The Great Exhibition

John Sutherland

  • Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
    Gollancz, 287 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 575 03483 1
  • Enterprise Red Star by Alexander Bogdanov, translated by Charles Rongle, edited by Loren Graham and Richard Stites
    Indiana, 266 pp, $22.50, June 1984, ISBN 0 253 17350 7
  • Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 184 pp, £7.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02238 5
  • Conversations in Another Room by Gabriel Josipovici
    Methuen, 121 pp, £7.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 413 55930 0
  • An Affair on the Appian Way by Michael Levey
    Hamish Hamilton, 219 pp, £8.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 241 11315 6

A prefatory note testifies that Empire of the Sun draws on its author’s observations as a young boy swept up by the Japanese capture of Shanghai, and his subsequent internment in Lunghua airfield camp, outside the city. James Ballard’s narrative, pitched ambiguously between autobiography and fiction, records the lost childhood of a lad variously nicknamed Jim and Jamie. (As far as I can see, the surname is never given – but it’s not hard to supply: J.G. Ballard, incidentally, never uses his Christian name authorially.) We are clearly invited to locate the traumatic source of Ballard’s creativity in an awful primal experience, here relived under artistic discipline.

Jim is first discovered as one of the privileged foreign trading community, living in Shanghai’s concession areas. The empires of Britain and Japan are at war, but Shanghai preserves an artificial cocoon of mercantile neutrality. After Pearl Harbour and all-out hostilities, Jim is split up from his parents and camps out, living on cocktail snacks and soda water in the deserted mansions of the European quarter. He tries without success to give himself up to the Japanese, whom he admires intensely. (His abiding ambition, maintained throughout the hostilities which victimise him, is to become a Japanese combat pilot.) He passes under the wing of a series of more or less exploitative, deranged or uncaring adult guardians. ‘In real war,’ Jim realises, ‘there were no enemies’ – or friends. The camp, death, destruction become madhouse normality for him. Suffering bestows prophetic powers (the maimed seer is a recurring figure in Ballard’s fiction): in visions of terrible incandescence, Jim foresees American firebombing of Japan, the atomic destruction of Nagasaki, and – ultimately – World War Three.

In clinical terms, ‘real’ war fashions Jim into a psychopath. He has no normal ‘human’ responses to what is going on around him: patriotism, nationalism, even fellowship in misery with other prisoners are beyond his power to feel. In this null condition, he does not distinguish between Doctor Ransome, the Brownlow who self-sacrificingly protects him, and the Fagin-like American seaman, Basie, who loots his way through the course of the novel. (Jim first encounters Basie ripping gold teeth from Chinese corpses.) Jim somehow survives internment, death marches and a final bizarre episode with a bandit gang led by the indestructible Basie. Like the five hundred million Chinese, he gets by because he has the advantage of knowing that he has always been half-dead.

The novel is essentially an exercise in the pitiless representation of Jim’s point of view. To borrow Ballard’s favourite metaphor, it is an ‘exhibition’, a series of images caught by Jim’s sharp, innocent eye. Opening and closing scenes are dominated by Shanghai’s ubiquitous cinema screens. Jim’s own experience unrolls, like montages in a strange newsreel: his parents, going to an eve-of-war fancy-dress party dressed as pierrot and pirate, their Packard crunching indifferently over a persistent beggar camped at their gate; three hundred hunchbacks, recruited by the management of the Cathay Theatre for the opening of Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame; children’s coffins launched off Shanghai’s funeral piers, always washed back to the mainland with the flowing tide, unable to leave China. This is the image with which Ballard chooses, significantly, to end his novel. A routine tramride through peacetime Shanghai is a typically violent sideshow:

Outside the tram station in the Avenue Haig the hundreds of passengers were briefly silent as they watched a public beheading. The bodies of a man and woman in quilted peasant clothes, perhaps pickpockets or Kuomintang spies, lay by the boarding platform. The Chinese NCOs wiped their boots as the blood ran into the metal grooves of the steel rails. A tram crowded with passengers approached, its bell forcing the execution party aside. It clanked along, connector rod hissing and throwing sparks from the overhead power line, its front wheels a moist scarlet as if painted for the annual labour union parade.

In one of his many solitary spells, Jim comes across Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. Its world seems enviably normal compared to his.

We are invited to accept Empire of the Sun as both cathartic and self-revealing. Coming where it does in Ballard’s career, it proffers itself as the key to earlier fiction. Typically, the Ballard novel coldly catalogues disaster. He seems at the same time fascinated by human catastrophe, returning to it obsessively in his novels, yet strangely indifferent as an artist to its human consequences. This frigidity is elaborated in works of straight SF like The Drowned World and The Terminal Beach, in Post-Modernist ‘condensed’ novels like those collected in The Atrocity Exhibition, and in New Wave ‘speculative fiction’, such as Crash (Ballard’s previous best work, in my view). For Empire of the Sun – as a token of candour towards the reader or perhaps as self-discipline – Ballard reverts to an old-fashioned, realistic mode of narrative, purged of all experimentalism. For a writer who has aligned himself with Burroughs and Beckett, and was for years touted as the literary hope of British SF, this changing down of stylistic gear has a powerful surprise effect.

Empire of the Sun is the most accessible and self-explanatory novel that Ballard has so far given us. Reviewers should not jump to critical conclusions. But I believe that this work, which has evidently risen like a slow bruise from Ballard’s childhood, will exercise a claim to be considered the best British novel of the Second World War. But admiration for the fineness of the novel merges into sympathetic pain at what it must have cost to be able to write it.

Alexander Bogdanov is probably remembered – if at all – as the heretic flayed in Lenin’s great polemic, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Bogdanov’s error, in Lenin’s infuriated opinion, was to deny the materiality of the world, so falling into ‘Machian confusion and idealist aberrations’. Unfortunately, there is no full biographical account of Bogdanov available. The introductory sketch provided by the editors of Red Star portrays him as a fascinating second-rank pioneer of the Russian Revolution. Bogdanov trained initially as a doctor. He progressed by the usual steps from philanthropic service to the poor, to political radicalism, and by the turn of the century was a Bolshevik. At the time of writing Red Star, Bogdanov and Lenin were comrades-in-arms, with Bogdanov the fiercer of the two doctrinally. As a physician, Bogdanov did useful research into blood transfusion – an act which had Socialist symbolism for him. He died, in 1928, experimenting on himself with blood donations from an infected patient. Like Wells’s vampiric Martians, Bogdanov’s aliens in Red Star are interested in blood – but only as something to be shared among themselves, in semi-religious ‘comradely exchanges of life’.

A scientific amateur and Socialist philosopher, Bogdanov developed a full-blown theory of ‘tectology’, as he called it. This has been hailed as an anticipation of cybernetics and systems-thinking (innovations imaginatively elaborated in Red Star’s Martian-socialist utopia). And as one of his minor accomplishments, Bogdanov was a founder of the wave of Soviet Science Fiction which flourished in the first three decades of the 20th century. Unlike its equivalent flowering in the US, or the earlier British ‘romances of the future’, the golden age of Soviet SF was distinctly pedagogic and ideologically inspirational – a tendency which can be traced back directly to Bogdanov. But there is some common ground between the national varieties. Red Star takes as its starting-point Schiaparelli’s observation of so-called canali on Mars, in the late 1870s. The word was meant to indicate ‘channels’ but was misapprehended as ‘canals’ – artefacts, not natural features. The myth that Mars presented the distant spectacle of a dead or dying mighty civilisation took firm root with the popularising theories of Percival Lowell, at the turn of the century. It was bad astronomy, but excellent inspiration for romancers. Among Martian fantasies inspired by the ‘canals’, the most famous is Wells’s War of the Worlds (1899). Projecting the ways of his own people, Wells conceives the Martians as imperialists, ruthlessly employing superior military technology to invade, then plunder London (the inevitable target, as the heart of terrestrial colonialism). The origin of War of the Worlds is Wells’s conviction that a superior race would treat the English as the English had recently treated the luckless Tasmanians. ‘Are we such apostles of mercy,’ his narrator asks, ‘to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’

Bogdanov’s Martians are interplanetary comrades, not colonisers. The vision in Red Star is (ostensibly) optimistic and utopian. Bogdanov’s logic is that Mars, being the older planet, must inevitably have preceded Earth, through war, to Socialist fulfilment. Mars is the red planet in all senses. Bogdanov’s Martians elect to land in Russia, as the cradle of revolution, where ‘the pulse of life beats strongest.’ Martian society is found to embody the romantically-electrified future that the early Bolsheviks imagined themselves fighting for. ‘In order to wage the struggle,’ Bogdanov notes, ‘one must know the future.’ To supply this inspiriting knowledge is the aim of Red Star. There is an interesting scene, evidently answering Wells, in which Bogdanov’s Martians, facing the exhaustion of their planet’s natural resources, have the option of either colonising Earth (and exterminating its inhabitants) or sending out mining expeditions to the hazardous and unpopulated surface of Venus. Although the Venusian choice is infinitely more costly and risky, it is accepted.

Red Star was written immediately after the 1905 abortive revolution, and scenes of contemporary battle form the opening backdrop. From this furnace of insurrection, the hero is carried off for a recuperative sight-seeing tour of Mars in one of the visitors’ ‘etheronephs’. On Mars, he discovers what the Communist future being fought for on earth holds. Individualism had been abolished (and with it, all vestiges of leadership). Martian society is organised as a benign industrial factory-cum-garden state. (The book is embellished with half-tone 1923 illustrations, which capture the pastoral-industrial vision charmingly.) He falls in love with an alien: this turn of the plot is clearly taken from Lytton’s The Coming Race – a source the editors seem to have overlooked. In the tedious manner of Socialist utopian fiction, the central part of the narrative is a catalogue of great achievements: the Children’s Colony, the Museum of Art, the Hospital. Bodganov hits a few prophetic bullseyes, with his projections of mainframe computers, talking three-dimensional movies and dictaphones. But in general, Red Star is as wildly inaccurate a predictor of the future as all its genre. The hero chooses to work in an idyllic Martian clothing factory. Interestingly, he finds the work so boring that he has a nervous breakdown, sickening in Arcadia. (In an afterword, Loren R. Graham discusses strains of subversive pessimism in Red Star.) There is a perfunctory wrapping-up of the action, in which he returns to Earth, throws himself even more vigorously into revolutionary battle, is wounded, and is finally reassumed to Mars, and reunion with his Martian mate.

Bogdanov’s narrative skills are primitive. There is too little conflict in his story and too much of the uplifting lantern-slide show for the ingenuous mass audience. But the work (which has until very recently been unavailable in English) has considerable historical interest. It sets up a more complicated genealogy for Science Fiction, with a line running parallel to those originating in Late Victorian England, and 1920s America. Red Star is usefully collected here with a later-written prequel Engineer Menni (dealing with the construction of the canals, in Mars’s late capitalist era), and a fragment of a poem, sketching out an unwritten novel with the Craig Rainian subject of a Martian, miserably stranded on Earth.

Anita Brookner should break the reader in more gently. Her fourth novel, Hotel du Lac, begins at the highest pitch of her now acclaimed ‘style’: ‘From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that behind the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling.’ It takes a page or two to get used to the sweeping syntactic line with its regular insurance clauses taken out in mid-sentence to guard against anything so crass as a straight statement of descriptive fact. But once cultivated, the taste for her writing is addictive. The situation which is artfully unfolded in Hotel du Lac is one of minor intensities – .001 on the fictional Richter scale. Edith Hope, 39 and unmarried, is staying at an-end-of-season hotel, on Lake Geneva. She looks like Virginia Woolf, but as ‘Vanessa Wilde’ writes moderately best-selling romances of the traditional, Georgette Heyer kind. She has resisted the urging of her agent to produce the more fashionable ‘bodice rippers’. It gradually emerges that Edith has been sent to Switzerland by well-meaning friends to atone for ‘an apparently dreadful thing’. She had jilted her fiancé, at the registry office door. She is meanwhile embroiled in a long, unhappy affair with a married auctioneer. In the course of her supposed recuperation at the hotel, Edith – an incorrigible sexual recidivist – has a sudden romance with a masterful electronics engineer. He resembles, she notes, the Goya portrait of Wellington, is a divorcee, and has a rather well-known collection of famille rose dishes. (Such things count for a lot in Brookner’s novels.) A lover of fine things, he proposes marriage to Edith. She accepts. But in a surprising climax things go wrong. This time, however, Edith takes charge of her own destiny, acting – at last – like a ‘grown-up’. Edith’s misadventures keep the reader on the narrative hook. But the active ingredient is the heroine’s sharp, novelistic detective work on her fellow guests, as they gradually coalesce into a rather nasty little community. In one sense, there is very little in the story: some social comedy, a daub or two of Swiss scene-painting, a few conversations, a little seduction and betrayal. But Brookner contrives to spin out her matter, creating effects of wispy fineness.

Gabriel Josipovici is one of the élite corps of British novelists who write theoretical criticism and novels, turn and turn about. Above all others, these writers know what they are doing. Whether the reader can keep up with their movements between the fictional drawing-board and workshop is another question. Not that Josipovici’s latest novel, Conversations in Another Room, strains the reader’s stamina. Physically, it has the dimensions of a sliver. It contains 120 loose-packed pages, largely composed of half-lines of dialogue. The thickest of paper and a dozen or so blank sides cannot make it look, to the eye, like a £7.95 novel. And unless it is a clever stroke of literary concretism, someone at Methuen’s production department has blundered by designing too large a dust-jacket for this virtually spineless book. All of which combines to give the impression that what we have here is a short story misleadingly draped – perhaps for the author’s purposes – in novel’s clothing.

Conversations in Another Room extends into fictional practice the investigation of literary obliquity conducted in Josipovici’s recent critical work, Writing and the Body. (Particularly relevant is the fourth chapter, ‘A bird was in the room’.) The novel’s framing situation is the regular visit paid by a niece to her bedridden aunt. Their exchanges, reproduced with Sterneian dashes rather than inverted commas, are largely banal, as are the other conversations which the old lady holds with her female companion. But a mystery, dealing with two broken marriages, emerges between the half-lines. Why did the old lady’s husband desert her, after some unspecified misconduct in Italy? Why has her son gone to Saudi Arabia, leaving a broken marriage behind? One or other of her conversation partners may be responsible. There are brief excursions from the central dialogues: one to the old lady’s husband, Robert, who hears a susurrus of women’s voices in his flat in Positano. Beneath the old woman’s bedroom, by a convex mirror (whose symbolism is tactfully indicated), a man takes notes. It is all poised, very deliberately, at the point where enigma borders sheer obscurity. Indeed, the whole thing may be the fictions of a failing mind: ‘perhaps there was no husband, no son, no Rome, no Amalfi, no air-conditioned flat in the Gulf. Perhaps there are only two old ladies slowly dying together in a cramped flat in West London.’

My response to Josipovici’s novel is mixed. It’s easy to read, but hard to understand. There is a part of me that responds with: perhaps me no perhapses, Josipovici, tell me what’s going on, for God’s sake, or give the reader back his £7.95. Another part of me dutifully applauds the critic-novelist’s intricate and tirelessly intelligent probing into the aesthetics of Modernist fiction.

Michael Levey is a surprisingly competent novelist. Surprising, that is, since fiction can surely be something that the director of the National Gallery has had little time for in recent turbulent years. An Affair on the Appian Way is an interestingly fresh confection. The work is set in Trajan’s Rome, 100 AD. The heroine (who is also the autobiographical narrator), a chief Vestal Virgin, is charged by the Empress with investigating a sex-murder recently committed on the Appian Way. This old-world Miss Marples is sucked into a torrid underworld of high-society vice. Shedding the discipline of her cult, she gives herself (at the site of the crime) to a handsome young Gaul (‘je t’adore,’ he tells her – after the manner of the Astérix comics, Levey’s idiom is flauntingly anachronistic). Complications ensue, and the novel ends darkly.

As a detective story, the work pleases. But it is more interesting in its secondary character, as a roman à thèse. Rome, in An Affair on the Appian Way, is stifling in one of its periodic fits of public decency. Levey seems to assert that in such over-controlled conditions, passion inevitably converts to crime and corruption. Whilst sustaining its part as light entertainment, the novel enters a persuasive plea for permissiveness. Mr Levey should take time off to write more fiction.