the way down his pelago-erotic rabbit hole to agree that the sea semiotically links the medical and the sexual in a distinctively Victorian/Edwardian way. And it is at least worth pondering whether drowning doesn't figure, for a highly-sexed and sexually expressive yet, in ways, oddly repressed figure like Wells, with all his interpersonal terror of being emotionally trapped and suffocated in his relationships, as a straightforwardly erotic release. It's being drawn back to the surface that kills the German U-Boat sailors, after all: it's only contact with the air that allows them to scream in pain. In the tight embrace of the ocean depths, frighteningly but excitingly, there can be no screaming. Frank Kermode summarises Corbin's larger argument:
The ocean offered to some images of the fashionable sublime, and to others, with whom Corbin amiably sympathises, erotic satisfaction (‘the dream of vanishing into the waves like an act of slow penetration’). The beach was now both an ‘erotic site’ and a mothering one, at any rate for francophones (‘la mère’ = ‘la mer’). ... For the most part evidence is abundantly provided, as for the peculiar pleasure to be had from watching sailors drowning as their ships sank near the shore. This gratification might be supplied by paintings, but with a bit of luck a holidaymaker might be in just the right place to enjoy the real thing, perhaps with the aid of a lorgnette. The chance of a good wreck within view of the beach was regarded as ‘one of the tourist attractions of a coast’. Corbin mentions several shipwrecks known to have given keen pleasure at Ostend and Weymouth. [Frank Kermode, ‘With the Aid of a Lorgnette’, LRB 16:8 (28 April 1994), 15]
Venus rises from the ocean depths. The, not-to-put-too-fine-a-point-on-it, scrotumtightening sea. Indeed, and since we're on the subject of Modernism more broadly, I did wonder whether T S Eliot, who certainly read Wells, and who may have taken one detail in one of his poems from an earlier Wells title, had The Undying Fire's account of death by drowning at the back of his mind when he composed his Waste Land (a terre, rather than a mer, vide, we might say): another text about the surprising and alarming interrelations between drowning, social and interpersonal suffocation, and erotic intensity.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Joan and Peter (1918)



There are interesting things in Joan and Peter, but it's a novel that does its best to hide them from the reader beneath an absolutely enormous heap of chaff:—750 apludic pages, Well's longest book yet, and I think I'm right in saying the second longest in his entire oeuvre (only 1926's The World of William Clissold is longer, I think). Worse than the length is the pacing. There's nothing wrong with length in a novel as such, of course; but when it's handled like this it drags. Indeed it draaags. I'll explain what I mean.

We start, in the early 1890s, with the marriage of handsome, well-to-do but rather flibberty Arthur Stublands to beautiful, clever Dolly, followed swiftly by the birth of their son Peter. Dolly, though, has made a mistake. Arthur is a nice enough chap, but she ought to have married her cousin, the vigorous, upright Oswald Sydenham, a man who won the V.C. before he was twenty. The problem is that Oswald is disfigured:
It had been quite typical heroism that had won him the V.C. He had thrown a shell overboard, and it had burst in the air as he threw it and pulped one side of his face. But when [Dolly] married, she had temporarily forgotten Cousin Oswald. She was just carried away by Arthur Stubland's profile, and the wave in his hair, and—life. [Joan and Peter, 1.3]
Oswald is ten times the man Arthur is, and he loves Dolly, howsoever hopelessly. So he takes himself off to pursue British Imperial advantage in central Africa. Meanwhile the Stublands buy a lovely house in the Surrey countryside, and legally adopt a baby girl, the illegitimate daughter of a distant relative: this is Joan.

We're at page 50 of this 750 page novel. What happens next is that Arthur is unfaithful to Dolly, and they fight. But then they make it up and decide to celebrate their renewed rapprochement with a holiday in Italy, leaving babies Peter and Joan at home. In Italy the pleasure-boat they are in overturns. They both drown: first Arthur, then Dolly. It matters in which order they drown, since they have left conflicting instructions as to what should happen to the children in the event of their death. Dolly (who knows in her heart that she chose the wrong man) has appointed Oswald guardian, but Arthur, who dislikes the fellow, has stipulated instead his two suffragette aunts, Phoebe and Phyllis, and another more distant relative, the haughty and elderly Lady Sydenham, only adding Oswald at all as a sort of afterthought concession to his wife's wishes.

Initial reports are that Dolly died first, which actualises Arthur's will: Aunts Phoebe and Phyllis move into the Surrey house and assume responsibility for the kids: Oswald (raging, miserable, keeping despair at bay by constant action) is in darkest Africa and can't be reached. Phoebe and Phyllis believe in a vaguely Rousseauian approach to educating children: which is, to let them run more-or-less feral in the countryside. Lady Sydenham, outraged by the Aunts atheistical socialism, kidnaps the youngsters, has them forceably christened and deposited in a conventional prep school in Windsor (Peter) and a private house (Joan).

The Windsor school is dreadful: the headmaster a pedagogic fraud and inveterate flogger, the other boys bullies and sneaks. Peter runs away. For a time the authorities think he has drowned in the Thames, replicating the fate of his parents: but though the punt he steals goes over the weir he himself escapes and makes his way back to Surrey. By this time new reports from Italy have revealed that Arthur predeceased his wife, so Dolly's will comes into force, relieving the two socialist aunts and Lady Sydenham of the necessity of caring for the children. Lawyers are finally able to contact Oswald in Africa and inform him he is sole guardian of Joan and Peter. He returns to England to look after them.

And now we're at page 250 of this 750 page novel, and the story is (bar some wartime Royal Flying Corps adventuring at the very end) more or less over. The whole tenor of the text slackens and sags as for literally hundreds and hundreds of pages Oswald treks up and down England to find the best schools for his wards. His search is repeatedly frustrated by the novel's Big Theme, viz., that the British education system is in a parlous state.

Wells includes lengthy dialogues between Oswald and the headmasters he visits, and between Oswald and various other people, anatomizing this situation. He repeatedly quizzes pedagogues on why they teach Latin and Greek instead of engineering and maths and German: ‘a common evasiveness characterized all these head-masters when Oswald demanded the particulars of Peter's curriculum. He wanted to know just the subjects Peter would study and which were to be made the most important, and then when these questions were answered he would demand: “And why do you teach this? What is the particular benefit of that to the boy or the empire?”’ [10.3]

On and on it goes. Once Oswald has located a couple of prep-schools not quite so awful as the others, the children are sent off, and Oswald's search moves on to which public schools will be best for them next:
Eton gave him its river effects and a bright, unforgettable boatman in a coat of wonderful blue; Harrow displayed its view and insisted upon its hill. Physically he liked almost all the schools he saw, except Winchester, which he visited on a rainy day. Almost always there were fine architectural effects; now there was a nucleus of Gothic, now it was time-worn Tudor red brick, now well-proportioned grey Georgian ... But he had set his heart now on getting to the very essentials of this problem; he was resolved to be blinded by no fair appearances, and though these schools looked as firmly rooted and stoutly prosperous as British oaks and as naturally grown as they, though they had an air of discharging a function as necessary as the beating of a heart and as inevitably, he still kept his grip on the idea that they were artificial things of men's contriving, and still pressed his questions: What are you trying to do? What are you doing? How are you doing it? How do you fit in to the imperial scheme of things? [Joan and Peter, 10.3]
When one headmaster tries to cow Oswald by quoting Greek at him, Oswald returns by reciting a poem in Swahili. Oswald keeps insisting on the need for a reformed education stressing science and maths and living languages and all the things the Empire needs, and keeps being struck by ‘the educational stagnation of England during those crucial years before the Great War’ [10.6]. On and on it goes; for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages, bludgeoning home Wells's point that the British education system is not fit for purpose. Later, when the children are finally sent to the least-worst secondary schools, Oswald undertakes the whole process over again at tertiary level, visiting both Oxford and Cambridge. Eventually, and with reservations, he decides on the light blue rather than the dark. Even here, though, Wells finds only a more elaborate form of education by rote: ‘into the Cambridge lecture rooms and laboratories went Joan and Peter, notebook in hand, and back to digestion in their studies, and presently they went into examination rooms where they vindicated their claim to have attended to textbook and lecture ... this was their “grind,” Joan and Peter considered, a drill they had to go through’ [11.13] .

While all this is going on, Wells drops-in scenes from the later childhood and adolescence of Joan and Peter, their experiences of school and university. They bicker, quarrel, flirt with other boys and girls, and it's about as diverting as an Edwardian episode of Sweet Valley High. One of the problems the novel has here is that it telegraphs too patently that Joan and Peter are meant to be together, which robs these passages of tension: the various sidebars into the girls who fancy Peter or the boys who fancy Joan are only too evidently going nowhere. Eventually Joan discovers that she and Peter are not blood-relations, such that there is no reason why they couldn't marry. The outbreak of war interrupts this romantic consummation. All the boys from Joan and Peter's circle enlist, including Peter himself. Some of the boys are killed. Peter transfers from the infantry to the Royal Flying Corps.

We're now at page 600 of this 750 page novel

It's at this late stage that the pacing picks up again. The closing stretches of the novel contain some very vividly written scenes of aerial combat: Peter is injured, invalided home, and marries Joan. Then it's back to the front and into an observation balloon, which is in turn shot down. As he parachutes to safety the plane that punctured his balloon returns to finish him off and strafes his legs in mid-air. Will he live or die? Well, I'll tell you: he lives, though badly hurt, and ends the book happy with Joan. The novel itself ends with Oswald reflecting on his experiencing of having raised these kids, and looking forward to working towards a better future for all children: ‘this idea of a League of Nations’ comes to him ‘with the effect of a personal and preferential call.’ [14.10] The last page of the novel is him picking up a pen, readying to do what he can to bring about the World State.

One consequence of this renewed narrative momentum towards the novel's end is that it throws into relief just how turgid the middle bulk of the book has been. It's something underlined, ironically enough, by Wells's very facility in describing flight, the marked contrast of which to the earlier narrative of frustration and blockage and lack of forward-motion is all the more effectively brought out by Wells's stylistic fluency and eye for the telling detail. Just look at this lovely bit of descriptive prose narrating Peter's first solo piloting:
‘Contact, sir,’ said the mechanic. ‘Contact,’ came the pilot's voice from behind. The engine roared, a gale swept backwards, and Peter vibrated like an aspen leaf.

The wheels were cleared, the mechanics jumped aside, and Peter was careering across the grass in a series of light leaps, and then his progress became smoother. He did not perceive at first the reason for this sudden steadying of the machine. He found himself tilting upward. He was off the ground. He had been off the ground for some seconds. He looked over the side and saw the grass fifty feet below, and the black shadow of the aeroplane, as if it fled before them, rushing at a hedge, doubling up at the hedge, and starting again in the next field. And up he went. [Joan and Peter, 13.8]
That shadow, vaulting the hedge! Lovely writing. And there are many nuggets, of both evocative and also thought-provoking writing, scattered throughout. But it's all smothered by the sheer walrus-blubber bulk of it all. I'm being a little unfair when I say so, I know. I know. There's some interesting stuff in the middle section, from a social-historical point of view, of the nascent state of girls' education, as we see Joan's experiences at her various schools. Still: gah.

But do you know what? Worse than the pacing and the prolixity is the novel's tone-deafness where its comedy is concerned. Wells was capable of genius-level comic work (Mr Polly, for instance) but that's not what we find here. Here Wells swings and misses at a variety of set-pieces.

You want examples? I have examples. Let's take this scene, from early on in the novel: when Joan and Peter's austerely aristocratic guardian, Lady Charlotte Sydenham, grabs the children in order to have them baptised. Now: immediately before this happens the two five-year-olds discover that five of the house cat's six kittens have been drowned by Groombridge, the Occasional Gardener: ‘dark apprehension came upon Joan's soul. “What you been doing to my kittays?” she asked. “Eh! you got to drown kittens, little Missie,” said old Groombridge. “Else ud be too many of um. But ollays there's one or so kep.”’ [5.5]. Then Lady Charlotte swoops upon the house, spirits the kids to the church, and the christening happens. The vicar, used only to tiny infants or elderly born-agains, can't handle vigorous five-year olds. The children's the nursemaid, Mary, is waiting outside the church.
So things went on quite successfully until the fatal moment when Mr. Wiscott took Peter up in his arms.

“Come along,” he said very pleasantly—not realizing that Peter did not like his Adam's apple.

“He's going to show you the pretty water,” said Mrs. Wiscott.

“Naw!” said Peter sharply and backed as the curate gripped his arm, and then everything seemed to go wrong.

Mr. Wiscott had never handled a sturdy little boy of five before. Peter would have got away if Mrs. Wiscott, abandoning Joan, had not picked him up and handed him neatly to her husband. Then came a breathless struggle on the edge of the font, and upon every one, even upon Lady Charlotte, came a strange sense as though they were engaged in some deed of darkness. The water splashed loudly. It splashed on Peter's face and Peter's abundant voice sent out its S.O.S. call: “Mare-wi!”

Mr. Wiscott compressed his lips and held Peter firmly, hushing resolutely, and presently struggled on above a tremendous din towards the sign of the cross.

But Joan had formed her own rash judgments.

She bolted down the aisle and out through the open door, and her voice filled the universe. “They dwounding Petah. They dwounding Petah—like they did the kittays!”

Far away was Mary, but turning towards her amazed.

Joan rushed headlong to her for sanctuary, wild with terror.

“I wanna be kep, Marewi,” she bawled. “I wanna be kep!” [Joan and Peter, 5.7]
Wodehouse it ain't. Dear lord, the sheer wincing awfulness of that baby-talk, presented to us as if its tweeness would actually make us laugh. I shudder to read it. Grown-up Joan is still calling Peter ‘Petah’ in the last chapter, too. I know young lovers often indulge in baby-talk with one another, but it needs to be very cautiously handled in fiction, lest the reader experience a markedly nauseated reaction.

I'm toying with the idea of mounting a critical defence of the novel as an embodiment and therefore articulation of blockage and inaction, as well as a representation and critique of those things on a social and pedagogic level. My heart's not really in it though. It's true that Oswald has a recurrent nightmare of life as a kind of apotheosis of the Hideous Obstacle:
a dark forest. And of an endless effort to escape from it. He was one of the captains of a vaguely conceived expedition that was lost in an interminable wilderness of shadows; sometimes it was an expedition of limitless millions, and the black trees and creepers about him went up as high as the sky, and sometimes he alone seemed to be the entire expedition, and the darkness rested on his eyes, and the thorns wounded him, and the great ropes of the creepers slashed his face. He was always struggling to get through this forest to some unknown hope, to some place where there was light, where there was air and freedom, where one could look with brotherly security upon the stars; and this forest which was Life, held him back; it held him with its darkness, it snared him with slime and marshy pitfalls, it entangled him amidst pools and channels of black and blood-red stinking water, it tripped him and bound him with its creepers; evil beasts snared his followers, great serpents put them to flight, inexplicable panics and madnesses threw the long straggling columns into internecine warfare, incredible imbecilities threatened the welfare of the entire expedition. He would find himself examining the loads of an endless string of porters, and this man had flung away bread and loaded his pack with poisonous fungi, and that one had replaced ammunition by rust and rubbish and filth. He would find himself in frantic remonstrance with porters who had flung aside their loads, who were sullenly preparing to desert; or again, the whole multitude would be stricken with some strange disease with the most foul and horrible symptoms, and refuse the doubtful medicines he tendered in his despair; or the ground would suddenly breed an innumerable multitude of white thin voracious leeches that turned red-black as they fed....

Then far off through the straight bars of the tree stems a light shone, and a great hope sprang up in him. And then the light became red, a wavering red, a sudden hot breeze brought a sound of crackling wood and the soughing of falling trees, spires and flags and agonized phantoms of flame rushed up to the zenith; through the undergrowth a thousand black beasts stampeded, the air was thick with wild flights of moths and humming-birds, and he realized that the forest had caught fire....

That forest fire was always a climax. With it came a burning sensation in loins and back. It made him shout and struggle and fight amidst the black fugitives and the black thickets. Until the twigs and leaves about him were bursting into flames like a Christmas tree that is being lit up. He would awaken in a sweating agony. [Joan and Peter, 9.3. Ellipses in original]
... which is effective-enough writing in a (deliberately) clogged, cloying sort of manner; although there's something of a problematic in Wells's use of Africa, as in the quoted passage, as an object correlative for nightmarish social quagmire he is urging us to overcome. In 1934's Experiment in Autobiography Wells is candid in his retrospective assessment: the work ‘starts respectably in large novel form and becomes dialogue only towards the end. It is as shamelessly unfinished as a Gothic cathedral. It was to have been a great novel about Education but it grew so large ...’ [Experiment, 420]. It's almost as though he became pleonastically obstructed in writing his novel about obstruction.

I might almost applaud Wells for his bravery in actualising an aesthetic of blockage and encumbrance so comprehensively. But, having just finished reading Joan and Peter, I find myself bounced out of sympathy with the novel. I may come back for a reassessment when the experience has settled in my imagination somewhat. Get-Oan-With-It and Peter. Joan and Prolix. Hmph.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (1918)



This was West's first work of fiction and second published book (her compact critical study of Henry James had come out in 1916). It's a novella rather than a novel, with a flavour somewhere between Conrad and James; and I remain uncertain whether it really works, on its own terms, and equally unsure whether it is or isn't a Roman à clef of the triad of West, Wells and Wells's wife Jane. See what you think.

The story is this: Jenny, the narrator, nurses an unspoken love for her cousin, handsome, wealthy, honourable Chris Baldry, the soldier of the title. Chris is married to the beautiful Kitty, and Jenny helps her keep house for her husband in a luxurious Harrow domicile. From the opening chapter we learn about the slightly odd relationship these two women have, both focused on their devotion to Chris, supporting one another in an intriguingly asymmetric way. We also learn that Chris is away fighting at the Western Front, and we learn one more important datum: that Kitty and Chris's infant son died, aged two, five years earlier. The lad's nursery has been left just as it was. The two women are trapped by their passivity: there is nothing to do but maintain the house, brush one another's hair and wait for Chris to return from the war.

Into this slightly airless, affluent world comes the lower-middle-class Margaret Grey, née Allington. Fifteen years earlier she and Chris had had a summer romance, although they have since lost touch with one another. Margaret is now married, and has become ‘a drab middle-aged woman’: her hands are ‘seamed’ and ‘red’, her face is ‘plain’, ‘there was something about her of the wholesome, endearing heaviness of the ox or the trusted big dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff’. Ouch!

Margaret comes to visit Jenny and Kitty because Chris has written her a letter from France. Concussed by a shell explosion he has lost all memory of his preceding fifteen years and thinks himself a young man still engaged in his affair with Margaret. At first Kitty believes this a clumsy attempt by Margaret to extort money, but it turns out to be true: official notification comes of Chris's invalid status, and soon enough he is brought home to England.

He accepts what people tell him, that he has lost his memory, and that Kitty is now his wife. But nonetheless he does not recognise her. On his first night back, whilst Jenny plays the piano, and London searchlights outside scan for zeppelins, he asks to see Margaret.
‘Kitty.’

‘Yes, Chris.’ She was sweet and obedient and alert.

‘I know my conduct must seem to you perversely insulting,’—behind him the search-light wheeled while he gripped the sides of the window,—‘but if I do not see Margaret Allington I shall die.’

She raised her hands to her jewels, and pressed the cool globes of her pearls into her flesh. ‘She lives near here,’ she said easily. ‘I will send the car down for her to-morrow. You shall see as much of her as you like.’

His arms fell to his sides. ‘Thank you,’ he muttered; ‘you're all being so kind—’ He disengaged himself into the darkness. ‘That dowd!’ she said, keeping her voice low, so that he might not hear it as he passed to and fro before the window. ‘That dowd!’

This sudden abandonment of beauty and amiability meant so much in our Kitty, whose law of life is grace, that I went over and kissed her. ‘Dear, you're taking things all the wrong way,’ I said. ‘Chris is ill—’ [Return of the Soldier, 64-5]
Chris relates his memories of his summer of love with younger Margaret, on ‘Monkey Island’ on the Thames at Bray, and we learn how things came to an end when he became jealous she was having an affair with a character interestingly called ‘Bert Wells, nephew to Mr. Wells who keeps the inn at Surly Hall’. This is an over-obvious in-joke, of course—West had surely had enough experience of her lover Wells's surly side by 1918—and it was altered in later editions of the novel: the name was changed to Bert Batchard. Conceivably, after the end of the relationship, West had decided that, after all, Wells was close enough to a bastard as made little odds.

Back to the novel: the now middle-aged Margaret, complaisant, is brought to the estate, and the two women watch as Chris moons about with her. Jenny's initial hostility switches round to a kind of admiration at the other woman's placid inner-goodness; though she is also driven to dejection and tears by by ‘the blankness of those eyes which saw me only as a disregarded playmate and Kitty not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals’ [133]. The house she and Kitty have so carefully curated comes to seem like a rebuke to them both. The final act involves the decision to ‘cure’ Chris by recruiting a psychiatrist, Dr Gilbert Anderson, to the case. Another quasi-Wells, this: ‘a little man with winking blue eyes, a flushed and crumpled forehead, a little gray moustache that gave him the profile of an amiable cat’ who is nonetheless ‘at once more comical and more suggestive of power than any other doctor I had ever seen’ [150].

Dr Anderson insists that Chris must be shocked out of his amnesia by confronting him with the traumatic proof of his infant son Oliver's death. Jenny shows Margaret Oliver's carefully maintained nursery, and we learn that Margaret's own child died around the same time, and at the same age. Margaret then takes Chris outside and, as Jenny and Kitty watch through a window, compels him to accept the truth of his son's premature death. Jenny recognises that Chris is cured when his posture shifts: he comes back up towards the house ‘not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier's hard tread upon the heel ... “He's cured!” [Kitty] whispered slowly. “He's cured!”’ [188] Jenny is glad, but also a little heartbroken, by this, since she knows that it means ‘he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man's-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.’ Fin, as they say in the French art-houses movies.

The double-meaning of the title comes into focus: the soldier returns from the front, and Chris returns from his amnesiac fugue. The first is a return from war to peace; the second a return from (fantasmic) childhood to (real) adulthood. Which is to say, the two meanings of the title are pulling in different directions, innocence-experience-wise.


It's a strange novel, and though some contemporaries praised it very highly I'm not sure it really works. One rather elephant-in-the-room problem is the whole 1980s-daytime-soap-opera naffness of its central premise: a character loses his wits but in the super-specific way that he forgets just the last fifteen years of his life. This is not really how amnesia works, and certainly not how PTSD works. It might be possible to accept this as a literary conceit, the coup de l'auteur needful to set-up the dynamic of the rest, if The Return of the Soldier didn't work so hard to give the impression of psychological verisimilitude. There's a detailed elaboration of the mental and moral inwardnesses of the three main women (not, I think, of the main man, or the minor characters), but this butts awkwardly against the melodrama of the main story. West often strains for intensity of effect in a way that tramples on the more nuanced and subtle possibilities of the whole.

Other aspects of this novel mark it, rather, as apprentice work. It is, for instance, rather garishly overwritten throughout: prose drips and clots with a strenuous striving after vividness that, I'm sorry to say, often backfires: ‘the jewel-bright buds on the soot-black boughs, the blue valley distances, smudged here and there with the pink enamel of villa-roofs, and seen between the black-and-white intricacies of the birch-trunks and the luminous grey pillars of the beeches’; ‘the rose and amber glories of the sunset smoldering behind the elms’; ‘the spring lights tongues of green fire in the undergrowth, and the valley shows sunlit between the tree-trunks, here the pond is fringed with yellow bracken and tinted bramble, and the water flows amber over last winter's leaves’. There is such a thing as trying to hard in descriptive prose.

The novel presents a schema of three women arrayed around the central man (or empty-space-where-a-man-might-be), each figuring in differently paradoxical ways. So, Kitty is the wife, and therefore the man's sexual partner—and actually the mother of their (dead) child—although she presents herself virginally.
She moved past me, remote in preoccupation, and I was silent when I saw that she was dressed in all respects like a bride. The gown she wore on her wedding-day ten years ago had been cut and embroidered as this white satin was; her hair had been coiled low on her neck, as it was now. Around her throat were her pearls, and her longer chain of diamonds dropped, looking cruelly bright, to her white, small breasts; because she held some needlework to her bosom, I saw that her right hand was stiff with rings and her left hand bare save for her wedding-ring ... She frowned to see that the high lights on the satin shone scarlet from the fire, that her flesh glowed like a rose, and she changed her seat for a high-backed chair beneath the farthest candle-sconce. There were green curtains close by, and now the lights on her satin gown were green like cleft ice. She looked as cold as moonlight, as virginity, but precious; the falling candle-light struck her hair to bright, pure gold. [60]
In this case, I think the rather over-worked Whistleresque composition does more-or-less work, actually: the, once again, over-emphatic colours are carefully placed in that description. Because this is Kitty deliberately presenting herself this way. By presenting herself as Chris's bride-to-be rather than his wife she hopes to restart his memory along the lines of their actual wedded life.

Then there is Jenny, who is the narrator, and therefore who ‘tells’ us everything, although she does not tell Chris, or us, what is obvious: that she is in love with him. And finally there is Margaret who, though old, plain and poor, is styled by the text as the most heterosexually-desirable woman in the trio. Chris's desire for Margaret, and his obliviousness to the other two, is the unbalance that the novel restores to balance via the intervention of the doctor. Yet another thing The Return of the Soldier unsettles in my head is whether, or to what extent, we might want to read Kitty and Jenny as a queer couple.

I  think the bottom line is: I'm not sure I'm convinced of the truth of all this, artistically or psychologically: but perhaps all I mean is that I'm not sure it is saying anything very cogent about war. But maybe it's a mistake to read it that way. Take it, rather, and against its own grain, as a symbolist drama of love as truth and truth as a radical unforgetting. There's something quite intriguing about the possibilities of that (and, as it happens, I elaborate some of those possibilities at some length, here).

Gordon N Ray's H G Wells and Rebecca West (Yale University Press 1974), a biographical study written with the assistance of West herself, proposes a straightforward biographical reading of The Return of the Soldier. According to Ray, Kitty is West's version of Jane Wells, ‘that false goddess, the Virgin Mother, the nonsexual woman to whom she as the sexual woman was being sacrificed. She felt that Wells, all unknowingly, was being split and destroyed by his divided allegiance to two women and two families’—that is to Jane Wells and her two sons on the one hand, and to Rebecca West and her one on the other. [Ray, 86] West made no secret of the fact that she wanted Wells to divorce his wife and marry her.

In this reading, the story loses contact with the war altogether, and the decision taken by its two main female characters ‘that Chris must be cured’—because (in Ray's words) ‘a mature man cannot live perpetually in a fantasy world without becoming a pathetic oddball’ [Ray, 91]—becomes about Wells's infantile personality, or adolescent attachment to sex as such, or perhaps says something about his writing. Ray scrupulously adds a footnote in which Rebecca West herself pooh-poohs his theorising:
I should note that Dame Rebecca explicitly disavows [this] interpretation of her novel. She wrote to me on 14 July 1971: ... ‘Kitty is not at all my idea of Jane, who was remarkably pretty even in to her middle years, but she was much more of the Establishment. Jane had no look of accustomed luxury, though she had another kind of charm, and she had also a look of determination which was amusing on some one who was so faint in colour and so immobile. The original of Kitty was a woman I met only once, when someone took me to a house said to be the original of the house Galsworthy describes as being built by Bosinney for Soames in the Forsyte Saga.’ [Ray, 201-02]
Ray doesn't say so, but presumably this means Kitty was based on Galsworthy's Irene Soames, who in turn was based on Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper (1864–1956).

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

In the Fourth Year: Anticipations of a World Peace (1918)



Even a century later you don't need to ask ‘the fourth year of what?’ It's 1918. You know the what. Like his previous 1914-18 non-fiction volumes Wells here assembles a variety of journalistic pieces, this time on the theme of a looked-for ‘League of Free Nations’ to sort-out future international disputes and prevent future war. In one sense this is more of the same-old from Wells; he'd been agitating for a World State for at least a decade and a half. Still, the specificity of this book's proposals marks a new stage in Wells's political thought, because, for the first time, these ideas found a path to political actualisation, or something like it. Mid-1918 Wells was discussing the possibilities of a pan-national organisation; by the end of January 1920 the League of Nations was a reality. If for nothing else, Wells can at least take credit for the name.

Henry R Winkler argues that ‘before 1919 no organized group took up the idea of world government’ [Winkler, The League of Nations Movement in Great Britain 1914-1919 (Rutgers University Press 1958), 29]—this was despite the urgent advocacy not just of Wells, but also of influential figures like John A Hobson and H N Brailsford. It's not that these individuals lacked an audience (Wells was read by millions, after all). It's that they were commentators, and their ideas needed political actors to realise them.



In the Fourth Year had a role to play in that transition: Walter Lippmann (who acquired many of the sections of this book for publication in The New Republic, and who met Wells in person) acted as a point of mediation between the book's ideas and the US State Department. Which means that Wells had some influence on the fourteenth of President Wilson's end-of-war ‘Fourteen Points’: ‘XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.’

The actual League of Nations fell far short of Wells's hopes for it, however. He insisted it must ‘possess power and exercise power, powers must be delegated to it’ and must ‘practically control the army, navy, air forces, and armament industry of every nation in the world’ [3]. The real League never managed that. Nor is it the case that Wells is pie-in-the-sky or unrealistic about his proposals: he has enough of realpolitik to see that equal representation of states was a non-starter: ‘the preservation of the world-peace rests with the great powers and with the great powers alone’ [10]—
There are only four powers certainly capable at the present time of producing the men and materials needed for a modern war in sufficient abundance to go on fighting: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. There are three others which are very doubtfully capable: Italy, Japan, and Austria. Russia I will mark—it is all that one can do with Russia just now—with a note of interrogation. Some day China may be war capable—I hope never, but it is a possibility. Personally I don't think that any other power on earth would have a ghost of a chance to resist the will—if it could be an honestly united will—of the first-named four. [In the Fourth Year, 10]
But when America decided, after some havering, not to join the League it effectively doomed the whole enterprise:—something of which contemporaries were well aware. Witness this Punch cartoon from December 1920:



The French and British governments of the 1920s and (especially) the 1930s did not engage as fully with the League as they might, and the advent of a second World War in 1939, the exact thing the League had been instituted to prevent, sounded its death-knell. But the interesting thing is how much popular support the League had, even into the 1930s. The League of Nations Union, a British affiliate association, had over 400,000 members 1931-32: with 3000 branches across Britain as well as ‘some 4,400 corporate affiliates ranging from trade unions to Boy Scout troops and Women's Institutes, with especially deep penetration in the Protestant churches’ [David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London: Simon and Schuster 2013), 221]. Whatever else it might be, Wells's enthusiasm for the idea of a League was by no means an eccentric position.

In The Fourth Year makes for a curiously unsatisfying read, nonetheless: full of blind-spots, blotted by racism, and constantly changing gear between vast, sweeping generalisations and micro-managed tedious detail. On the one hand, Wells booms that humanity ‘is facing a choice between the League of Free Nations and a famished race of men looting in search of non-existent food amidst the smouldering ruins of civilization’ [8]. On the other, he gets bogged down in pettifogging over-analysis of proposals for election by Proportional representation and the single transferable vote, the complexities of which system will be ameliorated (he says) by the invention of automatic vote-counting machines that will tally and redistribute votes as necessary (‘the Cash Register people,’ Wells claims, optimistically, ‘will invent machines to do it for you while you wait’). Meanwhile, many of the largest-scale practicalities of running a League of Free Nations are glossed over.

Not entirely glossed over, mind you. In the round, Wells thinks that world peace will be best maintained by ‘international’ (that is, Western) control of a great many mandated territories: the African continent to be placed under international rule; the Ottoman Empire broken up into ‘localised regions’ under ‘honestly conceived international control of police and transit and trade’ [5.2] and so on.

This means overcoming nationalist and plutocratic inertia. Wells worries whether people—he means white people—will accept ‘international’ rule: rule, that is, by ‘foreigners’:
But so soon as the League takes on the shape its general proposition makes logically necessary, the armament interest will take fright. Then it is we shall hear the drum patriotic loud in defence of the human blood trade. Are we to hand over these most intimate affairs of ours to ‘a lot of foreigners’? Among these ‘foreigners’ who will be appealed to, to terrify the patriotic souls of the British, will be the ‘Americans.’ Are we men of English blood and tradition to see our affairs controlled by such ‘foreigners’ as Wilson, Lincoln, Webster and Washington? Perish the thought! When they might be controlled by Disraelis, Wettins, Mount-Battens, and what not! And so on and so on. [Fourth Year, 3]
A veritable clogdance of xenophobic sarcasm, this. It is, Wells is saying, absurd to object that people with good British surnames like Wilson and Lincoln might have power over us just because they're American, when we don't bat an eyelid at rule by a Jew like Disraeli or by German Royals (Wettin is the actual surname of the members of the House of Windsor aka Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the Mountbattens hail originally from Hesse). I suppose, at a pinch, we might read this as an assertion of the arbitrary nature of national identity, but it looks more to me like an atavistic dogwhistle: ‘ruled by Jews and Krauts?—oh no! Yanks to rescue!’

And that's white people. Where non-whites are concerned, Wells simply assumes populations of Africa and Asia will accept Western authority. The chapter on Africa is particularly, and lamentably, racist. The whole continent, says Wells, (excepting only South Africa and Egypt) must be placed under ‘international control’ as soon as possible:
What are the ends that must be achieved if Africa is not to continue a festering sore in the body of mankind? The first most obvious danger of Africa is the militarization of the black. General Smuts has pointed this out plainly. The negro makes a good soldier; he is hardy, he stands the sea, and he stands cold. It is absolutely essential to the peace of the world that there should be no arming of the negroes. [Fourth Year, 4]
Two centuries of slaver-driven depopulation and a half century of hugely accelerated and rabid imperialist expropriation of valuable resources, accompanied by mass-murder, certainly had something to do with Africa becoming, in Wells's unkind phrase, ‘a festering sore in the body of mankind.’ And if the problem was imperialism, it's hard to see how more imperialism could be the answer.

Of course, Wells pitches his pan-African mandate as a civilising, not an expropriating, force. But civilisation is really not the focus of In The Fourth Year's African chapter. Instead Wells waxes racist-hysteric: ‘the whole negro population of Africa,’ he declares, ‘is now rotten with diseases’. The whole population? Really? ‘A bacterium that may kill you or me in some novel and disgusting way may even now be developing in some Congo muck-heap.’ Ugh! And we can't simply quarantine the Continent because ‘Africa is the great source of many of the most necessary raw materials upon which our modern comforts and conveniences depend’. So what Wells calls ‘international tutelage’ becomes needful. Really, it's hard to overstate the malignancy of this. When Wells frets about ‘some bacterium that may kill you or me in disgusting ways’ his ‘you and me’ doesn't include black Africans. He's not addressing them. That's because, in his mind, black Africans are not competent to be part of this discussion of their own political future. Jan Smuts, quoted so approvingly here by Wells (the two men were friends) governed South Africa on principles of racial segregation that lead eventually to apartheid, and described black Africans as ‘children of nature’ lacking ‘the inner toughness and persistence of the European’ who had never had ‘those social and moral incentives to progress which have built up European civilization.’ Such sentiments have not, to put it mildly, aged well.

Wells insists the League will not simply be Imperialism under a new name (chapter 5 is titled ‘Getting the League Idea Clear in Relation to Imperialism’), and he does look, not now but at some unspecified point in the future, to a modicum of racial equality in his future: not Black Africans but, according to the structurally racist assumptions of his age, maybe Indians, and perhaps Arabs: ‘the time is drawing near when the Egyptian and the nations of India will ask us, “Are things going on for ever here as they go on now, or are we to look for the time when we, too, like the [white South] Africander, the Canadian and the Australian, will be your confessed and equal partners?”’

Wells doesn't use the term mandate, but that's essentially what In The Fourth Year is talking about, and that was the main strategy by which the League of Nations actually operated. Wells's faith that rule by international mandate would herald a new global dawn proved misguided, though. Not for the first time on this blog it's hard to avoid the superciliousness of judgement-by-hindsight; but as Susan Pedersen comprehensively demonstrates in her history of the movement, mandates were flawed from the beginning.
The mandate system made imperial governance more burdensome and brought normative statehood nearer. This was not what its architects and officials had intended. To the contrary, they sought at every turn to uphold imperial authority and strengthen the prestige and legitimacy of alien non-consensual rule. The problem was that the internationalization inherent in League oversight worked against those purposes. By offering a platform for wordy humanitarians, belligerent German revisionists and nationalists determined to expose the brutalities of imperial rule, the mandates system not only undermined imperial authority but also—possibly more importantly—led at least some within the European empires to question whether direct rule was desirable anyway. That most local inhabitants had no affection for the mandates system seems apparent. Over time, however, many within the imperial powers lost their sympathy for it as well. [Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford University Press 2015), 13]
Pederson gives the example of Britain, the (as she puts it) most ‘global’ of imperial powers, deciding to end mandated rule of Iraq and instead pursue their imperial ambitions through the direct treaty of 1930. It was this, as Pederson convincingly argues, that inspired today's system of economic imperialism.

The problem with In the Fourth Year, I think, is more than just the staleness, or Old Moore's Almanac daftness, hindsight detects in a book whose prophecies (those subtitular ‘Anticipations of a World Peace’) proved so spectacularly wrongheaded. It's not, in other words, that Wells happened to be wrong, in this instance: it's that reading In the Fourth Year persuades me he was wrong for structural reasons immanent in his thought as such. In particular: how odd it is that a book proposing a League of Nations at no point involves Wells actually defining what he considers a nation to be. Indeed, there is a fatal confusion in the way he deploys the concept, using it sometimes as a racially defined association, sometimes as a geographical or political one, often as a sheer accumulation of individuals, and rarely if ever as a historically determined formation—Wells is, as ever, extraordinarily cavalier with history, and (as ever) absurdly over-confident in his belief that history can be easily swept away, never to bother humanity again. Other aspects of nationhood (religious identity in particular) do not enter into his thinking at all.

The book's grander slogans suffer by their tendency to elide these, very different, quantities: ‘not only is justice to prevail between race and race and nation and nation, but also between man and man; there is to be a universal respect for human life throughout the earth’ [9] and so on. It seems elementary to suggest that proposals for a League of Nations must be grounded in a detailed understanding of nationhood as such, prior to determining in what ways that multiple and various quantity can be leagued at all; but it is an elementarity Wells entirely overlooks.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Frank Swinnerton, Nocturne (1917)



Nocturne was Frank Swinnerton's breakthrough book. Having left school at 14 (in 1898), the largely autodidact Swinnerton worked as a clerk for J M Dent and then a proof-reader and, after a while, editor for Chatto & Windus. He began publishing his own fiction and other books in 1909, and whilst researching his George Gissing: a Critical Study (1912) he contacted, and became friendly with, Wells.

There's a Gissingy vibe to his own fiction, too, though a less pessimistic sort of Gissing-ness. Swinnerton specialised in low-key studies of working class life, quietly realist, psychologically acute (very long lived, he published scores of novels along these lines, the last appearing in 1976). Nocturne is a case in point: the story of one night in the lives of Jenny and Emmy Blanchard, two young sisters who live in a poky house in Kennington. Jenny works in a milliner's, and is being courted by a lumpish young cockney called Alf, but she dreams of escape and freedom and glamour. Plain, stolid Emmy stays home and cares for their partially paralysed father. Her dreams are more domestic—she yearns to marry Alf and set up house on her own. The plot is slight: Jenny, knowing which way Emmy's heart inclines, sets her up (in effect) on a date with Alf. When the two of them are at the theatre a letter comes for Jenny from her sailor beaux, who, languishing on his boat with an injured leg, begs her to come to him. Jenny hurries out for a tryst, leaving her Pa. When the sisters returns, they find Pa unconscious in the kitchen:—he'd got himself out of bed, fallen and hit his head. The novel ends on Jenny's remorseful self-accusations. But though the plot as such is deliberately exiguous, the novel as a whole works in satisfyingly complex ways as a study of the contrasting characters of the two sisters, via the atmospheric evocation of confining place and thwarted desire. It's a pretty interesting work, all told.

But why is it making an appearance on this blog? Because Wells was persuaded to write an introduction for the first edition.

It's a seven paragraph preface that only gets to Swinnerton in para four: prior to that it's all Wells drawing on his knowledge of Wells to talk about Wells and Wellsianism (‘This much may sound egotistical,’ Wells concedes over halfway through the piece, with a rather winning honesty of narcissism, ‘and the impatient reader may ask when I am coming to Mr. Swinnerton, to which the only possible answer is that I am coming to Mr. Swinnerton as fast as I can’). The introduction dilates on how Wells prefers to read the work of writers unlike himself, since when he reads the work of writers like himself he is made uncomfortable: ‘the confessed imitators give me all the discomfort without the relieving admission of caricature; the parallel instances I have always wanted to rewrite.’ He then summarises his own relationship to the le Naturalisme:
The science of criticism is still crude in its classification, there are a multitude of different things being done that are all lumped together heavily as novels, they are novels as distinguished from romances, so long as they are dealing with something understood to be real. All that they have in common beyond that is that they agree in exhibiting a sort of story continuum. But some of us are trying to use that story continuum to present ideas in action, others to produce powerful excitements of this sort or that, as Burke and Mary Austen do, while others again concentrate upon the giving of life as it is, seen only more intensely. Personally I have no use at all for life as it is, except as raw material. It bores me to look at things unless there is also the idea of doing something with them. I should find a holiday, doing nothing amidst beautiful scenery, not a holiday, but a torture. The contemplative ecstacy of the saints would be hell to me. In the—I forget exactly how many—books I have written, it is always about life being altered I write, or about people developing schemes for altering life. And I have never once “presented” life. My apparently most objective books are criticisms and incitements to change. Such a writer as Mr. Swinnerton, on the contrary, sees life and renders it with a steadiness and detachment and patience quite foreign to my disposition. He has no underlying motive. He sees and tells. His aim is the attainment of that beauty which comes with exquisite presentation. Seen through his art, life is seen as one sees things through a crystal lens, more intensely, more completed, and with less turbidity. There the business begins and ends for him. He does not want you or any one to do anything.
‘In the—I forget exactly how many—books I have written ...’ is a touch too mannered in its insouciance to be believable; but I'm intrigued by this briefly summarised aesthetic credo: a sort of writers have hitherto only described the world; the point is to change it manifesto. We might say that that old warhorse of SF criticism, Suvin's novum, is a passive (that is, representational) iteration of Wells's more active understanding of the difference between mimetic traditions and the SF-Fantasy-Satire-Utopia nexus. And we might say that this gives Wells's novums more oomph. Or we might not.