TALKING TO RUDOLF HESS – Desmond Zwar (2010, The History Press, £17.99; ISBN: 978-0-7524-5522-8)

The title is a misnomer: Zwar never actually talked to Rudolf Hess, the former Deputy Leader of the Nazis and Hitler’s chosen successor. His only contact was through intermediaries, whose verbal reports as written down by the author make up much of the book. As history, then, the book exists as mere hearsay. However, by this remote means Zwar managed to obtain an interview of sorts with one of the two most interesting Nazi leaders. (Joseph Goebbels was the other.) It’s therefore of some interest, but not as an historical record.

After his flight to Scotland in May 1941, apparently on a mission of peace, Hess was incarcerated in Britain until the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946. Found guilty on two counts of war crimes, Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the rest of his life in Spandau prison, in the suburbs of Berlin. Because of the intransigence of the Soviet authorities (one of the four Occupying Powers) Hess was never offered parole or any reduction in sentence. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1987, at the age of 93. He was therefore a prisoner for 46 years, half his lifetime, mostly in solitary confinement.

In the modern age the main interest in Hess is based partly on the circumstances of his incarceration, which was cruel and inhumane, but also on the many strange and sometimes inexplicable details of his flight in 1941, the motives for the flight and the reaction to it of the Churchill government. The official version of events is plausible only so long as you don’t seek confirmation of details, and much of its veracity is undermined by the fact that Churchill put a seal on the release of official papers until 2017). Why was this apparently straightforward (if misguided) event treated with such secrecy? It remains a fascinating subject for discussion, none better than in an investigative book called Double Standards, by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior (Little, Brown, 2001).

Nothing in Zwar’s book answers or challenges the many enigmas set out in Double Standards, and in a dull kind of way probably confirms much of the official version. The matters that fascinate researchers into Hess’s adventure were largely forgotten by Hess, and over the years he gave a string of vague, rambling or contradictory explanations. For most of his 46 years in captivity he was either mad or amnesiac, or feigning both, and in any case he was never possessed of the brightest brain among Hitler’s henchmen. What Hess said indirectly to Zwar is much the same as he said on the few other occasions he was questioned. None of the mysteries is settled here, and there is a sense that events soon overtook him. The crucial action of World War 2 – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – came six weeks after Hess arrived in Scotland, before interrogations of him had barely begun. The American entry into the war came seven months later. He was irrelevant to history almost at once. However, a cloud of intrigue still hangs over him. If anything, Desmond Zwar thickens parts of the cloud, but they are the least interesting parts. In all, a book for Hess completists like me, but not otherwise recommended.

A liquid investment

Last night Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sense of an Ending. My review of this novel can be found in Recent, on this site. On the same page are other reviews, notably of Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame and Emmanuel Carrère’s A Russian Novel. Neither of these was eligible for the Man Booker, nor would they ever be, as they are translations from other languages. I read none of the other five books on the Man Booker shortlist, so I’ve no idea if the Barnes novel was the best of them, or merely (as some have claimed) the best of a bad lot. All I know is that having read Kehlmann, Carrère and Barnes at more or less the same time, the Barnes came last, having been lapped several times by the others. If his unoriginal, unimaginative and facile novel represents the best of fiction in the English-speaking world (excluding the USA, of course), then these are dire times indeed for the English novel. They are in fact not, but to judge by the panel’s inexpert choices this year (not to mention their embarrassing and philistine comments in response to criticisms such as this one) they would not know that.

From the Booker website, I discovered this information about the sponsoring company: The Man Booker Prize is sponsored by Man Group plc. Man is a world-leading alternative investment management business. It has expertise in a wide range of liquid investment styles including managed futures, equity, credit and convertibles, emerging markets, global macro and multi-manager, combined with powerful product structuring, distribution and client service capabilities. Man manages $71.0 billon. I haven’t the faintest idea what any of that might mean, except I know they can’t spell ‘billion’ correctly. You would think they’d get that right, since it’s the final brag in their self-advertisement.

I have always maintained that the real purpose of literary awards is not to give aid and comfort to authors or publishers, but to make the givers of the awards feel good about themselves. What on Earth is an organization professing expertise in ‘liquid investment styles’, ‘global macro and multi-manager’ and ‘client service capabilities’ doing by interesting itself in literature? What is their motive? Must be a tax-break in there somewhere.

The whole thing is secondrate, and the art of literature is diminished by such events.

MELANCHOLIA – directed by Lars von Trier (2011, 136 min., Cert: 15 – with Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling)

This is a film famously upstaged by the stupid comments made by director Lars von Trier at a press conference during the Cannes Film Festival, which had been mounted to celebrate Kirsten Dunst’s award for Best Actress. (Von Trier himself had also been nominated for Palme d’Or as Best Director.) As I am finding with this brief notice, it seems impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the stupid remarks. This is a shame, because that storm in an eggcup seems to have distracted most people from the unusual qualities of the film itself, which are many and great. It is a serious, beautiful and imaginative film, written to a perfect pitch, full of psychological verities, a brilliantly observed dysfunctional family of adults, a brooding atmosphere, sensational acting, and photography to kill for. The writer was Lars von Trier himself. The actors are all excellent, but the two leads, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are thrilling to watch. The photography is by Manuel Alberto Claro. The atmosphere – well, the atmosphere is created by a combination of all these elements.

The opening is a series of strange and evocative tableaux vivants, isolated moments in a world where a globally catastrophic event is about to occur: the music is the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with its undertones of impending doom. The main part of the film is set in two chapters. In the first, Justine, we witness the marriage celebrations of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) to the son of her boss – to say that everything goes wrong would be an understatement, but the mise en scène is classically and sumptuously mounted, with terrific ensemble acting, a script full of moving insights, venomous remarks and perverse actions, and a sense that everything is indeed going to hell. The second part is called Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Claire, Justine’s sister), and is set in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous wedding. A great depression afflicts the remaining family, but in particular the two sisters, who are forever separated by a gulf of misunderstandings and old resentments. Meanwhile, the wandering rogue planet Melancholia is set on a collision course with our own planet. It moves ever nearer, wreaking psychological damage on the characters and, in the final few seconds of the film, terminal physical damage to the world.

Melancholia is a masterpiece, one of the finest science fiction films ever made, and if the film and arthouse worlds were not obsessively distracted by the director’s mad remarks it would be recognized as a genuine paradigm changer. It is an amazing and refreshing antidote to the ever-predictable Hollywood take on filmed science fiction, with its dull and over-familiar emphasis on action, resolute heroes, terse dialogue, knee-jerk gloom, clever technology and cute robots, and visual and CGI effects. The point most Hollywood films miss is that when disaster occurs it affects ordinary people, not presidents and heroes and Bruce Willis.

Melancholia uses the dramatic technique of microcosm: an unhappy and squabbling family surrounded by useless wealth, unable to comprehend or even momentarily adapt to the catastrophe that is about to hit them. There is no hope of reprieve, no heroics, no pseudoscience, no more special effects than absolutely necessary. Ten years from now Melancholia will be recognized as a classic: of cinema as well of cinematic science fiction, a highpoint in von Trier’s maverick but endlessly intriguing career.

Lars von Trier’s moving and sincere retraction (together with a wonderful burst of supportive outrage from Stellan Skarsgård, denouncing von Trier’s high-handed treatment by the Festival organizers), can be viewed here.

My Dinner with Tomas

I was interested to learn this week that the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has been made this year’s Nobel Laureate of Literature. I met him at the Adelaide Literary Festival in 1982, and one evening we had dinner together. My Swedish was non-existent — his English was slightly better, so we spoke in English. Communication was not easy, but I liked him. Although I had not then (and have not since) read any of his poetry, one or two people at the festival had, and said he was an excellent lyrical poet.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one does not get to meet and then name-drop many Nobel Laureates (although my old pal Salman must surely be waiting in line, for his highly praised but verbose and to me unenjoyable novels). Secondly, one of the few topics of conversation during that awkward mealtime meeting concerned whatever it was I was working on at that time, which happened to be the early stories of the Dream Archipelago. Mr Tranströmer told me that he lived in an archipelago, close to Stockholm. I have discovered this week that one of his best-liked poems, and the title of one of his collections, is ‘The Dream Archipelago’.

A fond remembrance

When a newly published book is being reviewed the writer can find himself in a perverse and slightly frustrating position. There is a sort of convention under which the writer is expected to stay silent and not respond to published reviews, favourable or otherwise. A writer who breaks with the convention can look a bit of a prat: comment on a friendly one and you seem as if you’re preening yourself, but respond to a negative or hostile review and you appear to have been provoked, and are revealing an over-sensitive nature or hinting at an old feud that has been festering. The only possible excuse for a response is if the reviewer makes an error of fact, and then only if it is a serious error or a seriously misleading one. Otherwise, the best advice is to keep your trap shut.

That said, let’s head on into the night. Yesterday’s Guardian Review supplement carried a letter from Paul Kincaid, pointing out a small but intriguing mis-statement in Ursula Le Guin’s review in the Guardian of my new novel The Islanders. Le Guin had said that the reference to the island of Collago was ‘a big hare to start and not pursue’ – Kincaid corrected this, saying that The Affirmation, published in 1981, was an entire novel about Collago island and what goes on there. The hare had been not only started and pursued, but chased back into its own nest and beyond.

I had of course noticed this when I saw Le Guin’s review, but under the above convention felt it wasn’t my place to point it out. (So: many thanks to Paul Kincaid.) Anyway, it seemed obvious to me that Le Guin had either not read The Affirmation, or had forgotten all about it.

I saw no problem with that. The Affirmation came out more than thirty years ago, and no one can keep up with everything. Indeed, if the roles were now reversed and I were to review a new Le Guin book, I’d have the similar difficulty that I have not read any novel of hers since about, say, 1981. But her minor slip does open up an interesting connection with Le Guin herself.

There are two things I want to make clear about The Islanders. Firstly, it is not a sequel of any kind to earlier books or stories. Secondly, it is not a roman à clef.

On the first matter, The Islanders is intended to be read as a standalone novel: you don’t need a qualification in Priest books to follow it or enjoy it. It is of course a novel set in the Dream Archipelago, which I have written about before, but apart from a couple of short sections which were published while I was drafting the novel (one in Interzone, the other in an Ian Whates anthology) it is all new work, independent of everything else. True, there are a few references back to earlier stories, but they are small, irrelevant and inconsequential. If you miss them you miss nothing. If you want to go and hunt for them (mostly in the collection called The Dream Archipelago, but also in The Affirmation), you will probably find them, but will at once agree about the smallness, the irrelevance and the inconsequentiality. Neither the earlier work nor the new is changed or improved by these small sly references.

As for The Islanders being a roman à clef: it simply is not that. With one exception.

When in the mid-1970s Ursula Le Guin came to stay and work in Britain, I was eager to meet her. I was a young and growing writer – she was at that time a very good writer, but not yet a great writer. (Her impending greatness was clear to a small group of us who had followed her work, but she was then little known to the wider world.) We met several times and, I think and hope, we became friends. She struck me as a nice woman, intelligent, wise, humorous, imaginative, and by her example gave young writers like me much to aspire to.

In 1977 I was editing a new anthology for Faber & Faber and was having to write a story of my own to go into it. The result was a Dream Archipelago story called ‘The Negation’. In this a young writer (not in fact based on me, or even my own idea of myself) meets an older and more experienced writer. I gave her the name Moylita Kaine, and although she was not at all intended as a depiction of Ursula Le Guin, she had many of the qualities I had sensed in Le Guin: the wisdom, the warmth, etc. In the story, Moylita Kaine has earlier written the one novel which most inspired my young writer, and which had made him want to become a writer too. For the moment he is a conscript in wartime, serving as a member of the Border Police protecting his country, but he plans to start writing in earnest as soon as he is free.

Her novel, which he carries around in a battered old paperback, is called The Affirmation. At this time, my own novel of that name did not exist; I later co-opted the title for myself (thinking ‘why the hell not?’), but this means that in every way the title of the Kaine novel has priority over my own use of the same title.

The plot of the Kaine The Affirmation is loosely described in ‘The Negation’. It bears no resemblance to anything Le Guin ever wrote, and for that matter it is completely unlike the plot of my own The Affirmation, which came out some three or four years later. If anything, the plot description in the story gives an acknowledgement to a novel which had once had a similar inspirational effect on me: John Fowles’s The Magus.

I’ve no idea if Le Guin ever read ‘The Negation’, or if on reading it she might have recognized something of herself in the character, because by the time the story appeared she had returned to the USA and we were more or less out of contact. It didn’t matter: I intended it only as a harmless mention, a fond acknowledgement to someone I rather liked.

Moving on thirty years, we come to The Islanders. Moylita Kaine reappears.

She features in three parts of the novel. In the first, she is a young writer edging her way towards publication, and writing her own first novel. This turns out to be The Affirmation. (The cover image of the first edition is included in The Islanders Gallery.) You need not know about my earlier short story.

In her second appearance, Moylita Kaine has become a successful and well-known author: as yet very good rather than great. She has had to travel to a remote island in the Archipelago to collect the remains of a young Border Policeman, killed in an accident. You need not know about my earlier short story.

Finally, we hear about the writing of the one work that established her greatness: a novel called Hoel Vanil, ‘a novel in the form of a document’. (The cover image of this book also appears in The Islanders Gallery.)

There is absolutely no reason why Ursula Le Guin, reading these three short sections of a long novel, should identify any part of herself from them. Even so, I can’t help wondering that if she had known about or remembered the circumstances of ‘The Negation’, she alone in this world might have enjoyed the novel a little more than in reality she did.

The Le Guin review from the Guardian is here.

‘The Negation’ is one of the short stories in the collection The Dream Archipelago.

The Paul Kincaid letter does not appear to have a link, so here is a scan of it:

Paul Kincaid's letter