When Heinrich Böll died, last year, we had come to respect him as a Roman Catholic pacifist, a Nobel Prizeman speaking measured words to young idealists. We may have forgotten the work of his youth, the two post-war novels based on his experience of service with the German Army in Russia. The 22 stories in The Casualty were written in the immediately post-war period, 1946 to 1952, so that they are ‘old’ stories, but satisfyingly youthful, physically aware of particulars, not seeking generalisations, hot-tempered, desperate and ashamed.
The book begins with a quick sketch of a soldier’s night out with a girl, followed by a dour study of a benumbed German soldier in Russia, almost past caring. ‘For a moment he felt his terrible indifference shot through with something like excitement’ – and then he got killed, not aware that he was screaming. Now we are attuned to appreciate the third story, ‘Jak the Tout’. The narrator is stationed at a lonely two-man listening post in Russia, stolidly awaiting an enemy attack, feeling rather older than his new comrade, Jak. (Böll was 22 when the war began.) Pityingly, the narrator observes Jak’s snub-nosed profile in the half-light: ‘I could tell from his narrow cheeks that he was still young; his steel helmet looked almost like the shell of a tortoise. These boys had a special something about their cheeks that recalled playing soldiers on a suburban common. “My Redskin brother”, they always seemed to be saying, and their lips trembled with fear, and their hearts were stiff with courage.’ Trying to keep Jak’s courage up, the narrator calmly explains their frightening duties and then turns to easy chat about peacetime. What did Jak do for a living? ‘Me? My last job was as a tout.’
This is interesting. The boy worked for freelance prostitutes, stopping soldiers at railway stations and asking: ‘Want a good time, sir?’ He wasn’t a pimp, exactly. ‘Pimps – they’re biggies, they’re tyrants ... No, the girls I worked for didn’t have a pimp, thank God. Otherwise I’d have got beaten up all the time.’ While this intriguing conversation proceeds, in its strange innocence, the nearby Russian troops can be heard, apparently having an uproarious time: they are not lonely, they have a girl among them and the two Germans can hear her shrill laughter and the Russians’ drunken howling and occasional crazy gunshots. It is frightening. Jak must keep his head down. ‘It won’t last long,’ he is told, ‘In a few minutes the commissar will notice and slap them about. They’re not allowed to do that.’ But, of course, the distracting noise might be a cover for a surreptitious Russian attack – and so it proves. As the heaving mass of silent figures rears up from the ground to storm forward with demented hurrahs, Jak whispers his last words: ‘Want to have a good time, sir?’
This powerful story of night-fears, of nightmares come true, is one of several which indicate that the German Army was, in some ways, like any other army. We are often reminded of the earliest stories of the young Hemingway, trying to exorcise his memories of World War One: the excellent English of the translator, Leila Vennewitz, supports and strengthens this comparison. The longest story, ‘The Casualty’, has a familiar ring, to British ears: a soldier is blissfully travelling home, through Rumania, on a comfortable train, having suffered a desirable wound – what we call ‘a Blighty one’. However, there is another story that reminds us that Böll knew that the German Army was not quite like any other. It is called ‘Cause of Death: Hooked Nose’. This tells of a German officer trying to rescue his Russian ‘landlord’, his billeter, who has been mistakenly rounded up with the Jews to be shot. He finds that the executioners are all drunk: with their bloodshot eyes, they look like bulls and their breath is like steam from a manure heap. ‘Grimschenko is not a Jew,’ expostulates the would-be rescuer. ‘Innocent, you mean?’ says the chief executioner. The officer snaps: ‘Innocent, that too.’ He is too late to save Grimschenko. The complacent, dutiful doctor, recording this accidental death, notes down, with professional light-heartedness: ‘Cause of death, hooked nose.’ Throughout these youthful stories, particularly those set in the post-Nazi period, there runs a mood of suspicious hostility towards the doctors, schoolmasters and ‘so-called sensible older people’ of Germany, for these worthies, as Böll wishes to remind us, were ‘the voters of earlier days’ and therefore not to be trusted.
After these strong, exciting and deadly serious stories, the British novels under review may seem rather tame. Two of them deal with bed-wetting, a sad problem for sufferers and not much fun to read about. However, Allan Massie’s novel about Caesar Augustus may attract attention, if only for its grand ambition. The first Roman Emperor was only 18 when he began to take over the world and he was nearly eighty when he crowned his brilliant career by becoming a god. Allan Massie might have been better advised to record some few years of that long life, as reported by a slave. Instead, he offers his Augustus as the Emperor’s long-lost autobiography, defending his sixty years of geopolitical achievement, reporting his conversations with Agrippa and Maecenas. He also offers the Emperor’s impressions of Virgil, Horace and Cicero.
Allan Massie is a Scotsman, applauded for his Scottishness by Alan Bold and Douglas Dunn, and he has adopted one of Scott’s devices for excusing the excesses of his imagination. Sir Walter would insert into his historical romances the pedantic objections of some imaginary fool, called Dryasdust or Cleishbottom: after struggling through Dryasdust, the reader was more willing to accept Sir Walter’s romancing. The device might well be adopted by BBC ‘faction’ dramatists, attempting to tell a story about World War One or the Falklands campaign: an indignant stage-pedant could interrupt the action, denouncing the fiction and asserting the facts, with scholarly confidence. Allan Massie has produced such a stage-pedant, named Aeneas Fraser-Graham, Quondam Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge: this figure of fun prefaces the first section of the narrative with an account of the discovery of Augustus’s autobiography and an admission ‘that Mr Massie’s version is indeed, in the event, too racy, too full of contemporary slang (or perhaps the slang of two or three decades ago) and it suffers from the novelistic determination to make the Emperor’s language consistently lively.’ This is pure Dryasdust, a pretended apology masking the author’s self-satisfaction.
There are other Scottish characteristics in Augustus. The hero has a slave, called Septimus, a bonnie laddie from the Sabine Hills, ‘with ungrammatical Latin and long vowel sounds’, who recalls the despondent Augustus to his duty by shouting: ‘Be a man, General! You say you’re sent to save Rome, and I believe you, even if you’re greeting like a bairn now.’ Virgil, I suggest, is also envisaged as a good Scotsman, speaking with ‘a heavily rolled r, with no affectation’. His first conversation with Augustus lacks the eloquence we might expect. Augustus tells him: ‘I hope my measures will lead to the revival of agriculture in Italy and to a desirable reversion to old patterns of landholding. Unfortunately, in a reform of land tenure on such a scale, some innocent parties must suffer.’ To this strong statement Virgil replies: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’
As if he had suddenly recognised that he had lumbered the poet with one of the most deadly clichés of the 20th century, Massie hastily makes Virgil apologise. ‘A Mantovan proverb,’ explains the great Mantuan. ‘An omelette is a savoury egg dish we country people enjoy.’ This excuse is not good enough: the dialogue jars. Mark Antony is made to talk like an American, repetitious with terse truisms: ‘You made things tough for me, kid. So here you is – no longer Kid but Caesar, even if to me you’ll always be, in some part, just Kid. Still, it’s quite something – no longer Kid but Caesar.’ And so on. Then there is the dialogue of Agrippa: since he was a great general, Massie makes him talk like a sergeant-major in a television clown-show: ‘Our centurions don’t understand what you’re up to. Here you are fucking about with the Senate and that old woman Cicero. That’s what it fucking looks like.’ The mighty Maecenas rebukes him: ‘Run away and practise your sword-play, ducky.’ Maecenas was alleged to be more homosexual than the average Roman, and so Massie has given him the mannerisms of a clown-show queen. Even while seriously advising Augustus to take over the state, this Maecenas cannot stop drooling over ‘a Phrygian boy with a bottom like a peach’.
Massie then starts again, with a new preface by Aeneas Fraser-Graham: ‘Mr Massie has happily approached the task of translating this second Book with more sobriety than he showed in his version of the first.’ There is some truth in this. There are fewer of the ridiculous conversations and there are two passages which are almost convincing, when Augustus visits the sacred grove of the golden bough at Nemi, and when he describes his initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. Here Massie tries to capture the spirit of the age in the manner of Marguerite Yourcenar’s hypnotically persuasive portrait of Hadrian. Fraser-Graham challenges another modern historical novelist when he pleads for Massie’s friendly account of Livia, the Emperor’s wife: this rehabilitation, he urges, should ‘rescue that great lady from the vile calumnies fathered on her grandson Claudius by the fecund imagination of the late Robert Graves, itself infected by the most scurrilous rumour-mongers of Ancient Rome’. Unfortunately, the great lady seems rather boring, rather wordy, in Massie’s rehabilitation, and Augustus seems less concerned with her than with exciting memories of a sexual assault he suffered in his youth, at the hands of Mark Antony.
Now we turn to the wretched ‘Piss-abed’, the nickname given to the narrator of Gabriel’s Lament by his stupid father, Oswald Harvey, who brings Gabriel a rubber sheet to sleep on, because ‘the stench in here,’ says Oswald, ‘is offending my nostrils.’ Later on, Oswald comes into Gabriel’s bedroom at night and sprinkles the stained sheet with pepper. ‘He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pushed my face into the peppered piss,’ Gabriel remembers. He does not get rid of his rubber sheet until he is 17, and even when he leaves his father’s house he still has to endure his visits. Invited to take a seat on his son’s bed, Oswald says: ‘And have the stench of your piss up my nostrils?’ Gabriel’s problem has something to do with the disappearance of his young mother, about whom old Oswald tells him lies. Gabriel gets a job at a nursing-home for elderly women (‘A son of mine emptying bedpans – God give me strength!’) and here he makes the acquaintance of ‘Niagara Alice’, so called ‘because of the trouble she has with her waterworks ... She has a rubber sheet on her bed – just in case of accidents.’ The fastidious reader should be warned that the theme of bodily excretions is dominant throughout this long novel. There are the ‘turds’ with which the boy Gabriel smears his body and there is ‘the map of Ireland’, which is ‘what chambermaids call men’s spunk when it’s been spilt and leaves a stain’.
Gabriel believes his missing mother is still alive and he always celebrates her birthday by dressing in one of her frocks. Suddenly he achieves worldly success by writing a book about religious enthusiasts, used as the basis for a far-fetched Hollywood movie. Oswald dies, at the age of 94, leaving him a package of information, and Gabriel discovers that he has a half-brother and a half-sister, by two different mothers (both of them legally wed to Oswald, unlike his own mother). Tom, the half-brother, asks Gabriel whether he is ‘Arthur or Martha’ and Gabriel has to confess: ‘I’m nothing.’ Tom tells him that old Oswald was very proud of young Gabriel when he began to masturbate: he had produced the boy’s stiff handkerchief, found ‘between the sheets, not under the pillow. I’ll wager it’s stiff with the lad’s first drops of spunk. Snot would have a bit of colour in it.’ Tom also informs Gabriel that their father’s money was the result of a legacy from a notorious pederast who was caught indulging himself illegally in the stables with two grooms, one of whom was Oswald. Gabriel now opens his legacy from Oswald, which consists of mocking letters from his runaway mother to his deserted father, rich with references to ‘dirty botties’, ‘cock covers’ and ‘maps of Ireland’, concluding with a suicide note. Labouring through this doleful and messy story, we may be surprised at the nervous jauntiness.
Our next bed-wetter is Colin Lumsden, an undersized and unsuccessful student at a modern university. Frank Parkin himself is a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and The Mind and Body Shop is clearly a novel for ‘academics’, with knowing references to Neo-Thomism and Merleau-Ponty. The pastoral side of the teachers’ duties is left to the University Counselling Service, in whose offices Colin Lumsden tells Dr Hagstrom how unhappy he is: apart from his other failures, his girlfriend has left him, complaining about his bed-wetting: ‘she says that sleeping on a rubber sheet brought her impetigo.’ Dr Hagstrom, an experimental psychologist, responds: ‘Have you ever considered suicide?’ Lumsden attempts to follow the doctor’s advice, in an unfunny sequence of jocular scenes, before he finds solace in the bed of the neglected wife of a philosophy tutor. Though she is not very pleased to awaken to ‘a smell of ammonia and her lover’s wet sheets knotted around her ankles’, she does contrive to marry Lumsden.
Her former husband has got himself into difficulties with the Vice-Chancellor, a Thatcherite who wants to build up the philosophy department by ‘treating it as a commodity like any other ... My point is that you’ve got to try and see philosophy from the consumers’ angle.’ The whole university is commercially ‘sponsored’ by a multinational junk-food company, the politics department has turned ‘from a loss-maker into one of our most profitable concerns’ through its assistance to the military dictatorships of Latin America, and jurisprudence has developed a department offering legal advice to the Sicilian Mafia. The Khomeini Centre for the Propagation of Islam has supported the university with ‘vast endowments’ and acquired considerable influence through its beneficence. Dr Hagstrom is working on a sociological theory to do with the value of Islam in reviving Liverpool, now that the football team has disappeared and no one can afford to drink alcohol. Colin Lumsden, too, has been revived by Islam and is heard shouting at his new wife: ‘You’re meant to obey me. I could have you chastised ... Right, that’s it. I divorce thee. I divorce thee. I divorce thee.’ There is the glimmer of a good Chestertonian joke here, but it is buried in the wasteland of Parkin’s naughty jokiness.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.