We Did Things Differently Then

I was 21 and my future was determined – I wanted to be a writer. For my 21st birthday my father bought me a manual typewriter: a Hermes 3000 Portable. This replaced the machine on which I had learned to type: an elderly Olivetti belonging to my parents. The new Hermes was everything I wanted: a smooth, steady action, a nice clear 10-pitch typeface, and a solid base. This meant that I could balance it on my knees while I sat on the side of my bed – already my favoured position while writing. An extra bonus was that I knew somehow it was the same machine used by Brian Aldiss, who was then something of a role model for me.

HermesI worked on the Hermes for about four years. I never thought of changing it or looking for a better machine, because I considered it to be perfect. On it I wrote all my early short stories, and a thousand letters. But then my friend Graham Hall won a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and suddenly everything changed.

Graham is now largely unknown, but he was a familiar and anarchic figure during the years of the British New Wave, in the 1960s. Like all of us he dreamed of being a writer, and in fact sold two or three remarkable short stories. The best of these was called “Sun Push”, published in the January 1967 edition of New Worlds SF. Three years later he and Graham Charnock co-edited an issue of New Worlds: December 1969. Graham Hall was a funny, highly intelligent and sensitive man, and was always entertaining and provocative company, but he had a weakness. He saw himself romantically as a doomed figure, and did whatever he could to confirm this by drinking heavily. I never once saw him drunk, but I also never saw him without a drink. He was to die of cirrhosis when he was only 32.

At the time of his scholarship to the American university, Graham had just bought his own Hermes typewriter, but unlike mine it was a huge manual, an office model. This was the period when the first electronic typewriters were coming on the market. They seemed likely eventually to replace both manual and electric typewriters. They were much quieter and less strenuous to use than manuals, and some even had a small memory bank to enable corrections. They were also much cheaper than electric typewriters, which were designed for office users and priced accordingly. Some of them used dot-matrix technology, but most of them printed with a daisywheel head. For writers, who spend hour after hour typing, the electronic machines felt lightweight and flimsy. Many writers in the USA at this time were using IBM Selectrics, with the golfball head and the distinctive typeface. (This typeface has become, incidentally, the expected and required font for all film scripts – even in these days of computers Hollywood producers will not read a single word of a screenplay unless it is in what these days we call Courier 12-pitch.) But for most of the people I knew in Britain at that time IBM Selectrics were beyond the pocket, and certainly were beyond mine and Graham Hall’s.

Graham’s reasoning for buying an office manual was sound, even if I didn’t share it. He said he wanted to future-proof himself: by buying the best-made office manual on the market he would own something that would last forever, and survive all the likely technological trends and gimmicks to affect typewriters.

To take up his scholarship in the USA, Graham needed a typewriter. His Hermes was far too unwieldy and heavy for travel. He asked me if I would be willing to trade mine for his, for the duration of his two years at Smith. I was not at all keen on this idea because I used my Portable every day and was completely at home with it. However, in the end I did reluctantly agree. I made Graham promise that he would treasure it and bring it back in one piece, and he solemnly promised he would. In any event, I would have his much larger machine as a replacement.

Shortly afterwards Graham flew away to the USA, leaving me with his Hermes Manual.

I didn’t like it much. It had a heavy action and the carriage required a hefty push at the end of every line. I had also grown attached to the Portable’s 10-pitch typeface (10-pitch = 12 characters to the inch), and was used to the smaller, neater face and could readily estimate line- and page-length. The Manual used 12-pitch (10 characters to the inch), and I kept missing the end of lines as I wrote. In short, I was disappointed with it and after a few weeks I bought a secondhand typewriter for £25 and began to use that instead. I passed Graham’s Hermes across to Charles Platt, who at that time needed a spare machine.

Time passed and several changes occurred. Charles later went to live and work in the USA, leaving most of his property (including Graham’s Hermes) in his old flat in London … which he now sublet. I continued to use my £25 manual typewriter for a while (my first two novels were bashed out on it), but it really wasn’t any good and in the end I invested in a secondhand electric machine, followed by several others as the years went by. And Graham Hall returned from the USA two years later with news that surprised and saddened me. Knowing how attached I was to my Hermes Portable he had felt unable throughout his entire sojourn at Smith to admit to me that it had been smashed by baggage-handlers on the outward flight. It was beyond repair.

Even though by this time I was used to electric machines, I had been looking forward to being reunited with my Portable. Graham felt the loss created a debt of honour. His stay abroad had given him the urge to travel, and he was planning to set out on a long worldwide tour almost immediately. He said I should keep the Hermes Manual, and added that one day he would return from his travels and buy it back from me. In the meantime he asked me to look after it, keep it in good repair, treasure it as I had asked him to treasure my own machine, and although it was a sentimental and rather silly agreement, I accepted.

Graham departed again to travel the world, and the Hermes Manual remained in Charles Platt’s sublet apartment. Graham sent occasional missives from Yugoslavia, India, Thailand, etc., but I was never to see him again. At the end of the 1970s he was in the USA, and by this time he was seriously ill. His drinking was beyond control and the inevitable hit him. He died in February 1980, a month short of his 33rd birthday.

A few years later, Charles came to visit me during one of his occasional visits back to the UK. He was getting rid of his London flat, and he asked me if I would at last take permanent possession of Graham’s typewriter. I was not all that keen, but we had another fairly sentimental conversation: we both knew Graham’s attachment to his old typewriter. Although I had no need of it, I felt I should take it.

By this time I was accustomed to working on an electric machine: I had a beautiful Adler electric, which had served me well for a long time. But I began to use Graham’s machine occasionally because I liked the change. I wrote several short pieces on it during 1982-1983.

Hermes ribbonThen came the computer revolution: I acquired my first PC in 1984, began word processing on it more or less straight away, and thoughts of typewriters, manual or electric or anything else, disappeared. I did keep Graham’s Hermes, though, storing it on a shelf in my study. I kept it clean and in repair, it had a new ribbon and I had a spare in my stationery box. The Hermes remained in the corner of my study for thirty years.

But two weeks ago I moved my study to another room in this house: a smaller room upstairs, looking out across the garden. The smaller room meant a major reappraisal of what I really needed in a work room, and drastic culling actions began. Mick Smith, our local totter, soon spotted the skip on the drive and began ferreting through it. At the end he asked if there was “anything else”. Graham’s typewriter now stood more or less alone in my former study. Reader, I let it go.

Sorry, Graham. I did keep the spare ribbon, though.

More or less bunk

Lavie Tidhar’s new novel The Violent Century has been packaged as a general novel, with no hint of what is inside. The cover, with its silhouette of Brandenburger Tor, and anti-aircraft shells bursting in the sky around looming bombers, suggests a WW2 novel. The blurb refers coyly to a gunshot, a body in a river, a plane crashing into a skyscraper … and a perfect summer’s day. That the publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) are not letting on about something is manifest. However, I suspect most early readers of this novel, at least as long as it remains in hard covers, will have come to it because they admired Tidhar’s earlier novel, Osama. I certainly did. Those readers, like me, will not be misdirected by the cover, as our appetites for what this young writer might do after the brilliant, if slightly flawed, Osama were well whetted.

The Violent CenturyIt turns out that the publishers’ guilty secret is that the novel is about superheroes. The Violent Century presents an alternative view of the history of the 20th century, as seen by a group of Übermenschen, or super-men. But these are not Nietzsche’s Übermenschen – they are the sort of superhero characters you find in comic books. The comics of course partly originated from the Nietzschean concept of men and women who should aim to rise ‘above or beyond’ the normal – but they were no longer super-men in that philosophical sense. The comic book writers created the popular idiom, but the Nazis were there two or three years before them. Both took the concept literally and then dumbed it down.

Nietzsche of course never intended the concept to mean a body-builder in a brightly coloured skin-tight costume who can halt a hurtling train with his hands, and neither did he mean the breeding of a genetically managed master race. This interpretative misnomer provides much of the plot tension of The Violent Century, as Tidhar’s small group of super-men witness or observe or marginally take part in various violent episodes of the Nazi era.

The central character, Henry Fogg, has the ‘super power’ of creating a blinding miasma of mist or smoke or fog, with which he can confuse, obfuscate, escape, etc. His friend and would-be beau, Oblivion, has the power when sufficiently provoked to, well, cast into oblivion those who threaten him. Other super-characters appear: a Whirlwind, a Tank, a Tigerman, a Machentraum, and so on. The plot largely turns on the quest to find the Übermensch who has, so to speak, gone over to the Nazis, one Schneesturm, as well as Fogg’s more personal quest to be reunited with Klara, after a romantic and sexual interlude with her. Klara is the daughter of Vomacht, the scientist who is said to have developed the process by which these people were ‘changed’, and she was in fact the very first to be changed.

The novel concentrates on Nazi atrocities during WW2, although there is a postscript set in the ruins of Berlin in 1946, and a brief incident in the Indochinese wars during the 1960s, and an even more fleeting reference to 9/11. Because of this over-emphasis on one relatively short period of history the main events of the novel really constitute a violent decade, rather than a century. An author should not be held ransom to his title, but this one does suggest a deeper engagement with history than is in fact the case.

Fogg and Oblivion mostly observe incidents which are well known to history: the D-Day landings, the military occupation of Minsk by the Nazis, the hideous experiments of Josef Mengele in Auschwitz, and so on. As observers they are inert. What is the point of these superheroes merely looking and commenting? When they do involve themselves, the brief action is almost always on the fringes, the historical outcome not being affected in any way. The implication is that superheroes should not act effectively. Wouldn’t that be contrary to the whole idea of being a superhero?

It is unclear what we are intended to learn about history that we did not know before. Fiction provides a mirror to reality, a way of testing what we believe to be known, and we can presume that this was the sort of instinct that lay behind writing the novel. In an afterword Tidhar sets out the reality behind his fiction, but it merely confirms the facts that most people are already familiar with. What he does not address is that because his characters are inert his take on history can never be more than superficial. The novel is also partial. By concentrating on the 12-year period of Nazi rule in Germany it says nothing about other events that were as bad, or worse: the Stalin purges, the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, the use of nerve gas by Saddam Hussein, the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Pforzheim, the nuking of Nagasaki. And there is another kind of partiality: the novel concerns itself for instance with the division of Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall, but is silent on the equally brutalist West Bank Barrier. Tidhar’s history is more or less bunk.

In essence, the novel is told on two levels: a sort of debriefing in the present day by a George Smiley figure called the Old Man, who takes a paternal interest in his young heroes, with the main narrative consisting of flashbacks to the incidents themselves. The conversations that take place in the Old Man’s office throughout the book are banal, chatty and inconclusive, so really serve as a sort of narrative continuo, quiet bits that link the exciting bits. But the main passages, the flashbacks, are also curiously uninvolving.

All of this raises the connected problem of using superhero characters in a serious novel.

Seriousness is Tidhar’s own agenda. Attempts at it spill from every page of The Violent Century, with the same sort of interest in psychological realism, human urges, emotional complexity, etc., that has been the inspiration of the recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Superheroes have become big business, at least in film, and their presence is starting to be taken for granted, a sort of donnée that by sheer persistence is no longer questioned.

In this, superheroes are similar to what has happened to zombies, a current infatuation of many writers, readers and publishers. Familiarity does not eradicate the essential silliness of such trivial notions. There is not a crumb of scientific possibility (or, for that matter, of imaginative viability) for reanimated corpses wandering down apocalyptic streets – or, to keep to the subject in hand, neither is there for adapted humans who can breathe underwater, kill with a well-aimed spit, put back time by a few minutes, and so on. The superhero comics celebrated by Tidhar in this novel are by design simplistic. Problems and crises are usually of a single issue, and are resolved in their pages in an emphatic and single-minded way. Comic book apologists often point out that the characters’ self-doubts, foibles, weaknesses and heroic shortcomings are part of the tradition too, but such sub-plot materials are resolved only by sub-plot devices. Both zombies and superheroes have become so familiar and degraded that they are clearly in what Joanna Russ described as the Decadent stage of worn-out genre materials.

The tropes of superheroes are fanciful notions, not ideas with metaphorical depth, and any attempt to dignify them with a serious purpose is to try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of narrative material that has been debased for years by shallow and exploitative work.

Finally, Tidhar’s chosen style of writing cannot be ignored. Most of the narrative is told in short, unparsed sentences. Here is a typical short section from close to the beginning of the novel:

Walks away, towards the building. Fogg follows. Nondescript building. Can’t really tell what, if anything, is inside. Could be a bank. Could be a warehouse. Could be anything.
They go around to the side of the building. A narrow alleyway. A door set in the wall. No handle. They stop in front of it. Stare. [p.17]

This is lazy, evasive writing. It is lazy because no trouble is required to type one expressionist ejaculation after another. It is evasive because it uses what amounts to bullet points to establish every image, and does not take the trouble to find the best arrangement of words to convey the message. It seems to seek to recapture the quality of narrative panels in the comics, the voice-balloons which accompany almost every action, no matter how violent. It also smacks of an attempt to reproduce the terse, effective noir style of thriller writers like Hammett or Chandler. Formal prose (which Tidhar employed well in Osama, and which as a matter of fact both Hammett and Chandler excelled in) has not been developed as a sort of posh mannerism favoured only by literary writers. English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do. It is a type of writing familiar to anyone who has read a screenplay: the words are deployed as shorthand, a simple code to convey images and ideas without distracting the presumably busy producer or director. Film scripts are never read for style – they are seen as a halfway house before the storyboard is drafted. Film people only feel safe with pictures.

In fact, Tidhar’s style is not half bad when he can be bothered to write properly. There is a short sequence in the middle of the novel, a lyrical passage describing Fogg’s affair with Klara, where the ugly machine-gun scatter of words temporarily ceases. Here he writes plain descriptive language, and although at times it teeters on the edge of being something that could be nominated for the annual Bad Sex Award, it is written in a way the reader will comprehend and so it becomes one of the best scenes in the novel.

Nor is the lack of descriptive prose the only thing that’s wrong. For some reason, Tidhar has opted in this novel to abandon the conventions of dialogue, and sets out all the characters’ words so that they blend with the rest and are indistinguishable from it. Maybe some will see this as a dramatic and even daring innovation, but it is a gimmick many have tried before and it is always tiresome for the reader. Tidhar compounds it by sometimes leaving off question marks, and although his solecisms are not as bad as those of many of his colleagues he should be more careful of details.

A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘“We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.

A copy editor, or Tidhar himself in a final draft, should have corrected all of these. They weren’t corrected, though, and as Tidhar is clearly being treated now as a high quality writer, the question of his style is important.

In spite of all this, Lavie Tidhar is a gifted writer. When he puts himself out he writes effectively and well, but in this novel those occasions are few and far between. He researches thoroughly and displays discernment over what he uses. He clearly has an original mind. His vocabulary, when he chooses to deploy it properly, is good and varied. I hope he will grow to see The Violent Century as an aberration, an error of judgement. Osama quite rightly drew attention to Tidhar’s real qualities and genuine promise as a novelist of the fantastic, but this is not the novel he should have written to consolidate his reputation. It is boring and shallow, clumsily written and not at all pleasant to read. It required a conscious struggle to stay interested enough to get to the end.