In Praise of Follett

John Sutherland

  • The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
    Hamish Hamilton, 311 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 241 10492 0
  • Joshua Then and Now by Mordecai Richler
    Macmillan, 435 pp, £6.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 333 30025 4
  • Loosely Engaged by Christopher Matthew
    Hutchinson, 150 pp, £4.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 09 142830 0
  • Imago Bird by Nicholas Mosley
    Secker, 185 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 436 28846 X
  • A Quest of Love by Jacquetta Hawkes
    Chatto, 220 pp, £6.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2536 5

Of the novels under review here, Ken Follett’s will sell most. Over the last five years the author has assumed Forsyth’s fitfully-worn mantle and established himself as the world-wide super-seller. The Key to Rebecca will follow Eye of the Needle (1978) and Triple (1979) as a surefire triumph. He is now one of a select band of novelists – Forsyth, Maclean and Higgins are others – at the golden nucleus of the fiction industry. Welshman by origin, Follett is now cosmopolitan and corporate for business reasons. (I notice, incidentally, that The Key to Rebecca is © Fine Blend NV. Are the coffee people setting up against the sugar people who own the James Bond copyright?)

He has benefited from astute merchandising, especially in the US. It was an American publisher who first made him big, and like Higgins (and unlike the more chauvinistic Forsyth), Follett affiliates himself primarily to his transatlantic employer. But hype and gimmicks, such as giving away thousands of copies of his novels in proof to the American book trade, do not of themselves account for his pre-eminence. There is manifestly something in the Follett formula which is right for the time and for the mass of Anglo-American readers. Some main constituents of that formula can be extracted by boiling down the narratives of his three blockbusters.

Eye of the Needle is set in 1944. There is only one man who can win the war for Hitler, a ruthless superspy who has discovered the Normandy invasion plan. The ‘Needle’ – so called for his penchant for the stiletto as a killing weapon – is a cold-eyed, brilliant and ruthless German aristocrat. He has style and is irresistible to women. He is hunted by a homespun British intelligence team. In the crisis of the novel, deserted on Storm Island, ‘Needle’ is finally destroyed by a beautiful English girl, Lucy, who risks her life and her virtue for her country. Lucy lives to marry spy-catcher Fred Bloggs, who is everything his name suggests him to be.

Triple is set in 1967-68. One man, an Arab aristocrat, ruthless, brilliant, irresistible to women, schemes to hijack a delivery of uranium. With the uranium Egypt will atom-bomb a defenceless Israel. Only one man can track down Hassan – Nat Dickstein, unprepossessing, middle-aged Mossad agent, son of an East End cobbler. He is helped by a beautiful girl who finds herself in the final scenes alone at sea with the villain. She risks her life and her virtue to destroy him and frustrate the coup. Seedy spy-catcher and beautiful girl survive to marry.

The Key to Rebecca is set in Cairo, 1942. An Arab-German superspy with a taste for caviare, champagne and cunnilingus with belly dancers gets hold of Allied military plans. As he feeds them to Rommel, he is the one man who can win Egypt for the Axis. The arrogant Wolff (‘I’m a master, a German Nazi, an Egyptian Bedouin, a born ruler’) is tracked by a dogged Englishman, a low-caste major from a working-class background. A beautiful Jewess allies herself with the Englishman and risks her life and her virtue for the cause. Abducted into the desert, it is she who destroys Wolff. At the end of the novel girl and spy-catcher marry.

These résumés don’t do justice to the energy of Follett’s fiction, nor to the minor variations on a theme which his narratives work. But in synopsis we can see what would seem to be their elemental appeal. Like the trend-setting Day of the Jackal, whose hen-pecked, bourgeois detective Lebel brings down the classy assassin, Follett’s fiction celebrates the triumph of the ordinary man over the aristocrat; the Bloggses of the world prevail.

Like Forsyth’s again, Follett’s novels belong to the currently popular ‘secret history’ genre. Such fiction would persuade us that the real truth of world events is invariably hidden: ‘they’ do not tell you what really happened, ‘they’ would not dare. Behind the frustratingly slow movements of open history, there lies hidden an action-packed, touch-and-go narrative so explosive that it can only be told in fiction. In the real world of secret history, peace and civilisation depend on dramatic personal interventions at moments of crisis. There is no inevitability, no impersonal forces. One man with his stiletto, or a hijacked cargo, or a set of plans, can change destiny; another man with his service revolver and pluck can change it another way; a self-sacrificing woman can change it a third way. Everything balances on a knife edge. It’s a thrilling world view and at the same time a deeply consoling one, vindicating as it does the ordinary individual, the efficacy of personal action and happy families.

Although Mordecai Richler has kept his piece the prescribed nine years, what has finally been delivered is scarcely Horatian in its art. Joshua Then and Now presents itself as a huge, ill-disciplined flashback from an opening scene which finds the cracked-up hero recently emerged from intensive care. He is, we pick up, a one-time political idealist, later a novelist and now a cynically successful journalist. For obscure reasons the convalescent Joshua whom we first encounter is guarded by his father (Jewish, ex-pugilist, ex-con) and his father-in-law (a senator, gentile) in a cottage on Lake Memphremagog, outside Montreal. We do not know why Joshua is besieged by reporters, nor why his wife is suffering a nervous breakdown, nor why he receives messages from well-wishers like ‘the David and Jonathan Society, a newly-formed group of young, caring, Jewish faggots’. Joshua’s mother runs a massage parlour called Oral is Beautiful in Winnipeg which offers bilingual services. This is hardly enlightening. As baffling is the police interest in certain mischievous acts of larceny and forgery which seem to have accompanied Joshua’s career.

Just how he got into this pickle is the burden of the subsequent 400 pages. But flashback is a misleading description. The narrative meanders around, following a whole troupe of characters then and now, here and there, doing this and that. The novel is un petit peu de toutes choses: it offers zany comedy in the manner of De Vries, dangling-man introspection in the manner of Bellow, bildungsroman retrospection in the manner of Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. The inclusion of father Reuben’s vernacular paraphrases of the Bible suggests that Richler might even be inclined to take on David Kossoff. The narrative sweep gives, in passing, thirty years’ worth of social change in Canada, Britain and Ibiza.

Christopher Matthew’s Loosely Engaged is a sequel to Diary of a Somebody. For those who are at work by nine o’clock of a weekday morning this information will mean less than it should. For Matthew’s original Diary was a big success in a small way from its having been broadcast on Radio 4 in the Yesterday in Parliament slot, vacated when the House is in recess. It is hardly peak listening-time, 8.35-9 a.m., nor is it often imaginatively used. But Matthew’s reading of his own work was notably good. The work represents a minor comic mode which is modelled on the Grossmiths and, ultimately, goes back to Thackeray. The BBC is following up the Diary with its sequel.

Simon Crisp, the diarist, is a wet young man about town, a constantly failing trend hound. He is a snob and not very bright. His journal records, unself-consciously and often obtusely, a series of minor defeats and humiliations. Crisp has been rising in the world, however: he now possesses a Maxi (with dubious, stammering gears), and a £12,000-a-year job in advertising, and he gets more sexual gratification than he used to. This is a seasonally intended book and Crisp’s memoirs may well be sequelised from now to Xmas 2000.

An ingenuous youth – Bert – is also the hero of Nicholas Mosely’s Imago Bird. Mosley also employs the monologue-journal form of narration and this work is a sequel. Hereafter, all resemblance ceases. Imago Bird is no slot-filler and it forms the second part of a quite immodestly complex fiction sequence which, when complete, should be one of the curiosities of contemporary English fiction. Mosley likes to subordinate his fiction to bifurcated dictionary definitions which point us to the duplicity of the phenomenal world. This novel has the helpful epigraph: ‘IMAGO ... 1. Final and perfect stage of an insect after it has undergone its metamorphoses, e.g. butterfly. 2. Idealised mental picture of oneself or another person, especially parent.’

Imago Bird’s hero is a young man about to go up to Cambridge. Meanwhile he is staying with his Uncle Bill, who is the prime minister. (The Liberals – or possibly the Libyans – keep him in power.) Through his girlfriend, Sheila, Bert is mixed up with young Trotskyists and the pop world. Bert’s main characteristic is his stammer, a Demosthenic flaw mysteriously connected with his superior perception of the world around him. Bert is in analysis with Dr Anders to cure his impediment. Cure and the consequent transformation of his self-image may or may not release Bert’s next self, which he privately pictures as a bird behind the eyes awaiting metamorphosis. Bert-Bird-Billy Budd are all symbolically in play in Mosley’s novel. One can thicken the significance with the information that Imago Bird ‘is the first of a planned series of interlocking novels concerning the fortunes of the six protagonists of Catastrophe Practice (1979)’. In the earlier work’s dramatic sequences there was a character called Bert who played Ariel and was himself played by a character called Anderson.

Mosley is a perversely and probably deliberately uneven writer. In some passages of his career (Accident, Impossible Object) he has been almost popular. Yet Catastrophe Practice must be one of the most inaccessible works ever accepted for publication by a commercial house. Imago Bird indulges the simple reader. It has a sustained charm arising principally from the innocent hero’s cross-purposes with reality. But catastrophe theory, the organising metaphor of Mosley’s present enterprise, predicts that ‘things work in sudden jumps’. It’s a fair expectation that future instalments of this serial will jump us back into the unreadably difficult.

The method of Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Quest of Love is appropriately archaeological. A well-organised dig into the past, it records, in successive historical strata, the experience of ‘advanced women’. These women are all taken to be part of the author’s serially-reincarnated ‘long body’ (an Indian idea), and their lives are recaptured by dream vision. Prehistoric Jakka and Jussa, Ianissa of Knossos, Io of Ephesus, medieval Jaquet and Victorian Jacky culminate in Jacquetta Hawkes, married to Jack Priestley.

Most readers, I suspect, will be less interested in the imaginative recapitulations of the long body than in the frank confessions of the ‘novel’s’ last section: ‘the men I have loved have been more or less ugly ... We quite enjoyed our honeymoon in Majorca. We did not, however, make much use of the wider stage, never venturing beyond what I believe is called the European position ... I remember that I first became an adulteress to the sound of Mozart.’ The gimmick of A Quest of Love, derived partly from Orlando, partly from Priestley’s time-game fictions, doesn’t come off. The work sets out to show how women have at different times contrived to achieve their ends by different means – by fornication, lesbianism, bacchanalian excess, cunning marriage. The aim of this demonstration is to temper with historical perspective what Hawkes finds strident and short-sighted in Women’s Liberation. A whole book written with the candour of A Quest of Love’s last section would probably have achieved it better.