Reading 1959: The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum -- original cover design by Grass.

The final book for this year’s reading project is a suitably dense full stop of a novel that forced me to attempt a revival of long-dormant skills of critical interpretation.

Günter Grass’s magic-realist historical epic was published in German in 1959 and in English in 1961. Grass, born in 1927, served in the Waffen-SS as a conscripted child soldier at the end of World War II. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

A very brief summary: Oskar Matzerath is born in Danzig, a city both German and Polish, in 1921; at the age of three, he decides to stop growing, and so remains a child throughout the rise of Nazism; he expresses himself through compulsive drumming and, every now and then, by smashing glass with his scream. Oskar’s family evolves, dissolves and reconstitutes as he falls into the orbit of one character after another, from Bebra the Nazi propaganda dwarf to the bedridden jazz musician Klepp. The war ends, Danzig becomes Gdansk, Oskar decides to give up his drum and grow, at last, before washing up in Düsseldorf and, finally, a madhouse.

You could, I suppose, take it at face value as a macabre fantasy story about a man-child with supernatural powers. As a Stephen King novel with extra eels, however, it’s a failure, being episodic, rambling and bewildering for long stretches.

No, it’s obviously about Germany and the madness of the 20th century. The reader’s job is to unpick more specific meaning from the rock-slide of imagery and symbolism.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, then: Oskar, who cannot say for sure whether his father is the German Matzerath or the Pole Bronski, represents Danzig-Gdansk, or Prussia more generally. Both he and the city exist in a state of permanent, unsustainable tension.

What about the horse’s skull crawling with eels the sight of which makes Oskar’s mother vomit before driving her to commit slow suicide by gorging on fish? This feels like a pivotal moment and suggests war, holocaust and the destabilisation of Europe through its infestation by nationalism. But it’s also about the human body – we all rot, we’re all meat and slime and bone.

The erotics of disgust are a constant theme throughout the book. Bullying children make Oskar eat a ‘stew’ of bodily fluids; the smell beneath his grandmother’s skirts reminds him of mushrooms; his first lover eats a particularly stomach-churning mixture of Oskar’s spit and sweet ‘fizz powder’; he fondles the beautiful scars that cover the back of a pugnacious acquaintance; another lover wallows, unwashed, in a filthy bed; Oskar pickles the severed finger of an almost-lover retrieved by a rented dog from a field of tall grass; and so on.

Oskar, the deformed, malevolent pervert, stands for Germany, a deformed, perverted nation.

It’s hard not to see Oskar’s reluctant decision to abandon his drum and start the agonising business of accelerated growth after the war as a reference to West Germany’s apparent overnight conversion into a modern, prosperous nation. Oskar almost seems to become respectable, self-sufficient and productive but the veneer is thin: at night, he’s still capable of crawling naked into a hallway and writhing on the coconut matting in a kind of sexual fit.

I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, I suspect, and dipping back in to enjoy, if that’s the right word, specific episodes.

The account of a post-war Düsseldorf nightclub where people peel overpriced onions and join in bouts of collective crying, for example, or Oskar’s tour of the concrete fortresses along the Normandy coast as part of a wartime cabaret troupe, both work as unsettling short stories.

What does it tell us about 1959? Nothing new, perhaps, but it underlines the dominance at this precise moment of the twin topics of sex and war. If processing the war was difficult for American and British writers, it was altogether more intense for Germans, forced to contend with guilt, the redrawing of borders and the snapping from existence of entire cities.

Reading 1959: 13 Days, The Manchurian Candidate, The Vodi

Three books from 1959.

The three most recent books in my #reading1959 project were Thirteen Days by Ian Jefferies,The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon,  and The Vodi by John Braine. They fit together oddly well.

One common theme emerging in many of the books from 1959 I’ve read this year is the legacy of war – PTSD, institutionalisation, lives arrested or derailed, and a sense of the world recovering from a nervous breakdown.

The Manchurian Candidate takes the Korean War as its starting point, telling a wonderfully compelling story of paranoia and brainwashing. The 1962 film is better known than the book and perhaps rightly so: the book was essentially written as a movie pitch and is far less subtle or convincing. In fact, it’s positively baroque.

Sergeant Raymond Shaw is an unlikable man, unpopular with his platoon. He is identified by a Chinese-Soviet brainwashing project as the perfect candidate to be programmed as an assassin, not least because of his privileged upbringing as the stepson of a rapidly rising American politician.

The early chapters, set in Korea and depicting the brainwashing in progress, are the best. Shaw’s cold-blooded murder of his comrades, under hypnosis and in front of an audience of Communist dignitaries, is chilling.

There’s also something grimly fascinating in Shaw’s uneasy friendship with his former commanding officer, Ben Marco, each having been forced to like the other through hypnotism. There’s material enough there for an entire extra novel.

Shaw’s mother is the other standout character – a controlling, social climbing psychopath who nailed a puppy’s feet to the floor as a child and maintains her perky attitude with shots of heroin between embassy balls. She both uses her son for political gain – the Chinese fix it so that he is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him a valuable PR tool – and (just when you think it can’t ramp any higher) seduces him while he’s hypnotised.

What makes the book difficult to enjoy in 2019 is exactly that hysterical, over-the-top tone, which carries through into the writing style. It’s part wannabe beat prose, part Mickey Spillane, all pure ham:

There is an immutable phrase at large in the languages of the world that places fabulous ransom on every word in it: The love of a good woman. It means what it says and no matter what the perspective of or stains of the person who speaks it, the phrase defies devaluing. The bitter and the kind can chase each other around it, this mulberry bush of truth and consequence, and the kind may convert the bitter and the biter may emasculate the kind but neither can change its meaning because the love of a good woman does not give way to arbitrage.

The typically pulpy attitude to women doesn’t help, either. We’re supposed to like Marco and root for him, for example, but he uses women and even occasionally hits them if they won’t do what he wants, the latter being presented as evidence of his impressive virility. No thanks. Otherwise, women are mad bitches (see above), sexy angels (Marco’s fiance) or plot devices to move forward the stories of Important and Vigorous Men.

***

Thirteen Days (or 13 Days in some printings) is also about foreign wars and the madness they encourage in otherwise ordinary men.

Set in Palestine in 1948, it presents another Sergeant, Sergeant Craig of the Royal Engineers, who has embraced the chaos and corruption of the Middle East and lives a maverick life of arms smuggling and artful skiving.

A characteristic moment is his admission that, building a vital water storage tank for a far-flung British Army base, he made up for a lack of concrete by using boulders in the foundations, only because of a lack of boulders he actually used dead donkeys: “What with the heat and everything they must have swelled. But anyway, the foundations cracked…”

Something about him brings to mind Len Deighton’s unnamed insubordinate spy, christened Harry Palmer on film, but Craig also has something in common with the protagonist of Absolute Beginners – a young man who’s not quite as hard or impervious as he likes to think.

When idealism surfaces, unexpectedly, he becomes allied to the Jewish cause, falls in love with a beautiful young woman who works as a driver for a paramilitary group and ultimately has his heart broken when all this proves to be more than a game.

The details of Army life and of the landscape are well drawn, clearly based on the author’s own first-hand experience (Ian Jefferies is a pseudonym), as is the sense of detachment and unreality triggered by being forced to live so far from home, with so little purpose.

Thirteen Days is an interesting book but hard to latch onto: is it supposed to satire, or a straight-up thriller? (Check out the cover, above, which suggests Doctor in the House.) It succeeds best when it settles on the latter and gives us a stretch of suspenseful action into the finale.

***

John Braine’s The Vodi is a peculiar and rather brilliant book, up to a point.

Dick Corvey is recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium in the north of England from where he reflects on his life and misfortunes, battling the onset of bitterness as much as TB.

Structurally, there are echoes of Free Fall, All in a Lifetime and No Love For Johnnie, with memory and The Now intermingled throughout.

What gives the book its interest is the bleakness of tone – the north here is all shadows, decay and drizzle – and, of course, the Vodi. The Vodi is an organised crime gang made up of goblin-like minions under the control of the monstrously fat Nelly. The Vodi controls the district, torturing and ruining the lives of its victims, primarily out of spite. There’s a hint of Arthur Machen in it but also of Cruella De Vil.

Dick and his best friend Tom invent the Vodi as boys but Dick persists in clinging to the idea as a luckless adult. A key moment in the book, the point at which Dick and Tom diverge, is when Tom disavows the existence of the Vodi immediately after his first sexual experience with a girl. Tom goes on to take control of his own destiny, embrace risk, and eventually finds success; Dick bounces from Army to clerical job to sanitarium to sanitarium job, passive and pathetic.

And that’s Braine’s argument, in the end: that you have to fight, strive and desire. Only when Dick falls in love with a nurse, Evelyn, do things change for him. Evelyn loves him but becomes engaged to another man because she can’t bring herself to shackle herself to a sad case like Dick. Tempted as he is to blame the Vodi and surrender, his passion for her prompts him to discover the inner resources he needs to overcome the disease and make the bold decisions necessary to become a full personality.

***

War, the maddening power of institutions, sinister controlling forces, the struggle to work out what being a man really means… As the final stretch of #reading1959 begins, a thesis is certainly beginning to form.

And though this wasn’t the plan when I started out, it’s all proving very handy for my current writing project, a crime novel based on a true story and set in the late 1950s. Surface detail is easy but I feel as if I’ve really got into the psychology of the time.

Reading 1959: Cider With Rosie and unexpected folk horror

The cover of the 1973 edition of Cider With Rosie

The first moment when it occurred to me that I might have the wrong idea about Laurie Lee’s autobiographical novel of life in rural Gloucestershire between the wars was a casual, almost approving mention of incest.

It is thrown into a run-through of various village characters:

John-Jack spent his time by the Bulls Cross signpost staring gloomily into Wales. Silent, savage, with a Russian look, he lived with his sister Nancy, who had borne him over the course of years five children of remarkable beauty.

Before I get to the murder, drowning, haunting, near-death experiences and rape, let me set out what I expected from this book: The Darling Buds of May, I think. Early evening ITV, yellow filters and the gentle romance of rural life.

Every edition I’ve ever encountered, including the hundred or so dusty copies in the store cupboard at my secondary school, has a cover design signalling that kind of lightness. Or, at least at first glance; there is, now I know to look for it, something sinister in Roger Coleman’s illustration for the early 1970s Penguin edition I read – a touch of Don’t Torture a Duckling, the uncanny gaze of a child too knowing.

I didn’t actually think of folk horror until almost half way through the book and a chapter entitled ‘Public Death, Private Murder’. In it, Lee tells the story of a traveller, a local boy made good, who returns to the village for Christmas. Flashing his money, boasting and insulting the locals, he makes himself the target for a gang which beats him, steals his wallet, and leaves him to die in a snowdrift. The horror – the stuff that wicker men are made of – comes in the reaction of the villagers:

[The] young men who gathered in that winter ambush continued to live among us. I saw them often about the village: simple jokers, hard-working, mild – the solid heads of families. They were not treated as outcasts, nor did they appear to live under any special strain. They belonged to the village and the village looked after them.

The very next vignette concerns Miss Flynn, a promiscuous young woman driven half-mad by the torturing presence of the ‘sick spirit’ of her late mother. She is found dead and naked in a pond by the milkman, having apparently drowned herself. Lee’s point is that death is part of village life, but this chapter approaches the mood of Wisconsin Death Trip at points:

The wet winter days seemed at times unending, and quite often they led to self-slaughter. Girls jumped down wells, young men cut their veins, spinsters locked themselves up and starved.

Our narrator himself is intimate with death. He dies as a baby, and comes close again later in life, surviving a harrowing illness that “put a stain of darkness upon my brow and opened a sinister door in my brain, a door through which I am regularly visited by messengers whose words just escape me, by glimpses of worlds I can never quite grasp”.

To balance death, of course, there is sex, but that too has the Summerisle look about it, enough to make Edward Woodward spit:

Our village was no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly… Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers…. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in the local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.

As it nears it conclusion, with the boy Laurie in the grip of adolescence, thrusting away at the fertile earth, we are given a final, sustained moment of suspenseful horror straight out of The Blood on Satan’s Claw: the plotting and attempted execution of the gang rape of a demonstratively Christian girl. In the exploitation film version of this story, the rape would be depicted in grim detail, but here the girl brushes away her would be assailants who are left feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

Cider with Rosie isn’t folk horror because it isn’t a horror story, but, still, I wonder what Ben Wheatley might do with it all. I’d especially like to see his handling of the two-headed talking sheep that appears during thunderstorms.

Reading 1959: All in a Lifetime by Walter Allen

All in a Lifetime.

This 1959 novel almost seems like a cocktail of the others I’ve read so far.

Like Memento Mori, it is about old age and the legacies of long lives. Like No Love for Johnnie, it is about the Labour Party and the personal price of politics. Like Free Fall, it tells the story of a man’s life, from slum to war to self-knowledge, with time and memory tangled in sometimes bewildering ways.

All in a Lifetime is about Billy Ashted, an artisan silverworker from an unspecified Midlands city (Allen was from Birmingham) who, at the end of his life, decides to write a memoir in the form of a letter to his sister, Lizzie. At first, he seems resistant to the idea, feeling pressured to work on the book by his successful adult children of whom he is simultaneously proud and resentful.

This opening stretch, I have to confess, I found hard going – nuggets of narrative, glimpses of character, constantly broken off or jumbled together, repel the reader rather than drawing them in. Slowly, though, the book begins to flow as Billy gets more absorbed in his task, and longer, more satisfying vignettes emerge.

Billy’s friendship with George, an intellectually curious young man who takes Billy under his wing, from evening class to the zinc-topped tables of the local pie shop to a makeshift laboratory in his parents’ wash-house, is beautifully drawn. “For the first time in my life I had a friend”, he says, recalling the ecstasy this realisation brought. Throughout the book, and throughout the course of Billy’s life, every time it seems as if George might have slipped from Billy’s grasp, lost to national fame and the rituals of Westminster, they are brought back together and discover that nothing has fundamentally changed between them.

When Billy decides, impulsively and against George’s counsel, to go to New York, it comes as a real surprise, and this section is perhaps the best in the book. The atmosphere aboard a Titanic-era liner is evoked skilfully, from the stink of steerage to the below-decks musical melange, to the deliciousness of the oranges in Billy’s small stash of fresh fruit. Billy’s openness and likeability are underlined, without him declaring it, as his fellow passengers adopt him and protect him from his own innocence. On arrival, Billy becomes the original Englishman in New York, scared and excited in equal measure, and surprised to learn that it has no inner-city terraced streets or pie shops.

Another fascinating thread concerns two sons who exist off-stage. There is the wayward youngest son, Tom, whom Billy describes startlingly and bluntly as a psychopath. We learn, eventually, that Tom is a conman, a bogus war hero, habitually in trouble with the law, and prone to financially exploiting his respectable, responsible brothers, Will and Phil. And there is the oldest son, Harry, killed in World War I, summoned back to life from the most hidden part of Billy’s memory for the first time quite late in the book. Both boys haunt Billy in different ways.

The novel’s portrait of British working class political life in the early 20th century will make it a worthwhile discovery for many. From the Labour Party general election victory of 1924, to the failure of the General Strike, to the arrival of Mosley and the BUF, Billy is there, Zelig-like, swept along and unsure of himself.

What makes Billy such an appealing character, in the end, is his capacity for self-interrogation and honesty. Why, he wonders, did George ruin his life and career for the sake of an affair while he, Billy, never felt the urge to be unfaithful? “I have dipped into the works of Professor Freud: I have not been able to recognise myself, my own nature, in his pages,” he says, before acknowledging that perhaps he was broken in some more complex way, with “a natural talent for sublimation”.

When he says, frankly, that he doesn’t particularly care for or about his grandchildren, but cannot help himself loving the undeserving Tom, it rings absolutely true.

By the end of the book, we have a grasp of all the strands of Billy’s life, and understand his exhaustion: the world he grew up in has gone, the three people to whom he was closest (his wife, George, and his rigidly religious brother Horace) are dead, and there is nothing left that anyone can say to him or show him he hasn’t already seen.

The book’s disorderly chronology, we realise, is a product of the disintegration of his mind, and of terminal nostalgia – of a life flashing before the eyes.

Reading 1959: The Galton Case

The Galton Case

Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled crime novel is closer to Raymond Chandler in tone and style than any other book I’ve encountered.

The prose isn’t quite there – Chandler dropped fragments from half-visible poems on to every page – but the hard California sunlight, the squalor and snobbery, and the neither-tarnished-nor-afraid protagonist are.

Well, hold on, I’ll go a bit further: there are moments where Macdonald’s prose made me wince, as in his description of a pretty girl as ‘doe-eyed’. Minimalism conceals a lot; this small choice reveals it.

The story, though, is reminiscent of Chandler’s The Little Sister, but perhaps better engineered. Though the action (involving multiple aeroplanes, car and $3 motel after another) runs from California to Canada via the American Midwest, everything connects neatly, and all the apparent coincidences are proved to be nothing of the sort.

Is John Galton Jr a Tom Ripley to be feared, or a poor orphan to be pitied? Prince Charming, or Norman Bates? That tension is a powerful engine to build a mystery around.

Lew Archer shares about 80 per cent of his DNA with Philip Marlowe but would be more fun to share an office with. He doesn’t drink as much, seems a more functional human being, and isn’t as prone to pointless self-sacrifice.

I might go so far as to recommend Macdonald over Chandler to those interested in reading their first hardboiled detective novel. Being a little less showy in his writing, less weirdly obsessed with chivalry, and markedly less sour, he is probably less likely to alienate than Chandler, while still being stylish and sharp.

Reading 1959: A Travelling Woman

A Travelling Woman.

I picked up John Wain’s A Travelling Woman purely because I liked the cover of the Penguin paperback edition from 1963, with an illustration by Adrian Bailey, and because it was first published in 1959.

It tells the story of George Links, a selfish commuter-town manchild who is unhappy in his marriage and job, and obsessed with the service of his own pleasure.

When his wife, Janet, pushes him to see a therapist in London, his drinking companion, Captax, points out that this provides the perfect opportunity to spend some time away from home indulging the pursuit of other women.

Captax directs him towards the Cowleys who have an attic room they let to lodgers, and so Links meets Ruth, a sad woman whose husband, Edward, is a philosopher lost in grappling with the question of religious faith. Links falls in love with Ruth and has a brief affair with her which not only revives his mood but also his marriage. Until, inevitably, it all falls apart.

For the first hundred pages or so, I frankly disliked this book. It seemed glib and seedy – a portrayal of a world in which men take women, and where women are either prizes or puzzles, but not quite people. It’s true that Wain goes out of his way to make George Links unlikable – he is pedantic about grammar, short-tempered, and thick-headed; and Ruth tells him to his face that she doesn’t like him, more than once. Nonetheless, we spend most of the book in his head, while Captax and others reassure him in his betrayal of his wife. Like playing a first-person rotten bastard simulator on the PS4.

But the synopsis on the back of the Penguin paperback has it right when it says “what began as light-hearted Restoration comedy in modern dress becomes a grim tragedy of emotional maturity”. One by one, the opportunities for happy endings are cut off: Links loses his wife, then Ruth, and ends up living in a seedy hotel; Captax find his heart, but then has it broken within a fortnight; Evan and Barbara Bone, another unhappy couple on the periphery of the plot, break up, too.

Only the Cowleys seem to emerge intact, perhaps because they have a son, Teddy, and maybe because they’ve already given up on the idea of romance when the book begins.

The book surges in strength when the focus shifts from George Links to Janet Links – when we see how his behaviour breaks her. The fact that he shows her renewed affection and gives her the impression that the marriage is revived only makes its sudden collapse all the more humiliating.

Janet Links has her romantic idealism shattered and becomes a harder, meaner person, but perhaps more resilient. Captax experiences love and realises the true price of meddling in other people’s marriages.

The lesson George Links learns is that he is not, after all, the centre of the universe – that other people have inner lives, desires and feelings, too. Which makes me wonder if this is, in a sense, a portrait of the psychopathic tendencies of many half-formed young men. One odd interlude, with that in mind, which is thrown away in a paragraph or two, is the suggestion that George is attracted to Ruth and Edward Cowley’s young son, Teddy, because he is in love with the child’s mother and admires his father. What a dark twist that would have been for 1959.

Reading My Way Through 1959

The cover of Free Fall by William Golding,

I’m planning to spend 2019 reading only novels from 1959, with some extra homework on the side.

Why? Because in 2017, I set myself a similar reading challenge – only books by women – and it helped me focus. I read more, and more widely, and more books that were new to me. I discovered some new favourite writers (such as Edna O’Brien) and the habit stuck: I continued to read more books by women in 2018, and feel better for it.

But in 2018, with no specific challenge, I read less overall, and caught myself lazily returning to old favourites out of which I have already chewed all the flavour.

So, for this year, I needed a challenge, and focusing on a specific time period seemed like a good idea. The mid-20th century happens to be where my head is at a lot of the time anyway. It also happens to be when the Big Novel I’m working on is mostly set, so this also doubles as research.

I landed on 1959 specifically by asking my handful of discerning Twitter followers to choose between 80 years ago, 70, 60, and 50. (It was close – 1969 nearly won.)

As of this morning, I’ve started reading Free Fall by William Golding, which I found on Wikipedia’s list of British novels published in 1959, and then happened to stumble across in a secondhand bookshop in Osterley on Sunday. “Perhaps you found this book on a stall fifty years hence which is another now”, he writes eight pages in, bending my mind somewhat, despite being ten years out. It’s not quite my usual thing – very self-consciously literary, prose verging on Joycean – but it seems to have hooks in me already.

A low resolution image of streaks of light on a curving road.
From the front page of the Manchester Guardian for 1 January 1959: ‘The lights of south-bound vehicles on the Preston Motorway’.

On the side, though, I’m also going to try to do something I’ve been thinking about for years: reading a daily newspaper for each day of 1959.

This has never been easier than today with local libraries offering access to The Times and the Guardian, and the incredible British Newspaper Archive providing scans of all kinds of local and national titles.

On 1 January 1959 the Manchester Guardian was declaring A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR with “Industrial shares index at highest level ever”. It reported that actor Alec Guinness had been awarded a knighthood, and that the West had rejected Nikita Khruschev’s suggestion that Berlin be made a “free city”. Meanwhile, in Cyprus, EOKA issued a defiant new year message for the British government: “We will emerge from our present peaceful attitude as FULLY armed avengers to return the blows.”

Postcard of Coventry Cathedral.

Given my interest in post-war architecture, I was also interested to read this:

To-day, for the first time, hymns and prayers have sounded in Coventry’s new cathedral. They came not from the choice and chapter but from the unaccustomed voices of the masons and labourers, tilers and glaziers and plumbers, whose hands are raising the walls of what to-oday we heard called “This great fortress of God in Coventry.”

Unfortunately, an opinion piece on racial tension, and a surge in white nationalist tendencies, suggests that there’s little shelter from the problems of 2019 to be found in desk-bound time travel.

I’ll also be making a point of listening to music from 1959, and watching films and TV from the same year, without being exclusive about it. I’m looking forward to rewatching Room at the Top for starters, which I last saw as a teenager in Steven Bennison’s media studies class at Bridgwater College.

If anyone feels like joining in, or borrowing this idea but wallowing in a different year, go for it – I always enjoy company on these expeditions.